Louis Henry Sullivan (September 3, 1856 – April 14, 1924), one of the prominent master architects of the modern times in America, was widely called the ‘Father of Modern Architecture‘ and ‘Father of Skyscrapers.’ Louis Sullivan was a pioneer in designing the tall, densely-built downtown areas in the magnificent skylines of New York and Chicago. He created architecture with an exquisite visual reality in which the design form followed the demands of the functionality.
His most notable works are the historic high-rise buildings- the 1889 Auditorium Building, Chicago and the 1891 Wainwright Building, St. Louis Missouri. In 1944, He was the second architect who won the AIA Gold Medal.
Louis Sullivan endeavoured to define an architectural style unique to America. He disrupted the imitation of the architecture styles like Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, or Neoclassicism. According to him, the identity of any building resided in ornaments, yet Sullivan emphasized on the structure. He subsequently invented a new aesthetic for the ornamentation of his skyscrapers by weaving the linear and geometric forms in a symmetrical pattern with stylized foliage. It is often associated with the swirling, natural, organic forms of the Art Nouveau movement.
Sullivan’s approach towards architecture does not merely consist of theories but a religion of architecture. His writings comprised emotional intensity and were profoundly poetic. The architectural styles traced back to Louis Sullivan are the Chicago School, the Prairie School, and the Sullivanesque. His early work in large-scale commercial buildings is often grouped under the Chicago School style while his later smaller projects under Prairie School. The former two were often directly or so indirectly inspired by Sullivan.
Majority of the early works of the Chicago school style is also known as Commercial style. This term is to describe the buildings in the city between the 1880s and 1890s built after the Great Chicago fires. This style was to promote the use of steel-frame construction with terra cotta masonry cladding having large plate-glass windows along with limited exterior ornamentation by using the elements of neoclassical architecture. The Chicago style is highly known for its windows that bring in natural light and ventilation. The Chicago windows are the one which has three parts- the central panel is large and fixed with two small double-hung windows. Some bay windows also project out from the facade and create a grid pattern.
The Sullivanesque embodies the geometric and organic nature of the works of Louis Sullivan. He created original forms that consequently developed a more detailed and influential high-rise vocabulary with classical overtones, called ‘Sullivanesque style.’
Louis Sullivan designed buildings in a way that the skeleton had the interior filled with identical spatial units from the exterior. Sullivan accepted the new method of the rectangular box-like shape created by the steel frame facade composition-later influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, William Gray Purcell, and George G. Elmslie.
The Sullivanesque style is the one with decorative ornamentation and simplicity in its design whose uninterrupted elements exist to express height. Other identifiable features of the unique architectural style of Louis Sullivan include tall buildings of 6 or more stories having three distinct parts: top, middle and bottom. The building has more distinct characters like intricate patterns along with wide decorative cornices having porthole windows and flat roof with deep projecting eaves. There are vertical and decorative bands of windows along with decorative terra cotta panels with sculptural ornamentation. In addition to these, there are large round or Syrian (Ogee) arches at the entry with Celtic influenced curvilinear and entwined decorative patterns.
Sullivan designed the skyscrapers on the tripartite system that featured a three-tiered design which included a large, street-level floor for entryways as well as commercial use, along with smaller upper floors, and a decorative cornice that held the mechanical workings. He had a unique approach to treat a tall building as a columnar form, with base, shaft, and capital.
Sullivan had a sense of design with the amalgamation of nature with science and technology. One of his famous dicta is ‘Form follows function.’ This approach became a revolutionary idea for the time. Louis Sullivan believed that new architecture demanded new traditions.
In 1896, Louis Sullivan wrote:
‘It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.’
Sullivan’s work is an iconic showcase of his philosophy and design principles. He is undeniably best known for his influence on the modernists that followed him, including his protegé Frank Lloyd Wright, whose own brilliant work would add new dimensions to architecture.
He described Louis Sullivan as:
‘One of the world’s greatest architects. He gave us again the ideal of a great architecture that informed all the great architectures of the world.’