Louis Sullivan: the Struggle for American Architecture is a Documentary directed by Mark Richard Smith emphasizing the personal and professional life of the revolutionary American Architect Louis Sullivan. Known as ‘the Father of Skyscrapers’ and ‘Prophet of Modern Architecture,’ this ground-breaking architect coined the most accurate phrase “Form follows Function” which is considered as a mantra for many aspiring architects.
The documentary impeccably focuses on his passionate dream of establishing unique American architecture, the opportunities and downturns he received while fighting for his dreams, his role as a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, and his denial towards the circumstances that forced him to copy the European style of architecture.
The fascinating part of the documentary is that the life story of Sullivan is told by some of the renowned experts who presented legitimate perspectives towards Sullivan and Chicago Architecture. Tim Samuelson—Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago and the man behind the extraordinary exhibit ‘Sullivan’s Idea’ at the Chicago Cultural Centre, Dr. Robert Twombly—Professor of Architectural History at the City University of New York, Dr. Joseph Siry—a leading American architectural historian and professor in the Department of Art and History at Wesleyan University, and many other well-known Chicago architects and historians like Ross Miller, Aileen Mandel, Madolyn Smith-Osborne, Gunny Harboe, etc., talked about the great architect’s vision for Chicago and America.
Director Mark Smith thoroughly understood the correlation between Sullivan’s life and his works. Hence, he wanted to bring this era of American Architecture to the big screen. The very beginning of the film sheds light on the conditions that arose due to the great depression of the 1870s and how Chicago was like a blank canvas for all the architects out there. This 98-minute film marks the union of Louis Sullivan and the leading acoustic architect of the period, Dankmar Adler. It shows the aesthetic side of Sullivan by highlighting some of the best works done during the 15-year Adler-Sullivan partnership like the Auditorium Building, the Carson Pirie Scott Store and the Charnley House in Chicago, the Ryerson and Getty tombs, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri, the Guaranty Buildings in Buffalo, and many more.
Louis Sullivan always believed in originality. As said in the film, “Sullivan wanted to do for American Architecture what writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman had done for American literature a generation before. Throw off restraints of European traditions and unashamedly express the youthful vigor and inventiveness of their young nation.” Sullivan firmly held on to his beliefs. It can be seen in all of his buildings. The use of materials, ornamentation, concepts, and profound thought even on the minutest detail of the building was not just for the sake of appearance, but a way to confer character. In his opinion, architects should always create buildings with deeper meanings, for example, the Ryerson Tomb. Sullivan used highly polished Quincy granite for the tomb which reflected the landscape of the cemetery and the sky beyond. “The polished granite says that although something has come to an end, something else hasn’t come to an end that life goes on….” The ornamentation done by Sullivan was majorly influenced by nature and landscapes. He always used organic forms and patterns while designing which “used to twist, twirl, divide and multiply.” Based on this philosophy, he published ‘A System of Architectural Ornament’ in which he brought the evolution of ornamentation designs on his buildings and ideas behind them, the idea of ‘Remembering the Seed Germ.’
Sullivan was very much invested in Frank Lloyd Wright. Not just as a mentor, but as a concerned Guardian too. But even this alliance turned bitter. Sullivan’s firm beliefs, though very accurate, had caused him a lot of inconvenience during the later period of his life. One such example was the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. “Sullivan never had anything against the Beaux-Arts movement except it was wrong for American Civilization. To him, it showed his colleagues’ inability to express the uniqueness of their society through architecture. Disturbed by such extravagant duplication of the values that were alien to American Democracy, he defied the standards of the fair’s organizers and designed something completely different for the Transportation Building. A colonnade of arches bursting with color and exuberant ornamentation without a trace of classical design, its gilded arched entrance door quickly became known as The Golden Door.”
Sullivan’s struggle to bring originality to the American Architecture was later overpowered by the fast life of the developing city and other architects who very quickly adapted to it. In addition to this, the feud he had with Daniel Burnham, one of the organizers of the Columbian World Expo was well known to many. Rumors said, “Daniel Burnham’s triumph would mark the beginning of Sullivan’s professional demise.” All this led to fewer work opportunities, and his debts started piling up. He was forced to sell his personal belongings for money. But even in such circumstances, he had many supporters who still admired and respected his masterpieces and the ideology behind them. Sullivan died in 1924, leaving behind his legacy in the form of the most artistic buildings one could ever see in Chicago.
The documentary beautifully portrays the deep significance of Sullivan’s work and endeavor. Not only does it talk about architecture, but it also throws light on the broader context of America’s political and cultural history. Another reason to watch this documentary is the direction of Mark Smith where he focuses on the beautiful ornamentation of some of the magnificent structures designed by Sullivan, capturing its essence. This film is a must-watch for all the architects and designers to understand the importance of innovativeness, as Sullivan once said to F.L.Wright, “Should not simply be on the building, but of it.”