Magazine article Humanities

Master of the Skyscraper: Louis Sullivan

Magazine article Humanities

Master of the Skyscraper: Louis Sullivan

Article excerpt

A BUILDING constructed in St. Louis at the end of the nineteenth century made Louis Sullivan the master of skyscraper design.

It was a ten-story box, as all rental "skyscrapers" were at the time, but it showed its bones as no office building had before. Designed in collaboration with Dankmar Adler, it was named the Wainwright Building.

Sullivan's tour de force was to make the exterior transparent of the interior functions. He wrote about this innovation in an 1896 article "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," in which he gave modern architecture its famous dictum: "Form ever follows function."

The Wainwright Building's first floor was intended to house shops, which required wide openings on the street. The second floor would have public offices-ticket agencies, banks-with direct access to the first floor by stairs. Above the second floor would soar a stack of floors with identical windows. Sullivan called each office "a cell in a honeycomb . .. nothing more." A closed floor screening the water tanks and the building's machinery would crown the top.

Part of Sullivan's accomplishment with the Wainwright Building is its extraordinary ornament. Underlining the pattern of openings, the Wainwright spandrels "read out" to emphasize the colonnade across the facade. The ornament shapes the supporting piers into columns by providing bases and capitals; it supplies an overscaled, terminating frieze across the top, and it identifies the door among the shop fronts on the first floor. The terracotta cornice is overscaled and incised to read from the street ten stories below and is visible in the shadow of Sullivan's abrupt box-lid cornice.

And finally, the Wainwright Building is supported by a thin steel skeleton-- called "Chicago" or "skyscraper" construction-whose even grid pattern is evident in the equally spaced piers marking the broad window fields of the exterior. The column-like piers stretch vertically, closely spaced to draw the eye upward.This communicates what Sullivan considered the final distinguishing characteristic of a building: its verticality. He once declared, "It must be in every inch a proud and soaring thing." he path Sullivan took to architecture was peripatetic. He was a product of Boston's secondary schools, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he studied for a year in the atelier of Emile Vaudremer. Afterward he worked in Chicago, where his parents had moved, with another young draftsman, John Edelmann. It was Edelmann who put him in touch with an up-and-- coming engineer named Dankmar Adler. …

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