Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924)
“It is the pervading law of all things organic… that life is recognizable in its expression,
that form ever follows function” – Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan was born to Irish and Swiss immigrants to the United States. Louis initially studied Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). However, disgusted with the classical teachings of the school he left MIT a year later and moved to Philadelphia to work as draftsman in the firm of Furness and Hewitt. In Chicago, he was given the opportunity to work under William LeBaron Jenney—the father of the modern day skyscraper.
He also studied for three months at the famed Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris, France but was left unimpressed with the methods of Renaissance Architecture that based its lectures on the traditional Greek and Roman Classics. He toured Europe and ended up admiring the works and sheer talent of Michaelangelo; particularly with the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. This would later define the works of Louis Sullivan, as manifested in the elaborate ornaments that was sparingly used in his buildings.
His association with John Edelman further boosted his quest for ornaments that were imitated from organic natural themes. In 1881, he became the partner of Dankmar Adler, a structural and acoustic engineer. This was an association that lasted for 15 years and produced remarkable buildings that dictated the tempo of American Architecture. The development of steel as construction material and the tutelage of Adler helped define Sullivan’s true Architectural worth in designing, building and altering the skyline of cities with aesthetically relevant and svelte skyscrapers.
Sullivan died a spent and poor man in 1924 having lost his commissions due to his eccentric behavior. In his obituary at the New York Times, Sullivan was acknowledged as the Dean of American Architects. Frank Lloyd Wright and some associates paid for the burial of Sullivan.
Louis Sullivan contributed fairly to the movement of modern Architecture, by way of his use of ornaments and teachings on the design of skyscrapers. Of course these skyscrapers, a genuine American invention, would not have prospered without the development of safe elevators by Elisha Graves Otis in 1857. Some of the elements of design are mentioned below:
a. Though Sullivan abhorred anything that resembled classical architecture; he was dead-set on achieving formal balance not only with the facade but over interior plans as well; a discipline he acquired from the Greek Classic Architecture.
b. The theory “form follows function” is vintage Sullivan; which means plan the building structure first and satisfy the need for efficient circulation, proper ventilation and sufficient natural lighting before attempting to work on the facade. Simply put, the buildings exterior design must be dependent upon the plans of the structure.
c. Sullivan is a stickler for details as shown on the fine brickwork of his “jewel boxes” and the intricately designed ornaments in terracotta. It was told that he would pick bricks in random in order to create visual harmony in the finished installation.
d. He advocated “honesty” in the use of materials which meant that the outer facade finish should never be different from the interior of the building.
e. He was also the first Architect to use extensively glass cladding in buildings, especially in his skyscrapers, to allow natural light to filter in and reduce the effects of drab interiors.
f. In skyscrapers, Sullivan perfected the aesthetic integration with tall buildings which earned for him the title of “father” to this building movement. Normally the Sullivan skyscrapers rest on a podium that is 2 or 3 stories high that is reminiscent of Greek and Roman Temples and usually finished with terracotta or stone cladding.
g. Following the podium is a series of vertical columns, described as the shaft, which rises out and extends upward to a height of over 10 stories. The upper part is usually finished with brick layers.
h. The horizontal lines of the floors are normally recessed; thus, only the vertical shaft is dominant thereby maintaining the extreme vertical effect of the structure. The spaces left in between shafts are nominally filled-in with glass panels to maintain proper Architectural contrast and promote harmony as well.
i. The skyscraper is finally topped with an intricately designed cornice projecting out of the shaft vertical line. The ogee molding and the frieze are likewise done in terracotta and are likewise intricately finished.
These are but a few of the contributions of Louis Sullivan to American Architecture. Yet these has inspired generations after generations of Architects from Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies Van Der Rohe and even to Richard Neutra and recent Architects who viewed his struggles as a true grit to come up with a truly modern style that is devoid from any renaissance influence at a time when most architects shun the modern movement.
The Architect’s Work
Louis Henry Sullivan was the first modern Architect, having expounded theories and designs deemed totally unfamiliar during that period. Perhaps, perseverance and true genius capitalized on his struggles to impress clients with the versatility of his designs. Below are some buildings that best exemplify the theories of Louis Sullivan.
A. National Farmers Bank, 1907-1908 (Owatonna, Minnesota)
This is a classic example of Louis Sullivan’s Architectural work. This project came at the latter part of his career and was confined to small commissions, alongside small prairie houses. Although it paled in comparison to the large skyscrapers he constructed early in his career, this structure supplanted his theories on design. A look at the physical make-up of the building reveals it is subdivided into three components: the base or podium, the central part and of course the cornice.
Though Sullivan never liked arches, this bank was designed with an arch that is complemented with a large rectangular portal underneath it and flanked by a series of eye level rectangular windows sheathed by stained glass. What is unique about this design are the bronze-green terracotta panels that line the facade, starting out on the vertical side of the arch and spanning the entire horizontal length of the cornice. Also, as an added decoration, are the large cast iron escutcheon placed along corners that were especially designed by Sullivan for this structure.
His penchant for brick cladding is manifested in this building. The lower part or the podium is of red sandstone and the upper part is of red brick cladding. What is absent though in this creation is the intricate brickwork in geometric angles. Also, the cornice comes short of the expected design since most of Sullivan’s works carry sophistication. This one, in contrast, is simple corbelled brickwork. But the overall effect could only be attributed to the master of this genre
B. Wainwright Building, 1890-1891 (St Louis, Missouri)
All the design theories of Louis Sullivan are exemplified in this building. Although created under the partnership with Adler, the design is still very much his own. The building has a typical podium, with a stringcourse that separates the upper echelon of the building. It has a large rectangular door portal that is flanked on both sides with glass panels to maintain formal balance on its facade.
The building is totally steel-framed, the lower part is clad with terracotta, while the upper levels are clad with bricks. Again the horizontal lines of the floors are set back, giving the building a total virtual vertical effect. The spaces between columns are provided with glass panels to achieve contrast in character.
Finally, the structure is topped with an intricately designed cornice made of terracotta, including the swirling ornaments on the frieze. The outside effect of the building is one of grandeur and an optical illusion of a tall building much higher than the ten stories it was originally perceived to be.
Most of Sullivan’s buildings follow these Architectural elements; a pattern endemic to all his designs. He really started the modern movement, particularly the realignment of interior spaces, the arrangement of external masses and the use of modern materials. Yet he was never detached from his passion for intricate ornaments as revealed in his works.
The Design Problem
To simulate Louis Sullivan at work, the most appropriate subject becomes the skyscraper. Assume that the building is rectangular and is raised above the ground at a height of 12 stories. This of course excludes the sub-floor or basement and the roof deck.
The site chosen is an interior lot facing a major thoroughfare. A side egress is provided as entry for basic services and parking spaces at the back for the vehicles of building occupants. The site is oriented on the east-west direction and its front facing north. The lot elevation is much lower than the established grade line. Thus, backfilling should be done in order to achieve the required level.
The Building Plan
The sub-floor houses the heating and cooling equipment, the offices of the technical personnel (heating, cooling, plumbing, electrical, elevator technician and others), garbage disposal system, equipment repair and storage, night-shift workers’ facilities and the building supervisor’s office. To these, include a service ramp to facilitate delivery of supplies and retrieval of accumulated garbage.
The ground floor is raised at least 7 feet from ground level with main stairs leading to the main lobby. The lobby shall be outfitted with an elevator and stair lobby, a security counter and detail offices and also an emergency exit. The commercial space is also part of the ground floor. A coffee shop, a fast food chain or a bank branch perhaps should form part of the proposed floor level. Ceiling of the lobby is 20 feet high finished with lacelike tracery and extends to the two mezzanine floors flanking the lobby.
The second to the twelfth floor is typical, with a central corridor flanked by office spaces. Each floor is provided with an elevator and stair lobby and corridors end in an emergency exit stair. Comfort and powder rooms are likewise available in every floor. A janitorial facilities room, garbage chute, a pipe chase for heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing facilities, for the wet automatic sprinkler and dry standpipe system is integrated and interconnected to the basement.
The penthouse is reserved as a view deck while most areas are intended for the elevator machine room, the reserve storage water tank for the fire fighting equipment and the equipment for cleaning glass panels.
The facade is the most important aspect of the design, since this will logically determine if the Sullivan system of design was followed. First, the ground floor is accessed through a stair that is flanked by Sullivan’s favorite motif, the lion. A large portal connects the main door and four glass panels are each provided on the left and right side of the portal. The upper part is a series of openings that serve as clerestory window that light up the lobby. Moreover, stone (granite) cladding will be applied on the lower two floors up to the stringcourse level.
A stringcourse is usually added between the second and third floor which encompass horizontally the entire building. The corner posts are generally massive and rise from the ground to the cornice. The inner columns or shaft between the corner piers rises above the stringcourse up and is usually topped by a Corinthian type column capital right below the cornice. Since the building is structurally designed entirely of steel; brick cladding is normally applied to the slender columns, making it appear like sturdy sentinels, just like the anta of Greek and Roman temples. Outer columns are attached to massive steel girders, so that no inner columniation is needed further, except for the central steel core that encases all the service pipes of the building. Since the floors are recessed from the outer line of columns, glass panels are fitted unto the open space.
Topping the structure is an elaborate design of the cornice. In some instances, the ogee molding together with the frieze is made out of intricately carved terracotta and usually extends over the vertical line of the column. Special attention should be given to the use of ornaments, since these are the important elements that best describes and differentiates a Louis Sullivan building from other modernists of the era. That roughly describes how Sullivan designs his skyscraper. This would seem like a short process when outlined on paper and yet to come up with the right idea actually takes months and even years to complete.
Limitations of the study
Assume that the foundation of the building is amply provided with cast-in place concrete pedestal or pre-stressed reinforced concrete piles. And that a steel grillage foundation is laid to support the axial load. Remember that the structure above the ground uses steel framings, from columns to massive girders and strong steel Q-floors with built-in channels for electrical raceways, heating and cooling ducts and also for communication lines. It is a fact that when steel is subjected to extreme heat, as in a fire outbreak, temperature range exceeds 750 degrees Fahrenheit which makes steel buckle and collapse. Therefore, a proper insulation system is usually required to augment the steel’s fragility under extreme heat.
No practical insulation system has yet been devised to protect girders and steel floors. Columns are well protected due to brick cladding but are not effective when the structure is subjected to strong tremors. In these instances, bricks are released from its moorings to steel columns. Besides, bricks have very low insulation properties and dampness can enter the inner cavities to corrode metals. So in effect, Bricks do not help buildings raise its heat-gain and heat-loss coefficients and are therefore used for aesthetic purposes only; not even as an insulation material, as gleamed from the noggings in residences. However, one good quality that can be attributed to the brick and has been used by Sullivan indiscriminately in the interior spaces of his buildings is the material’s inherent sound absorbing quality.
Another concern that needs attention is the presence of large glass panels in buildings. New advances in the manufacture of glass panels have yet to correct the impression that it never helps the structure combat transmission of heat. It therefore adds to the burden of maintaining the heating and cooling equipment, thus raising energy costs. So, to wrap up, buildings made of this type have very poor energy ratings and therefore requires the installation of proper insulation systems.
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