Louis Henry Sullivan (b. 1856–d. 1924) was the first internationally recognized architect in the United States to pursue the idea of a modern architecture independent of historic styles. He was supremely gifted as a designer of architectural ornament, which was an important component of almost all his major buildings and central to his thinking about architecture as art. Sullivan was also the first American modernist to write extensively about architecture—critically, theoretically, and philosophically. His central theme was that a modern American architecture should have form that follows function, based on the model of natural organisms. Born in Boston, Sullivan studied architecture at MIT (1872–1873) and in the atelier of Émile Vaudremer at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1873–1874). He returned to Chicago after its Great Fire of 1871 to work initially for William Le Baron Jenney, known for his early iron-and-masonry tall office buildings. From 1880 to 1895, Sullivan was continuously associated with Dankmar Adler (b. 1844–d. 1900), whose skills in architectural engineering complemented Sullivan’s design abilities to make Adler and Sullivan one of the most extraordinary architectural partnerships in US architectural history. Sullivan was the most outstanding creative figure of the Chicago school of the 1880s and 1890s, especially in his designs for theaters and tall office buildings. After the partnership ended in 1895, Sullivan continued to design major works in New York and Chicago, although his later practice, after 1905, focused mainly on banks in small midwestern towns. His work and thought inspired a number of younger contemporaries throughout his later life, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who was Sullivan’s assistant from 1887 to 1893. From Sullivan’s lifetime through the mid-20th century, he was known mainly for his role as a major advocate for and practitioner of a modern American architecture not derived directly from historical styles. In this way, much of the original scholarship on Sullivan was framed according to the overarching narrative of the rise of the modern movement. In this historiographic schema, Sullivan’s work was sometimes considered an American parallel to European Art Nouveau architecture. Since the 1970s, with the rise of postmodernism in architecture, Sullivan’s ornament and his relationships to historical sources, and to Romanticism, have been revalued as a focus for scholarship. Recently, there has been study of Sullivan’s and the Chicago school’s relationships to the city’s economic, political, social, and technical history in the later 19th century.
Biographies and Biographical Monographs
Morrison 1935 was the first account of Sullivan’s life and work, based on access to Sullivan’s longtime assistant George Grant Elmslie, and published by the Museum of Modern Art—hence its title and narrative emphasis. Bush-Brown 1960 examines the relationship between Sullivan’s ornamental and structural forms. The succeeding definitive biography is Twombly 1986, which treats both Sullivan’s life and work, but is less premised on Sullivan’s role as a forerunner of modernism. Frei 1992 is a bilingual (German and English) account of his life’s work, including historical interpretations of it, with photographic documentation of buildings and projects. Manieri-Elia 1996 is comprehensive and analytically probing.
Bush-Brown, Albert. Louis Sullivan. New York: George Braziller, 1960.
A volume in the Masters of World Architecture series, this work contains a biographical essay that examines Sullivan’s theory and buildings as a contribution to the modern movement, but also values his ornament and poetic intentions as relatively unappreciated in his time.
Frei, Hans. Louis Henry Sullivan. Zurich: Artemis Verlag, 1992.
Comprehensive but concise account of Sullivan’s life, work, and theory, with original photographs by Henry Fuermann.
Manieri-Elia, Mario. Louis Henry Sullivan. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.
Systematic study of both Sullivan’s architectural and theoretical development, taking into account both modernist and postmodernist perspectives.
Morrison, Hugh. Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture. New York: W. W. Norton, 1935.
The foundational account of Sullivan’s life and work, stressing his role as a forerunner of the modern movement. Reprinted with a new introduction by Timothy Samuelson in 1998.
Twombly, Robert C. Louis Sullivan: His Life and Work. New York: Viking, 1986.
The authoritative biography, based on a full range of archival and published sources.
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