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Louis Sullivan

American architect

Louis Sullivan Photo
Movement: Art Nouveau

Born: September 3, 1856 - Boston, Massachusetts

Died: April 14, 1924 - Chicago, Illinois

"The tall steel-frame structure may have its aspects of beneficence; but so long as man may say: 'I shall do as I please with my own,' it presents opposite aspects of social menace and danger...the tall office building loses its validity when the surroundings are uncongenial to its nature; and when such buildings are crowded together upon narrow streets or lanes they become mutually destructive. The social significance of the tall building is in finality its most important phase."

Summary of Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan pioneered modern design principles in North America, designing buildings that grew from and for the changing commercial needs of the urban and rural Midwest. Sullivan's buildings were both economical and beautiful, with streamlined forms and decoration that emphasized their purpose. He is known primarily for the creating a form for skyscrapers, office buildings that pushed upward rather than outward, that highlighted their verticality and for the strength of his decorative work, which highlighted the underlying form of buildings and introduced Art Nouveau to North America. Sullivan's style of architecture influenced those working around and for him, with both the Chicago School and the Prairie School developing from his work, and his emphasis on beginning a design for a building with that building's purpose in mind guided architects working across the twentieth century.

Key Ideas

Sullivan's work was guided by the adage that "form follows function," a phrase for which he became known. He believed in looking at the purpose of a building before devising an architectural form for it and in ensuring that usage was reflected in both the structure and the decoration.
Sullivan was known for the high quality of his decoration, which he used to emphasize the structure of buildings and unify disparate components rather than to distract from structure. He regularly repeated motifs, particularly semi-circular arches, and used materials that could serve as decoration rather than requiring additional ornamentation. He used twisting, organic motifs on terracotta facades and in ironwork, pioneering Art Nouveau in the United States.
Sullivan drew from earlier precedents. He reconceived the classical column as a basis for a skyscraper and created Romanesque portals that elevated commercial buildings. This innovation had a significant impact on American architecture; his vertical designs created the form from which most skyscrapers evolved, while his buildings with horizontal emphasizes created a distinctive architecture suited to the flat American Midwest. This introduction of classical elements into the modern architectural vocabulary was continued, later, through the Interwar Classicism movement.
Louis Sullivan Life and Legacy

Louis Sullivan was born in Boston in 1856, the younger of two sons. His parents were both immigrants; Patrick Sullivan was born in Ireland while his wife, Adrienne, came from Switzerland.

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