Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2012
Lauren S. Weingarden Louis H. Sullivan and a 19th-Century Poetics of Naturalized Architecture Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009. 456 pp.; 16 color ills.; 153 b/w ills. Cloth $124.95 (9780754663089)

Eager to ascertain the pure motives of and exact origins for modernism, early twentieth-century architectural scholarship left behind the untenable notion of architecture’s absolute departure from historic ideals as its practitioners moved resolutely toward a functionalist aesthetic. Historians of the past decade have attempted to correct such a narrow perspective by broadening their inquiry into the roots of modernism. Their expansion of the field of analysis to include nineteenth-century intellectual and visual culture as a whole has allowed modern architecture to emerge as a rich and complex phenomenon that transcended mere material and technical considerations.

Lauren S. Weingarden’s monograph Louis H. Sullivan and a 19th-Century Poetics of Naturalized Architecture makes an important contribution to the growing number of recent studies that reevaluate seminal figures credited with bringing structural honesty to the fore of architectural practice. She contends that the early twentieth-century desire to place Sullivan within the discourse of modern functionalism has neglected the poetic significance of his design projects and ignored his writings, rich with “pronouncements about the metaphysical meaning of his architectural designs and the landscape references in his ornament” (2). Weingarden’s assertions, however, are not always overtly manifest in Sullivan’s written work or his buildings. Consequently, she engages a combination of three interpretive strategies to make her case: discourse theory, poststructural semiotic analysis, and “a pragmatic concept of sign-functions” (8). While her methodology and careful analysis of numerous theoretical and literary sources alongside Sullivan’s work expands and amends our understanding of him, the sum of Weingarden’s argument is not entirely supported by her assessment of his multiple concurrent influences, leaving the text feeling fragmented in parts.

Weingarden takes on two primary tasks in her book: first, bringing to light the poetic and spiritual underpinnings of Sullivan’s verbal and written addresses while reexamining his architectural output between 1886 and 1904 (the Auditorium Building through the Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store, both in Chicago); and, secondly, examining the vacillating “discursive shifts” and philosophical, theoretical, and aesthetic tides that influenced Sullivan and transformed critical perception of his work between his era and our own. While the first objective is her primary consideration, the second, more subtly woven throughout and revealing a network of theoretical, critical, and commercial dynamics shaping American architecture, may appeal to a broader readership.

The first agenda leads to a multifaceted examination of Sullivan’s writings vis-à-vis tenets derived from John Ruskin and filtered through American romantic poetry and transcendentalism. These stimuli are offered as the source of Sullivan’s initiative to advance “natural nationalism” as the face of American architecture, resulting in elevations that express “the vital essence of nature” and architectural elements that represent the American landscape (236). Weingarden approaches her investigation of Sullivan and romanticism in three parts. In chapters 1 through 3, she examines the “earlier Anglo-American linguistic, literary, aesthetic, and architectural theories of organic expression” to which Sullivan was heir and which influenced his essays between 1885 and his 1901–2 Kindergarten Chats, his architectural and philosophical writings addressed to a fictional student (7). Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work in particular, Weingarden asserts, provided Sullivan with a “guide for decoding the symbols of nature and infusing building materials with spiritual/symbolic functions” (28). As a result, Sullivan’s iconic precept, “form follows function,” is aligned with Emerson’s law of convertibility between real and ideal and given a decidedly spiritual interpretation: form exists because of function manifested by God (32). Further, the overlapping agendas of Emerson, Ruskin, and Sullivan lead Weingarden to credit Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) as the primary influence on Sullivan’s lexicon of architectural naturalism (60). Here, as in later chapters, the narrow focus on Sullivan’s adherence to Ruskin overshadows a broader view of evolving color theory (especially among British design reformers) and emerging hypotheses (Gottfried Semper’s in particular) regarding masking structural reality, both of which might better frame Sullivan’s work.

In the second portion of the book, Weingarden situates Sullivan as an active participant in the theoretical dialogue emerging from the Chicago School, exposing the “deliberately non-rationalist strategies” employed by Sullivan’s contemporaries (previously ignored by scholars) that helped define the principles of his skyscraper style (7). Though Sullivan never acknowledged Ruskin’s formal influence on the Auditorium Building (only on the collaborative work process he engaged), Weingarden echoes Edward R. Garczynski’s 1890 book Auditorium in crediting The Seven Lamps of Architecture as its foundation (185). While Weingarden provides exceptionally eloquent and thorough descriptions of the building’s structural massing, surface treatment, and interior ornamentation, an overreliance on Garczynski’s analysis leads her to overlook both Sullivan’s intentions as well as elements of the Auditorium Building that conflict with Ruskinian principles, including cast iron reliefs and machine-made elements (113–14).

To her credit, Weingarden’s archival research reveals numerous contemporary influences on Sullivan and positions him in the context of international debates regarding the honest use of facing materials, both in terms of avoiding simulated materials and in referencing underlying structure, and the search for authentic style during modern architecture’s nascent phase. The quest for Sullivan’s Ruskinian roots, however, sidelines some key considerations. Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s influence is dismissed abruptly in the discussion of internal tectonics (189), while the influence of Owen Jones’s sourcebook Grammar of Ornament (1856) is overlooked (192), along with some unmistakably Semperian remarks by P. B. Wight on reclaiming the authenticity of the “wall” (instead, fully credited to Ruskin; 198).

In a rather circuitous discussion, Weingarden asserts that Ruskin’s “presence” in Sullivan’s life led to his ”engagement with [Walt] Whitman’s writings” and “enabled [him] to fuse Emerson’s nationalist agenda for poeticizing technology with Ruskin’s naturalist aesthetics” (214–15). Two significant contributions here are Weingarden’s close examination of Sullivan’s writings between 1885 and 1889 and the alignment of his formulation of a new American style of architecture with an emerging American literary style. Poetry, painting, and architecture, she offers, connected the era’s artists and thinkers to the American landscape. While Weingarden observes that Sullivan’s writings shared Whitman’s thematic preoccupation with life and death, growth and decay, finitude and infinity, her detailed examples become somewhat snarled in the argument that E. C. Stedman’s literary criticism in Poets of America (1885) “facilitated Sullivan’s Emersonian reading of Whitman” and conditioned his prose (222).

In the third and final section of the book, Weingarden presses still more forcefully the relationship between Sullivan’s writings, ornamental programs, and structural designs and “Emerson’s transcendentalist aesthetics of landscape poetry [and] Whitman’s Emersonian poetic practices” (7). Readers interested in the development of Sullivan’s architectural achievements will find this portion particularly engaging, as Weingarden connects Emerson and Whitman’s poetry to the twelve skyscrapers Sullivan designed between 1890 and 1896 (only five of which were built) and his 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Though Weingarden emphasizes the transcendentalist and cosmic dimensions of Sullivan’s practice, her most illuminating contribution here is to show how Viollet-le-Duc’s writings provided him with practical solutions to his skyscraper designs.

This section also examines of the influence of European trends in art, architecture, and color and design theory on Sullivan, providing a long-overdue analysis of the contribution of contemporary color theory on ornamental practice. Chapter 8 is particularly rich with reproductions of Sullivan’s exquisite ornamental drawings for various projects, though the Realist, Impressionist, and Neo-Impressionist influences Weingarden claims for them are belied by comparisons with contemporary illustration techniques employed by Ruskin and Jones, among others. Likewise, the subsequent argument that Sullivan conceived of his 1893 Transportation Building as an analogue to Whitman’s 1871 “Passage to India” and derived his color scheme from descriptions in the text is not entirely convincing; Sullivan himself never referenced Whitman as the inspiration. The discussion does, however, bring greater attention to the exotic sources Sullivan incorporated into the building’s structure and decoration, aligning him with similar pursuits in late nineteenth-century European architecture. While Weingarden claims that the pavilions framing the Golden Doorway of the building were likely derived from an Indian tomb, contemporary critics detected the influence of Byzantine, Venetian, and Arabic styles on the building’s overall structure as well (331).

The book’s concluding chapter is its most cohesive, wherein Weingarden compares the reception of Sullivan’s work at home and abroad. Predictably, American functionalists assessed the rationalist features of his skyscraper designs, whereas the French admired their decorative elements. Weingarden also considers how transformations in critical discourse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century “led to the obliteration or mitigation of the ‘poesis’ of Sullivan’s architectural theory and design” (357). Greater focus is given here to the secondary theme threaded throughout the text, as Weingarden investigates the history of the Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store alongside critical writings, changing architectural standards, commercial intentions, and photographic staging. In the first decade of the twentieth century, the building’s affinity with European art nouveau resulted in domestic acclaim for its ornament, a quality reinforced by photographic emphasis in The Architectural Record (July 1904). Subsequent to Sullivan’s death in 1924, however, theoretical consideration and photographic representation of the building gave greater attention to structural issues, aligning Sullivan more closely with European modernism, as evidenced by his inclusion in the monumental 1932 MoMA exhibition, “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922,” and Hugh Morrison’s biography, Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture (1935). Sullivan’s destiny to be cast as a functionalist architect was sealed by the 1948 remodel of the Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store, which emphasized its streamlined structure, and by Philip Johnson’s 1957 article, “Is Sullivan the Father of Functionalism?”

More than forty years later—and following a postmodernist revaluation of ornament—Weingarden convincingly argues that Sullivan was indeed a great deal more than the functionalist he was typecast as by the middle of the twentieth century. Her poststructuralist approach continues the late twentieth-century endeavor to remove blind spots in the history of modern architecture by broadening the critical frame to include its larger cultural subtexts. By inviting us to consider the value of ornament, poetry, and the metaphysical in Sullivan’s work, Weingarden successfully refutes his rationalist-mechanistic tag, illuminating the dense and diverse motives that contributed to modern American architecture.

Debra Schafter
Professor, Department of Fine Arts, San Antonio College