Friday, September 26, 2008

'A System of Architectural Ornament' - Louis Sullivan

       gilesp_guaranty_1m

"In these little masterpieces of poetic imagination,' said Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949 of Louis Sullivan's ornamental drawings produced around half-a-lifetime before, "the poet in him shines forth on the record as a free, independent spirit characteristic of the free of all time."

'Wright,' he would say [when Wright worked under Sullivan] concerning details which I was trying (as yet by instinct) to work with T-square and triangle ... 'bring it alive, man!  Make it live!'  He would sit down at my board for a moment, take the HB pencil from my hand and, sure enough, there it would be.  Alive!
    ... He did "make it live." 
    ...Say this greatest feature of his work was esoteric.  Is it any the less precious for that?
    Do you realize that here, in his own way, is no body of culture evolving through centuries of time but a scheme and "style" of plastic expression which an individual working away in this poetry-crushing environment ... had made out of himself?  Here was a sentient individual who evoked the goddess whole civilizations strove in vain for centuries to win, and wooed her with this charming interior smile -- all on his own, in one lifetime too brief.
    ... Although seeming at time a nature-ism (his danger), the idea is there: of the thing not on it; and therefore Sullivanian self-expression contained the elements and prophesied organic architecture.  To look down on such efflorescence as mere "ornament" is disgraceful ignorance.  We do so because we have only known ornament as self-indulgent excrescence ignorantly applied to some surface as a mere prettification.  But with the master [Sullivan], "ornament" was like music; a matter of the soul...

The ornament shown here comes from Sullivan's 1924 book, A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man's Powers.  Giles Phillips from MIT has a complete collection of the book's twenty plates, and a Flash presentation of the System based on a study of Sullivan's Guaranty Building (above) here at his website.

sullivan-plate-06 sullivan-plate-10 sullivan-plate-17

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2 Comments:

Blogger KG said...

That hits the nail on the head--it's impossible to view the ornamentation on Sullivan's designs as an add-on, an afterthought added to salvage something which would otherwise be boring.

Art meets engineering, and the results are sublime.

9/26/2008 06:56:00 am  
Blogger Luke H said...

Beautiful.

Something to aspire to in things I make myself ...

9/26/2008 11:49:00 am  

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