Nature and Soul in America: Understanding the Roles of Style and Ornamentation in Louis Sullivan’s Design Philosophy (Essay)

American Architect Louis Sullivan (1856 – 1924) was a revolutionary force in design during the late 19th-century; a period of significant economic growth and architectural activity in America. His compositions are immediately recognizable, known for their capitalist grandeur and vast spectrum of detail, ranging from macro concerns such as size, material, and proportion to the minute, including intricate foliage and tracery motifs.

As a polymath of the industrial age, Sullivan earnestly studied topics concerning the built environment at large, the American zeitgeist, and the role of nature in American design practice. In keeping with professional tradition, he contributed essays and poetry as thoughtful commentary on the work of the age, including his own. In two of these essays, Sullivan’s beliefs pertaining to Style and Ornamentation are revealed.

Sullivan’s essays, Style (1888) and Ornament in Architecture (1892) will be summarized and dissected in order to distill the keys to his arguments, which will then be identified in important building examples, clarifying the impact of his written and constructed essays.

In Style, Sullivan begins by positing that when tasked with decision making, typical designers become more refined and agile over time, relying on basic logic and trained dexterity at first, until artistic acumen can be derived from personal experiences in the abstract realm – “Growth evidences at the beginning of its rhythm the objective and toward maturity, the subjective view.” This growth pattern highlights the difference between design mechanics and design poetics, where the former is reinforced by prerequisite teachable skills and formalized techniques, informing the logic behind basic parti and wire framing. In contrast, masters of design, both endowed and burdened with brilliance, do not necessarily follow the same growth pattern (in fact, the complexity of genius psychology requires such designers to be removed from these generalizations, which are more concerned with the mainstream of the profession). The emergence of style is therefore traced to the foundational aspects of a composition and each designer’s use of poetics, based upon his command of objective logic and the subjective, or artistic articulations along a range of subtlety.

Sullivan sets out keys for growing from a purely mechanical decision maker to an expressive and poetic designer. First, he points out that subtlety, a hiding place for abstract beauty and elegance, is embedded only in visceral human experiences. However, once tuned into the subtleties offered by a specific experience, they are combined to inform a rich and multi-faceted meaning for a single word, which is merely a linguistic handle used to group a unique compilation of experiential elements. The mind requires practice and a conscious effort to tune into the five senses in order for the subtleties of everyday life to become discernible and eventually revered. Once this reverence is installed in the mind, design is allowed benefit from objective mechanics as well as the keen eye’s ability to capture and subjectively quote, or recreate complex beauty – “The Style is ever thus the response of the organism to the surroundings.”

Sullivan claims that with intuition, man can “discern the identity of truth inherent in all things”. Moreover, sympathy allows man to temporarily share in the identity of another individual, or even surroundings in the case of a designer or thoughtful observer. Therefore, intuition and sympathy emerge as irreplaceable faculties of the soul, and serve as receptors of subtleties, complexities, and enormities found in the natural and built environments. Additionally, the soul’s prominent role in the consumption of human experiences implies that style is a language of emotion, reinforcing the call for design to move beyond the objective, and into the subjective, personal, and poetic. In other words, Sullivan regards style as the soul’s emotional expression in the face of truth, lending credence to the supposed existence of concepts such as the spirit of the age, collective soul, or fashion as a dynamic measure of style.

In Ornament in Architecture, Sullivan begins by acknowledging a pervasive sentiment among American patrons, involving a reduction of ornamentation on new buildings in the name of practicality. He admits that in many cases, ornamentation is used in excess, and takes another step by pointing out that an omission of ornament on buildings would allow the architectural community a chance to master proportionality and other rudimentary design concerns with more sparse, pure, and revealing structures.

However, once acknowledged for its merits, Sullivan abandons this argument and takes the side of ornamentation, provided responsible and tasteful execution and appealing to the romantic sensibilities of the consumer – “Our buildings thus clad in a poetic imagery, half hid as it were in choice products of loom and mine, will appeal with redoubled power, like a sonorous melody overlaid with harmonious voices.”

The architect cautions, however, that his ideal harmony offered by ornamentation must be applied to compositions in earnest, with true artistic motivation in mind. In contrast, hap-hazard over-tweaking of the same language for other reasons can result in a lacking composition. “Gaudy” is one word that comes to mind as Sullivan offers his word of caution.

To further clarify the ideal and proper intentions of a designer using ornament, Sullivan returns to the musical dichotomy of melody and harmony. Melody describes the essential and profound character of the building. It is a wire frame providing the volumetric, proportional, and rhythmic properties. Melody can exist on its own, to showcase the profundity of these key attributes, as Sullivan’s “pure” building. Harmony, on the other hand, cannot exist on its own, but rather springs out of the melody, and is meant to increase overall intensity. It involves the articulation, dynamics, and more specific tangential expression of a composition. It provides layering upon the profound base which allows the observer to read the composition at various levels of resolution, along a range from the basic to the complex, and plain to intricate. Moreover, when conceived of in earnest and with technical dexterity, harmony is derived from the melody itself, and it is therefore a fundamental component of the larger composition. Along these lines, Sullivan notes that in order to achieve a truly fundamental and harmonious system of ornamentation, its development must occur in parallel with the conception of the melody. This strategy ensures that the complementing nature of the building and its ornamentation is integral to the end product, while a seamless union is also achieved – “ornamental design will be more beautiful if it seems a part of the surface or substance that receives it than if it looks ‘struck on’, so to speak.” Here, Sullivan strives to drill down to the essence of what it is to be integral – “it should appear, when completed, as though by the outworking of some beneficent agency it had come forth from the very substance of the material and was there by the same right a flower appears amid the leaves of its parent plant.” Thus, Sullivan sets out his conception of an “organic” architecture, where the animating spirit of the composition is free to reside along the entire range of detail achieved.

Again, Sullivan celebrates subtly as an effective vehicle for articulating beauty, perhaps due to the excitement one experiences upon discovering a new expression or moment in a familiar composition – a gift that continues to give, while also offering beauty that is experienced differently by each person who might happen upon it – “It will suffice, then to say that I conceive of a work of fine art to be really this: a made thing, more or less attractive, regarding which the casual observer may see a part, but no observer all, that is in it.”

It is easy to sympathize with Sullivan in his efforts to grapple with and codify the application of style and ornamentation in the built environment. In style, he identifies the soul’s expression of truth, as observed and offered back to the world in a composition. In ornamentation, style is given a forum in which to play, rich with layers of subtly, meaning, and poetics for the consumer to discover at his own pace, but always enhancing a building’s holistic contributions to its environment.

Sullivan must have been a contemplative and curious observer of the world around him, as he makes every attempt to tune into the essence of life so that its many beauties may be quoted accurately and potently. As a life-long student of architecture, with formal training at both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ecole de Beaux-Arts, Sullivan was well-versed in existing abilities of designers to interweave style into their compositions, and to use ornamentation effectively to endlessly reiterate the emotional expression of a building. However, Sullivan and his contemporaries were faced with the challenge of framing a new chapter in Western Architecture, where new construction materials, unseen in previous building precedents, and a young nation, devoid of one specific building tradition complicated the answers to the most common of intellectual or academic questions pertaining to design, art, engineering, and architecture. Faced with these challenges, Sullivan builds upon the traditions of the Enlightenment and Transcendentalism, and calls upon the soul of man and nature to espouse his tenants around style and ornamentation. In his buildings, these tenants become the hallmarks of his design, and ultimately lend him the largest audience. His Carson, Pirrie, Scott and Company Building illustrates his design philosophies in one composition, where a steel framed, modern commercial building echoes the spirit of Chicago’s ambition in the wake of its calamitous Fire of 1871, while also offering intricate and naturalistic motifs, which spring from a classical corner rotunda like an overgrowth of beautifully mad foliage. In his National Savings Bank at Owatonna, Minnesota, his composition starts with a basic and abstract box, perhaps optimized for construction, but he expands the breadth of his composition by introducing a great scalloped arch to penetrate each wall, resembling a colossal thermal window. These arches are indeed integral to the design, as the shape of the building becomes immediately recognizable as both a Louis Sullivan composition and a late 19th-century American design. As one approaches the building, other finer and more intricate details come into view, and are equally indispensable, attesting to the expressive power of coupled melody and harmony as natural compliments, or an organic duo.


Louis Sullivan’s essays, Style (1888) and Ornament in Architecture (1892) were accessed using the anthology Architecture and Design in Europe and America, 1750-2000, edited by Abigail Harrison-Moore and Dorothy C. Rowe, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.


Author: Nick Rolinski

#Architecture #Urbanism

One thought on “Nature and Soul in America: Understanding the Roles of Style and Ornamentation in Louis Sullivan’s Design Philosophy (Essay)”

  1. Reblogged this on El carrer i la ciutat and commented:
    Naturalesa i Ànima a Amèrica: Descripció de les funcions d’Estil i Ornamentació en els dissenys i la filosofia de Louis Sullivan (Assaig).

    Arquitecte nord-americà Louis Sullivan (1856 – 1924) fou una força revolucionària en el disseny de finals del segle XIX; un període d’important creixement econòmic i l’activitat arquitectònica a Amèrica. Les seves composicions són reconeixibles immediatament, conegut per la seva grandesa capitalista i l’ampli espectre dels detalls, des dels de grans, com les dimensions, els material i les proporcins, al menut, incloent els motius intrincats de fullatge i traceria….(traducció molt lliure basada en Google Traductor corregit)

    Com a gran pensador de l’era industrial, Sullivan va estudiar amb serietat els temes relatius al medi ambient construït en general, l’esperit de l’època americana, i el paper de la natura en la pràctica del disseny americà. Seguint la tradició professional, va contribuir assajos i poesia com a comentari reflexiu sobre la tasca de l’edat, fins i tot del mateix. En dos d’aquests assajos, les creences de Sullivan relacionats amb l’estil i l’ornamentació es revelen.


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