The Inscrutable Spirit of Louis Sullivan

Isaiah Ellis

Today's guest post comes from Isaiah Ellis, a Ph.D. student in religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ellis's research focus on religious expressions and inflections in urban environments in the West, and he is currently exploring these interests through the anthropology of neoliberalism, urban geography, architectural history, and the phenomenology of place. In this posts, he reflects upon the religious history of famed Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.
In the beginning, I say, was the architek—without form, and void, and darkness was upon it. And the Inscrutable Creative Spirit moving through the darkness said: Let there be light—and Imagination was that light. And the Great Spirit found it good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 
- Louis Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats (1902)
Louis Henry Sullivan
Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924) is perhaps one of the more puzzling figures in American architectural history. Between his innovative construction and ornamentation, his pioneering of the American “commercial style,” and his mentorship of Frank Lloyd Wright, his influence approaches the incalculable. Indeed, the maxim Sullivan popularized, “form follows function,” figures centrally in common portrayals of modern architecture as a “functionalist,” rationalist, and presumptively secular enterprise.

Though architectural historians have commented extensively on his turbulent personal and professional life, his writings and public speeches have defied summary as a unified and clear corpus of thought. Their flowery, poetic language and obvious religious inflections seem to belie their prominent place in such journals as Interstate Architect and Builder and The Engineering Magazine. Two interlocked and seemingly-contradictory lineages in Sullivan’s writings are driving my current work as well as my belief that Sullivan should interest religious historians: his obvious Transcendentalist influences, and his fascination with the modern American metropolis as a site for nationwide spiritual transformation.

In 1873, a teenaged Sullivan worked in Philadelphia as a draftsman for Frank Furness, who was renowned for his naturalistic ornament inspired by the English Catholic architect John Ruskin. While working at this firm, and perhaps by Furness’s recommendation, Sullivan encountered Ruskin’s writings on architecture and nature, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and Walt Whitman’s poems. Through these thinkers, Sullivan came to believe that a spiritually-uplifting and truly American architecture would emerge when architects harnessed natural forces made manifest in what Sullivan often called the “Inscrutable Great Spirit.” This piece’s epigraph, for instance, not only connects that Spirit to the architectural imagination, but also serves as a “Genesis” narrative for the architecture he desired to inaugurate, the one unimaginative “architeks” disrupted.

Armed with this naturalistic cosmology, Sullivan positioned his grand designs firmly against the
Krause Music Store in Chicago
historicist, academic forms that pervaded nineteenth century American “high-architecture.” He had forayed briefly into this academic world as a young man, first at M.I.T. in 1872, and then at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1874 (the École was at that time the cradle of architectural theory, and would become a place of scorn for modernists in the twentieth century). He felt that the education offered at both schools lacked depth, and he came to see their widespread acceptance and implementation in the United States as both socially reprehensible and indicative of a collective spiritual malaise.

For Sullivan, this malaise was engrained in the modern obsession with money and embodied in the urban landscape he wanted to reform. In his serial publication “Kindergarten Chats,” Sullivan argued that the major American metropolises (at the time, New York and Chicago) were not merely cities in the material sense, but also expressed “certain phases of degeneracy afflicting our land and people.” He felt that Chicago, pre-occupied with its modern bustle, was almost too far gone to heed his moral and spiritual leadership: “We have here,” he writes, “too much enlightenment, too fine a sense of ultimate economy … the people are too busy—too busy to think, too patient to care, too nonchalant to trouble.”

Yet he saw tremendous potential in Chicago’s urban fabric, particularly in light of its devastation by the Great Fire two years prior to his arriving there. Sullivan writes in Autobiography of an Idea (written in 1918, in third-person) about the “intoxicating rawness, a sense of big things to be done.” When Sullivan learned that “the city had determined to raise itself three feet more out of the mud, his soul declared that this resolve meant high courage; that this idea was big; that there must be big men here.” Like many developers, tourists, and architects before and after him, Sullivan saw vibrancy in post-fire Chicago that made his vision of a new and better urban environment seem possible.

His ambivalent, moralizing stance on the city seems ironic at some level, since modern economic and spatial paradigms necessarily shaped his designs. Indeed, he is best known for his department stores, warehouses, banks, and, of course, his “tall office buildings.” The crux of his spiritual vision and his architectural practice was, in the end, aesthetic: rightly designed, even a skyscraper could bring a “peaceful evangel of sentiment” to Chicago’s rapidly-transforming urban environment.

Sullivan was hardly a lonesome, esoteric architect designing buildings as a spiritual exercise. He delighted in propounding his Whitman-esque architectural gospel in professional settings and in front of practitioners who, it turns out, were willing to hear it. Sullivan’s writings and speeches were part of broader conversations among architects that brought spiritual concerns to bear on the construction of modernizing Chicago. Sullivan serves as one case study in excavating what Renata Hejduk calls religion’s “apocryphal” role in the development of modern architecture, a matter consistently pushed aside in discussions of the modern American metropolis.


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