Louis Sullivan’s Idea, a biography of the 19th century Chicago architect, by Chicago’s first cultural historian Timothy Samuelson, is, in the most literal sense of the word, a beautiful book. This opulent green door stopper, about the size of a bulky laptop, would be a highlight on any Chicago coffee table. Flipping through the biography, one marvels at its full-page color photographs and detailed building blueprints, sketches and letters, newspaper clippings, and notebooks. Even the paper, thick, solid, is made from better stuff.
The book offers spectacular close-ups of Sullivan’s buildings’ component parts: flowery plaster ceilings, superbly detailed terra-cotta pieces, handsome windowsills—many of them masterpieces in their own right. So that by the end, readers can feel the “on the ground” textures that added charm to a time and place. They look lovely.
That said, Louis Sullivan’s Idea is not perfect. Samuelson’s prose is choppy at times, which distracts from the otherwise strong story. However, the book’s primary strength, its layout, is more than worth the cost of admission.
The biography follows the architect from his early draftsman days, to his success as a partner at Adler & Sullivan, to his alcoholic decline and premature death. Known as the “father of skyscrapers” and the originator of the term “form follows function,” Sullivan comes across as brilliant yet tragically self-important. When a reporter asked him to define in words the effects of his interior plaster pieces, Sullivan said, “It would be fatal to attempt anything like a discursive consideration of art in architecture in Chicago just now. People are not prepared for it. I very much regret we have no appreciative art criticism here.”
Readers discover the man through an overview of his architectural achievements and professional relationships. We explore the thinking behind his finest designs, such as the Chicago Stock Exchange and the Merchants’ National Bank in Iowa. While also seeing Sullivan through the eyes of his greatest collaborators, including his protege Frank Lloyd Wright.
Samuelson organizes Sullivan’s life, the story, through short blurbs that appear beside primary sources. A lesser writer may have thrown the words together haphazardly, as perfunctory supplements to the book’s real star: the images. However, Samuelson, who made a name for himself by crafting approachable and engaging Chicago history, doesn’t waste the space. Most of his building descriptions are admirably lyrical. He describes the Auditorium:
“Even with its massive architectural presence, it was similar to a tree or plant in how it was rooted in the ground and rose up to blossom under the sky.”
The text has many kernels of poetic beauty, a marriage between Samuelson’s dense historical knowledge and compositional prowess. It’s enough to keep a reader going and, perhaps more importantly, inspire a wider interest in the subject.
I only wish Samuelson dusted off the thesaurus a bit more often. While his elucidations are lovely on their own, when paired next to each other, one starts to notice certain patterns. For instance, the Auditorium is not the only building that “blossoms.” Samuelson also uses the word and its derivations to describe the Transportation Building, the Schiller Building, a spiral staircase, and several other architectural artifacts—all “blossoming.” The words undulating, motion, and fluid also crop up a noticeable amount. Maybe this repetition wouldn’t be off-putting if it didn’t seem to contradict Sullivan’s own artistic principles. Samuelson writes, “Sullivan rarely engaged in the recycling of architectural concepts, preferring to create each building anew for its own time and place.” If Sullivan’s work was so varied, wouldn’t a writer need a wider vocabulary to encapsulate it?
Of course, this is a nit-picky complaint and only noticeable to those who read every word. Reading the book cover to cover is not, in my opinion, the best way to drink in Sullivan’s story. Louis Sullivan’s Idea is a coffee table book, and a damn good one at that. It’s best enjoyed not by studying every word from left to right, but by exploring the pages randomly, searchingly. Every nook and cranny of the design has something to engage the eyes: new patterns, revealing photographs, splendid watercolors. Take your time with the book. You don’t have to read everything, but you should examine the photos and delve into the captions that interest you most. Pick your favorites and stay a while. That approach will yield the greatest reading experience.
Louis Sullivan’s Idea is available at many bookstores and through the publisher’s website.
Did you enjoy this post and our coverage of Chicago’s arts scene? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation by PayPal. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!