You Can Look, But You’d Better Touch: Exploring Louis Sullivan

By Amanda on April 22, 2011


I knew a few things about Louis Sullivan before exploring the Chicago Cultural Center’s
exhibit, “Louis Sullivan’ s Idea.” I knew vaguely that Sullivan was a philosophical force
behind the Chicago School of architecture. I also knew that the phrase “form should
follow function” would be eternally paired with the man’s name in history textbooks.
And I knew that in my hometown of St. Louis, Sullivan’s Wainwright building was
deemed a gem in a downtown ravaged by urban renewal.

What I didn’t know was that tracing the curves of a decorative frieze from a Sullivan
building could be as fun as sticking my fork in a fondant flower on a slice of wedding
cake. The variety of surface, shape and size on display here brings a child’s delight to
rediscovering the man’s work.

Architectural historian Tim Samuelson teamed up with the iconoclastic comic book
artist Chris Ware to design an exhibit that keeps the eye dancing from wall-size, blown-
up photos of buildings to detailed balustrades, stencils and chunks of terra cotta friezes.
Glancing up to the top of a Sullivan building, you get the sense of sweeping verticality
that the architect emphasized. Focusing in on a plaster ceiling panel from the Auditorium
Theater hotel, you see how Sullivan brought out the plastic qualities of his buildings to
make them pulse with life. And touching the iron newel posts of staircases that once
graced homes designed by Sullivan with his partner Adler, or the enameled hunks of
brick set out on tables, you experience the sensual aspect of architecture.

As a new tour guide leading tours of Chicago with Chicago Detours, I attended a meeting
of the Chicago Tour Guides Professional Association in March. Samuelson spoke, and
he regaled the audience with stories of a childhood spent searching the city for Sullivan
buildings. He later accompanied the photographer Richard Nickel on expeditions to
salvage remnants from the wrecking ball. Many of those pieces ended up in this exhibit.
The city’s official cultural historian said he wants visitors to touch the remnants on
display, to feel the energy that surges through a Sullivan building. (Samuelson joked that
he was left at a loss for words when one person actually asked if he could lick the display
items!) The Cultural Center seems to have nixed the idea of using signs to authorize such
tactile temerity, but nothing here is under glass or behind barriers.

Sullivan’s association with new and the modern didn’t come from an aversion to
ornament, as anyone whose seen the intricate entrance to the former Carson Pirie Scott
store (soon to be a Target) can attest. I learned from the exhibit that Sullivan’s love of
swirling, organic forms began with observing the natural cycles on his grandparents’
Massachusetts farm. It was further indulged in the rose garden he cultivated in his
summer home in Ocean, Mississippi. Of course, Sullivan encouraged that passion for the
natural in his protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The vibrancy of Sullivan’s buildings becomes visceral in this exhibit. That vibrancy
allowed Samuelson to instinctively pick the master’s buildings out from a block of lesser
edifices on his childhood quests. That’s apt, because one of Sullivan’s big ideas was that
each individual is unique in his time and place and is most powerful when he honors his
own unique creativity.

“Louis Sullivan’s Idea” has been extended until May 11, 2011, so you have three more
weeks to catch it. Enjoy!

Jenny Slosar, Tour Guide

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