Sunday, August 23, 2009

Satisfaction Guaranteed

"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law." (Louis Sullivan)
At the beginning of August, Kim and I were out in northwestern Pennsylvania for the Limiar family reunion. (Limiar is the agency we are working with to adopt our four children from Brazil.) On the last day of the event, we woke up early to take our heros, Lino and Luciana, to the airport a couple of hours away in Buffalo. After dropping them off for their flight back home, we decided that, before driving back to Connecticut, we would see what was happening in downtown Buffalo on a lazy Sunday morning.

The answer, as we suspected, was "not much" in the way of human activity. But it was clear to me after driving around a few minutes that Buffalo actually has some really interesting old architecture. And then it dawned on me. "Wait a minute, isn't there a Louis Sullivan building in Buffalo!?" I wracked my brain back to architectural history class oh those many years ago but could not for the life of me think of the name of the building. We looked around among the skyscrapers, knowing full well if there was indeed a Sullivan building in downtown Buffalo it would not possibly be one of the tallest any more. And then I spotted it: between two taller buildings, in the distance, a reddish midrise building with Sullivan's trademark terracotta ornamentation and round windows. Instant recognition. We were on our way.

It was Louis Sullivan, one of the "fathers" of Modern architecture, that coined the phrase, "form follows function" to indicate that a building's form should be based primarily on its purpose or function, and it should fulfill that role first and foremost. Actually the quote was, "form ever follows function," which he used several times in his 1896 essay "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered."

Sullivan was also one of the most notable early architects for a newfangled type of building that emerged at the end of the 19th century: the skyscraper! The skyscraper emerged in the late 19th century with the development of cheap steel production and therefore the use of steel frame construction over load-bearing masonry. Buildings with load-bearing masonry walls were limited in their height by the bearing capacity of the masonry and were characterized by massive bearing walls at the bottom of the building. For example, the Monadnock Building in Chicago, the tallest load-bearing masonry building in the world at 197 feet tall, has walls at the street level that are 6 feet thick!

In load-bearing masonry buildings, the structure and the enclosure are one and the same, carrying both the dead load of the walls themselves and the load of the rest of the building. However, as lighter steel structures developed, architects were able to separate the structure from the enclosure, leading to the development of the curtain wall, a non-load-bearing enclosure wall which allowed for more freedom (and more openness) in the design of the exterior wall. These days, curtain walls are commonly glass, but they can be stone, brick, terracotta, metal, or pretty much anything you can think of that will keep the weather at bay.

The building we found in Buffalo turned out to be the Guaranty Building from 1896. Along with his earlier Wainwright Building (St. Louis, 1891), the Guaranty Building is a prime example of Sullivan's theories on tall building design writ large. In "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," Sullivan says, "It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line." The skyscraper was a new building type, one characterized by height, and Sullivan thought it should appear as such (its form ever following its function, after all). I work for an architecture firm that designs a lot of skyscrapers, and we frequently talk about using elements of design that will give the building a certain "vertical speed." I am reminded that I have Sullivan, progenitor of the modern skyscraper, to thank for this idea.

Both the Wainwright and the Guaranty Buildings feature Sullivan's typical three-part vertical composition. Like a classical column which has a base, shaft, and capital, these buildings show a similar arrangement of major components: a high public floor at ground level serving as the base, repetitive office floors of similar design serving as the shaft, and a terminating upper floor and cornice at the skyline serving as the capital. Each of these different zones of function were designed to be distinct elements in the composition of the building, and each is ornamented in different ways.

A note on architectural ornamentation. Though later Modern architects would take take "form follows function" to indicate that architecture should be stripped of all ornament (Adolf Loos' 1908 essay "Ornament & Crime" would scold true Modernists from using ornamentation of any kind), Sullivan was not so strictly literal on this point. Instead, he is quite famous for his beautiful architectural ornamentation. His buildings are elaborately and beautifully ornamented, the Guaranty Building's stunning terra cotta work being no exception. Instead of stripping architecture of all ornament, the idea of form following function for Sullivan meant that successful ornamentation was the be integrated into a form which was expressive of its function first and foremost, and that the fulfillment of this function was what generated the overall form, layout, or massing of the building.

For instance, in his skyscrapers, the office floors appear identical and repetitive because, by definition, the commercial office spaces they contained needed to be identical and repetitive. Why should these floors appear different on the facade of the building if they were identical inside? And the main, public floors, with lobbies, storefronts and other major functions of course looked different from the office floors because their functions were different. As for the the ultra-ornamented upper story and cornice at the top of the building, who says aesthetic beauty is not a valid function anyway!?

I suppose I should mention a couple other important things about Sullivan before I end leaving you to feel like he designed these buildings in a vacuum all by himself. In fact, he was influenced by and influenced a number of important architects. Before moving to Chicago, he worked for Frank Furness in Philadelphia. He then worked for William LeBaron Jenney, architect of the first steel-framed building, and Dankmar Adler in Chicago. It was at the firm of Adler & Sullivan that Sullivan would mentor one of the 20th century's most famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright.