Louis Henry Sullivan

The Father of the Skyscraper

Like the rest of the Western world, the United States experienced an Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century. But America’s technological boom was unique; without centuries of rich architecture to inform its burgeoning urban centers, the North American landscape was a Wild West for innovative approaches to design. While structures such as the Eiffel Tower represent a contemporary response to the Industrial age, it was architects such as William Le Baron Jenney and Frank Furness who would inspire a distinctly American architectural idiom. Today we examine the culmination of these influences through the man considered the father of the skyscraper and the pioneer of Modernism: Louis Henry Sullivan (1856-1924).

Photographic portrait of Louis Henry Sullivan, circa 1895.

Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Auditorium Building, 1886-1889. Chicago, Illinois.

After brief stints at MIT and École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Sullivan teamed up with Dankmar Adler in Chicago, beginning a period that would come to define Sullivan’s style. Though they designed dozens of residential buildings, the duo first gained prominence with the Auditorium Building in Chicago. While its limestone and granite exterior is rather unadorned with its rounded arches and pillared supports, the interior is a gilded spectacle. While Adler perfected the acoustics of the space, Sullivan embellished the theater with a dazzling linear motif of light bulbs and intricate plaster reliefs. The Auditorium thus reflects an eclectic blend of approaches that eschews the historic revivalism occurring in other Western countries.

Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Wainwright Building, 1890-1891. St. Louis, Missouri.

Even with his distinct ornate touches, Sullivan is most renowned for his proto-modernist, Darwinian dictum, “form ever follows function.” In other words, Sullivan believed that the function of the building should determine how it is designed. This statement is exemplified in his first (and arguably most famous) skyscraper, the Wainwright Building. Utilizing a steel frame construction method, this tripartite structure is specifically tailored to the purpose of each section. The first two floors, meant for shops and outlets, feature horizontal windows to emphasize the base. The floors above are accented with thin beams in order for the building to appear taller. The top floors display elaborate reliefs that are nearly Art Nouveau in their organic design, providing a distinctive twist to this quintessentially American building.

Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Guaranty Building, 1895-1896. Buffalo, New York.

This is not to say Sullivan did not draw from historical elements in his work. For example, the 16-story Guaranty Building in Buffalo draws even more from traditional and Classical European design to emphasize the skyscraper’s verticality through the horizontal lines snaking up its exterior. Some of the terracotta work is also similar to the tessellating effect of ancient mosaics. It was this ability to incorporate old ideas into new forms that made Sullivan one of the most forward-thinking architects of his time.

Louis Sullivan. Carson, Pirie, Scott Building, 1899-1904. Chicago, Illinois.

After Adler left their partnership, Sullivan proved his independent prowess through the Sullivan Center (formerly known as the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building or Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Store). As a department store, function also dictated the form the building took, for Sullivan put in large windows at the base to effectively display merchandise. The three-door entrance, embellished with cast iron twisted in Gothic floral patterns, is also positioned strategically on a street corner to lure possible customers. The overall horizontality of the structure thus does not speak to a dedicated workforce that the vertically-oriented office spaces in his skyscrapers emulated; rather, the elongated thrust creates the illusion of spaciousness and prosperity that was more akin to the environment desired by a department store.

Sullivan’s techniques would inspire Modernists to challenge traditional designs, catalyzing a focus on the function of a structure, the possibilities of line, and – somewhat ironically – the minimization of unnecessary ornamentation. He shows us the importance of keeping one foot grounded in historical inspirations while simultaneously putting the other foot forward in the direction of inventive practice.


“Form follows function.” – Louis Henry Sullivan

“Once you learn to look at architecture not merely as an art more or less well or more or less badly done, but as a social manifestation, the critical eye becomes clairvoyant.” – Louis Henry Sullivan

“The building's identity resided in the ornament.” – Louis Henry Sullivan

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