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Sullivan's struggle

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Sullivan's City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan By David van Zanten.WW Norton, 2000. 177pp. £40 Louis Sullivan: The Poetry of Architecture By Robert Twombly and Narciso G Menocal.WW Norton, 2000. 439pp. £30

HH Richardson, Frank Furness and Louis Sullivan begat Frank Lloyd Wright who some historians idolise as the greatest architect of the twentieth century. If this is a particularly American contention, not shared in Europe, then the coolness to Wright, and indifference to his predecessors, can be written off as an example of historical nationalism.

The search for an American architecture at the end of the nineteenth century appears different from that for an English or French architecture two centuries earlier.While the Europeans sought style based on national and racial characteristics, Americans looked for a hero who, paradoxically, would lead them to a style for all - a democratic style. In these two new books, three authors provide historical interpretations of an architect many Europeans find difficult to appreciate.

Louis Sullivan enjoyed success early, producing buildings in partnership with Denkmar Adler, such as the Wainwright in St Louis, and the Auditorium and Carson Pirie Scott store, both in Chicago. For the last 20 years of his life, he struggled and failed to consolidate his earlier position, but designed magnificent small banks in the boondocks.

Sullivan wrote during this time and drew more decoration, and possibly because of this skill at decoration he appears a conundrum over here - not reaching to Modernism, like Loos and Wagner, by stripping ornament away, but glorying in it and constructing buildings with lavish, decorative entrances. Though, in Space, Time and Architecture, the upper stories of the Carson store looked Modern enough because of the way Giedion cropped the illustration, in plan and elevation Sullivan stuck to his Beaux Arts training.

David van Zanten's book, beautifully illustrated with Cervin Robinson's colour photographs, faces squarely the decorative issue after an elegant and evocative resume of Sullivan's output. His argument in brief is that the decoration is a richly layered thing, depending on Sullivan's architectural abilities to weave specific themes through buildings in plan, section and ornament.

Firstly, the theme of geometric purity: of reliance on circles (mostly semicircles), on squares and cubes, and on grids and proportions. Van Zanten makes a convincing case for the sophistication of Sullivan's planimetric thinking as deriving from a diagonal grid imposed over a square one. If this is not always apparent in the earlier elevations, it is certainly clear in the later bank decor.

Secondly, Sullivan understood how weight could be felt in a building, and how that could be contradicted by elevational treatments which keep the eye busy. Van Zanten reads Sullivan's elevations with an almost Vincent Scully-like empathy. Thirdly, he broaches the technique of layering which occurs in the buildings and more strongly in the drawings of decoration. He suggests that these sheets are not a million miles from the Bennett and Burnham plan of Chicago and the Griffin/Mahoney plan for Canberra.

Realising that this is an argument dependent on visual parallels, and without supporting documentary evidence, van Zanten does not go so far as to suggest that Sullivan's late folio of drawings stand for ideal cities. Those expecting a revelatory urban vision, or a detailed description of the Chicago milieu in which Sullivan worked and declined, will be disappointed. The title is a historian's whimsy.

The second book is a dialogue between Robert Twombly and Narciso Menocal, with a catalogue of Sullivan's sketches and publication of Sullivan's rare text, A Study on Inspiration. Twombly adds to his earlier biography a discussion of the poetic nature of Sullivan's work, while Menocal's essay examines the intellectual sources for Sullivan's writings, supported by much architectural analysis of individual buildings.

Neither can rival van Zanten for florid prose, but that prize has already been won by Sullivan himself. Twombly, like van Zanten, emphasises Sullivan's belief in the United States of America, which, during Sullivan's life, was still insufficiently democratic to award the vote either to to women or those who did not own property. Under the heading 'Democratic Architecture', skyscrapers and banks are shown to respond to this theme. Through architectural aesthetics Sullivan hoped to suggest that ordinary users of buildings were as important as the elite who commissioned them.

Menocal surveys both the building output and the literature written by and about Sullivan to construct a taut and readable introduction to the work, and the layout of illustrations supports his thematic analysis.

Twombly and Menocal disagree with van Zanten in one respect. While they describe the houses as dysfunctional, van Zanten finds their composition and elevations remarkable. I wouldn't say that Sullivan's domestic work is particularly poor: it lacks the invention and vigour of his urban work, but the elevation of the unbuilt Carl Bennett House (1912), for instance, prefigures the the Fagus factory in the extent of its glazing.

So do these books change our view of Sullivan? Pragmatic enough to accept the forms evolving in his time, like tall buildings, he wrought amazingly well-mannered urban buildings. As Venturi pointed out, he also knew where to add the decor. His writings, though, are a struggle to read.

Whitman and Thoreau and even Henry James, are easier to digest.

In the portrait of an architect and his output that they present, both books excite admiration for the buildings and concern for the tormented man. The mid-life crisis that ended in charity, the colossal struggle that the writings exhibit, the drawings, both bleak and optimistic: not since Borromini has an architect left such dramatic material unfulfilled.

David Dunster is professor at Liverpool School of Architecture

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