Responding to Louis Sullivan

Crisis & Critique

Louis Sullivan.

12.11.2019 | Michael Gac | Charles Davis II | Aubrey Fan | Mustafa Faruki | Hadas Steiner

Michael Gac: One of the things about this quote that sticks out to me is that towards the end, Sullivan starts talking about the naturalistic philosophies of architecture, and it seems to kind of resonate through his time in Europe and in Otto Wagner’s introduction through building being derived from form and function—and hopefully not misquoting this—but from Wagner, “Art and artists had a duty and obligation to represent their period.” And the naturalistic tendencies around this time to branch away from the classical technologies of that time. So as a school today, are we still representing the time period now, and how has this manifested itself through our educational process?

Charles Davis II: So when he discusses a naturalistic philosophy of architecture, he’s very influenced by people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman—the kind of naturalists in the American pantheon. And he’s trying to take this idea of naturalism as culture bubbling up organically from its source and create an architectural aesthetic that matches the new American context. So part and parcel of what he’s rejecting here is the function of precedent in the École des Beaux-Arts system and the European revivalism that he feels is medieval or feudal and its bringing an old world system and overlaying it on to a new world system. So this new world system, he believes, is fully democratic, and there’s local culture there, but there isn’t an avant-garde architecture to express what that’s like, and that’s what he was meaning by a naturalistic philosophy.

Hadas Steiner: I feel like there’s been this return of organicism in the language of nature, into architecture in the post-digital era and where some of this comes from. If we’re asking about the current moment, I think that what Sullivan was calling for then, is still really unrealized in the architectural profession today, and there’s still theoretical work that’s being done to bring it to bear on architectural education. This school is still very modernist in my view.

Mustafa Faruki: I think there’s a lot of differences from what’s happening here, in terms of studio and definitely the role of precedents. That idea of what a precedent is and looking at it and using it, copying it, things like that.

The first part of the quote is from “Kindergarten Chats,” and it’s a very provocative text. At one point he does say that, “When architecture schools should be creating youth, instead they’re creating the old. When they should be creating beauty, they’re instead creating fashion, fashion mongers. When they should be creating common sense, they’re instead creating insanity.” And so in thinking about it in that way, those are the things that he thinks an architecture school should be doing or what they should be producing.

HS: He’s looking at this as the moment when architecture schools are taking a position, and the Beaux-Arts is still the dominant way of teaching.

Wagner is an appropriate example because Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright were interested in what Wagner was saying at this critical moment saying, “No, the past is not what we want to draw on. What we’re going to do now is create an architecture of the modern moment.”

So it’s this crisis… and I think that this crisis—if you want to make it about now—is one we live with, because we’re in a period of transition, too.

history is this thing that can be deployed—can be manipulated—but somehow has to be handled . . . we’re trying to grapple with history still: either by looking away from it, confronting it, or having a position towards it.

- Mustafa Faruki

Aubrey Fan: I don’t know so much about Sullivan, and the history and his grounding, but I was shocked actually by how bombastic he was. But he is calling something out that I think is a problem in education in general—especially higher education—which is this idea of democracy. It's something that I was really thinking about within the school... what takes precedent? I came from an educational background where I learned pedagogical theory and how to work within the classrooms and how to teach a wide rand of individuals. And I think that in the university, there’s kind of a pull between, are we here to educate, are we here to inspire, or we have to get funding. We have to find backers and supporters for our research, and then it becomes very research driven.

But when he’s talking about democratic aspirations, I’m thinking, “Does the school operate as a democracy? Are there equal opportunities within it? Are students allowed to pursue those different venues, or is there kind of like the Beaux-Arts, top down, we want to rank you, we want to see a certain set of standards met? And is there a conformity and hegemony that’s produced through the university?” And I think that’s not just within architecture at this point. The thing I disagreed with him about was that they’re actively pernicious. I don’t think that the school intends to stifle.

HS: Well, that’s an interesting point because you’re talking about architecture schools that are already absorbed into a university system, whereas Sullivan was looking at that as a new phenomenon. MIT being the example because the Beaux-Arts is like an art school, it wasn't part of a university, so I like this thought that you're having.

CD: The Beaux-Arts, it was an official wing of the state. It was created to develop a state national style, and within that context, it's true that it didn't operate like MIT or Harvard or the other professional schools in the US, but it was a part of its imperialist regime. It established and focused students' attentions on the most elite forms of cultural production.

HS: Before the revolution, it was a very dogmatic art school that was producing architecture for royalty and aristocrats, basically.

Beth Tauke working on crafts with students.

1.20.2019: Beth Tauke and Jaidon Ramirez Zeno work with children as part of the Architecture + Education Program, using architectural concepts to teach students in Buffalo Public Schools. (photo by Douglas Levere)


MICHAEL GAC: MArch Student


CHARLES DAVIS II: Assisstant Professor - Department of Architecture
AUBREY FAN: MArch Student
MUSTAFA FARUKI: Adjunct Instructor - Department of Architecture
HADAS STEINER: Associate Professor - Department of Architecture