Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats
American architect Louis Henry Sullivan (1856 1924) was called the “father of modernism.” He is considered by many as the creator of the modern skyscraper, was an influential architect and critic of the Chicago School, and was a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Sullivan is credited with coining the phrase “form follows function,” the great battle-cry of modernist architects.
Excerpts from Louis H. Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats (1918)
January 7, 2014
From “Thought” and “On Growth and Decay”
Architecture … is truly a fine art when its capabilities are once understood, when its true nature is once known, when its plasticity, its power for eloquence, its dramatic, its lyric resources, its fluency of expression are once grasped by the mind and the heart. No form of expression can excel it in force, beauty, delicacy, subtlety, and versatility when in sympathetic hands. …
The architecture that we see today bespeaks lost organic quality. Like a man once strong but now decrepit, it no longer functions normally. Hence its form has become abnormal. It no longer speaks in tones of ringing eloquence as of yore—it now cries out to the attentive ear with an appalling, inarticulate cry, now muffled, not piercing, but ever the wail of disorganization, the sigh of dissolution. Its features have a plaid leer, a rictus. Its eye is lustreless [sic.], its ear is dulled, its vitals atrophied. So moves it wearily on its crutch of scholarship—groping through spectacles of words.
Words, after all, are but a momentary utterance of thought. They may be, in that utterance, as beautiful as the song of a bird we hear, but they are not the bird: for the bird is flown, and sings elsewhere another song in the forest, ere the first has become a memory with us. Of all the songs sung in the forest how many do we hear? And the forest sings its own song: how many of us hear it? And the songs we hear not, the song of the singer in the solitudes. Therefore I would take your mind away from words, and bend it to thinking.
Thinking is a philosophy. Many people believe that when they are reading in a book they are of necessity thinking; that when they listen to someone’s discourse they are thinking; but it does not necessarily follow. The best that reading and listening can do is to stimulate you to think your own thoughts, but nine times out of ten, you are thinking the other’s thought, not your own. What occurs is like an echo, a reflection; it is not the real thing. Reading is chiefly useful in that it informs you of why the other is thinking, it puts you in touch with the currents of thought, or among those of the past. …
Real thinking is better done without words than with them, and creative thinking must be done without words. When the mind is actively, vitally at work, for its own creative uses, it has no time for word-building: words are too clumsy: you have no time to select and group them. Hence you must think in terms of images, of pictures, of states of feeling, of rhythm.
The well-trained, well-organized, well-disciplined mind works with remarkable rapidity and with luminous intensity; it will body forth combinations, in mass, so complex, so far-reaching that you could not write them down in years. Writing is but the slow, snail-like creeping of words, climbing, laboriously, over a little structure that resembles the thought: meanwhile the mind has gone on and on, here and yonder and back and out and back again.
Thought is the most rapid agency in the universe. It can travel to Sirius and return in an instant. Nothing is too small for it to grasp, nothing too great. It can go in and out of itself—now objective, now subjective. It can fasten itself most tenaciously on a fact, on an idea; or sublimate and attenuate itself with ethereal space. It will flow like water. It may become stable as stone.
You must familiarize yourself with some of the possibilities of that extraordinary agent we call thought. Learn its uses and how to use it. Your test will always be—results; For real thinking always brings results. Thinking is an art, a science of magnificent possibilities. It’s like an army with banners, where the horses cry ha! ha! at the sound of the trumpets. After a while you will instinctively learn to know whether [someone] is thinking or mooning. It’s a great art, remember this, it’s an inspiring art. I mean the real, fluent, active thinking, not the dull stammering and mumbling of the mind: I mean the mind awake. …
Let it always be understood that the powers are not in the words so much as in the mind and heart of [someone] who uses them as [an] instrument. The thought, the feeling, the beauty, is not so much in the words as in what the words suggest, or are caused to suggest, to the mind of the reader, the hearer; and this power of suggestion, of evoking responsive imagination, is the power of the artist, the poet, who surcharges words.
Some time ago you asked what connection there might be between words and architecture. There is this immediate and important connection—that architecture, for the past several centuries, has suffered from growing excretion of words: it is now in fact so overgrown and stifled with words that the reality has been lost to view. Words and phrases have usurped the place of function and form. Finally phrase-making has come to be an accepted substitute for architecture-making.
Now, as we two together are seeking the sense of things, as we are searching out realities, let us pronounce now, once for all, that the architecture we seek is to be a reality in function and form and that that reality shall unfold within the progressing clarity of our view.
The architecture we seek shall be as [a person] active, alert, supple, strong, sane, … generative … who rightly values strength and kindliness, whose feet are on the earth, whose brain is keyed to the ceaseless song of [all mankind]: who sees the past with kindly eye, who sees the future in a kindling vision: as [a person] who wills to create: So shall our art be. For to live, wholly to live, is the manifest consummation of existence.
Text selection by editors Joanna Grasso and Carrie Paterson. Leading page image: Joanna Grasso, 2011.