The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered

Louis Sullivan (1856–1924)

Above: The Carson Pirie Scott building, Chicago, 1907

Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan, circa 1895

This article, which architect Louis Sullivan published in Lippincott’s Monthly in 1896, contains his famous dictum: “Form follows function.” He begins his discussion of high-rise building design thusly: “Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?”

He continues, in prose as ornate as the entranceway he designed for the Carson Pirie Scott building in Chicago (shown above): “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. . . . From this results, naturally, spontaneously, unwittingly, a three-part division, — not from any theory, symbol, or fancied logic.”

In plain English, Sullivan thought the outside design of a modern office building should echo what he perceived were the three main above-ground parts of the building:  first a “ground-floor, so-called devoted to stores, banks, or other establishments;” above this “an indefinite number of stories of offices piled tier upon tier, one tier just like another tier, one office just like all the other offices;” and finally, on top, “a story that, as related to the life and usefulness of the structure, is purely physiological in its nature–namely, the attic.”

I recorded  The Tall Office Building for Volume 37 of the Nonfiction Collection.