Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: On Optimism

Let me remark in passing, what this poor word optimism has suffered at the hand of the silly, the superficial and unreflecting, and, above all, at the hand of the professional optimist. We have seen enough to know that a modern optimism must be based on a grasp of things and assurances fairly well seen, rather than in a vague essence of things unseen. And among these things and assurances fairly well seen by us are man’s powers and the creative fertility of nature.

Man, in enlarging knowledge and understanding of man and his powers, his increasing insight into nature’s processes, will arrive at an optimism completely sane, and utilize it as an interpretative, creative, constructive power for the upbuilding of his new home. Such optimism is truly worthwhile. Its basis is clear to the imaginative inquiring mind: its uses equally clear to the imaginative constructive mind.

In this sense, the beginning of an optimistic career by you may be considered well grounded, and there remains little danger that you will decline into considering optimism of will and of character but a sentimental, fleeting or capricious attitude of mind. You will meet with difficulties, to be sure; but with patience these may be overcome by means of a thoroughly developed professional technique. Remember above all, not only that your art starts with utility, but that the foundation of utility is the sole foundation and guaranty of its expression in your hands into the beautiful. It lies with you to demonstrate the thorough-going value of optimism as imaged in results.

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Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: Art of Expression 6: From Work To Creation

What underlies man’s desire to create?

To begin with, an must originally have had the notion that he could make rather that that he could create. His idea was to do something, to fashion something, for his immediate use: to satisfy his immediate physical wants. And this germinal notion still survives, in its simplicity, through al the complexities of ensuing civilization, up to the present day. Hence we may assume as a basis that the idea of doing something came into being before the idea of crating something. That man the worker, in biological sequence, preceded man the inquirer, the thinker, the poet – the creator.

Now, the particularly delicate point involved is: Why did man wish to create? Was it not that he felt lonely? That he desired emotional, psychic companionship? The power of work and the power of emotion being contemporaneous in man, were not equally satisfied, and he had a desire to express himself wholly; the earliest indication of his need of an art of expression.

In regard to yourself, my object all along has been, first, to isolate the architectural art as a specialized social activity and then to show how inextricably, in its genuine state it is interwoven with the needs, the thoughts, the aspirations of the people, that it cannot have a real life without them, and then to raise it into the higher realms of interpretation. That, to become a real art of expression for us, it must take its vigorous origin in the direct practical, utilitarian needs, must avail itself of all modern resources. It must first fully satisfy the needs, fully utilize the resources. Then and then only is it justified in entering realms of sentiment and poetic imagination; then only for the purpose of giving to the utilitarian its needed aspect of beauty, thus contributing its share to the happiness of mankind. Then and then only may architecture worthily be called an art of expression.

[Note: These posts are a condensed and edited version of Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats. Please read the original yourself if you find them interesting.]

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The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by Louis Sullivan, 1896

The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by Louis Sullivan, 1896

The architects of this land and generation are now brought face to face with something new under the sun namely, that evolution and integration of social conditions, that special grouping of them, that results in a demand for the erection of tall office buildings.

It is not my purpose to discuss the social conditions; I accept them as the fact, and say at once that the design of the tall office building must be recognized and confronted at the outset as a problem to be solved a vital problem, pressing for a true solution.

Let us state the conditions in the plainest manner. Briefly, they are these: offices are necessary for the transaction of business; the invention and perfection of the high speed elevators make vertical travel, that was once tedious and painful, now easy and comfortable; development of steel manufacture has shown the way to safe, rigid, economical constructions rising to a great height; continued growth of population in the great cities, consequent congestion of centers and rise in value of ground, stimulate an increase in number of stories; these successfully piled one upon another, react on ground values and so on, by action and reaction, interaction and inter reaction. Thus has come about that form of lofty construction called the “modern office building”. It has come in answer to a call, for in it a new grouping of social conditions has found a habitation and a name.

Up to this point all in evidence is materialistic, an exhibition of force, of resolution, of brains in the keen sense of the word. It is the joint product of the speculator, the engineer, the builder.

Problem: How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of these higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions? How shall we proclaim from the dizzy height of this strange, weird, modern housetop the peaceful evangel of sentiment, of beauty, the cult of a higher life?

This is the problem; and we must seek the solution of it in a process analogous to its own evolution indeed, a continuation of it namely, by proceeding step by step from general to special aspects, from coarser to finer considerations.

It is my belief that it is of the very essence of every problem that is contains and suggests its own solution. This I believe to be natural law. Let us examine, then, carefully the elements, let us search out this contained suggestion, this essence of the problem.

The practical conditions are, broadly speaking, these:

Wanted 1st, a story below ground, containing boiler, engines of various sorts, etc. in short, the plant for power, heating, lighting, etc. 2nd, a ground floor, so called, devoted to stores, banks, or other establishments requiring large area, ample spacing, ample light, and great freedom of access, 3rd, a second story readily accessible by stairways this space usually in large subdivisions, with corresponding liberality in structural spacing and expanse of glass and breadth of external openings, 4th, 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 an office being similar to a cell in honey comb, merely a compartment, nothing more, 5th, and last, at the top of this pile is placed a space or story that, as related to the life and usefulness of the structure, is purely physiological in its nature namely, the attic. In this the circulatory system completes itself and makes it grand turn, ascending and descending. The space is filled with tanks, pipes, valves, sheaves, and mechanical etcetera that supplement and complement the force originating plant hidden below ground in the cellar. Finally, or at the beginning rather, there must be on the ground floor a main aperture or entrance common to all the occupants or patrons of the building.

This tabulation is, in the main, characteristic of every tall office building in the country. As to the necessary arrangements for light courts, these are not germane to the problem, and as will become soon evident, I trust need not be considered here. These things, and such others as the arrangement of elevators, for example, have to do strictly with the economics of the building, and I assume them to have been fully considered and disposed of to the satisfaction of purely utilitarian and pecuniary demands. Only in rare instances does the plan or floor arrangement of the tall office building take on an aesthetic value, and thus usually when the lighting court is external or becomes an internal feature of great importance.

As I am here seeking not for an individual or special solution, but for a true normal type, the attention must be confined to those conditions that, in the main, are constant in all tall office buildings, and every mere incidental and accidental variation eliminated from the consideration, as harmful to the clearness of the main inquiry.

The practical horizontal and vertical division or office unit is naturally based on a room of comfortable area and height, and the size of this standard office room as naturally predetermines the standard structural unit, and, approximately, the size of window openings. In turn, these purely arbitrary units of structure form in an equally natural way the true basis of the artistic development of the exterior. Of course the structural spacings and openings in the first or mercantile story are required to be the largest of all; those in the second or quasi mercantile story are of a some what similar nature. The spacings and openings in the attic are of no importance whatsoever the windows have no actual value, for light may be taken from the top, and no recognition of a cellular division is necessary in the structural spacing.

Hence it follow inevitably, and in the simplest possible way, that if we follow our natural instincts without thought of books, rules, precedents, or any such educational impediments to a spontaneous and “sensible” result, we will in the following manner design the exterior of our tall office building to wit:

Beginning with the first story, we give this a min entrance that attracts the eye to it location, and the remainder of the story we treat in a more or less liberal, expansive, sumptuous way a way based exactly on the practical necessities, but expressed with a sentiment of largeness and freedom. The second story we treat in a similar way, but usually with milder pretension. Above this, throughout the indefinite number of typical office tiers, we take our cue from the individual cell, which requires a window with its separating pier, its still and lintel, and we, without more ado, make them look all alike because they are all alike. This brings us to the attic, which having no division into office cells, and no special requirement for lighting, gives us the power to show by means of its broad expanse of wall, and its dominating weight and character, that which is the fact namely, that the series of office tiers has come definitely to an end.

This may perhaps seem a bald result and a heartless, pessimistic way of stating it, but even so we certainly have advanced a most characteristic stage beyond the imagined sinister building of the speculator engineer builder combination. For the hand of the architect is now definitely felt in the decisive position at once taken, and the suggestion of a thoroughly sound, logical, coherent expression of the conditions is becoming apparent.

When I say the hand of the architect, I do not mean necessarily the accomplished and trained architect. I mean only a man with a strong, natural liking for buildings, and a disposition to shape them in what seems to his unaffected nature a direct and simple way. He will probably tread an innocent path from his problem to its solution, and therein he will show an enviable gift of logic. If we have some gift for form in detail, some feeling for form purely and simply as form, some love for that, his result in addition to it simple straightforward naturalness and completeness in general statement, will have something of the charm of sentiment.

However, thus far the results are only partial and tentative at best relatively true, they are but superficial. We are doubtless right in our instinct but we must seek a fuller justification, a finer sanction, for it.

I assume now that in the study of our problem we have passed through the various stages of inquiry, as follows: 1st, the social basis of the demand for tall buildings; 2nd, its literal material satisfaction; 3rd, the elevation of the question from considerations of literal planning, construction, and equipment, to the plane of elementary architecture as a direct outgrowth of sound, sensible building; 4th, the question again elevated from an elementary architecture to the beginnings of true architectural expression, through the addition of a certain quality and quantity of sentiment.

But our building may have all these in a considerable degree and yet be far from that adequate solution of the problem I am attempting to define. We must now heed quality and quantity of sentiment.

It demands of us, what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ tone in its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chard in his expression of it, the true excitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.

The man who designs in the spirit and with the sense of responsibility to the generation he lives in must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante. He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.

That this has not been perceived indeed, has been flatly denied is an exhibition of human perversity that must give us pause.

One more consideration. Let us now lift this question into the region of calm, philosophic observation. Let us seek a comprehensive, a final solution: let the problem indeed dissolve.

Certain critics, and very thoughtful ones, have advanced the theory that the true prototype of the tall office building is the classical column, consisting of base, shaft and capital the molded base of the column typical of the lower stories of our building, the plain or fluted shaft suggesting the monotonous, uninterrupted series of office tiers, and the capital the completing power and luxuriance of the attic.

Other theorizers, assuming a mystical symbolism as a guide, quite the many trinities in nature and art, and the beauty and conclusiveness of such trinity in unity. They aver the beauty of prime numbers, the mysticism of the number three, the beauty of all things that are in three parts to wit, the day, subdividing into morning, noon, and night; the limbs, the thorax, and the head, constituting the body. So they say, should the building be in three parts vertically, substantially as before, but for different motives.

Others, of purely intellectual temperament, hold that such a design should be in the nature of a logical statement; it should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, each clearly defined therefore again a building, as above, in three parts vertically.

Others, seeking their examples and justification in the vegetable kingdom, urge that such a design shall above all things be organic. They quote the suitable flower with its bunch of leaves at the earth, its long graceful stem, carrying the gorgeous single flower. They point to the pine tree, its massy roots, its lith, uninterrupted trunk, its tuft of green high in the air. Thus, they say, should be the design of the tall office building; again in three parts vertically. Others still, more susceptible to the power of a unit than to the grace of a trinity, say that such a design should be struck out at a blow, as though by a blacksmith or mighty Jove, or should by thought born, as was Minerva, full grown. They accept the notion of a triple division as permissible and welcome, but non essential. With them it is a subdivision of their unit: The unit does not come from the alliance of the three; they accept it without murmur, provided the subdivision does not disturb the sense of singleness and repose.

All of these critics and theorists agree, however, positively, unequivocally, in this, that the tall office building should not, must not, be made a held for the display of architectural knowledge in the encyclopedic sense; that too much learning in this instance is fully as dangerous, as obnoxious, as too little learning; that miscellany is abhorrent to their sense; that the sixteen story building must not consist of sixteen separate, distinct and unrelated buildings piled one upon the other until the top of the pile is reached.

To this latter folly I would not refer were it not the fact that nine out of every ten tall office buildings are designed in precisely this way in effect, not by the ignorant, but by the educated. It would seen indeed, as though the “trained” architect, when facing this problem, were beset at every story, or at most, every third or fourth story, by the hysterical dread lest he be in “bad form”; lest he be not bedecking his building in some other land and some other time; lest he be not copious enough in the display of his wares; lest he betray, in short, a lack of resource. To loosen up the touch of this cramped and fidgety hand, to allow the nerves to calm, the brain to cool, to reflect equably, to reason naturally, seems beyond him; he lives, as it were, in a waking nightmare filled with the disjecta membra of architecture. The spectacle is not inspiriting.

As to the former and serious views held by discerning and thoughtful critics, I shall, with however much of regret, dissent from them for the purpose of this demonstration, for I regard them as secondary only, non essential, and as touching not at all upon the vital spot, upon the quick of the entire matter, upon the true, the immovable philosophy of the architectural art.

This view let me now state, for it brings to the solution of the problem a final, comprehensive formula.

All things in nature have a shape, that is to say, a form, an outward semblance, that tells us what they are, that distinguishes them from ourselves and from each other. Unfailing in nature these shapes express the inner life, the native quality of the animal, tree, bird, fish, that they present to us; they are so characteristic, so recognizable, that we say, simply, it is “natural” it should be so. Yet the moment we peer beneath this surface of things, the moment we look through the tranquil reflection of ourselves and the clouds above us, down into the clear, fluent, unfathomable depth of nature, how startling is the silence of it, how amazing the flow of life, how absorbing the mystery. Unceasingly the essence of things is taking shape in the matter of things, and this unspeakable process we call birth and growth. Awhile the spirit and the matter fade away together, and it is this that we call decadence, death. These two happenings seem jointed and interdependent, blended into one like a bubble and its iridescence, and they seem borne along upon a slowly moving air. This air is wonderful post all understanding.

Yet to the steadfast eye of one standing upon the shore of things, looking chiefly and most lovingly upon that side on which the sun shines and that we feel joyously to be life, the heart is ever gladdened by the beauty, the exquisite spontaneity, with which life seeks and takes on its forms in an accord perfectly responsive to its needs. It seems ever as though the life and the form were absolutely one and inseparable so adequate is the sense of fulfillment.

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple blossom the toiling work horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies in a twinkling.

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.

Shall we, then, daily violate this law in our art? Are we so decadent, so imbecile, so utterly weak of eyesight, that we cannot perceive this truth so simple, so very simple? Is it indeed a truth so transparent that we see through it but do not see it? Is it really then, a very marvelous thing, or is it rather so commonplace, so everyday, so near a thing to us, that we cannot perceive that the shape, form, outward expression, design or whatever we may choose, of the tall office building should in the very nature of things follow the functions of the building, and that where the function does not change, the form is not to change?

Does this not readily, clearly, and conclusively show that the lower one or two stories will take on a special character suited to the special needs, that the tiers of typical offices, having the same unchanging function, shall continue in the same unchanging form, and that as to the attic, specific and conclusive as it is in its very nature, its function shall equally be so in force, in significance, in continuity, in conclusiveness of outward expression? From this results, naturally, spontaneously, unwittingly, a three part division, not form any theory, symbol, or fancied logic.

And thus the design of the tall office building takes its place with all other architectural types made when architecture, as has happened once in many years, was a living art. Witness the Greek temple, the Gothic cathedral, the medieval fortress.

And thus, when native instinct and sensibility shall govern the exercise of our beloved art; when the known law, the respected law, shall be that form ever follows function; when our architects shall cease struggling and prattling handcuffed and vainglorious in the asylum of a foreign school; when it is truly felt, cheerfully accepted, that this law opens up the airy sunshine of green fields, and gives to us a freedom that the very beauty and sumptuousness of the outworking of the law itself as exhibited in nature will deter any sane, any sensitive man from changing into license, when it becomes evident that we are merely speaking a foreign language with a noticeable American accent, whereas each and every architect in the land might, under the benign influence of this law, express in the simples, most modes, most natural way that which it is in him to say; that he might really and would surely develop his own characteristic individuality, and that the architectural art with him would certainly become a living form of speech, a natural form of utterance, giving surcease to him and adding treasures small and great to the growing art of his land; when we know and feel that Nature is our friend, not our implacable enemy that an afternoon in the country, an hour by the sea, a full open view of one single day, through dawn, high noon, and twilight, will suggest to us so much that is rhythmical, deep, and eternal in the vast art of architecture, something so deep, so true, that all the narrow formalities, hand and fast rules, and strangling bonds of the schools cannot stifle it in us then it may be proclaimed that we are on the high road to a natural and satisfying art, an architecture that will live because it will be of the people, for the people, and by the people.

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Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: The Art of Expression 5: Each Problem contains its own Solution.

Inasmuch as you will have problems to meet and solve, let me give you this pointer: Every problem contains and suggests its own solution. Don’t waste time looking anywhere else for it. In this mental attitude, in this mood of understanding, lies the technical beginning of the universal art of expression.

Sullivan’s student complains… “You have the singular habit of assuming, when you suddenly make a compact statement, novel in character, that I am capable of digesting it at once. I am puzzling over your statement–I can’t see that a problem contains its solution; still less that it suggests it… It is not self-evident to me. My training tended the other way. And yet the suggestion excites my vivid curiosity. It sounds neat if nothing more.”

I admit the impeachment. It is likely to happen, when one has given years of thought to a particular subject, that his working idea concerning it is apt to concentrate into a statement so terse that, while self-evident to himself, it is not self-evident to others.

I have come to regard as valuable those truths only which are universal. And it is a bit surprising to note how many truths are universal or may be expanded into a universal application. [Use only universal principles.]

I don’t suppose that anyone who succeeds in solving a problem really goes out of it for the solution; and this assumption doubtless also accounts for innumerable failures. And the failures certainly are self-evident: the world is full of debris of this sort. Particularly is this characteristic of the intellectuals. The unsophisticated man is often better qualified to go straight to the core of a matter: by a process of feeling to sense its reality. [Focus on the problem itself; ignore all arbitrary things said about it.]

Now to give a very simple case: if you are given a peanut-pod and the problem is to find the peanut, you simply open the pod and there is your peanut. The conditions are extremely simple, but the truth is there: the germ of a universal truth, which, with sufficiently extended experience will formulate itself into a law. If we gradually enlarge out problem, we find its husk of conditions becoming complicated, and its contained germ of solution less and less obvious. But when we have solved our problem by confining our attention to it, we find the law holds good. And we have had further experience, we become aware that the very nature of limiting conditions suggest to us what must be the nature and the limitations of the solution. Thus a given problem takes on the character of individuality, of identity. And you become aware that your solution must partake of that identity. [The process of limiting the nature of a problem to a sufficient degree of precision leads to its solution.]

If you come across a problem which does not possess identity, you know by such token that the problem is not a problem but a figment. [Most of so called “problems” are arbitrary assertions. They cannot be solved because they are not problems. The process of limiting shows that they have no identity.]

As the problem becomes more complex it becomes necessary to know all the conditions, to have all the data, and especially to make sure as to the limitations. [Complex problems have multiple limits. Wider limits need to be figured before narrower. Limiting process is hierarchical.]

AN ILLUSTRATION:

Now suppose we extend the problem to its broad human limit and pose it as a problem of the nature of civilization: What is the nature of civilization? The conditions seem enormously complicated and complex, and sternly limited by what is called human nature; the solution not only doubtful but nowhere in sight. Yet, let us but patiently stick to our law, and we finally, perhaps after many years, penetrate this vast husk of humanity and fictions, and find the germ of the solution to be individual man himself, and the fundamental nature of man within him. Having discovered one man, his spirit and his powers, we have discovered all men. Having discovered man, the problem reverses, takes on a new, a constructive aspect; an aspect and purpose born of the desire to create–[leading to creation of a truly Human Civilization based squarely on the true nature of man–unencumbered by the soul-mind-heart-body-wealth crushing institutions and practices of past civilizations based on cornucopia of fictions.]

[The text is from Kindergarten Chats, selected, condensed and edited, with additional notes added in square brackets.]

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Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: The Art of Expression 4: Towards an Universal Art of Expression

Thus is it necessary in a Human Civilization that men in all walks of life (especially those who assume to be leaders in thought) qualify, each in his way, in the all-inclusive art of expression. For Human Civilization has real things to express, it insists on their expression, it will make sure that they are expressed. The steady gaze of Human Civilization pierces all feudal screens, all veils, all pretense, all subterfuge, all hypocrisies, all cant. It sees through them and beyond them to the feudal realities of our day. With ever accumulating power it seeks and will surely find expression in social function and form. It is seeking and will find a consistent, highly diversified, highly organized expression springing with superb logic from the contained power of its germinal idea: the sole social idea that stands for complete Sanity, the sole spiritual idea that is worthy of man and his powers. Therefore the art of developing Human Civilization into a complete, complex yet simple, working civilization is the one great art of expression confronting man today. It is the one art including all arts, all activities, individual and social. It is in the development of the technique of such art that modern man is to concentrate his thought, bend his faculties, and exercise his superb powers as creator.

Inasmuch as you will have problems to meet and solve, let me give you this pointer: Every problem contains and suggests its own solution. Don’t waste time looking anywhere else for it. In this mental attitude, in this mood of understanding, lies the technical beginning of the universal art of expression.

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Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: The Art of Expression 3: Feudal Arts

Now it has been part of out work to expand and concentrate the meaning of words, of phrases. To extricate them from their provincial confinement and let them go free in the world of men. Such a parlor-phrase is now before us, namely: the Art of Expression. Its use has been limited almost exclusively to the so-called fine arts and perhaps particularly to the art of writing poetry and prose. That is to say, it has retained a strictly feudal meaning, in the sense that it is a direct expression of elitism in a quite limited aristocratic and sub-sufficient sense. I call it provincial, not because it is so in actual fact but because it is so in actual use. Like almost all feudal words and phrases it ignores the needs of humanity, it centers in a narrow elitism. The phrase therefore needs liberation.

It must take on a great expansiveness and power of symbolism. It must be exalted into a universal guiding principle and power: else shall it fail to satisfy and inspire the brain, the heart of a humanistic work. In short, we must change its significance from feudal to Humanistic. We must so broaden its scope that it shall include all human activity. For it is the function of the Humanistic Civilization to liberate, broaden, intensify and focus every human faculty; to utilize every human power now unused, abused, or running to waste. For Human Civilization in its heart would abolish all human wastages in their tortuous winding, in impasses, in sorrow, in vicious misdirection. It would, in its efficiency, its thorough-going knowledge and understanding, establish universal productiveness and human poise; the first fruits of is vision, of its discovery of man and his powers. Its conception of of the art of expression is founded on man’s evident spiritual integrity, and his high moral power of choice. It proposes to guide him, to organize him, the the exercise of his various powers of Worker, Inquirer, Thinker and Dreamer. It purposes that man shall sense himself and realize himself.

It knows and understands why feudal civilizations have ever ended in downfall and the wreckage of disaster. It knows and understands the soul of feudalism. It knows that the thought, the feeling , of the world of man is slowly, surely passing out of that domain of provincialism of the mind. If knows that man’s heart is essentially pure, his mind essentially clean. It knows that man thus far has lived by fear alone. In its own courage, Human Civilization would abolish fear, would banish it, would dispel it as a fetid ghost. It would blow down dissolve, the wall that Fate has seemed to rear, it would expose the world to man’s clearing vision.

[Note: The text is from Kindergarten Chats, condensed and edited]

[Note: What is the opposite of Feudalism? What is the name for a civilization based the nature of man? I have replaced Sullivan’s term for it,”Democracy”, by “Human Civilization” because it better conveys his meaning.]

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Louis Sullivan: Kindergarten Chats: The Art of Expression: Two

[Note: The text is from Kindergarten Chats, condensed and edited]

An art of expression must flow from an inner reservoir. It must be the gathered and stored force seeking outlet. It is not as a garment — a something to be worn or not worn — it is inseparable from life, a symbol of life.

An art of expression should be the earliest upbuilding element to enter into the curriculum of a thorough education. It should grow as the body grows and mature as the will evolves. It should evidence human capacity and human possibility. It should open the mind, open the heart, to direct impressions at the very beginning. These are to the human what sunlight, soil and rain are to vegetation.

Then, let utterance of these impressions begin so soon as it is evident that they are impressions. After which, new impressions, then new utterance — ever continuous, ever reciprocal, ever broadening, surely organizing, unfolding, ever growing in power, more coherent, more plastic, more fluent; ever growing in receptivity, ever growing in aspiration; ever growing in mobility, ever growing in serenity; ever growing more complex – paralleling the complexity of life; ever growing more simple — paralleling the simplicity of life; ever gaining in strength, ever gaining in delicacy; ever in ferment, ever clarifying those elemental powers which are so subtle yet the more potent of all — the power of receiving, the power of uttering!

Then, in clarity, one may see not merely over the surface of things, but into the being of things, and of man. Then may one express life, because he has lived. then will one’s works be poems, for they will spring from life, its needs, and its desires.

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Louis Sullivan: The Art of Expression: One

[Note: The text is from Kindergarten Chats, condensed and edited]

Why do you do this? To help you make of yourself an interpreter, a poet. And why should I be a poet? In order that you may evince power of interpretation, and extol poetry in your useful art. And how can I express poetry in my art?

As one expresses poetry in anything–by first living it. For poetry is life. To express life we must know life, and understand it in its bearings. To know the simplicity of all life we must grasp its complexity;we must view it from many angles, envisage its many moods and seeming contrarieties; and to know its complexity we must grasp, with all the power of understanding its deep-down simplicity. To know the soul we must arouse the soul, liberate it and let it face the open and move in the open until it knows not fear.

Nature is ever the background across which man moves as in a drama. So have I taken you to Nature, to show you how our moods parallel her moods; how her problems parallel our problems, to make plain to you what man may read in Nature’s book, to the end that her processes may be our processes: that we may absorb somewhat of her fertility of recourse, her admirable logic, her progression from function into form, her fluency, her lyric quality–her poetic finalities.

Should man do less in satisfying his utilitarian needs! It is the function of the poet, in whatever walk of life, to regard these things, to make them his own; to express them in his work: whatever those works, whatever his special activities may be.

You cannot express, whatever your walk in life, unless you have a system of expression; and you cannot have a system of expression unless you have a prior system of cognate thinking and feeling; and you cannot have a system of thinking and feeling unless you have had a basic system of living.

When all is said and done, the great masterpiece, or the little masterpiece, whatever its kind, is but the condensed expression of such philosophy as is held by the worker who creates it. It stands for his views, his more or less ripened, organized and rounded views of Nature, of Man as an entity in Nature, of his fellow men, of his views and convictions concerning the human mind, the human heart and soul, and the progress and destiny of the race: in short, his philosophy of life.

To assume that man may create a great work without in his own way having held a communion with the flow of life, without having in his own way contemplated humanity–would be to express crudely what is crudely thought. To fancy, languorously, that a man may create a great work by reproducing a Greek temple, or any past vital work, is an example in such crude vacuity of thinking: indeed, the misapplication of the very notion of thinking. It is simply minus-thinking. A great work is, always, a great individual expression; the expression of a single thought or a single mood born of a contemplative, active, clear-sighted creative mind.

For a great work, must be an organism–that is, possessed of a life of its own; an individual life that functionates in all its parts; and which find its variations in expression in the variations of its main function, and in the consequent, continuous systematic variations in form, as the organic complexity of expression unfolds: all proceeding from one single impulse of desire to express our day and our needs: to seek earnestly and faithfully to satisfy those needs. To make our world a pleasant place.

Do not mistake my meaning, nor my attitude towards the great works of the men of the past. None can, I believe, venerate them more sincerely than do I, nor more clearly and gratefully discern their beauty, their worth, their inspiring evidence of what man can do when he wills. Bus such appraisal, such enthusiasm would go to nought were I to stultify both myself and them by denying them their privacy.

For, my lad, beauty has not really departed from the sons of Earth.
Nor is high thinking but a memory of days gone.
Nor is the winsome art of saying done for.
Nor has the power of man forsaken him.
If he has lost them, on his way, he has but to call to them:
They will answer and come gladly.
His spirit will revive.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Man’s Powers

Man’s powers mean simply, what man can do.

As to his physical nature, man has the power of locomotion, of muscular control; the power to select and manipulate things; to surmount obstacles. Therefore is he by nature a wanderer, a toiled, a worker, an artisan, an artist: for these things mean the power to do–to create.

As to his mental nature, man has the urging power of curiosity. Hence he is again a wanderer, an explorer, a seeker, an inquirer, a scientist. He wishes to know the HOW. Hence his power to do in enhanced by his knowledge how to do. His art is strengthened and amplified in it’s power by his science. Further, man’s curiosity wishes to discern the WHY. Still a wanderer, a seeker, a worker, a thinker, he pushes the power of inquiry into new paths; he becomes a philosopher. His thus acquired knowledge of why increases his power over how, and hence his power to do: which means a progressive cumulative growth in solidarity: his philosophy, his science, his art mutually strengthening each other. Thus he becomes a greater worker.

Man has great powers of his inner life: he has the power of feeling, of emotion; he is a Poet. And man has the power to vision forth: hence is he dreamer of dreams, spectator of visions: a Prophet! His emotions and dreams, his visions and his forecasts, vitalizes his thinking, his speculations and his work. They charge his creations with the current of life: and so man rises in accomplished power. He ever pushes back the frontiers. He ever intensifies the near and the far. And man is a spirit: hence his emotional, intellectual, physical need to find an union with his inner core–thus is he a metaphysician. And man is a moral being: a power of enormous momentum: It is the power to CHOOSE–the central power of man.

And thus is his growth, his unfolding, his self-centralization: MAN THE WORKER becomes MAN THE CREATOR.

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Kindergarten Chats by Louis Sullivan: Part 1

I am about one third of my way through the book. For readers’ convenience, Here are all my posts on the book so far.

If you enjoy these posts, please subscribe to my blog using the “Email subscription” at the top of the right column of this page–so you will not miss a single one. And if you know someone who might be interested in discovering Louis Sullivan’s thought, please send a link to this post to them.

My Introduction
Foreword
Pathology of a Building
The University & the World
An Oasis
Of Rivers & Characters
Common Sense &Small-Mindedness
On Thought
A Function Creates it’s own Form
An Architect
On Imagination
On Attention
Parasitism of Universities
Of Tulips & Men

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Of Tulips & Men

1. In growing tulips to make new varieties, the gardener plants seeds naturally or artificially fertilized. Year after year they bloom with a common grayish blossom–showing reversion to the early tulip type. And so they live along, a dull and stupid brood, without any apparent promise, until suddenly, one of them “breaks,” as they say, into a gorgeous, stately flower, and lo!–a new variety, a tulip of tulips, its gardener’s joy and recompense, a new thing of beauty born of untoward surroundings into a needy world.

2. Why in this putative flower-bed that one watches year by year, does there come forever the same unwelcome bloom? How often I have yearned for such a breaking-tulip, one who breaks his bonds asunder and adds a glory to the race. For are they not men, however poor in seeming promise? And may not a man perhaps break his bonds asunder? But no; after five, six, seven years if there is no “break,” the seedling tulip never breaks. There is a moment in out lives when we burst our bonds or fail to burst them.

3. We have all heard of ugly duckling and of Cinderella. Why is there so little of the sweetness and the joy and the beauty of fairy tale in our real life? Why does not the heart bloom everyday? Why is this ethereal charm found only in children’s tales? Why are we ashamed of the best, the truest, the sweetest, the loftiest in us? Why do we relegate these things to children? Why are we reverse tulips? Why do we flower wondrously in childhood, and then, as the years pass, turn dull and inglorious? Are men and women less than tulips?

4. Freedom liberates nothing if it liberates not the mind. I hold it against a man that he prefers not to free his mind; that he chooses the habitual, rather than that self-government, that initiative, which is the perpetuating force of a free people. I know that few men care to face the truth; not because it is the truth, but because they fear the truth may prove too large. All of which is timid and unlovely. It ill becomes us: we were meant to be large and true. So must we be. So are we in many ways.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Parasitism of Universities

1. Anyone who will take the trouble to investigate universities will shortly discover that, as institutions of learning, so-called, they are bankrupt. Not only are they useless to human aspiration, they are actively pernicious, and their theory of operation is a fraud on the commonwealth that supports them. Their teachings are one long continuous imbecility. They are feudal to the core of their dried-up medievalism, although freedom pays their bills and houses and feeds them. They are essentially parasitic–sucking the juices of healthy tissues and breeding more parasites.

2. But who made the professors blind? Their predecessors! The professors had his professor, and that professor his, and on and on backwards in a thin single-foot line, to the pettifoggers of the middle age, the men who knew nought of reality and cared less. These old-timers hated the light, they hated Nature that makes the light, they hated freedom, they worshipped rule and precept, they loved in their cadaverous way the schoolroom and distrusted the world.

3. If an institution whatsoever were to receive healthy lads, and after four years of “care” return them mentally and physically crippled, broken-winded, weak-hearted and infected, there would be hue and cry. But, when precisely such young men are taken in by an institution, so-called of learning, and, in four years, are turned out of it mentally dislocated, with vision obscured, hearts atrophied and perverted sensibilities–who cares! And why? Because it is not so easily seen.

4. The need of the hour is for men! The appalling lack of the hour is true education: education that will make men. I am tired of man-shadows, and I detest these schools as they are now conducted, because they make shadow-men.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: On Attention

Attention is the essence of our powers; it is that which draws other things towards us, it is that which, if we have lived with it, brings the experiences of our lives ready to our hand. If things make impression enough on you, you will not forget them; and thus, as you go through life, your store of experience becomes greater, richer, more and more available. But to this end you must cultivate attention–the art of seeing, the art of listening. You needn’t trouble about memory, that will take care of itself; but you must learn to live in the true sense. To pay attention is to live and to live is to pay attention.

When you accumulate, accumulate abundantly, absorb totalities, not fragments. Grasp the largeness of things, not petty isolated aspects. Lay hold upon the warm significance of realities, not merely cold currency passing from hand to hand. Seize upon the drift, the color, the intensity, the what-you-may-call-it of the moving, teeming life about you, not merely upon its broken definition, and follow, follow, follow every path, every trail that leads towards emotional and spiritual riches–paths hidden alike to the heedless and the over-sure–and then, when you give, give of your abundance: And this is to live.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: On Imagination

While we may say that the imagination, in some of its aspects, seems superhuman, in others it is most beautifully human. If it implies the power to receive, it also implies the power to give. If it is as simple as a dew drop, it is also as complex and a due drop. However furtive and shy it may be, still it is domestic of habit. It is steadied, controlled and made amenable by the other faculties. If is is a wanderer, so it ever returns. It knows where its home is: it needs you as much as you need it. It goes where you send it, and returns laden with airy nothings. It is your other self–your best friend when you know it and it knows you. If will go anywhere after anything; but beware lest it beguile you, for it is tricky, mischievous thing when you are not looking.

You must train it carefully for its work as you would train a retriever, for, whatever else imagination may be, it is a magnificent retriever. They say imagination is a great painter of pictures, and a famous maker of images, a most skillful and ingenious craftsman. If this be so, then house and feed him well and lavish gifts on him. They say, too, that he is a great constructor and reconstructor. That may be so, too, but I tell you that he is also a great destroyer.

They say that children are imaginative. That is truest and most beautiful of all. Let us remain children as we grow old: For I tell you if you kill a child in man you kill the man in man. No truer saying was ever said than this: The child is father to the man. So recall to your heart your childhood, which is looking at you with a wistfull eye and not so far way.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: An Architect

To half close your eyes is to belittle the creative power of man. Touch not with feeble finger the exuberant pulse of human life. The architecture we seek shall be as a man active, alert, supple, strong, sane. A generative man. A man having five senses awake; eyes that fully see, ears that are attuned to every sound; a man living in his present, knowing and feeling the vibrancy of that ever-moving moment, with heart to draw it in and mind to put it out: the incessant, that portentous birth, that fertile moment which we call Today! As a man who knows his day, who loves his day, who knows and loves the exercise of life, whose feet are on the earth, whose brain is keyed to the ceaseless song of his kind: who sees the past with kindly eye, who sees the future in a kindling vision: as a man who wills to create: so shall our art be. For to live, is the manifest consummation of existence.

First of all an architect (or a man) must have a poetic imagination; second a broad sympathy, humane character, common sense and a thoroughly disciplined mind; third, a perfected technique; and, finally, an abundant and gracious art of expression.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: A Function Creates Its Own Form

1. In nature and in man’s work, there is the initiating pressure of a living force and a resultant structure or mechanism whereby such invisible force is made manifest and operative. The pressure, we call Function; the resultant, Form. Hence the law of function and form discernible throughout nature. A function creates its own form. Form ever follows function. Just as every form contains its function, and exists by virtue of it, so every function finds or is engaged in finding its form.

2. If a work is to be organic the function of the part must have the same quality as the function of the whole; and the parts, of themselves and by themselves, must have the quality of the mass; must partake of its identity. This organic quality descends from the mass down to the minutest subdivisions or detail, like children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and yet, they will be, all, of the same family.

3. Functions are born of functions, and in turn, give birth or death to others. Forms emerge from forms, and others arise or descend from these. All are interwoven, intermeshed, interconnected, interblended. They sway and swirl and mix and drift interminably. They shape, they reform, they dissipate. They respond, correspond, attract, repel, coalesce, disappear, reappear, merge and emerge: slowly or swiftly, gently or with cataclysmic force.

4. All is function, all is form, but the fragrance of them is rhythm, the language of them is rhythm: for rhythm is the very wedding-march and ceremonial that quickens into song the unison of function and form, or the dirge of their farewell, as they move apart, and pass into the silent watches of that wondrous night we call the past. So goes on the story on its endless way.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: On Thought

1. 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 to great. It can go in and out of itself–now focusing on reality and now on itself. 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 brings real results. Thinking is an art, a science of magnificent possibilities.

2. Many people believe that when they are reading in a book or listen to someone’s discourse, they are necessarily 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 man’s thoughts, not your own. What occurs is like an echo, a reflection; it is not the real thing. You must carefully and watchfully discriminate between pseudo-thinking and real thinking. Pseudo-thinking is always imitative, real thinking is always creative. You cannot create unless you think and you cannot truly think without creating in consequence.

3. The first thing upon which you must bend your mind is, to learn to think seriously, accurately, methodically, persistently, thoroughly and fearlessly. Never doubt the powers of your own mind, for they are there, waiting for you to discover them, to know them, to use them. You will not learn in printed books how to think this way, but you will find it in the great open book of life about you.

4. So, first, learn to think, then, learn to act. When you learn to think organically you will act organically. But do not be ashamed to begin in a small way. Everything begins in a small way. Make sure, only, that it is the right way. Seek to learn something of your own nature–your aptitudes, your powers, your limitations. Strive to increase the powers, to remove the limitations. You cannot hope to know your powers until you test them with the force of will and the backing of character to overcome obstacles. Its almost folly to talk of the limitations of the mind: leave that to idlers. The so-called average mind has vastly greater powers, immeasurably greater possibilities of development than is generally supposed.

5. But you cannot do this in a day, in a week, in a year. It must be for you a life-work, a long steady, continuous endeavor. The more you think, the more you will delight in thinking; the more you contemplate, the more you will delight in contemplation; the more you act, the more you will delight in action. Bear in mind that you are not to think merely on occasions, as a sort of ceremonial, but daily, hourly, all the time–it must become your fixed and natural habit of mind. So will your thinking steadily grow in power, clearness, flexibility and grace; and you will ever thereafter feel what the spirit of independence and self-control truly means.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Common Sense & Small-Mindedness

Marshall Field Store, Chicago
1. This time, it is evident, my son, that we are looking at a department store. Its purpose is set forth in its general aspect and the form follows function in a simple, straightforward way. The structure is logical, though somewhat bald, statement of its purpose, and an unmistakable though not wholly gratifying index of the business conducted within its walls. This is a great deal to say about a building at any time; it is high praise in these days of architectural distraction. Its directness of statement is its chief virtue. Its comparative freedom from verbiage causes it in a manner to approach eloquence of form. Its architect evidently proceeded–if he proceeded in any manner approaching consciousness–by a process of elimination. He left his favorite “architecture” for the time being, in his portfolios–which is a clever thing to do. He used the eraser on his mind instead of on his paper, which is another clever thing to do. He looked before he leapt, which is cleverest of all. Such things, such acts, such relatively sane mental processes are refreshing and uncommon. If they are accidental, let us welcome the accident. I make my bow and my compliments.

2. The Pupil: “It seems you are heaping praise too thick. It’s a nice plain simple building, I admit; but I don’t like the ornament and some of the proportions of the upper stories.” Louis Sullivan: No matter about ornament or proportion–we are long way from discussing them. Details later on. Let us stick to our text, which is to be: Function and Form. In its simplest applicable terms this dictum means merely a right start and a right finish. The architect has here shown sufficient common sense to start right. If he not shown the higher common sense to realize that he was on right track and of remaining on it until last word was said, why that is another story, and does not immediately concern us.

3. Most men in our profession are small-minded: that is, they lack the power of generalization, of abstraction. They lack the gift, the power to analyze that which is living, or to synthesize their common sense with steadiness and resolution. Indeed they intermittently forego their commonsense in yielding to the exigencies or “art” — as you see here. Now a small-minded man gets hold, occasionally, on a partial truth, a fragmentary truth, so to speak; but, because he lacks active sympathy with the partial truth, he lacks thereby the power to abstract from it the germ of a broader, a general truth, or analyze out of it those hundred and one truths which it contains. Now, when I say, by implication, that the architect of this building is small-minded, I do not mean to speak unkindly–because of the redeeming presence of so much common sense. It would, perhaps, be less ungracious to say that he is not sufficiently broad-minded, not as full-minded as he might be, and, as I trust, he may become. Where there is leaven of common sense much is to be hoped for.

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Of Rivers & Characters

1. We are at that dramatic moment in our national life wherein we tremble evenly between decay and evolution, and out architecture, with strange fidelity, reflects this equipoise. That the forces of decadence predominate in quantity there can be no doubt; the the recreative forces now balance them, by virtue of quality, and may eventually overpower them, is a matter of conjecture. While the bulk of our architecture is rotten to the core, that there is in our national life, in the genius of our people, a fruitful germ, and that there are a handful who perceive this, is likewise beyond question. All this, I shall strive to make clear to you as we go on.

2. Try never to forget, from now on, that everything, each thing, you see and hear, has a double meaning: first, its physical or outward aspect; second its spiritual or inner meaning and significance. For the true cause of a building or any human artifact is not external, but internal. It lies, proximately, it lies in the mind a and character of one man, and that man the architect. If that mind is normal, the building will be normal; if that character is awry, the building will be awry. Indeed, whatever the character is, the building will be its image, regardless of material, regardless of labor, regardless of cost.

3. All the varied elements of human nature and its surroundings confluence in a special fashion in the individual, and form what we call character. Character is the resultant of all the forces operative in an individual man, and it shapes the amount and the direction of his energy. Like a great river, however winding its course, it discharges and delivers its output into our culture at some definite spot. To explore a river and know it thoroughly, we may begin at the thousands of widely separated well-springs which flow away in rivulets that conjoin to make its branches, and follow these as they conjoin to make its trunk, and this trunk, on to its delta; OR, we may begin at the delta or estuary, and follow up the trunk, the branches, the rivulets, until we shall have sought out the minutest headwaters.

4. Character is a large word, full of significance, no metaphorical river can more than hint at its meaning. Character is not confined to the individual, it defines, also, a group, an institution, a nation; and conversely, it names minutest of actions, quantities and qualities we can ponder. So shall our course lie: upstream, against the current, down-stream with it. We will broadly trace physical appearances to their moral causes, and moral. mental and social impulses to their manifestations in brick and stone.

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