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

  1. Carolina says:

    Dear Jane, I have suffered from deesrpsion for many years. Like you, there have been times when I thought I would just come unglued. I was so tired. But I got through it because I got help, took my meds, and started to believe that there was more to life than living in chaos. As hard as it may seem for you to believe, there really is a better life for you. You can find peace and balance in your life. Just don’t give up. Ever. You are a truly beautiful person. And you are a survivor. I will be out here, thinking about you, praying for you, wishing you all the good things I found. Please come and be with me. You can do it. I know you can. I love you and I respect you. I always will.

  2. Hi Srikanth,

    A great prioject on which you’ve embarked here. It’s inspired me to get out my old copy of KC.

    In my copy however, it is this department store that LS calls “The Imperial Hotel”–or at least the Imperial Hotel’s long-lost child. “I say it’s a hotel. You may think it a department store, if you will.” [Chapter V, “An Hotel”]

    I imagined the building he talked about in Chapter XI, “A Department Store,” to be his own Carson Pirie Scott Building.–although the particular “small-minded” building to which he refers is unnamed.

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