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America's First Modern Architect: Louis Sullivan

Architect Louis Sullivan Header

Portrait of Louis Sullivan

Louis Sullivan is a famous American architect who is considered by many to be the father of the skyscraper. He is also thought of by many to be the father of modernism in architecture. While he did not necessarily invent the concept of the skyscraper, his hard work in building the Chicago empire is influential and has often given him the credit. His innovative design helped to pave the way for many famous architects, and helped to shape the way modern cities look today. Sullivan grew up with his grandmother in Massachusetts, where he enjoyed spending time in Boston and observing the buildings there. He became fascinated with the way the structures looked and were built. As a young man, he studied architecture and went to MIT at the age of sixteen. Later, Louis Sullivan moved to Chicago to help rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. It was there that he began working with other architects like William LeBaron Jenney, who has often been credited with working on the first great steel structure. Sullivan became so entrenched in this form of architecture that he quickly caught on and made a name for himself, and served as a mentor to another great architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Chicago Jewel Box Bank Building

Louis Sullivan partnered with a man named Dankmar Adler. Together, they worked side by side to create some of Chicago’s most iconic structures and skyscrapers. This type of architecture during that time was known as the Prairie School of work because of the design of the buildings’ structure. They wanted to create work that followed the philosophy that “form follows function,” meaning that the way something looks should be secondary to its functional capabilities. While many buildings appear to be beautiful, they are often not user-friendly or misuse space. When form is put in the background and function becomes important, a building can be more than just aesthetically pleasing. It becomes a place where people can work and live, and produce. The Sullivan Center was a major project that he worked on with his partner Adler, and was then known as the Carson Pirie Scott and Company building. It is an iconic Chicago landmark and wonderfully exhibits the style that Sullivan, Adler, and Frank Lloyd Wright all contributed to. When Adler left Sullivan’s firm, he continued to work on other buildings including the Bayard Building, the Van Allen Building, and the Krause Music Store, to name a few.

Chicago Stock Exchange Arch

There is no doubt that Louis Sullivan left behind a legacy for the world of architecture and city structures. Many museums and famous architectural schools now display his work, and use it as a template for others to emulate. His style was unique and his talent is unmatched among his peers. Because of his sharp attention to detail and dedication to function, he was able to influence people like Frank Lloyd Wright, who went on to become one of the world’s most beloved and widely recognized architects. His combination of classic and European style made him an icon for the grand banks, churches, and office buildings you see in many large cities today. Sullivan’s work and life have greatly contributed to the wondrous skyscrapers that grace the United States skylines from coast to coast, and his interest and love for fine buildings have given us all a better way to work and live.