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Louis Sullivan's Idea at the CCC

By Ben Schuman Stoler in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 1, 2010 4:00PM

World's Columbian Exposition: Transportation Building, Chicago, United States, 1893. Golden doorway, east entrance Transportation Building, Sept.; Starks W. Lewis, Amateur, Brooklyn, N.Y. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection (S03_06_01_016 image 2250).
In the opening scene of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, architect protagonist Howard Roark sits on a stony crag and ponders the power and poetry of the wood, stone, water, and nature around him. He summons that power to create architectural masterpieces. Walking through Louis Sullivan’s Idea, the new Cultural Center exhibition, it was hard not to think of Roark. Just as Roark’s unbounded brilliance goes unappreciated as he fades into obscurity, this exhibition traces Sullivan’s career as one of a tragic genius that was misunderstood in his own era and misinterpreted in ours.

In large rooms with huge ceilings, the Chris Ware designed exhibition presents the usual blueprints and sketches alongside building models, personal correspondence, intricate artifacts, and blown up building renderings and photographs. The artifacts include light fixtures, doorknobs, and letter drops, and you can see how Sullivan incorporated the design of these decorative items into his larger vision of a building and a space.

Sullivan always infused a focus on nature and design into his work. We’re given a lot of sketches and photos of some Sullivan’s more famous buildings - the Auditorium Building, the old Chicago Stock Exchange, etc - but the most engaging is the collection of images and memos regarding the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition transportation building. Like the Acropolis, which itself was once bathed in color, no one knows exactly what the transportation building looked like in its day. The Devil in the White City and other accounts pay tribute to it as the only non-white building in the White City, and this exhibition features some gorgeous artist renderings of its polychromatic facade.

Alas, as the exhibition moves forward through the years, we see Sullivan as someone who, even in pioneering the skyscraper, was never fully appreciated or satisfied. The exhibition makes it clear that Sullivan’s aesthetic ideas were organic and philosophical in the sense that he always cared more about the idea behind the building than any sort of concrete or definable “style.” In the end, Sullivan had trouble finding commissions - he was resigned to applying his ideas to small Midwest banks. Story has it he died with a single suit to his name.

Although the exhibition's textbook-y layout runs against Sullivan's non-textual organic and philosophical aesthetic ideas, it provides a neat overview of Sullivan’s career. As someone who helped define so much of this city’s buildings, and indeed, the very idea of what a city building should be, he’s worth a loop lunchtime visit at the very least.