Architecture as Ornament: Louis Sullivan's Late Work Academic Article uri icon


  • It would be hard to assert that one can understand an entire building by looking at a part so small as a piece of ornament, but after constructing through drawing, a number of these pieces of ornament, and doing the same for Sullivan’s late commissions, I believe that it can now be asserted that Sullivan was designing buildings that were architectural ornament at a large scale. Sullivan’s belief in his own creative will, fueled by the power of nature, learned from the lectures of Asa Grey, the poetry of Whitman, the drama of Richard Wagner’s music Nietzsche’s “Übermensch,” Goethe’s “Urpflanze” and his utopian ideal of Chicago seems to have been the key to the visceral power of his architectural ornamental that can only be described as fantastic and a career achievement. But Sullivan went farther than the design of ornament according to the formal methods documented his last publication, “A System of Architectural Ornament according to Man’s Powers.” Most of his last series of architectural commissions show evidence that he was attempting to construct whole buildings according to the same formal methods used in making the ornament. This paper will present an overview of Sullivan’s principles of ornament and the primary ornament types he employed across his fifty-year career, and will focus on the medallion type of ornament and its role in the development of Sullivan’s commissions following his break from Dankmar Adler in 1895 and its pivotal role during his last period of practice, 1907- 1919 in transforming inert buildings into vibrant containers of human energy.

author list (cited authors)

  • O’Brien, M.

citation count

  • 0

publication date

  • April 2020