Happy (belated) Birthday, Louis Sullivan!
Let’s face it- you can’t really have American Modernism without Louis Sullivan. Sure, he wasn’t a functionalist like Mies or Gropius, but he did believe that the form of a building should directly relate to its purpose (an idea best demonstrated by his tall office buildings). But for many years, Sullivan's story was one of uncelebrated greatness, an innovator better known for the architects he influenced (ahem, Frank Lloyd Wright) than his own architectural expression. A provocative, complex, and often misunderstood figure, Louis Sullivan shaped the emerging modern era with his poetic genius and prophetic mastery of form and ornament.
If you know much about Sullivan's life and career (if not, read this), it won't be a big surprise that one of the best examples of his pioneering expression for the tall office building, the Bayard-Condict Building, is not really all that well known. Located in Manhattan’s East Village on Bleecker Street between Lafayette and Broadway, the early skyscraper stands in contrast to the classical structures lining the city's dense urban blocks. Unlike Chicago, the booming Midwestern capital that freely bucked architectural norms for radical new building methods, New York City remained a conservative landscape with office and commercial buildings adhering to established styles (think Queen Anne, Romanesque, Classical Revival). Built during an era of convention and surrounded by a traditional architectural aesthetic, Sullivan's Bayard-Condict Building with its powerful verticality and elaborate organic ornament must have looked like a towering insurgent next to its more classical counterparts.
Commissioned for the United Loan and Investment Company in 1897 and completed in 1899, the Bayard-Condict Building remains indicative of the architect’s quest for a new American architecture. The twelve-story, steel-framed building clad entirely in white terra cotta and adorned with leafy forms and geometric decoration appears tall and dominant with six vertical bays punctuating the facade. Keeping with his tall building philosophy, the structure is divided into three parts- the ornamented base, the shaft of identical stacked floors, and a decorated crown- a model that emphasizes verticality and unifies function. Employing this tripartite formula, Sullivan departed from the typical commercial architecture of the period, creating a new aesthetic specific to the skyscraper.
Sullivan's emphasis on the vertical and his revelation of structure, two things that seem rather ordinary today, played a subversive role, upending the traditional reliance on horizontal commercial blocks and historical styles. But in contrast to the austerity of his structural elements, Sullivan applied an oppositional ornament to the geometric grid of his tall building. The Bayard-Condict's organic, free-flowing carvings almost appear alive, bursting from the flat walls and offering movement and continuity. Although Sullivan's metaphysical ornament feels more akin to the curving floral motifs of the Art Nouveau than the stripped geometry of organic modernism, there is still something inherently radical about the architect's abandonment of tradition and his return to nature through structure and form.
Stark in its bare structure but ornate in its swirling naturalistic ornament, Sullivan's Bayard-Condict Building is a product of opposing forces, industrial and natural, plain and ornate. Its philosophical architectural language pushed the boundaries of the conventional aesthetic and challenged the notions of what a tall building could achieve. Striving to create a uniquely American architecture, Sullivan invented a new visual lexicon that prioritized verticality above all else. No, the "form follows function" (or really "form ever follows function") prophet was not a pure functionalist, but his vision for the skyscraper laid the foundation for the coming modernist revolution and forever changed the trajectory of American design.
The Bayard-Condict Building is located at 65-69 Bleecker Street. You can read more about Sullivan and see some pretty stunning photographs by Richard Nickel here.
All photographs (unless otherwise noted) are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Louis H. Sullivan, Lyndon P. Smith, and Charles T. Willis. Bayard-Condict Building, 65-69 Bleecker Street, New York, New York County, NY. Documentation compiled after 1933. Library of Congress, ny0350.
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