Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Of Rivers & Characters

1. We are at that dramatic moment in our national life wherein we tremble evenly between decay and evolution, and out architecture, with strange fidelity, reflects this equipoise. That the forces of decadence predominate in quantity there can be no doubt; the the recreative forces now balance them, by virtue of quality, and may eventually overpower them, is a matter of conjecture. While the bulk of our architecture is rotten to the core, that there is in our national life, in the genius of our people, a fruitful germ, and that there are a handful who perceive this, is likewise beyond question. All this, I shall strive to make clear to you as we go on.

2. Try never to forget, from now on, that everything, each thing, you see and hear, has a double meaning: first, its physical or outward aspect; second its spiritual or inner meaning and significance. For the true cause of a building or any human artifact is not external, but internal. It lies, proximately, it lies in the mind a and character of one man, and that man the architect. If that mind is normal, the building will be normal; if that character is awry, the building will be awry. Indeed, whatever the character is, the building will be its image, regardless of material, regardless of labor, regardless of cost.

3. All the varied elements of human nature and its surroundings confluence in a special fashion in the individual, and form what we call character. Character is the resultant of all the forces operative in an individual man, and it shapes the amount and the direction of his energy. Like a great river, however winding its course, it discharges and delivers its output into our culture at some definite spot. To explore a river and know it thoroughly, we may begin at the thousands of widely separated well-springs which flow away in rivulets that conjoin to make its branches, and follow these as they conjoin to make its trunk, and this trunk, on to its delta; OR, we may begin at the delta or estuary, and follow up the trunk, the branches, the rivulets, until we shall have sought out the minutest headwaters.

4. Character is a large word, full of significance, no metaphorical river can more than hint at its meaning. Character is not confined to the individual, it defines, also, a group, an institution, a nation; and conversely, it names minutest of actions, quantities and qualities we can ponder. So shall our course lie: upstream, against the current, down-stream with it. We will broadly trace physical appearances to their moral causes, and moral. mental and social impulses to their manifestations in brick and stone.

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4 Responses to Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Of Rivers & Characters

  1. Thanks, John, for your insightful comments–you certainly know your Sullivan. Sullivan’s writings are indeed difficult to understand due to their poetic quality, because his unusual terminology and due to some of his errors as well. But, as both of us agree, that in spite of these shortcomings, he has something fundamental and enomously valuable to say–and say it he does!

    As I mentioned in my first posting in this series, my purpose in these postings is to make his core thought more accessible to more people. These posts answer the question, “What does Sullivan have to offer us?” rather than a comprehensive presentation of Sullivan’s thought. To that end I am deliberately leaving out the issues you point to. I am rewording his formulations where needed to make them more easily graspable. Though I try to use as much of Sullivan’s own words and tone, the result is not pure Sullivan but my interpretation of what Sullivan has to offer me and to others. As you are familiar with Sullivan, I will appreciate any feedback you may have on to what extent I succeed or fail in this endeavor. Thanks again!

  2. John Gillis says:

    The only problem, Betsy, with the quote from SR, is that my text is different:
    “Try never to forget, from now on, that everything, each thing you see and hear, has a double meaning: First, it’s objective or outward meaning or aspect; second, its subjective or inner meaning and significance. Remember the word, significance, it stands for that which we seek.”
    LS is describing that one can focus on the outward, physical aspects, such as form, coloring, beauty (as he says in the next paragraph) or one can focus on the mental (spiritual) significance of the outward forms. In paragraphs that follow he muddles a bit with divinity as one possible meaning of “subjective” or “inner meaning” but then seems to settle down in his wonderful man-centered approach by saying: “So the materials of a building are but the elements of earth removed from the matrix of nature, and re-organized and reshaped by force — by force mechanical, muscular, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual. If these elements are to robbed of divinity, let them at least become truly human.” [And then he continues with paragraph 3 (above) getting into what character is.]
    So, ultimately he seems to be willing to rob things of divinity, and focus on all the forces that man can bring to bear.
    As to whether he’s naming Nature and Value as fundamental aspects of everything is less clear to me in his often poetic and loose way of writing. Because he talks about a “creative impulse of divine origin” he seems to be admitting a teleological aspect, in the old meaning of some “higher” purpose, but then switches immediately to focusing on the significance of things from the aspect of what man does to everything.
    And architecturally, (which is a lot of what LS is talking about, after all) my sense is that when he is talking about “inner meaning and significance” he is also likely talking about the theme, aka the abstract value meaning, of well-thought-out works of architecture.
    But its hard to prove that because, Louis is Louis, a man writ large, but whose meaning is sometimes very elliptical!

  3. “Try never to forget, from now on, that everything, each thing, you see and hear, has a double meaning: first, its physical or outward aspect; second its spiritual or inner meaning and significance.”

    Right there he identified the two essentials about anything. The first is the entity’s NATURE and the second is its VALUE.

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