Robert Cotner, Editor


n June 26, 1973, I bought the only book I have ever purchased because of its title. On that day, I was in the bookstore of the Museum of National History, on the Mall in Washington, DC, and I came across the title The Autobiography of an Idea, by Louis Sullivan, and I bought it for $2.94. The reason I know these specific facts of purchase is that, as I often do, I had put the sales slip in the book to use as a bookmark. I came across it recently, when I reread this remarkable and vitally important book.

The book is really a dual autobiography — of the man Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), one of the creative geniuses of American architecture, and of the idea with which he is most often associated, “Form follows function.” We meet Louis at the age of five, “nested with his grandparents on a miniature farm of 24-acres, a mile or so removed from the center of gravity and activity which was called Main Street” of South Reading, MA. It is a natural beginning of the story because it was here, under the kindness and love of grandparents and in the natural setting of the wilderness, that both the boy and the idea find first life.

The boy comes one day to the Grandfather, who is an amateur astronomer, and asks about sunrises. The boy has seen the sun set but has never seen it rise. “But Grandfather, is the sunrise as beautiful as the sunset?” the boy asks. “Far more so, my child; it is of an epic grandeur; sunset is lyric, it is an elegy.” In his grandparents’ love and wisdom, Louis was born. In the solitude of field and forest and among workmen of all sorts, he discovers the seed of thought that would germinate into the grandeur of modern architecture.

Back in Boston with his parents, Louis, aged 12, while strolling along Commonwealth Avenue, passes a dignified man in fine clothes and a top hat. Always a friend of workmen, the boy approaches a man working a large building and asks who the dignified man is. The workman replies, “Why, he’s the archeetec of this building.” Not knowing what an archeetec is, the boy asks if he’s the owner of the building. “Naw; he’s the man what drawed the plans for this building,” the workman answers. The boy learns that every building requires drawn plans before construction, and he ponders: “How could a man make so beautiful a building out of his head? What a great man he must be; what a wonderful man. Then and there Louis made up his mind to become an architect and make beautiful buildings ‘out of his head.’”

At the age of 14, his Grandfather takes Louis for a summer in the Berkshires to visit Louis’ aunt. Here he meets Minnie, and 18-year-old woman, who is studying French with his aunt. She is, Louis recalled, the “only truly human he had ever known; and her kindness in adopting him, and making him her own, not for a day, but all the glad summer long, made him feel as thought his life, before her floating into it, had been but a blank.”

Grandfather takes Louis home by way of the Hudson River, around Long Island, and up the coast to Boston — a sort of “grand tour” for the young man, whose ideas, his Grandfather confesses, have “astounded and frightened me, coming from you.” Louis returns to Boston, where he enters English (rather than Latin) High School. Here he meets the educator of his life, one Moses Woolson, “whose appearance and make-up suggested, in a measure, a farmer of the hardy, spare, weather-beaten, penurious, successful type — apparently a man of forty or under.” The year with Woolson fixes six disciplines in his life, which nurtured him until his death: Silence, Strict Attention, Alertness, Observation, Reflection, and Discrimination. Of Woolson, Louis wrote, “There may have been teachers and teachers, but for Louis Sullivan there was and could be only one.”

Woolson’s six disciplines carried Louis through his year at MIT, where he found architecture too academic. They then carried him to and through, with honors, Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, which he considered the “fountainhead of theory.” And they carried him through his remarkable professional life as Chicago’s most creative thinker in the building arts. In this city, which he called the “Garden City,” he refined in practice his idea, “namely that form follows function, which would mean, in practice, that architecture might again become a living art….”

The summation of this autobiography is not simply about a man and his buildings but of an Idea: “When the golden hour tolled, all mists departed, and there shown forth as in a vision, the reality of MAN, as Free spirit, as Creator, as Container of illimitable powers, for the joy and the peace of mankind.”

What a remarkable, serendipitous discovery, I made three decades ago — The Autobiography of an Idea! What a splendid gift to Chicago!

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