Thesis ID: CBB464558804

Drawing on Darwinism: Rewriting the Origin of Louis Sullivan's Idea (2021)


To observe that the unique architectural ornaments that make up the body of work of Louis Henri Sullivan (1856–1924) emulate nature is to state a reality so obvious that it is both pedantic and droll. To use the double entendre that those natural forms drew on Darwinism, however, is to make several more specific claims. First, it can be credibly established that the system of architectural ornament that was the primary contribution of Louis Sullivan to the discipline of architecture was directly inspired by Sullivan’s synthesis of the thesis of natural selection contained within the pages of Asa Gray’s botanical manual. Second, the circumstances of that moment of synthesis reveal that the reason for Sullivan’s Darwinism was not merely the desire to emulate nature, but rather to signify the end of faith. Finally, Sullivan’s synthesis of various Darwinisms drew not only on the thesis for his own artistic inspiration, he drew on the substance of Darwin’s arguments to formulate a secular theory of the nature of inspiration and the technique of design. In the years following, this theory has become the primary technique by which design is taught. Louis’ unique education, which was tied to Darwinism from the very beginning, gave him an unusual perspective on the challenges of architectural design in the industrial age. The economic circumstances of his life as a first-generation immigrant exposed him to just the right education to lead him to explore evolutionary science as the inspiration for design. To be clear, the content of the thesis of natural selection was entirely irrelevant to the theory and practice of architecture in the nineteenth century. Yet by the end of the century the broad consensus among architects, historians, and theorists alike was that there was a, “close and causal relationship,” between Darwinism and modern architecture. Sullivan’s theory drew on Darwinian ideas to dismiss theological styles as empty formalisms, reveal the racism of ethnographic accounts for architectural forms, and argue for the evolution of an American Architecture, liberated from its colonialist origins. The context within which that shift occurred is significant. The justification for nearly every work of architecture in human history prior to the middle of the nineteenth century was some form of god. Mid-nineteenth century architecture in the United States was composed of a variety of regional ethnic styles intended to represent the ethnic origins, religious affiliations, moral inclinations, and nationalist allegiances of an array of displaced immigrant communities. The Civil War laid bare the reality that such ethnic styles represented a segregationist and racialized idea of the modern world. Over the course of the late nineteenth century, the profession of architecture was forced to abandon theological justifications for the practice of architecture as scientifically invalid, morally corrupt, and motivated by racism. This was Sullivan’s full idea: Put instinct before reason in priority, and engage in the iterative analysis of various instincts about the situation. Observe the patterns that emerge. Explore those instincts, until you find that your patterns merge with universal patterns. Do not fear error, as it makes the work alive. The capacity to capture that living essence is in all of us, individually and collectively, not some external force. The most-right instincts are ones in which the resulting form is a demonstration of its function. To understand what Sullivan meant with this we must see it as a Darwinian idea. Instinct is an animal property, a capacity which we share with other species. For Darwin, this sharing of instinct is essential for interspecies empathy. The antithesis of instinct is reason, which Sullivan describes as secondary. Reason is cold and lifeless, but also correct. True reason, Sullivan claims, is learned by experiment, and example. The greatest art speaks not just to our reason, but to our instinct. This, then is the task of the designer—to temper instinct with reasoned evaluation. Sullivan argues that it begins with an intuition, an idea he drew from Darwin’s Descent of Man.

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Authors & Contributors
Wittmann, Barbara
Cogdell, Christina Grace
Berkel, Klaas van
Karl, Alexandra
Adams, Annmarie
Schlich, Thomas
Medical History
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies
Revue d'Histoire des Sciences
IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology
University of Pennsylvania Press
Oxford University Press
Duke University Press
Cambridge University Press
Drawing; designing
Industrial design
Science and religion
Science and culture
Meijer, Cornelius Janszoon
Kubin, Alfred
Hodge, Charles
Ussher, James
Green, William Henry
Cassirer, Ernst
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
18th century
17th century
21st century
United States
Accademia delle Arti del Disegno

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