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Louis Sullivan and the invention of the skyscraper

The Bayer Building, a 12-story skyscraper by Louis Sullivan, revolutionized architecture in the 19th century. Known for its terracotta facade and unique ornamentation, it's a testament to Sullivan's innovative design. This skyscraper, with its steel frame and curtain wall, celebrates its height and offers visual pleasure, marking a significant step in modern architecture. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(mellow music) - [Presenter] We're at the intersection of Bleecker and Crosby in Manhattan, looking at one of Louis Sullivan's early skyscrapers, the Bayer Building, sometimes known as the Bayard-Condit Building. It's a little surprising to think about a 12-story building as a skyscraper but at the end of the 19th century it was. - [Man] A 12-story building might be small today but in the 1890's, the issue of how to decorate the facade of a building of this size was a great challenge. - [Presenter] So before the passenger elevator, buildings were limited to about six stories. - [Man] As high as you could walk comfortably. - [Presenter] But there was an imperative to begin to build higher as real estate prices began to increase especially in places like lower Manhattan. And it's no surprise that early tall buildings tend to be commercial structures. - [Man] In fact, I think the definition of a skyscraper for most of its first century is that of a commercial building, typically offices but also light industry. - [Presenter] When we think about the early history of the skyscraper, this is an interesting competition between New York and Chicago. And it's important that Louis Sullivan, the architect responsible for this building was from Chicago. - [Man] Historians who were based in Chicago, thought it was born there but in recent years, people have begun to position New York as the place that the skyscraper was born. - [Presenter] So Sullivan is this Chicago-based artist and this is his first independent building and his only building in New York City. - [Man] This is the first building that he designed after parting with Dankmar Adler. - [Presenter] And it's usually considered part of a group of three buildings. The other two being the Guaranty Building in Buffalo and the Wainwright in St. Louis. - [Man] There are textbook illustrations of his design of what a skyscraper should be. And the much quoted phrase is that a skyscraper should be a proud and soaring thing. - [Presenter] So the idea is that a skyscraper is not something that grows out of economic necessity but it is something that can be designed thoughtfully and Sullivan is probably the great exponents of thinking through the possibilities of the early skyscraper. - [Man] And he's particularly interested in visual coherence that you shouldn't just add floors and at the top and the bottom and the middle should all fuse together into one beautiful facade. - [Presenter] Look at this building, it's gorgeous. This facade is terracotta. - [Man] Terracotta baked clay. - [Presenter] And so what Sullivan did is he had molds carved and then poured liquid terracotta into them. Although it looks hand carved, it is actually mass produced. It's an incredibly durable material. - [Presenter] Often when we think about terracotta, we think of a glazed surface, we think of something that might be brightly colored. - [Man] Or we might think of reddish brown clay. - [Presenter] But here, this building is a kind of ivory color, it's creamy white. - [Man] But the key issue about the ornament on this building, it is not derived from the past, it is not ornament that is classical or medieval, it is Louis Sullivan's ornament. We often think about ornament and modernism as oppositional. And in fact, so much of the ethos of early 20th century modernism was to strip away the non-essential. But here we see a kind of indulging in what is possible with ornament. But for all of the beauty of the decorative surfaces. In so many different places, we see it in these wonderful bulbous capital. It's in the panels just above those capitals and the reliefs around the windows and the double-wide spandrel panels below the windows. It keeps changing as you move up the facade until you get to the cornice where you see this explosion of the decorative and these monumental-angelic figures with wings outstretched that seem almost to be supporting the cornice itself, almost like ancient Greek caryatids. - [Man] It is a motif that I don't believe appears on any other work by Sullivan. - [Presenter] They're so elegant. - [Man] But some people feel that they're inappropriate to the building. - [Presenter] And that's because they are the only figure to form. - [Presenter] Absolutely, he moved away from figurative forms as a form of decoration and here they are. And because of that, some people have suggested that it was the client who insisted that they be the grand termination of the facade, we'll never really know. - [Presenter] There is this way that Sullivan is bringing our eye slowly but forcefully upward, emphasizing the vertical with those delicate colonettes and then the wider appears between the window-based. All of it is emphasizing the horizontal but there's so much to look at as we move upward, that my eye is slowed as I enjoy what's being offered. - [Man] Your eye is meant to rise and these vertical piers that alternate with the colonette only have one destination. And that is those angelic figures at the top or the cornice that stops your eye so that you are forced to look down and examine the incredible concentration of ornament that surrounds the angelic figure. - [Presenter] So unlike earlier, skyscrapers that were in some ways trying to hide their height. This is a building that seems to be comfortable with its height that seems to be celebrating its height. But all of the decoration that we've been talking about is to please the eye. None of it is structural, none of it is doing any of the work of holding up the building. - [Man] It's a curtain wall. The steel frame is inside, it's not meant to be seen. And the curtain wall is simply to give us pleasure. - [Presenter] Now, the curtain wall was relatively recent invention and this called for a steel or iron frame upon which the building would be set. - [Man] Traditionally, a structure was held up by its walls in a curtain wall building a structure is held up by its metal frame that is not visible from the street. But we can see where that frame is if we peer into the lower story of the building and we look at some of the large columns within. - [Man] That's right, it's like a parade of columns, marching deep into the building. - [Presenter] And we can imagine within those columns, steel that rise up the full height of the building. - [Man] And those gutters are echoed on the facade by the thick peers that mark the five base. - [Presenter] Sullivan would have an enormous impact on early 20th century modern architecture especially on the work of Frank Lloyd Wright for example. - [Man] It's interesting how despite all of the ornament, there's a certain simplicity and clarity to the facade. Many people consider Louis Sullivan to be the father of the skyscraper and the techniques that are critical to its development were developed by others but he gave it great thought and he was one of the few architects during this period to write about how he felt it should go forward. (mellow music)