The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan 19.08.11

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Steampunk was an idea developed in the 1980s by cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in their jointly authored novel The Difference Engine, which imagines the development of computers in the early 19th century. Steampunk isn't quite retro-futurism, as that involves real objects from the past, which look odd in a future that seldom resembles the versions envisaged by futurists. It's weirder and more unsettling than that. Although it deals with real buildings, some of which are even still standing, The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan is a Steampunk architecture book. There's no retro-futurist cuteness here – time is out of joint, in a violent, haunting fashion.

Even the story of how the book came to be published is a strange, elliptical narrative rather than the usual, prosaic process of composing an architectural monograph. The authors, Aaron Siskind and Richard Nickel, are both long dead. Siskind, a photography teacher in Chicago, conceived a project to document the work of turn-of-the-century American architect Louis Sullivan and his engineer/partner Dankmar Adler. Siskind planned a book with his student Richard Nickel, in the late 1960s. The project required the extensive, unofficial documentation of buildings that were either derelict, ruined or in the process of demolition. In 1972 Nickel was killed by a collapsing staircase as Adler and Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange was gutted. And after several fits and starts, here's their book, in 2011.

Sullivan is usually welcomed into the architectural pantheon as a proto-modernist. The evidence ranges from his advocacy of a kind of ornament strike in favour of buildings "comely in the nude", coining of the phrase "form follows function", and mentoring Frank Lloyd Wright. A churl could flick through this book just looking for elements that anticipate Mies van der Rohe, De Stijl or Caruso St John, but they'd be missing the point. Sullivan was an enemy of ornament for the sake of its realisation, and the photos here show a wild contrast between the most bizarre, obsessive, vegetable-vaginal filigrees and fancies and a love for sheer machine-aesthetic repetition, huge windows and large, bare surfaces. They don't feel opposed, but set in deliberate tension.

The photographs fascinate for their depiction of 1890s architecture in the 1960s. This is the urban, industrial United States just after the zenith of its power, battered by segregation and depopulation. Many buildings had fallen on hard times, and it's all recorded: the upmarket skyscrapers with shabby diners and convenience stores on the ground floor, art nouveau-Americana houses now inhabited by poor black families looking suspiciously at the camera. Most of all, there are huge swathes of waste – a pile-up of smashed cars in front of a strange, out-of-time building. The book travels to St Louis, Buffalo, and tiny Midwest towns where Sullivan designed tiny, bizarre banks. You can see the rustbelt starting to take hold of them.

1890s Chicago was an instant megacity of rude, untrammelled, capitalism and gimcrack, provincial futurism. Adler and Sullivan's architecture was one especially striking result – a style of freakish-yet-ordered architecture created through its disregard of metropolitan notions of taste. It was internationally ignored at the time, and, as this book attests, until very recently not considered worth preserving. Only the efforts of Wright, who had influenced European high architecture, rescued Sullivan from oblivion in the first instance. This was extraordinary architecture made in a place where nobody was looking. Is it possible that the equally brutal, accelerated megacities of the Pearl River Delta might be harbouring something as wonderful as these edifices on 1890s Lake Michigan? Will anyone be documenting it?

The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan. Richard Nickel and Aaron Siskind (with John Vinci and Ward Miller). Richard Nickel Committee, $95




Aaron Siskind/The Richard Nickel Committee



Owen Hatherley

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This is the urban, industrial United States just after the zenith of its power, battered by segregation and depopulation

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