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Louis Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats

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Shrikant Rangnekar
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Louis Sullivan was a giant. Howard Roark’s ideas about his work in The Fountainhead are Louis Sullivan’s ideas. While he has had a profound influence on my life, many of my friends have found his ideas inaccessible, partly because of his poetic flair, partly because of his unusual terminology and partly because his pre First World War world and sensibility are alien to them.

I am going to paraphrase some of his thoughts as I reread his masterpiece “Kindergarten Chats” (originally written in 1901 and edited in 1918), in the hope that it might make his work more accessible to others. This book is about art of expression – about how to grasp the world deeply in a first-hand way, and how to create works based on those insights. Currently, I have no capacity to equal the beauty of his language, or the life transforming power of his work–you will need to read the “Lieber Meister” in original for that. I will simply select and freely reword his formulations as I understand them, chapter by chapter.

As I begin, I do not know how productive this endeavor will be, or whether I will be able or willing to carry it through the whole 175 pages of the book. Please do let me know if you find this attempt useful and if so why. And if you are familiar with Sullivan, please do share your thoughts.

Here are my first few posts:

Louis Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats: Foreword

Louis Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats: Pathology of a Building

Louis Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats: the University & the world

Louis Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats: An Oasis

Edited by Shrikant Rangnekar
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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.

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.

From: Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Of Rivers & Characters

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Louis Sullivan's Kindergarten Chats: On Thought

"But you cannot do this in a day, in a week, in a year. It must be for you a life-work, a long steady, continuous endeavor. The more you think, the more you will delight in thinking; the more you contemplate, the more you will delight in contemplation; the more you act, the more you will delight in action. Bear in mind that you are not to think merely on occasions, as a sort of ceremonial, but daily, hourly, all the time–it must become your fixed and natural habit of mind. So will your thinking steadily grow in power, clearness, flexibility and grace; and you will ever thereafter feel what the spirit of independence and self-control truly means."

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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: A Function Creates Its Own Form

In nature and in man’s work, there is the initiating pressure of a living force and a resultant structure or mechanism whereby such invisible force is made manifest and operative. The pressure, we call Function; the resultant, Form. Hence the law of function and form discernible throughout nature. A function creates its own form. Form ever follows function...

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Do you have any evidence that Rand was exposed to his writing at any point? Im embarassed to say Ive never heard of him. After a brief glance at the links above, I cant help thinking that Rand must have drawn inspiration for The Fountainhead from his writings. Good stuff, keep it coming.

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Do you have any evidence that Rand was exposed to his writing at any point? Im embarassed to say Ive never heard of him. After a brief glance at the links above, I cant help thinking that Rand must have drawn inspiration for The Fountainhead from his writings. Good stuff, keep it coming.

I didn't look at any of the links yet, but from what I've heard, Rand more likely got inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright, who in turn learned quite a lot from Sullivan. I wouldn't be surprised if she did research on Sullivan anyway, though.

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Do you have any evidence that Rand was exposed to his writing at any point? Im embarassed to say Ive never heard of him. After a brief glance at the links above, I cant help thinking that Rand must have drawn inspiration for The Fountainhead from his writings. Good stuff, keep it coming.

Thanks JayR. Ayn Rand researched architecture thoroughly in preparation for writing The Fountainhead. Her notes in "Journals of Ayn Rand" have several references to Louis Sullivan, and shows familiarity with both his career and his ideas. She studied Wright in greater detail, and as Wright is Sullivan's student, she got ideas of Sullivan through Wright as well. All the explicit ideas of Howard Roark about architecture and it's meaning and method are directly from Louis Sullivan--the most famous of which is "Form follows Function."

Edited by Shrikant Rangnekar
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Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats: Of Tulips & Men

Freedom liberates nothing if it liberates not the mind. I hold it against a man that he prefers not to free his mind; that he chooses the habitual, rather than that self-government, that initiative, which is the perpetuating force of a free people. I know that a few men care to face the truth; not because it is the truth, but because they fear the truth may prove too large. All of which is timid and unlovely. It ill becomes us: we were meant to be large and true. So must we be. So are we in many ways.

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