Sullivan's Banks

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Sullivan's Banks
National Farmer's Bank
Merchants National Bank
Home Association Bank
Peoples Savings %26 Loan Association Bank
Farmer´s %26 Merchants Union Bank
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National Farmer´s Bank von 1908 in Owatonna, Minnesota, am 23. März 1995Sullivan's Banks

"All buildings have arisen, have stood, and stand as physical symbols of the psychic state of the people ... throughout the past and the present, each building stands as a social act", Sullivan wrote in the 1906 essay 'What is Architecture'.

"In everything that men do they leave an indelible imprint of their minds. If this suggestion be followed out, it will become surprisingly clear how each and every building reveals itself naked to the eye; how its every aspect, to the smallest detail, to the lightest move of the hand, reveals the workings of the mind of the man who made it, and who is responsible to us for it."

Abb 1-3: National Farmer´s Bank von 1908 in Owatonna, Minnesota, am 23. März 1995

National Farmer´s Bank von 1908 in Owatonna, Minnesota, am 23. März 1995Sullivan's Banks

Architecture as Autobiography - Louis H. Sullivan (1856-1924)
Photography and beyond - Part 2

Germany 1993-2000
35 mm, color, Dolby Stereo SR, 1 : 1,37, 38 minutes

Director, photography, editor:
Heinz Emigholz
Collaborators: Ueli Etter, Thomas Wilk
Sound Design: Martin Langenbach
Sound Mix: Stephan Konken
Produced by Pym Films in cooperation with FilmFörderung Hamburg and the WDR, Wilfried Reichart

Premiere: Berlin Film Festival (Forum), February 9, 2001

At the age of thirty-five, Sullivan was one of America's most famous architects. The skycraper trilogy ("Wainwright Building", St. Louis 1892, "Guaranty Building", Buffalo 1896, "Bayard Building", NYC 1899) that he designed together with Dankmar Adler can be found in every dictionary of architecture. The basis of his creations was the separation of construction and facade made possible by the invention of reinforced concrete. He consistently draped his buildings with facades that no longer had a load-bearing function as a form of free expression. From one building to the next, both inside and outside, he varied and perfected his modular ornamental designs in brick, steel, plaster, terracotta, glass, ceramics, mosaic, marble, light, relief, stencil designs, wood and metal.

National Farmer´s Bank von 1908 in Owatonna, Minnesota, am 23. März 1995We find ourselves in the heart of Americana. Walt Whitman was Sullivan's role model, and just like him, Sullivan drew upon the sign language of nature rather than historical styles. This language is accessible to all and is therefore the basis of democracy. Democracy must be a vessel fort the repitition of human experience. Its sites must preserve human dignity. 

Sullivans's writings and constructions set out central positions of modernism, including its ambiguity. His organic ornamentation, conceived and created in conjunction with modern methods of construction, was barely noticed in Germany. Although Sullivan's work was displayed at the centre of the "Exhibition of New American Architects" in Berlin's Academy of the Arts in 1926, Europeans did not consider Sullivan to be of interest as a Theoretician, even though he was Frank Lloyd Wright's teacher.

Sullivan's famous credo "Form follows function" first appeared in his 1896 essay "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered": "Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this the law ... It is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things pysical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function."    

Abb 4,5: National Farmer´s Bank von 1908 in Owatonna, Minnesota, am 4. April 1995

National Farmer´s Bank von 1908 in Owatonna, Minnesota, am 5. April 1995The formula stood for an entire theory: that life can be understood, can be read, in all its material manifestations and correlative. What Sullivan was interested in was the diversity of life, the almost experimental novelty that it expressed in every form of organic and inorganic life,, a novelty grounded in a secret we cannot copy. By contrast, the way the Gropius group interpreted this formula can only be termed vulgar. "Purity of functional form", "Beauty is function" and "Function equals beauty" are modernism's bad jokes. For Sullivan, the issue was not the reduction of form to the illustration of a function, but the interconnectedness of these two elements, a mutual recognition, the fact that there is a double code.   

Sullivan began giving lectures on "democratic architecture" in Walt Whitman's style of poetic rhetoric. They had titles like "Natural Thinking: A Study in Democracy", "Kindergarten-Chats", "The Autobiography of an Idea". It eventually led him to leave the conventions of the architectural community. His career was at an end.
His Melville-like descent culminated in his homelessness in the last years of his life. But in 1906, at the very beginning of his personal maelstrom, he was awarded a contract for the first of his eight bank buildings to come. Carl Kent Bennent, a banker from Owatonna, Minnesota, admired Sullivan's buildings and writings and saw in the extremism of his rejection of the historicist school aping European tradition the fulfilment of uniquely American ideas.    

National Farmer´s Bank von 1908 in Owatonna, Minnesota, am 5. April 1995In March and April 1995 we went to see these banks, the last eight buildings Louis H. Sullivan designed and furnished. They are all situated in small towns in the American Midwest within a 400-miles radius of Chicago: the "National Farmer's Bank" in Owatonna, Minnesota, built in 1908, the "People's Savings Bank" in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, built in 1911, the "Land and Loan Office" building in Algona, Iowa, built in 1913, the "Purdue State Bank" in West Lafayette, Indiana, of 1914, the "Merchants' National Bank" in Grinnell, Iowa, also of 1914, the "Home Building Association Bank" in Newark, Ohio, of 1915, the "People's Savings & Loan Association Bank" in Sidney, Ohio, of 1918, and the "Farmer's & Merchants' Union Bank" in Columbus, Wisconsin, built in 1920.     

The visual and spatial experience derives from a unique dialectic of ornamentation, reinforced concrete construction and human measure at the most abstract site of democracy: the bank.

The buildings stand at the heart of these towns, generally next to City Hall at the intersection of Main Street and Broad, like spaceships in an alien environment. In their heyday, they were both the centres at which farmers, local companies and traders conducted their financial transactions, and the socially-important cultural palaces and cathedrals of capitalism, public places with drinking fountains and toilets built around a a central safe reassuringly reinforced and embellished to indicate that this was a safe place to deposit your money. Every effort was made to transform this essentially abstract financial concept into a real one, but the Wall Street crash of 1929 put paid to that.



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