Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Facade of the Chicago Stock Exchange: The Key to Designer Heaven

Exerpts from a final paper for an Art History class. Most of the descriptions were left out to spare you readers as well as a whole section of badly argued connections to Islamic artwork. Critique wise I agreed that I talk too much but don't say enough and need to learn to weave in more factual information. Either way I thought sharing my lyrical ridiculousness would be kind of fun ;) But also, pretty pictures! 

          Of all the artifacts that the Seattle Art Museum has acquired over the years, none are quite as interesting or underexposed as SAM's Louis Sullivan's 1893 Chicago Stock Exchange Elevator Facade. It went on display in the American Art gallery March 31, 2010 after it was purchased from Sotheby's auction in 2008 from an undisclosed seller for an undisclosed price[1]. It resembles a prop taken straight out of the 1982 science fiction film noir, Blade Runner, in that it holds the same elements of ancient design glazed with modernity . Such a film reference might not crop up in everyone's first impression of Sullivan's design but that sense of mixing of past and future grandeur surely comes to attention. The elements incorporated seem both familiar and alien, archaic yet modern and it's mystery deepens when made known that the artifact was in fact rescued from the rubble of the original Chicago Stock Exchange demolished in 1972 as part of Chicago's Urban renewal project. The facade then becomes the coded message outlining Sullivan's own methodologies and obsessions with design as something higher than just art calling for an absent Rosetta stone. Definitively defining the inner workings of an artist's mind and intention at the moment of creation is of course impossible, but through tracing certain impressions and imagery that appear in the elevator facade a hypothesis of motivation can be developed. From what is presented to the viewer, the numerous allusions made to the divine point to the Chicago Stock Exchange acting as a threshold to modern spirituality that emphasized society's reverence for the accumulation of abstract wealth, a wealth that allowed Sullivan to indulge in his personal glorification of high design.

      When the overall layout of the Sullivan's Elevator covering is taken into account a tentative connection is made with another historically well known entrance design. The facade designed for the Chicago Stock Exchange is completely symmetrical and as stated before sectioned off into rectangular quadrants that frame specifically designed images without allowing cross contaminate from one section to another to occur. This high level of boxy structuring and grandeur, as well as the shared bronze-gold coloring alludes to a connection between the elevator facade and The Gates of Paradise designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti . As a student of architecture and art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,  it is more than likely that Sullivan encountered Ghiberti's work, especially his infamous gates that are the cornerstone of any European art history curriculum. The Gates of Paradise show ten scenes from the Old Testament and also uses intimidation factors (size, gold wealth, dramatized scenes of Godly acts) in bringing church goers into the mindset of worship when entering the Florence Baptistery. The similar amount of detail, scale of design and use of encapsulating gridded formatting bring about similar feelings of "smallness" in the viewer. Something able to effect even those uninterested in the religious connotations that Sullivan created by unabashedly tying his facade to the religious teachings of the past. In doing so he creates an identical feeling of entering someplace holy through gates that no doubt intend to simulate the indoctrinated image of the "holy gates" otherwise known as the illustrious gates of heaven.

         Take Sullivan's obsession with the circle in these works, a shape we often take for granted because it is so integral to human imagery. "Visual Entropy", or the point of "maximal symmetry, visual and constructional simplicity" has been an obsession for artists, scientists and philosophers for centuries. The Platonian, aka perfect, circle is as un- attainable as God or a let's say, a reliable economy. It's use in the facade points to the designers awareness, if only subconsciously, that the circle is the truest image of the divine and that it will continue to be read as a legitimate part of design for eons to come without the help of recognizable biblical or religious Imagery. It will never grow outdated, unlike the time-specific relief illustrations of The Gates of Paradise, which show telltale signs of their time period. Sullivan's use of the circle as motif render his design as timeless and ideologically transcending of what he saw as the restrictions of modern architecture. In this decision Sullivan finds his own description of the higher power independent of modern material culture and past theological organization that relies on the discovery of timeless imagery at the root of human artistic pursuits.

        In 1896 Sullivan said that "The artistic challenge of the tall office building is to proclaim from its dizzy height, the peaceful evangel of sentiments of beauty, the cult of higher life". Donald Hoffmann responded by asking what the "virtue of a building [is that's] trying to pretend it's something it is not?" Sullivan's gate acts as a threshold for the divide between the mundane unobserving world and the heavenly revelry in technology and human romanticism that the elevator embodies at this time as a new innovation saved only for the powerful wealthy. This divide is contrary to the famous quote "form ever follows function" that Sullivan is so iconically connected with (stated on the Seattle Art Museum description plaque) because instead of building to fulfill a practical requirement he's woven in a very un practical spiritual message that the majority of those viewing and using his design would be uninterested in comprehending. Not only would people be unwilling to decode his elevator but to do so would be to pull away from their worship of money and go back to means of revelry characteristic of an obsolete system of quiet contemplative building patronage. They see the money the building houses, not what the architecture's ornamentation is directly attempting to teach them.

         The facade, echoing The Gates of Paradise is what bars people and allows people to enter a place of either damnation or salvation. Damnation being the world of the commoners stuck in the everyday struggle against the mass of bodies, and salvation the upward mobility of those who can become part of the exclusive club of the educated , privy to secrets and admiration by those further down. This rift can also be characterized as "the artistically enlightened vs. the economically savvy", a struggle Sullivan himself experienced in completely relying on his partner Dankmar Adler to secure such large scale design projects and funding.
        Either way, the doorway itself holds hope for salvation of the perfect world and perfect circle. The facade represents a fork in the road between those acutely aware of the polar hemispheres of knowledge and those unaware and fortunately un-pestered by the realization that everyone is striving for a non-existent utopia, be it a godly, financial one or even a purely visual one. Sullivan exploits this by weaving that hope of someday reaching perfection or "designer's heaven" into the stoic facade through a language that the stock brokers and money managers will unknowingly misunderstand, thus protecting his personal expression of faith. That faith being in the simple beauty of an object and the natural principles it relies on. The faith that there is something truly eternal hidden in the human existence driven by consumption and constant cross exploitation.

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