M. Giles Phillips

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Louis Sullivan’s System of Architectural Ornament: a Shape Grammar

March 19, 2011

While I was at MIT, I developed a Shape Grammar that describes Louis Sullivan’s system of ornamentation. Using the Grammar as a tool, it is possible to calculate (generate) each of Sullivan’s designs, as well as to generate entirely new designs following his system.

I’d originally posted some supporting materials on my MIT page and have recently moved them here:

Tile from the Guaranty Building (1894) showing Sullivan's ornamental style

Fig 1.Tile from the Guaranty Building (1894) showing Sullivan’s ornamental style


Louis Sullivan was an early American modernist architect, known for his pioneering work with the skyscraper form and for his intricate and integrated ornamentation.  His ornamentation has to a large extent become the defining characteristic of his work – in part because it is so unique and in part because it is so incredibly complex.  While at first glance his ornamentation appears to be fluid and organic – plastically and intuitively manipulated – his processes of design generation and production were actually a complex, rigorous system with very specific rules.


Just before his death in 1924, Sullivan produced a series of sketches in plates titled A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers which detailed – through elaborate, annotated sketches – the process that he followed to generate ornamentation.  While the plates describe his ideas about expression and structure in the best way that he could communicate them – read: visually – they do not provide a complete description of process.  It is clear from his notes that the visuals are meant to be more suggestive of ideas that Sullivan believed the reader would need to discover for themselves, in the act of designing. I’ve uploaded these plates:


A System of Architectural Ornament, According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers by Louis Sullivan, 1923.


By analyzing this body of sketches and comparing them to his built forms, I derived a Shape Grammar – defining a basic series of geometric shapes and rules for manipulating them – in order to describe Sullivan’s System of Architectural Ornament more completely and in a way that helps designers approach, and work through, his design method… almost as though they were calculating.
Shape Grammar resources

  • The final Sullivan Shape Grammar is published here
  • An early prototype of the grammar can be accessed here
  • Wikipedia article on Shape Grammars

Enjoy ~ and let me know what you think!

Posted by:giles @ 9:07 PM ~


  1. System of Architectural Ornament – Plates on pinterest: http://pinterest.com/gilesphillips/louis-sullivan-system-of-architectural-ornament/

    Comment by giles — June 14, 2012 @ 10:42 AM

  2. Giles I think your work analyzing and explaining Sullivan’s design strategies is incredible. I’m a designer for a precast concrete company and am very interested in applying Sullivans principles to
    create attractive designs. We would like ultimately to
    create Sullivan-like patterns for 3D printed insets slipped into our
    concrete block molds. I am very curious as to what cad program you found best for this.

    Comment by Robert Carpenter — September 9, 2012 @ 8:34 PM

  3. Giles–very interesting analysis! I am working on producing master copies of each plate by hand on 16″x20″ illustration board. You can see my work-in-progress here: http://www.paullknight.com/portfolio/system-of-ornament/
    Keep up the good work.

    Comment by Paul Knight — October 23, 2012 @ 10:22 PM

  4. When I was with the arts council in late 70′s I interviewed a man who had a small office in the then unoccupied Guaranty
    Bldg. As I recall, he was doing research on the bldg. In all the info I’ve read on Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Bldg I am unable to locate his name. If memory serves, his interest was prompted by the fact that the bldg. might be facing demolition. He was such a knowlegable and dedicated individual I don’t understand why there is no mention of him & the role he may have played in saving this spectacular landmark.

    Comment by Joan Scalfani — January 4, 2013 @ 7:49 AM

  5. This is fascinating and I will enjoy pondering this language as I dissect the elements in a System of Architectural Ornament. Thank you!

    Comment by laura stranlund — January 28, 2013 @ 10:45 PM

  6. Fantastic work… I remember checking the original version out several years back. Would love to see the final version – is it available anywhere other than behind the journal’s university only content bunker?

    Comment by Jeremy — February 6, 2013 @ 11:19 PM

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