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:
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
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!