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Louis Sullivan: the Struggle for American Architecture (2010)

Not Rated | | Documentary | 4 April 2010 (USA)
Documentary about the revolutionary and brilliant Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924); his rapid rise to fame, tragic decline, and the ultimate triumph of his creative spirit.


Mark Richard Smith




Credited cast:
Madolyn Smith Osborne ... Voice of Louis Sullivan
Mark Richard Smith ... Narrator


The award-winning feature-length documentary about the revolutionary and brilliant Chicago architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Known by historians as the 'father of the skyscraper' and creator of the iconic phrase 'form follows function,' Sullivan was on top of his profession in 1890. Then a series of setbacks plunged him into destitute obscurity from which he never recovered. Yet his persistent belief in the power of his ideas created some of America's most beautiful buildings ever created, and inspired Sullivan's protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright, to fulfill his own dream of a truly American style of architecture. Written by Smith, Mark Richard

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Everything begins with a seed.




Not Rated


Official Sites:

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Release Date:

4 April 2010 (USA) See more »

Filming Locations:

Boston, Massachusetts, USA See more »


Box Office


$500,000 (estimated)
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Company Credits

Production Co:

Whitecap Films See more »
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Technical Specs

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User Reviews

A long overdue tribute to the Liebermeister.
9 December 2010 | by budmasseySee all my reviews

For perhaps the first time, a full-fledged documentary focused exclusively and lovingly on Louis Sullivan, without the endless tiresome and unnecessary reference to his better-known pupil, has been mounted. Director, writer and producer Mark Richard Smith's understated and respectful treatment invites comparison to the great documentaries of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick; less thrilling in some ways, perhaps, than Burns and Novick's mature work, but equally beautiful.

The great architect Louis Sullivan is best known for iconic structures such as the Auditorium Building, the Carson, Pirie Scott store and the Charnley House in Chicago and the Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings in St. Louis, MO and Buffalo, NY, respectively. Many of his great works, however, including the startlingly beautiful Chicago Stock Exchange Building, were lost to misguided urban renewal in the middle of the twentieth century.

Sullivan is often referred to as the Father of the Skyscraper and the Prophet of Modern Architecture and coined the most famous phrase ever to come out of his profession, "form ever follows function". His exquisite ornamentation gave a sense of scale and intimacy to what would have otherwise been monstrously intimidating structures for the new urbanites of the late nineteenth century. He developed a vocabulary, uniquely American, democratic and organic, for buildings the essential nature of which is that they are tall, but tall in the beautiful way that only Louis could make them.

Smith "gets" Sullivan, and that is important. What is more important is that he has recruited the essential voices of Chicago architecture to tell the story of Louis Sullivan. Tim Samuelson, Cultural Historian for the City of Chicago, and the man behind the extraordinary exhibit, Sullivan's Idea, at the Chicago Cultural Center, and Dr. Robert Twombly, Professor of Architectural History at City University of New York, provide spellbinding commentary. Dr. Joseph Siry, a leading American architectural historian and professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Wesleyan University, adds a magnificently cerebral perspective.

Smith's decision to use a female voice-over for Sullivan is a little confusing at first, but not objectionable. And I suppose one could grouse about Smith's discretion in avoiding some of the more controversial aspects of Sullivan's history. But, in the end, the film gels pleasingly around what ultimately matters most about Sullivan; his unwavering commitment to a glorious indigenous expression of the beauty, power, and poetry of the American spirit embodied in his stunning buildings.

The scholar looking for substantive research on Sullivan will find little here that is not already covered more comprehensively elsewhere. But Smith has created a vehicle which has the potential to bring Sullivan back where he belongs; the hearts and minds of a whole new generation of admirers. What is most thrilling about Smith's film is that the scholars and historians appearing in the film are accessible, engaging people who are keeping the dialog on Sullivan's importance palpably and scintillatingly alive. I encourage amateur and professional historians alike to treat this film as an academic bibliography from which to proceed with additional research.

I have met and communicated with some fascinating and brilliant authorities on Louis Sullivan through this film. I hope others will be inspired to do the same.

Thanks Mark.

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