Between Categories: Sullivan’s Parallelism

Andrew Lucia is a designer and artist specializing in a computational approach to the analysis and production of material organization, architecture, and data in relation to aesthetics and perception. From 2011–15 Lucia served as a visiting lecturer and critic at Cornell University, Department of Architecture, exploring these topics through design studios and seminars in representation and data visualization. These interests are extended within his own practice, ALDeR, with a specific focus on the structure of ambient light, surface, and the environments in which they are produced. Lucia currently holds the position of Cass Gilbert Visiting Fellow at the University of Minnesota, College of Design.
It may here be interjected that imagination is the greatest of man’s single working powers — and the trickiest; as intellect is the frailest, the most subject to derangement, the most given to cowardice and betrayal, unless it be held steady and sane by the power of instinct. The power of Intellect is valid beyond a doubt. But folly comes when it is allowed to usurp dominion over Instinct. The chief exhibit of Intellect is called Logic; but the processes of Instinct involve a logic infinitely more subtle, much more powerful — because primordial.

Louis Sullivan1

The very foundations of computational operation/protocol (and by extension their representational legacies) are on the brink of being transformed, from that of logic to that of instinct. Heeding Louis Sullivan’s pedagogical argument in the present context, one may find this transition as a welcome return to a time before reductionist thinking took hold as the filter through which to comprehend and dominate the world. And while some of the greatest accomplishments of our civilization rely on this legacy, countless other threats have been fostered by and sought solution through a misguided belief that rational scientific progress will ultimately provide solutions to the problems it created — a logical Rapture. Our present problems will not be solved through logic alone; rather, they will be dissolved through the aid of the imaginary.

While at once “the greatest of man’s single working powers,” imagination finds itself constrained by a limited ability to articulate while on a quest to interpret and represent the world. At some point these limited articulations become manifest in predisposition and preference, blocking our ability to conceive of alternate realities. Simultaneously, these predispositions become political as we strive to reenact the world that never was. We are a product of these narrow representational capabilities and their limits on the imagination. What is at stake now is precisely the thing that stands between us and our modes of representation, and whether we welcome it or not will amount to nothing short of an obliteration of the registration plane; between a construction and its semblance. We will no longer operate between these categories, for the categories will no longer be intact. Similarly, a distinction between the real and the virtual will be indistinguishable, as will the technical and the biological,3 in a truly “mobile equilibrium.”4

Sullivan’s Parallelism

In 1924, American architect and scientist-poet Louis Sullivan penned his last treatise, A System of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers.5 In both form and content, this manifesto marked a consistent evolution of Sullivan’s exposés throughout his career, often operating pedagogically as a synthesis of diametrically opposed concepts and ideologies, from the hyper-rational to the esoteric. On several occasions Sullivan would decry logical rationalism (reified through the academy) in favor of organicism, only to later couple these concepts in his own works through “mobile equilibrium.”6 For example, while he demonstrated a preference for “dynamic” Gothic architecture over that of “static” Greek works, neither precedent alone would suffice in achieving the “stability of nature” that Sullivan sought as true enlightenment.7 These oppositions are but a selection that continually served as a pedagogical model and should be read on a synthetic spectrum, one that may only be fully traversed by an enlightened being, per Sullivan. Turning specifically to Sullivan’s final work, A System of Architectural Ornament, one may find such binaries played out textually and graphically beginning with the prelude, “The Inorganic and the Organic.” Contained within this overture is a discussion of “Man’s Natural Powers,” which fall on such a spectrum and here lie between two axes, the physical and the spiritual. These powers were de ned in groups as follows:

GROUP I The physical powers
GROUP II The intellectual group
GROUP III The emotional group
GROUP IV The moral group
GROUP V The spiritual group 8

The qualities and significance of these groups are addressed both textually
and graphically throughout Sullivan’s final manifesto under the guise of varied oppositional appearances: inorganic/organic, rigid/fluent, static/dynamic, objective/subjective, intellect/intuition, logic/emotion, science/art, and Euclidean/ non-Euclidean. In many respects these may all be treated as parallel processes whose forms resonate, but whose images appear unique. For Sullivan, operating within these power groups was a fluid endeavor, between logic and mystical vision, between what is rationally constructed and that which is experienced. Approaching this realm as a continuum within which to navigate, Sullivan explains the illustrated ornamental plates present in A System of Architectural Ornament as follows:

Such process may proceed either way: as a sentient development on an intellectual background or as an intellectual development on a sentient background. The illustrations may be traced back to their primitive origins; or the primitive origins may be followed in their expanding development.9

Here Sullivan’s synthetic character is clearly evidenced, one that enables traversal between ideologies and dogmas, made manifest as a fusion between the actual and the virtual — the physical and the spiritual.

The Space of Parallel Operation

While it is well established that Sullivan was a proponent of organicism, he was not simply interested in organic shapes for their own sake, or biomimicry as it might be called today. Sullivan’s famous “form follows function” was not the battle cry of a dogmatic functionalist, but rather that of someone who was deeply interested in the driving forces and processes inherent to the natural world. And while it is easy to speculate as to the formal characteristics or fabrication potentials his work may have taken in light of today’s computational pervasiveness, we might with more difficulty also consider what Sullivan may have produced as a theoretical construct from which to operate, given the onset of the computer — both in the boundless expressive capabilities it affords and its limitations. Moving beyond morphological discussions into more theoretical ones, a limitation Sullivan might very well have been thinking about is the language of computation (rooted in logic) and the operational space of design software (firmly rooted in three-dimensional Euclidean space).

Sullivan’s proclivities for organic form and non-Euclidean geometry arose a full century before our contemporary fetishes. This should come as no surprise, given the social and scientific milieu into which he was born (1856), and just prior; the previous century had been marked by Romantic scientists feverishly searching for the mysteries of organic life set against an onslaught of rationalist Enlightenment thinking.10 Meanwhile, mathematicians such as Lobachevsky, Bolyai, Gauss, and Riemann were exploring spaces outside of Euclidean possibilities to be continued during Sullivan’s lifetime through the works of Helmholtz, Clifford, Poincaré, and Klein. What should come as a surprise is the architectural discipline’s near expulsion of these alternate spatial realities for over three-quarters of a century after Sullivan’s death in favor of a hyper-rationalized functionalism. Of course, this makes perfect sense given the simultaneous onset of the Industrial Revolution and the precision of Cartesian metric space that made it possible, enabling rapid translation from ideas to reality via machining logics.11 This ideological battle (between mechanization and organicism) was fully present in the architectural works of Sullivan, to which the wrangling of internal steel framing and external organic ornamental flourishes attest. Take, for instance, any number of Sullivan’s built works (specifically his high-rise structures), in which a highly rational orthogonal spatial organization had been encrusted with the artifacts of organic life. This spatial organization, almost without exception, operated in both plan and section according to the confines of Cartesian logics and materialized through the stuff of industry — steel. These machined frameworks were wholly enveloped by pliable hand-worked materials and yet never fully overtaken in outward morphology and appearance. Keep in mind that for this high-rise building typology, for which Sullivan is so often credited as the father, he chose to capitulate to the normative standard of the day in terms of spatial organization, while questioning its surface through means of appearance.12 This was not merely a matter of dominating internal structure with ornament; this was Sullivan operating between the mechanistic and the organic, between construction and surface — in synthetic parallel.

For Sullivan, Parallelism, especially as it would pertain to non-Euclidean geometry, quite literally held a central role in A System of Architectural Ornament, wherein Parallelism as a theme was taken up most directly in the interlude and adjacent plates (Plates 7, The Values of Parallel Axes; Plate 8, Parallel Axes, Further Development [Parallelism]; Plate 9, The Doctrine of Parallelism; Plate 10, Fluent Parallelism [Non-Euclidean]; Plate 11, Values of Parallel Planes [Parallelism]). Yet here, like in most of his writings, Sullivan’s style is one of elusive reference and scarce citation (making the following a conjecture).13

Parallelism for Sullivan meant many things, perhaps a conflation of many concepts, but importantly it was synthetic and could be realized abstractly through many lenses. Regarding this concept geometrically and energetically within A System of Architectural Ornament, Sullivan continually deployed mechanistic to organic comparisons, and of equal importance Euclidean to non-Euclidean comparisons. Though never explicitly stated, Sullivan’s treatment of these themes almost identically echoed principle challenges to Euclidean geometry, namely those questioning Euclid’s fifth postulate, the parallel postulate. In short, the fifth postulate states that in a two-dimensional plane, given a line and point, there exists only one other line that intersects that point and does not intersect the original line (i.e., the lines are parallel). This assumes, of course, that space itself (or the two-dimensional plane in the aforementioned example) is intrinsically at and not distorted. The hegemony of this type of space is precisely what Lobachevsky and company were inclined to question as the eld on which non-Euclidean geometry arose, ushering in a major shift in mathematics and the physical sciences regarding the nature of both abstract and physical spaces. Concerning geometry, it is not enough to say that curves or free-form surfaces in general are non-Euclidean; rather, it is space itself that is curved, thusly breaking the fifth postulate.

While the above-named mathematicians operated just prior to and during Sullivan’s lifetime, validation of their work on the nature of curved space was being verified in the physical sciences just as Sullivan would have been approached regarding the commission for A System of Architectural Ornament. Notably, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1907–1915), concerning the curvature of space bending in the presence of gravitational fields was being corroborated at the time, Arthur Eddington’s 1919 photograph of a star’s light bending during an eclipse being one such confirmation. Additionally, one may ask why these notions of Parallelism and non-Euclidean geometry play such a dominant role in A System of Architectural Ornament, while they were scarcely touched on in Sullivan’s prior output.

An Interlude

Contained within the interlude of A System of Architectural Ornament, there exists an explicit example at least demonstrating Sullivan’s familiarity with these mathematical concepts and that he also equated them with an alternate synthetic realm of convergence — GROUP V the spiritual group of Man’s Natural Powers.

Between science and art there appears at first view a sense of separated parallel activities. Such mental picture of them softens as the Euclidean sense of parallel gradually enters a seemingly nebulous domain which we here call Parallelism. It were better and truer to call this domain mystic, for within it art, science and philosophy fuse as it were into a single vital impulse.14

While there is no evidence to suggest that Sullivan was explicitly versed in notions of curved space per Gauss et al., it is fairly obvious that he did indeed engage the fundamental principles of non-Euclidean geometries stemming from a critique of Euclid’s parallel postulate. Moreover, assuming the aforementioned binary structure deployed by Sullivan, it would follow that this non-Euclidean domain was mystical in nature and would therefore reside in the spiritual group.

The spiritual group functions as a super-quality in clarity of vision. It sees as in a dream; it feels as in the depths of instinct. It is a power hidden, calm, quiescent in the wilderness of being, serene in its vast solitude, alert in its piercing intuitions; utterly aware of Life, contemplating the mystery, keen to the open power of Life; consenting and contented that Life is a dream within a greater dream, and man himself a dreamer within the dream of life. Then, as in a dream, Spirit contemplates Spirit, Life contemplates Life, Man contemplates Man.15

Undoubtedly Sullivan held transcendental and esoteric viewpoints, and these positions are well articulated throughout his written output. This is by no means an attempt to reconcile the positions Sullivan held. What is worth noting in the present context, however, is Sullivan’s association of the non-Euclidean with that of a mystical realm, that which is beyond normative observation.16 Read in this fashion, it is consistent that a non-Euclidean geometry or space for Sullivan would be outside of the common observable world of our everyday experiences in much the same way that a Klein bottle (or similar higher-dimensional manifold) can only have its image presented to us in Euclidean three-dimensional space (i.e., we are not permitted to experience it directly). That is to say, these geometries or spaces are beyond our immediate observation, in what Sullivan may refer to as a mystical domain requiring “super-quality in clarity of vision.”17 What is abundantly evident in Sullivan’s description of the spiritual group is that it is a place of entanglement and embeddedness between the real (life) and the virtual (the dream), and that life as we know it is but one appearance within a larger construct.

The Computational Aspect of The Spiritual Group

Sullivan’s ideological battles were made manifest through myriad outward appearances — written, drawn, and built. It has been contended here that even
the steel-framed skyscraper was, for Sullivan, an extension of this synthesis of ideologies in “mobile equilibrium.”18 Positing this same fusion in our present context, we nd ourselves well beyond the historically novel expressions that shaped and took shape from the Enlightenment through to the Industrial Revolution and American Transcendental movement, out of which Sullivan operated. We are now on the cusp of an even greater paradigm shift through computation’s exponential growth — between logic and instinct, and by extension the imaginary.

There exist two immediate developments challenging conventional computational logic and the representation lineages emulated through it to date, namely, those governed by a geometrical tradition. The first of these challenges is procedural — a race to construct circuitry that is not solely based on logical operations alone, rather pattern recognition rooted in instinctual aspects of neural mimicry.19 The second challenge comes in the form of observation and the imagination via virtual and augmented realities. These sensationally imminent realities rely on statistically light-based constructions rather those of the geometrical 31 and will quickly become the dominant mode of communication through which we interact. We are on the verge of a paradigm shift, between a geometric codification of a space versus one that is constructed statistically and immediately based solely on relative differences of sense-data, while not relying on geometric mediation prior to its actualization on the registration plane. These nontrivial modes of operation, protocol, and observation may very well meet in what was once reserved for the spiritual group, between categories, whereby a construct does not precede its own appearance. Rather, a constant generation of experiential construction will be the norm, between the virtual and the real — a sympathetic “fusion of identities.”20

To date a considerable representational issue resides in an insistence on filtering technical images (manifest on the picture plane) through the confines of three- dimensional Cartesian logics. The sheer fact that these have historically been almost entirely presented on a plane speaks volumes (or rather a lack thereof). As the advent and promise of augmented and virtual realities are now upon us, we are quickly approaching a new horizon, one that is mediated entirely through the statistical rather than the geometric. This technology, and by extension the very way we experience, will bring with it a way to obfuscate the picture plane and its associated politics entirely; we will no longer be inclined or tricked into collapsing notions of spatial dimensionality onto a two-dimensional plane from which three-dimensional form projects. Furthermore, Cartesian space (and by extension Euclidean three- dimensional space) will become trivial, as multidimensional light-based sensory data will be the operative medium of augmentation. No doubt, it will take a generation or more to move beyond our inclinations to invoke Cartesian space as a translational realm prior to idealized planar or volumetric projections and constructions.21 The promise of an energetically based representational shift is large and one that should not be resisted at the lament of a nostalgia for surface. The politics of a geometric superiority imbued within idealized surficial logics has brought us to the brink of our civilization’s collapse; geometry is not well suited to deal with the most pressing problems of our time — those of energy.

Furthermore, the relegation of space to three dimensions, while reserving a fourth temporally, is a product of reductionist thinking. As this dissolves through the imagination, we will be left with a world of in nite dimensionality, in which metered time gives way to duration marked solely as the encounter of newly generated bits of information; rhythmic and geometric progression will give way to the immediacy of a continuous world of sensation. “Then, as in a dream, Spirit contemplates Spirit, Life contemplates Life, Man contemplates Man”22 — between categories.


1 Excerpt from Louis Sullivan, “Interlude, A Doctrine of Parallelism,” in A System of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers (Washington, DC: American Institute of Architects, 1924). 6

2 Ibid.

3 Ray Kurzweil, futurist and director of engineering at Google, has posited 2045 as the Singularity, in which a complete fusion of the biological and technical is indistinguishable, as well as that of the virtual and the real.

4 See note 6 on “mobile equilibrium.”

5 Louis Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers (Washington, DC: American Institute of Architects, 1924). Note: While this was the official first edition of Sullivan’s manifesto, the actual manuscript version of this illustrated text is housed in the Burnham Archives at the Art Institute of Chicago, and was not published in facsimile until 1990. Many textual digressions from the original manuscript form were dropped or removed from 7 the 1924 edition prior to press. As such, the 1990 manuscript edition of this work plays an equally important role in this discussion. See Louis Sullivan, A System of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers (New York: Rizzoli in cooperation with the Art Institute of Chicago, 1990). Examples throughout Sullivan’s earlier texts include debate as to the subjective or objective character of operating among other oppositional categories. These specific references are dropped in the System of Architectural Ornament, though many remain, including distinctions of intellectual versus emotional operations. This broad use of oppositional binaries as a pedagogical device can be found throughout Kindergarten Chats, too numerous to recount. See, for example, Louis Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats (New York: Dover, 1979, originally published 1901 and revised 1918). The reference to the phrase “mobile equilibrium” appears in A System of Architectural Ornament, as a means to truly synthesize these dogmatic oppositions through a “fusion of identities.” Sullivan, 1924 and 1990. “I believe, in other words, that the Greeks knew the statics, the Goth the dynamics, of the art, but that neither of them suspected the mobile equilibrium of it: neither of them divined the movement and the stability of nature.” From Louis Sullivan, “Emotional Architecture as Compared with Intellectual: A Study in Subjective and Objective,” in Kindergarten Chats (New York: Dover, 1979, originally presented orally 1894), 200.

8 A summary of Sullivan’s Power Groups, from “The Inorganic and the Organic,” Sullivan, 1924: GROUP I The physical powers: “... the power to do things, to effect changes, to create situations.” GROUP II The intellectual group: “... of reasoning; and by reasoning we mean the construction of a diagram or model purporting to show how curiosity works to satisfy its craving for orderly form.” GROUP III The emotional group: “It is of instinct.” GROUP IV the moral group: “... its central power of free-will choice is the axis of man’s being. ... Hence is choice the most potent of his moral powers.” GROUP V The spiritual group: “... functions as in super-quality clarity of vision. It sees as in a dream; it feels as in the depths of instinct.”

9 Excerpt from Louis Sullivan, “Interlude, A Doctrine of Parallelism,” in A System of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers (Washington, DC: American Institute of Architects, 1924).

10 It should be noted that during this era the worlds of science and romanticism were not mutually exclusive, but rather a fluid arena of thought and experiment. See for example, Baker, Jennifer J. “Natural Science and the Romanticisms” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 53, No. 4, 2007, pp 387-412.

11 Concerning Sullivan’s functionalist reputation, this modernist legacy was no doubt bolstered and mythologized erroneously by inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1933 exhibition Early Modern Architecture: Chicago 1870–1910, a mere year after the Modern Architecture: International Exhibition curated by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Johnson.

12 In “A Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” Sullivan attributes the interior volumetric partitioning of a standard office building to be a “sensible” result of practical considerations. While this may be true, per Sullivan, it does not undermine the notion that this highly physical and logical organization was fused/synthesized with the outward semblance of the organic. See Louis Sullivan, “A Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” in Kindergarten Chats (New York: Dover, 1979, originally presented orally 1894).

13 Sullivan only provides two explicit references to outside sources in A System of Architectural Ornament, “Gray’s School and Field Book of Anatomy” and Wilson’s “The Cell in Development and Heredity.”

14 Louis Sullivan, “Interlude, A Doctrine of Parallelism,” in A System of Architectural Ornament According with a Philosophy of Man’s Powers (Washington, DC: American Institute of Architects, 1924).

15 Ibid., contained in the prelude, “The Inorganic and the Organic.”

16 A special thanks to David Salomon for introducing this concept to me, specifically as it would pertain to Sullivan’s contemporary Claude Bragdon. See, for example, Jonathan Massey, Crystal and Arabesque: Claude Bragdon, Ornament, and Modern Architecture (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

17 From “The Inorganic and the Organic,” Sullivan, 1924.

18 Sullivan, 1924.

19 While traditional computing has relied on chains of logic-based von Neumann architectures, new methods are currently being developed, such as IBM’s TrueNorth technology and ecosystem, that do not rely on this analytic tendency and rather emulate neural circuitry that mimics the senses through pattern recognition. http://www.research. Accessed October 8, 2015.

20 From “The Inorganic and the Organic,” Sullivan, 1924.

21 One notable exception resides in the work of Peter Testa, carried out through his studios at Sci-Arc, whereby Cartesian translational space is being purposefully bypassed in a bid to move directly between image-based design and robotic fabrication. Paraphrased from a conference talk at “Non Discrete Architectures: Networks, Digital Prosthetics and Augmentation,” April 2-3, 2015, University of Pennsylvania, School of Design.

22 From “The Inorganic and the Organic,” Sullivan, 1924.

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