Metaphors for Modernity: Sullivan and Weber

Carson Pirie Scott c. 1905

About the Architect

Louis Sullivan was born in 1856 in Boston, Massachusetts. Sullivan attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before working as a draughtsman in Philadelphia and Chicago. In 1874 he went to Europe and studied in the Vaudremer Studio at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris for one year before returning to Chicago. Sullivan became Dankmar Adler’s partner in 1883, a relationship that lasted until Adler’s death in 1895. This period saw Sullivan’s great contributions to the Chicago School of architecture, including his pioneering work designing the city’s early skyscrapers. In the new century, he turned to smaller commissions in smaller towns. Sullivan mentored Frank Lloyd Wright when the latter worked in Adler’s studio. The two had had a rift in 1892 over business matters, but were reconciled toward the end of Sullivan’s life, though Sullivan himself was otherwise at a low point in his career, dying lonely and destitute in a Chicago hotel room in 1924.

About the Author

Max Weber was a German sociologist, born in Erfurt, Prussia in 1864. His best known work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is an inquiry into the origins of modern industrial capitalism. It was written following a major mental breakdown Weber suffered in the late 1890s. Prior to his illness, Weber had been a prolific essayist and influential lecturer as professor of Political Economy at Freiburg and Heidelberg. In the last fifteen years of his life, Weber became active in German politics and journalism while he continued scholarly work, notably on the sociology of religion and the wide-ranging essays collected in 1922 as Economy and Society, published two years after his death of pneumonia in 1920.

About the Work

The Carson-Pirie-Scott Building, at 1 South State Street, was Louis Sullivan’s last major work in Chicago. Much of the ornamentation on the façade was designed by his draftsman, George Grant Elmslie. Originally designed for the retail firm of Schlesinger and Meyer, the building was sold to the Carson-Pirie-Scott department store chain in 1904. Designated a Chicago Landmark in 1970, the building closed as a department store in February, 2007.

About the Book

Max Weber first published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as a series of essays in 1904 and 1905. The work set the course for much of Weber’s subsequent study into the sociological and historical influence of religion on economic and political thought and behavior. It first appeared in English in a translation by Talcott Parsons in 1930.

Related Books and References

Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

“Architecture: The City Beautiful Movement” page in Encyclopedia of Chicago. Online at [/pages /61.html. for zoomable image of building façade details].

Modern Ambivalence

The closing paragraphs of Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism are famous for the author’s likening of the modern economic order to an “iron cage,” within which the “conditions of machine production” shape “the lives of individuals . . . with irresistible force.” Yet the metaphor of modernity as an iron cage belongs more to Talcott Parsons (who borrowed the image himself from John Bunyan’s great early Protestant epic Pilgrim’s Progress). Weber’s German phrase (stahlhartes Gehäuse) translates more directly as “shell as hard as steel,” suggesting that modern individuals are not so much captives within capitalism, but that they have adopted its steely hardness as part of their very beings.

Louis Sullivan’s work can be seen in a similarly ambiguous light. Built with the still relatively new steel-frame construction method, the Carson Pirie Scott Building exemplifies at the same time Sullivan’s devotion to surface ornamentation, and particularly with an “organic” style quite distinct from the underlying, cage-like geometry of the steel frame.

What relationships can we elaborate between Sullivan’s building and George Elmslie’s ornaments for it? Do the ornate, swirling masses of the Carson Pirie Scott Building’s (iron) ornamental shell (in Weber’s term) belie the steel-frame geometry beneath, or elaborate it, say, as a diagram of forces? What comment on modernity – its technical, economic, social and cultural relations – does the Carson-Pirie-Scott building’s combination of steel frame and iron ornament make? Is it as apt, if confused, a text as Weber’s in Parson’s (highly influential) translation?

The “Glass Box”

Consider what have become known as “glass box” buildings, themselves the products of later decades of modernist design and construction techniques. How do such buildings comment on the economic, social, political and cultural conditions in which they were (and are) built? More generally, what does – or should – the surface of a building have to do with the underlying structure?


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