The Prudential Building, formally the Guaranty Trust building, is an office building that truly exemplifies the architectural principles involved with the form following function, and the origins of ornament in modern skyscrapers, being conceived by the great architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, and located in downtown Buffalo, New York, This skyscraper was erected in time when the way to visualize and construct a skyscraper was still in its developing stages, as many architects responsible for the office buildings of the time , had different, often conflicting ideas on how to create these massive steel framed structures.
Sullivan himself was encompassed in the belief that the function of the building should dictate the design and plan of it, and there should be no unnecessary embellishments made to the building, or additions that won’t serve a purpose to the overall structure. These principles are illustrated in his two essays “Ornament in Nature”, and “The Tall Office Building”, published in the Kindergarten Chats. This particular building, the Guaranty building, is covered almost entirely in terra cotta designs on the exterior Façade, which in a sense goes against Sullivan’s principles on the office building, however I believe that these embellishments were created with the utmost attention to function, and that they were conceived in relation, to the various interior spaces of the building, as well as perfectly complementing the internal skeletal frame, and separate vertical levels.
When you first see this grand building, you are immediately impressed by the fiery glow its terra cotta ornaments give off. Since the building is so massive the sheer amount of design carved into this terra cotta is incredible to think about, as well as visually stunning. The designs themselves seem to be taken directly out of Sullivan’s natural surroundings, with vines on the large pilasters that scale the office levels vertically to the roof, and large floral designs on each side of the entrance, as well as an explosion of plantlike designs towards the cantilevered roof. Sullivan’s love for nature is clearly stated in the ornament, while it may not be over embellished, neither is nature, so therefore they blend in with the form of his building quite effortlessly, and once glanced at from afar seem to just be the base materials that created the structure. These extensive designs immediately make this office building unique from others being built around the same time period, as this one takes design aspects from various cultures and blends them into a new and fresh style on the façade. Sullivan takes examples of Ancient Greek and Roman Architecture by sculpting terra cotta pilasters, set around the office windows, and reaching vertically all the way to the roof.
The entrance itself, and arch similar to Gothic cathedral arches, although less extensive in its embellishment. The mass amounts of floral and vine designs on the façade, bring to mind royal palaces from England and Germany. All these elements seem to blend perfectly to create the exterior design of the building, which creates a very unique emotional response from the viewer. As you stray away father from the building, the designs become less of an ornamental aspect and more of a structural statement, as the less detail you can see, the building seems to become a whole entity, not an over embellished terra cotta block. Basically standing from afar, you get to appreciate the structural levels of the building, Ground floor, office levels, and attic with beautiful oculi, but once you move towards the building, you get to appreciate the extensive work that went into the terra cotta block designs. In his essays, Sullivan explains how this formula should be put in place for all modern skyscrapers, letting the Function of the building dictate the Form and ornament.
Sullivan claims that a building may be beautiful on its form and function alone, however a building with thoroughly designed ornament cannot be separated from it, otherwise it would lose its individuality. Also the ornament must blend well with the overall structure, with no one aspect seeming out of place. If each building has a voice, according to Sullivan, than by that same contention, the ornamental qualities of that building determine the sounds of that voice. These theories are exemplified beautifully by the Prudential buildings structural plan and ornament, as the steel structure of the building can be deciphered whilst observing the exterior. Steel frame structure seems to be in direct relation to the ornament or embellishment of the building as you decipher the placement of the steel beams and trusses, through the exterior designs. It’s almost as if the terracotta is acting as a shield for the steel frame, instead of its own entity as an artistic addition to the skyscraper. Design of the ornament is in relation to the actual design of the skeletal steel structure, seeing as there are tall extended flat columns that span most of the exterior, formed from terra cotta, each embedded with a majestic design, giving off a royal feel to the structure. The long flat columns, situate the office windows vertically in line, which makes them seem more numerous and abundant around the exterior than they actually are. The windows themselves are embedded about 12 or 13 inches into the terra cotta blocks, making the design of the exterior blend in with the internal building fluidly. Sullivan’s theories on the nature of ornament come out almost exclusively in this building, as the artistic aspects of this building are not added on, but seem to have evolved from the skeletal structure, and mix in perfectly with the rest of the building.
The Guaranty building is a product of Sullivan’s imagination, thought and expressions, which according to him, were the three keys to unlock your personal style. Sullivan stressed the importance of well-rounded knowledge, developing your emotions as well as your intellect. This would let you be free to create your own path, rather than being trapped in the limitations of your rigid school systems. This background is very well displayed in his works, as Sullivan is adept at taking what lies around him in nature and transforming them into to functional structures. Although he had developed a plan to suit the needs of most office buildings, he still believed that Architecture itself had not yet reached its full potential, which he considers full plasticity of form, where an object responds to an artists every thought, touch and emotion. Sullivan also stresses the importance of nature in Architectural plans, as a tree in nature has three main components, the mass of roots, the trunk and finally the branching out section of leaves, so should a building. In his essay on the Structure of an office building, Sullivan concluded that his buildings will consist of:
-an underground level, where the utilities and power grids for the buildings are placed.
-a ground floor for business and shops, which will require the most space to function.
-a second floor, similar to the first on a smaller scale.
-The remaining levels are designated for office floors, story upon story of identical spaces.
– The final floor, an attic, with extra utility space, this is where the building has made a complete rotation from the basement up.
This plan is perfectly displayed in the Guaranty building, from the interior as well as the exterior ornament. If you were to look at the façade of this building, you would be able to gather where each level is placed internally, as the ornament directly follows the interior function. The designs on the outside of this building are indeed separated, with the large ground floor space, decorated with framed glass windows, for the original shops and business, the second floor right above, with slightly smaller windows, and above the ever expanding upwards office floors, embellished in terra cotta designs and pilasters. You can also tell where the attic is, there are different styles of windows on the top floor, oculi in fact, as well as a beautiful extended cantilevered roof, overhanging the whole structure, and completing the building as a work of art. So in essence the ornament perfectly encompasses the skeletal structure of the building, as well as dividing the building into its respective levels.
Sullivan believed the exterior or ornament must be one with the interior function of the structure, if the inside of the floor is open and vast, that space on the accompanying outside must therefore be vast in its design, and must not cancel out or mask the true intentions of the rest of the structure or the accompanying floor. He also believed in the natural composition of buildings, with separate parts, just a tree is conceived. Others believed that the entire building should be though up as one level, and adjustments should be made accordingly. However, most architects of the time believed that office buildings should not be an example of their prior knowledge of architecture, with each floor modeled after different eras or regions, this should never happen. In my opinion, Ornament of a tall office building in some ways is the most important aspect of such a building, for an individual that peers upon this building gets a certain emotional response from it, and the ornament is usually what dictates that response. Before a patron can experience the interior of the building or skeletal make up, he must be willing to enter it, or be drawn into it by the exterior embellishment. If the exterior ornament clashes or hasn’t evolved from the function of the different floors inside, then the architect has failed in his effort to create useful structure. Sullivan was one such architect who believed in Form following function, and The Guaranty Building his prime creation under that idea.
Sullivan’s Essays: “Ornament in Nature” and “The tall Office Building”-published in the “Kindergarten Chats”.