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Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan

It was around the turn of the last century that American architecture suddenly grew up. With the invention of the elevator, plus the development of iron and steel as construction materials, there was nothing to stop buildings from scraping the sky ' "castles in the air," they were called, skyscrapers. But how did you design a skyscraper so as to express its newness, its vertiginous height, its good ol' American know-how? Chicago's Louis Sullivan spent the better part of his career trying to answer that question, and what he came up with is the subject of Manfred Kirchheimer's documentary, Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan, which will screen at Monona Terrace (Thursday, March 30, 7 p.m.) as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival's opening night.

"Tall" was the word that got bandied about ' a rather mild word when you consider the effect these Towers of Babel had on the landscape and its inhabitants. As the buildings got taller, people got smaller. But it was important, Sullivan felt, not to leave man and nature behind. In his seminal 1896 essay, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," where he first unveiled his famous dictum about form following function, Sullivan zeroed in on the skyscraper's verticality. "It must be in every inch a proud and soaring thing," he wrote. And that's exactly what Sullivan's best-known skyscrapers ' St. Louis' Wainwright Building, Buffalo's Guaranty Building ' did. They soared with pride. And so did Sullivan. For a while there, flush with clients and full of big ideas, he was almost literally on top of the world.

It didn't last. It never does. The Depression of 1893 sent clients scurrying back to their safety-deposit boxes. The departure of Sullivan's business partner, Dankmar Adler, meant that the firm now had neither foot on the ground, not on solid business ground, anyway. And the Chicago World's Fair, overseen by Sullivan's nemesis, Daniel Burnham, suggested that American architecture, newly beholden to the wedding-cake stylistics of France's Ecole des Beaux Arts, wasn't going to go his way after all. Dejected if not quite defeated, Sullivan designed a series of small banks (including one in Columbus) that are strewn across the Midwest, like a pearl necklace. And he continued to design the ornamentation that has become such a lush part of his legacy. But when he died in 1924, he was closer to the gutter than to the penthouse.

It's a fascinating story, one that Kirchheimer largely fails to tell. He may have had other things on his mind ' an essay-film about tallness, perhaps. But the artistic touches, of which there are many, start to seem self-indulgent after a while. What the documentary does have are miles and miles of skyscrapers, some of them even by Louis Sullivan. It's hard to believe, after that morning in September, that our tall buildings were once so innocent and naÃve, the Declaration of Independence writ large.

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