Richard Nickel's Photography Documents Legacy of Great Architect

Posted by David Ozanich — 17 Feb 2011

nickel540.jpgRichard Nickel self-portrait

Chicagoans are no doubt familiar with the architecture of Louis Sullivan known as the "father of the skyscraper." However his immense influence on modern architecture was nearly forgotten by the mid-20th century and many of his buildings were torn down. The photographer Richard Nickel set out to photograph and document these historic structures before they were demolished. Unfortunately, he was killed in 1972 when a part of Sullivan's Stock Exchange Building (in the midst of being torn down) collapsed on him. Lo these many years later, a handsome new book titled "The Complete Architecture of Adler & Sullivan" collects these photographs and others to tell the tale of Louis Sullivan. It's reviewed in this month's Atlantic magazine:

Nickel's 15,000 photographic negatives were preserved by a foundation, and the project was kept going in fits and starts largely owing to the efforts of the architect John Vinci (the designer of, among other works, the restrained, stylish Arts Club of Chicago), who has written the most-developed essays in this book.

The photos of buildings, those still standing and those later destroyed, reveal that the seductive power of Sullivan's work lies largely in the tension between form and function--some might say in the tension between the buildings' masculine and feminine elements--and in the ways Sullivan balanced the severe, massive elegance of his facades with the rhythmic grace of his exuberant, often whimsical ornament. See, for instance, the intricate cast-iron frames that wrap around and provide a delicate counterpoint to the elongated functionalist simplicity of the Carson Pirie Scott & Company Building, or the balance between the fortress-like Auditorium Building's soaring, highly decorated interior and its exterior walls of solid masonry, which achieve their aesthetic effect through mass and texture and the proportioning of large, simple elements.

Perceptively arranged, the black-and-white and color photographs juxtapose fine-grained close-ups of Sullivan's exquisite ornamentation with sweeping shots of the edifices within the cityscape. Although the book contains work by a host of photographers, Nickel's photographs are of course preponderant. They're both arresting and angry, and in their depictions of decrepit urban cores and of Sullivan's soot-stained masterpieces festooned with anachronistically garish lighted signs and cheapjack advertisements, they illuminate their time and place as much as they do Sullivan's work.

The Atlantic has a great slideshow featuring photographs by Nickel of Sullivan's soaring architecture.

bayard Bldg.jpgThe still standing Bayard Building in New York City.

I also came across this fascinating and informative NPR profile of Nickel from a couple years ago. You can listen below. Enjoy!

tradingroom540.jpgThe Stock Exchange Trading Room where Nickel was killed.

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