Once more, the museum world is reexamining an influential American architecture of an earlier era. In ``Louis Sullivan: The Function of Ornament,'' an exhibition on view at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum here, the architect - as both man and artist - comes through with depth and clarity. This is more than a nostalgic look back. It is a reappraisal, much on the order of recent reassessments of other late 19th-century and early 20th-century architect/designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright (Sullivan's most famous student), Josef Hoffmann, Eliel Saarinen, and Rennie MacIntosh.
In the introduction of the catalog to the show, Gyo Obata, a St. Louis architect, remarks, ``It is reassuring to see Sullivan's works and papers at a time when there are so many winds of change blowing in the architectural world. Sullivan's work is vibrant with integrity, consistency, wholeness, and harmony.''
Wim De Wit, who curated the exhibition in Chicago and installed it here at the Cooper-Hewitt, says the show is timely because ``modern architects are again looking for new inspiration about what ornament can be. We do not expect anyone to imitate Sullivan's work,'' he told a Monitor interviewer, ``but people today can see how Sullivan used ornament in the composition of a building fa,cade, and how he gave expression to his own architectural philosophy through ornament.''
Sullivan was born in 1856 in Boston and studied architecture during the early 1870s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the 'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. By 1884 he was smoothly integrating cast or carved ornament into his buildings. He moved to Chicago in 1875, and in 1883 became a partner in the architectural firm of Adler & Sullivan.
Of the more than 200 architectural designs he executed between 1876 and 1922, only about 35 survive. Those include the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, the Bayard Building in New York, the Guaranty Building in Buffalo, and the Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago.
From 1886 to 1895, Sullivan and other architects were experimenting with skyscraper styles, and some of his finest work can be seen in his tall office structures.
Sullivan's sense of ornament can be studied closely in this exhibition through examples of grillwork, etched glass, stencils, panels of terra cotta, and chunks of masonry from demolished buildings.
The seedpod appears as a recurring motif, as do vines, leaves, tendrils, and flowers.
Although his reputation has been in eclipse in recent years, this show serves as a reminder that Sullivan was a towering figure in American architecture, one not soon to be forgotten.
This exhibition, organized by the Chicago Historical Society and the Saint Louis Art Museum,will be at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum through June 28 and then at the Saint Louis Art Museum Aug. 28-Oct. 25.