Purcell and Elmslie, Architects
Firm active: 1907-1921
Minneapolis, Minnesota :: Chicago,
From the first couple of pages of my Minnesota 1900 essay:
The creed advanced by Louis Sullivan conceived of architectural design in the biological metaphor of the natural world. In that sphere, of which humans were inextricably part, all experiences came into being through the actions, or functions, that were transmitted by the structural shapes, or forms, of material objects. All physical things conducted directly a momentum of activity, like copper wire carried electricity. One event arose from another in a cascade of interrelationship. This holistic mode of unfoldment was the fundamental order of existence, the way everything worked. Sullivan epitomized his view in the phrase form follows function.
The organic architectural philosophy initiated by Louis Sullivan descended from his own practice principally through two lines. One of these paths encompassed the much-examined work of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), whose lengthy and metamorphic career has continued to attract a large public following. The other direct lineage from Sullivan was formed by the partnership of George Grant Elmslie and William Gray Purcell. Because their work is rarer and not as publicly identified, the labors of Purcell and Elmslie for the cause of organic architecture have been less celebrated than those of Wright. Nonetheless, their understanding and articulation of organic design was fully developed on the most profound and encompassing levels:
"These organic procedures exemplified the living relation which was practiced in exposition of democracy within our living world. Architecture as we saw it was called upon to express, in peace and mutual respect, that cooperation between the inanimate ‑ the material world, which we now know is never inanimate or "material" ‑ and the world of Man, together with his companions, the animals and the plants.... If these relations within a living democracy cannot be shown as the home and fountain of our mutual life in common with all living creations, then any further attempt to study and explain them becomes futile."
Purcell, in "WGP Review of [David S.] Gebhard Thesis, George Grant Elmslie Section Part IV" (version of draft dated 7 March 1956. William Gray Purcell Papers, Correspondents record group, David S. Gebhard files [C:124].
For Purcell and Elmslie, organic architecture was a matter of faith. Any assessment of their work must take into account the metaphysical motivations implicit in the work of these architects. Their spirituality, however, needs to be severed from the dogmatic connotations of religion. The key to the spiritual concept realized by the organic architects was a kind of gnostic perception, through which the continuities of past and future human life were identified contextually with the immediate circumstance. Inner recognition of need and response came first, and the external formulation of shape derived from those informing ideas. If done with spiritual conscience, organization of the mundane elements would intuitively endow the structure with the intangible yearnings out of which the design had first commenced. By the organic standard, this task was the vocation of the architect. Those devoted to this cause envisioned the result to be an important means of social progress, and thus came to be known in general parlance as progressive architects (a usage of the term distinct from, though obviously in character with, the contemporary political drive of the same name). Because this movement was born and centralized in the prairies of the American Midwestern states, these men and women have also come to be called Prairie architects.