Tom Burtonwood’s Twenty-Something Sullivan

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In the Makerverse, Tom Burtonwood is a familiar name. Since 2014 he has contributed to Make‘s Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing. Scroll Thingiverse, and you’ll likely cross paths with one of his more than 200 designs (most likely one of his score of scans for the Art Institute of Chicago). On occasion, one of his 3D projects makes a couple of waves on boingboing, 3Ders, and the tech section of other websites. Most recently, he’s produced a 3D-printed book entitled “Twenty-Something Sullivan,” which features nine architectural details created early in Louis Sullivan’s career. The project is a two-year collaboration with his friend, City of Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson, and will be on view in the exhibition “Transmissions,” at the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, Mount Vernon IL, Feb 20 – May 1.

Sullivan is probably best remembered as the so-called father of the skyscraper, and probably just as well for being Frank Lloyd Wright’s boss early in Wright’s career. And despite a prolific career before the dawn of the 1900s, of the nearly 200 buildings that were completed, only a few dozen remain standing—little more than half of that sum exists in Chicago where the bulk of his architectural practice was most dominant.  “Chicago has a rich Architectural history,” mentions Burtonwood. “And also a history of ripping down important buildings.”

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Designed with a bind that allows the pages of the book to pinwheel like the petals of a flower Sullivan might design, each page is accompanied by relevant notes in English and Braille: the architectural work the ornament came from, its original material, and the dates of construction and demolition. The last part is perhaps most notable: Each of the examples in the book are from buildings that no longer exist, and all but one were rescued by preservationist, Richard Nickel, who died in 1972 while attempting to document Sullivan’s Stock Exchange Building. “When urban renewal of the 1950s and 60s was resulting in demolition of the neighborhoods where these early Sullivan buildings were concentrated, Nickel was the only person who had the knowledge and interest to salvage the pieces,” noted Samuelson. Nickel also had the physical stamina to do it.

Tom-Burtonwood-bookTo demonstrate the weight of an original Sullivan terra cotta ornament, Samuelson lifted an example at a PechaKucha presentation at the Chicago Architecture Biennial in October 2015. His face beet red, he struggles to lift it above his head. “It’s incredible to think that Nickel went alone in the night to cajole this piece from a brick wall three stories in the air, while standing on a swaying wooden extension ladder,” Samuelson later wrote in an e-mail of his friend, colleague, and mentor.

“Twenty-Something Sullivan” is not the first 3D printed book for Burtonwood; in 2013 he produced a hinged accordion book, aptly entitled Orihon, consisting of six objects he scanned at the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The book was very much a part of the Hackathon at the Met,” he reflected, referencing the Met’s first Hackathon at the end of May in 2012 “I had thought about it conceptually. What does it mean to [scan] these things, and mash them up as an object?” He recalled a number of people did that, resulting in some criticism: most notably by Lee Rosenbaum, who griped the mashups ran “counter to promoting deeper understanding” of works in the Met’s collection.

It’s that kind of criticism that gets under Burtonwood’s skin. “All levels of culture and artistic production are about replication on some level… It’s how we learn things,” relating 3D scanning and printing to earlier methods of replication like photography and printmaking. “When did play become such a bedeviled activity that we have to stigmatize it?” Burtonwood, like his other colleagues from the Met, was just as keen to mashup some of his own 3D collage experiments later in 2012, eventually restructuring scans to fit on the heads of Pez dispensers. “A lot of my 3D printing work has a lot of humor… this particular technology has allowed me to do playful work.”

Tom-Burtonwood-book-1However, the playful work lead to more thoughtful reflection, and he sat on the information he gathered from the Met for over half a year. “I’m sensitive to the fact they are not originals: they are replicas. But think of a Matisse. A lot of people will never see the original, they will only see a replica.”

With the idea of access, Burtonwood made the finished version of Orihon—from scans to hinges—available on Thingiverse under creative commons for anyone to download and print. And for the interest of public display, he designed each plate within the book to double as a mold. “If I want to make a copy of a book, I Xerox from the book. A 3D printed book: you can’t quite do that. So how do I make a copy in a visceral, quick way?” In essence, anyone could stick a glob of playdough into the back of his mold and make an object from the relief. “It is its own photocopier and it can be shared many times,” Burtonwood reflected.

Once Samuelson saw Orihon, he asked Burtonwood if they could do something similar for the work of Louis Sullivan. Motivated by the ideas of preservation and access, Burtonwood agreed to the project. “Since so few of Sullivan’s earliest buildings survive,” notes Samuelson, “this period of ornament is largely unknown and unappreciated.  But in my opinion, their youthful vigor makes them among the best of all his work.” It’s that idea of ornamentation that now seems so foreign in contemporary construction. The International Style kicked organic flourishes of twisting vines and arabesques to the curb. Traditional patterns, usually tucked in the masonry between stories, were eliminated for glass curtains. “The irony about Modernism is that the whole building became the ornamentation,” Burtonwood mused. While a resurgence of Art Nouveau embellished skyscrapers is unlikely to percolate from this project, at the very least, with these 3D-printed replicas, Burtonwood and Samuelson have opened the possibility for a “deeper understanding” of the lost work of a Modern master.

By John Anderson

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