Architecture and Real Abstraction: Adler & Sullivan

Francesco Marullo

This film is part of series of posts of selected papers from the study symposium at Shatwell Farm, hosted by Drawing Matter and convened by KU Leuven and TU Delft on 27 and 28 April 2023. More about the symposium, and other films and written papers, can be found here.

The Selz Schwab & Company Shoe Factory, built in Chicago between 1886 –1907, is not among the most impressive commercial projects of Adler & Sullivan. It was a cheap but experimental steel framing system on isolated footings, with an austere, simplified exterior facade, marked by the obsessive vertical repetition of projected piers and the absence of a culminating cornice. The gentle tapering of the external piers and the horizontal alternation of white stone sills and arches mitigated the repetitive facade, interrupted only by the exception of the main gate on the northern side.

While at the same time, the tripartite skyscrapers in the Chicago Loop were still symbolically masking the steel frame and the perversion of financial speculation and business, the Selz Schwab & Company fully revealed the violence of the capitalist ethos at work—maximum productivity at minimum costs—which soon would reduce the architecture of production to a rational apparatus, anticipating the spatial challenges of the concrete daylight factory.

The drawings preserved in the Drawing Matter Collection manifest how abstraction has become tangible, real, as Karl Marx noted in his writings: not just the fruit of a logical simplification but a worldly abstraction, emerging from the material necessities of production and the homogeneous categories of time and space dictated by the rules of exchange erupting in Chicago in the mid-19th century.

As labour becomes abstract—not ‘this or that’ labour but ‘a pure and simple activity, abstract labour, indifferent to its particular specificity, but capable of all specificities,’ uniform in quality and only varying in quantity indifferently from the modes of expenditure or its use-value—so architecture becomes generic: the most profitable spatial diagram to put the generalised human mental and physical capacities to work.

The architecture of the factory, with its slender structural skeleton, unobstructed manufacturing floor, large windows, covered court, and strategically positioned technical cores and wardrobe, could be considered the expression of the most advanced scientific, economic, and social forces that produced it, stripped bare from any ideological mystification: the crystallisation of the animal spirits of the modern metropolis and the litmus paper of the future.


Francesco Marullo is an architect and theorist interested in the relationships between labour, space, production, and the forms of life they entail. He is currently an assistant professor at the UIC School of Architecture in Chicago and holds a Ph.D. in History and Theory of Architecture from the Delft University of Technology and the Berlage Center. His research has been featured in numerous architectural publications (Log, Volume, OASE, San Rocco, Domus, Flatout, JAE) and international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale (2014, 2016), the Oslo Triennale (2016), and the Lisbon Triennale (2019). He coedited The Architecture of Logistics (Footprint, TUDelft 2018), coauthored the book Tehran: Life within Walls (Hatje Cantz, 2018), and contributed to the volume The Contested Territory of Architectural Theory (2022). He recently curated a thematic section of Log (Fall 2022) about the notion of the desert within the architectural imagination, and he is coediting the next issue of JAE (Fall 2023) titled ‘Deserts’. In 2020, he was awarded the first Drawing Matter Writing Prize