“Throughout his life Adolf Loos raised his eloquent voice against the squandering of fine materials, frivolous ornamentation and unnecessary embellishments. His admirers consider him to be the inspiration for all modern architecture. Yet, few are acquainted with his amusing, incisive, critical and philosophical literary work reflecting on applied design and the essence of clothing in fin de siècle Vienna. Adolf Loos often had a radical, yet innovative outlook on life that made him such a nuisance for many of his contemporaries. His provocative musings on many subjects portray him as a man of varied interests and intellectual refinement as well as possessing a keen sense of style, which still has value today. For the first time the Loos Dress Code is available in English. Included is a short social/historical look as the birth of Modernism in Adolf Loos Vienna.”
Learning to Dwell: Adolf Loos in the Czech Lands – review
Sunday 20 February 2011 00.03 GMT
"The naked woman," said the architect Adolf Loos, "is unattractive to man." It is one of the more striking statements in the history of architectural writing, and one that may not seem to have much to do with architecture, but it is part of a theory that has done much to shape the buildings of the past 100 years. If you have eaten in a restaurant or visited a hotel describing itself as "minimalist", or ever been struck by the lack of ornament on any modernist building, you will have witnessed the after-effects of this strange thought. According to a 1930s critic: "There lives not one single architect who does not carry within himself a bit of Loos."
Women, argued Loos, have to dress and ornament themselves to appeal to "man's sickly sensuality". They have to wear impractical things such as long skirts that stress their decorative role. It would be much better if both men and women wore plain, well-made clothes like the English suits that he especially liked. Ornament, he famously said, is linked to degeneracy and crime and should be removed from objects of daily use: not just clothes, but furniture and buildings.
Loos is usually described as Austrian, but he grew up in the town of Brno, then part of the Hapsburg empire, now in the Czech Republic. Some of his best works are in that country, in Brno, Prague and Plzen. This week, an exhibition opens at the Royal Institute of British Architects that, originating in Prague, seeks to reclaim Loos for his homeland. It should also, distributed across several floors of Riba's headquarters, be a good introduction to the work of this astonishing man.
It will show the houses and apartments that Loos designed in the 1920s for prosperous bourgeoisie of a country, Czechoslovakia, minted after the Great War by the Treaty of Versailles. He built for a paediatrician, a manufacturer of screws and another of wire, a chemist serving the brewing industry and the hugely successful building contractor František Müller. These were people keen to distance themselves from the past, but also to embrace high culture, and their homes tended to be furnished with pianos and art.
The exteriors of the houses are as plain as Loos said they should be. The house he built for Müller, on a steep slope facing towards Prague Castle, is startlingly white and cubic. Villa Müller's interiors, however, are far from being puritanical boxes. They are lush with oak, flaming mahogany, poplar and elm, and marbles with evocative names: cipollino, with layered patterns like the inside of an onion, and fantastico, with dazzling patterns of black on white. He would use yellow-gold silk for curtains and lampshades and, when it suited, the newest materials of his time, with their own exotic brand names: Xylonite, linoleum, Salubra wallpaper and Duco automative paint that gave the finish of a new car.
He loved mirrors, using them to multiply rooms and dissolve their boundaries, and played games with the veining of marbles. In one convulsive music room, as in a gestalt test, you can read monsters and pudenda into the symmetrical patterns of matched fantastico panels. His shapes are severe, almost all straight-lined and right-angled, but they are full of constrained sensuality. Economy was not the purpose – one of his assistants said that you could build "a very nice detached house" for the cost of one of his rooms. These rich rooms are in fact consistent with Loos's theories of ornament, as they use the inherent patterns of natural materials rather than decoration contrived by man.
He believed that the materials of a room should match its use and mood, with marble in more public places and wood in more intimate rooms, or pale maple in a woman's dressing room and oak in a man's. The dimensions, including height, should also be varied to suit each room, with the result that his houses became three-dimensional jigsaws of interlocking spaces, with many floor and ceiling levels, connected by short flights of steps and crisscrossed by views from one to the other.
Loos was born in 1870 and died in 1933, lived in Vienna at the time of Freud, and makes an easy subject for amateur analysis. His father was a stonemason and his happy early memories of playing in his workshop were cut short at the age of nine when his father died. His mother was strict and he escaped her to join the army as early as possible, only to contract syphilis. She then cut him off, in return for paying for his fare for his three-year trip to the United States.
He married three times, had a long-term mistress, and towards the end of his life he was accused of paedophilia. He had a particular penchant for actresses and dancers. As described in a new book by Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin (Oxford University Press), he was fascinated by Josephine Baker. On the basis of a slight acquaintance, he volunteered to design her a house, never built, whose main features were a glass-walled swimming pool surrounded by corridors for viewing her body at exercise, and an exterior in vibrant black-and-white stripes which may have represented his wish to mingle his European restraint with her African-American energy.
He was, in other words, a sensualist, of a possibly twisted kind. His houses, with their blank, mask-like outsides and their intricate, lush-but-disciplined interiors, make perfect emblems of his well-dressed outer self and his complex inner self. Both buildings and writings express a singular, tortured personality, with strange views on desire, yet had a general influence. Architects such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier learned plainness and controlled luxury from him ("Whatever is good in Le Corbusier's work, he learned from Loos," said Loos, half-ironically.) Mies and Corb were then the dominant influences on architecture for two generations.
His interiors are inward-looking, mesmerising, sometimes a little creepy. There is an air of fragility or tragedy about them, reinforced by later events. His many Jewish clients were forced out of their marbled nests into exile or camps. In 1945, the commanding officer of the local Wehrmacht shot himself in the flat with the convulsive music room, which had been appropriated as headquarters. Old Müller was dispossessed of his fortune by the postwar Communist regime, but allowed to stay on in the house, in whose boiler room he would eventually be found dead; he had operated the equipment wrongly, whether accidentally or on purpose, and poisoned himself with fumes.
Müller's wife, Milada Müllerová, stayed on, lodged in the recesses of the house, and fought with the authorities to stop them wrecking it. Thanks to her, it survived and is now restored, opened to the public, and one of the more compelling of the many compelling sights of Prague.
Café Museum (1899)
Kärntner Bar (1908)
Goldman & Salatsch (1910)
Villa Müller (1928)
Potemkin City (1898)
Ornament and Crime (1913)
‘The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use’
Adolf Loos (1870-1933)
8 OCTOBER, 2013BY PAUL DAVIES
Controversial in both private and professional circles, the life and work of Loos are reviewed by Paul Davies
Adolf Loos was Moravian. His father, a stonemason, died when he was nine. His mother was domineering. He caught syphilis while in a brothel with his godfather at 21. His mother cut him off in return for passage to the USA, where he spent three years, among other things, happily washing dishes.
Originally from Brno, he returned to the intellectual café society of Vienna in 1894, a clan righteously circumspect in believing in almost anything. He especially fell in with Karl Kraus and poetic muse Peter Altenberg and out with Viennese architects; publishing witty, sarcastic pieces satirising the Secession, Germany’s bad plumbing, propensity for dressing up and other bad habits. Fashion, including underwear, is a prominent subject, but it was not an unusual one for the time, as the strictures and hypocrisy of the Habsburg Monarchy and its corsetry were progressively undone. Collected as ‘Spoken Into The Void’, Loos’s essays culminated in Ornament and Crime (1908) that precipitously stated: ‘the lower the culture, the more apparent the ornament’.
He began architecture with his own apartment in 1903, then with a succession of rooms, shopfronts, bars and eventually whole houses (Steiner House, 1910) for clients mirroring his interest in Gemütlichkeit or cosiness. The later houses have a strikingly modern pose (but plenty earlier do not) and even though he was only seven years older than Gropius and Mies, it made a big difference to die in 1933 rather than 1969. Loos was eclipsed as a more energetic Modernism progressed. It didn’t help that Loos had little interest in saving the world; that his orientation was inverted, practically and psychologically, to the interior; and that he was ideologically inappropriate.
For instance Loos had no interest in the ‘honest’ expression of structure; only the appropriate use of material. For him architecture was like dressing, and one should be well dressed. For other members of the Modern Movement such an analogy would assume an enthusiasm for striptease. And his horizons were modest. He did grapple with larger projects (various hotels in particular, some housing) but they remain unappreciated. He had a tendency to ziggurat, or to plainly terrace, or to do both at the same time. He took, then left, his position as chief architect of the housing department of Vienna the same year (1922). Neither was he interested in teams or groups, and there are no disciples to speak of, just those he influenced. He hence becomes interesting as much for what he wasn’t as what he was, unconnected while thoroughly linked-in, with a process rather his own.
For Loos architecture was like dressing, and one should be well dressed. For other members of the Modern Movement such an analogy would assume an enthusiasm for striptease
This internalisation has made him most attractive to the more literary minded Postmodernists. Aldo Rossi saw him as a template for Musil’s The Man without Qualities and in the backlash against technocratic utopia, rediscovered his respect for craftsmanship and his wit; especially admiring his giant Doric chess piece for the Chicago Tribune (1923) notable for its singular and conspicuous label on the plan: ‘Pipes’. Loos’s lack of interest in redemptive urban planning served him well with those who now reviled it. Frampton embedded him in the problematics of Wittgenstein, emphasising his laconic analysis of what architecture was and what it could do; which was not much.
However, his Raumplan, the imagining of rooms as wholes, contained within rigid, blank forms − of which the Müller House (Prague 1930) is exemplary − still breeds speculation. The austerity is understandable (the daring Goldman & Salatsch store of 1910 so infuriated Emperor Franz Josef that he demanded his curtains be permanently drawn against it) but it is Loos’s interior comforts that are more troubling.
He married three times, all younger women, the last dramatically so, and was involved in two trials regarding child pornography and molestation (1905 and 1928). One person’s comfort might be another’s claustrophobia. The interiors are now considered voyeuristic (Colomina), a sexualised reading circumstantially reinforced when we compare the Raumplan with the free plan.
This reading is helped by scrutiny of his unbuilt project for Josephine Baker’s Parisian residence (1927) where he put the exotic dancer in a fish tank, and by his bedroom for his first wife Lina, also a dancer, which seems to have been lined in fur. Meanwhile Loos enjoyed an emphatic but voyeuristic interest in Josephine Baker while Le Corbusier enjoyed an equally emphatic but intimate one. Further his (so-called) elephant trunk side table legs look more like eight female dancers’ legs balanced on tiptoe and his lounge chair demonstrates that perhaps the only way he found peace was to stare at the ceiling.
His necessary restraint showed itself in fastidiousness. He was exacting of craftsmen on the building site, and enjoyed the fact that his interiors rarely photographed well, but that they had to be experienced with ownership.
His method was intimate rather than professional. He considered practising architecture no better than washing the dishes, he thought the best definition of an architect a bricklayer who spoke Latin, believed so-called ‘Architecture’ generally despoiled the landscape, considered the only venue for art in architecture to be the tomb and the monument, and the best place for the architect invisible. He didn’t even have a bank account. Dressing so well, he chalked up debts with his outfitters, Goldman & Salatsch, and repaid them with schemes culminating in the famous store.
Central to the appreciation of Loos is, problematically, good taste. Not many people go out of their way to buy a couple of Josef Hoffmann’s black wine glasses and submit them by post to Gustav Pazaurek’s official ‘Cabinet of Bad Taste’, but Loos did. However, black wine glasses are distasteful and life with Loos was not unpalatable. His last wife, Claire Beck Loos, revered him, indeed, in one of the strangest examples of potential grooming; she was raised in one of Loos’s early rooms. However, she left him, and wrote the touching A Private Portrait (just republished in English), a memoir of their itinerant later years in various straits in hotels along the Côte d’Azur, with Loos now deaf, and with luggage and dogs, like something out of EM Forster or Somerset Maugham.
His proclivities may not have been considered so offensive by his set. Peter Altenberg also had a thing for young girls. Meanwhile all bourgeois mores were repugnant to polemicist Karl Kraus and Dadaist Tristan Tzara, who remained a client, and for whom Loos built an extraordinary and uniquely uncomfortable house in Paris in 1926.
There are obviously many sides to Loos, many paradoxes; in photographs he rarely looks the same way twice. He appeals to the detective, that most postmodern of professions. The theorists ponder the psychology, but commercial architects have found much inspiration in his luxurious use of materials, and non-commercial ones wonder at his ingenious use of space, and in both cases Loos can become far more practically useful than Le Corbusier or Mies. Every architect can have the dream to do an American Bar as good as The Kärntner, even if it’s for Starbucks. As my wife said perusing Roberto Schezen’s photographs: ‘It looks so much better than modern architecture!