Adolf Loos’s lost house for Josephine Baker marked a seminal moment in the expression of cultural and social modernity
In 1924, Adolf Loos left Vienna to build a new life for himself in Paris. The following year, 19-year-old Josephine Baker made her European debut at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Though African-American performers and musicians had been arriving in the city since the war, nothing struck Paris quite like Baker. Her provocative stage shows transfixed the avant-garde.
Jean Cocteau designed theatre sets for her, Fernand Léger introduced her to the Surrealists, Le Corbusier wrote a ballet for her, Matisse made a life-size cut-out of her that he hung in his bedroom, Alexander Calder sculpted her in wire and Alice B Toklas invented a pudding named after her. Adolf Loos met Baker at a party and, from a very casual conversation, designed a house for her.
Destined to remain unbuilt, and for many years ignored by Loosian scholars, the Baker House reconceptualises fin-de-siècle Viennese cultural discourse to frame the myth of the celebrity as a modern totem. In its formal rationale and experiential richness, it is emblematic of Modernism’s slowly coalescing intensities of skin, interiority, hygiene, corporeality and transparency. Uniquely inflected by the multi-layered persona of its remarkable client/muse, it is also a complex and highly charged moment in the shifting dynamics of gender, class and race relationships in the early modern era.
Prodigiously talented and physically striking, Baker’s cultivation of her perceived exoticism in stage shows enabled her to become a black woman of means, a rare and disquieting conjunction for the times. Despite the psychological costs, this allowed her to finance and finesse a degree of freedom otherwise difficult to attain as a member of a racially excluded minority. Such freedom inculcated her public image with a level of dissonance that contrived to unsettle audiences and disrupt stereotypes.
‘I drew a plan for Josephine’, wrote Loos. ‘I think it to be one of my best. The outer wall is covered with white and black marble plates – horizontally striped. The most beautiful aspect of the house is a swimming pool, with supernatural light effects.’
What Loos called a ‘Small Varieté for Josephine Baker’ was a proposal for a four-storey house occupying a corner site between Avenue Bugeaud and Rue du Général-Clergerie in Paris’s wealthy 16th arrondissement. Rising from an unrusticated plain white base, the dwelling takes the form of a simple prism and cylinder enclosed in a smooth carapace of alternating bands of black and white marble. This optically dazzling facade is redolent with allusions, from the American flag, zebras, tattoos, bathing suits and prison uniforms, to monochromatic Italian cathedrals and Moorish bathhouses, all calculated to connote a sense of ‘otherness’.
Overlaying this metaphorical synchronicity are apparently more personal allusions to Baker herself – her skin, her striped suits, her penetration of white society. Loos had deployed black-and-white geometric motifs before, notably in the Villa Karma and the American Bar, and his abstraction of historic elements combined with references to stylised Primitivism and machine-age precision suggests progress as well as nostalgia, epitomising the duality of Modernism and its transgressive intimacies between organic and plastic, atavism and refinement.
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Behind the striped epidermis, Loos conjured an autonomous interiority of salons and entertainment spaces conspicuously designed to exclude ‘normal’ family life. At its heart was a toplit, double-height swimming pool, 9m long, 4m wide and 2m deep, an orthogonal liquidity held in the armature of his Raumplan. Baker liked to swim; today, a floating lido in the Seine is named after her.
‘On the first floor, low passages surround the pool’, wrote Kurt Unger, a collaborator of Loos. ‘They are lit by the wide windows visible on the outside, and, from them, thick, transparent windows are let into the side of the pool, so that it was possible to watch swimming and diving in its crystal-clear water, flooded with light from above: an underwater revue, so to speak’.
Recreated interior 2
As critic Anne Anlin Cheng suggests, water plays a similarly critical and ambivalent role to the white fur draped around the bedroom of Lina, Loos’s first wife, in their Viennese apartment. But here, transfixed by the imaginary spectacle of Baker ‘performing’ in her pool, Loos’s default interior choreography of comfort and covering erupts into theatricality and exposure. ‘As in Loos’s earlier houses’, writes Beatriz Colomina in her classic analysis, ‘the eye is directed towards the interior, which turns its back on the outside; but the subject and object of the gaze has been reversed. The inhabitant of the house, Josephine Baker, is now the primary object, and the visitor, the guest, is the looking subject’.
Colomina also imagines a scenario in which the swimmer in the pool might see her reflection, framed by the window, ‘of her own slippery body superimposed on the shadowy figure of the spectator … thus she sees herself being looked at by another; a narcissistic gaze superimposed on a voyeuristic gaze’. This ‘erotic complex of looks’ is inscribed in each of the four large windows opening onto the swimming pool. ‘Each, even if there is no one looking through it, constitutes, from both sides, a gaze’, says Colomina.
‘I drew a plan for Josephine’, wrote Loos. ‘I think it to be one of my best’
It may be no coincidence that the denuded modern surface and the art of striptease both came into being in the early 20th century. Loos’s is clearly an objectifying male gaze and the house a fastidiously confected Modernist peep show. But briefly setting aside the pas de deux of gender and race relations, it has been argued that Loos also envied Baker and her ‘maddening modernity’. Beyond her stylised performances in cabaret, dance and film, modernity permeated and structured her daily life as the first black female celebrity. The Baker House is a stage set for this radical new existence, echoing the ideas Loos espoused in Das Andere (The Other), his short-lived polemical style journal published in 1903. Here, he extemporised to a bewildered Austrian public on how to behave appropriately in modern life. Subjects covered included food, wallpaper, masturbation, vaudeville, etiquette, public morality, death, cooking, flagpoles, gambling, table manners and sex.
As a speculative project, the house itself has been the subject of intense speculation, much of it focused on the real and imagined interaction between Loos and Baker. Yet there is no evidence to suggest Baker formally commissioned him and she does not mention Loos in her memoirs. Their liaison, it would seem, remained unconsummated. Though according to Claire, Loos’s third wife, in a memoir published to raise funds for his tomb, Baker did teach Loos the Charleston.
‘What a pity you are an architect, Monsieur’, Baker is said to have exclaimed. ‘You would have made a sensational partner.’
Loos left very little archival material, so formal documentation of the project is confined to a model and a set of drawings, now in Vienna’s Albertina Museum. However, lack of physical evidence has not stopped generations of scholars attempting to intuit what might or might not have transpired. As Beatriz Colomina writes ‘All investigations of Loos have been marked by his removal of the traces. All of the writing is in, on and around the gaps. It is even about the gaps, often being obsessed with them’.
Both Loos and Baker operated on the edge of orthodoxy and respectability. When Baker performed in Vienna in 1928, a performance attended by Loos, it caused uproar among the city’s conservative Catholic establishment, to the extent that churches organised special ceremonies of repentance. Loos also tested the boundaries of social mores and personal morality. In 1928 he was charged and convicted of child molestation and served four months in prison.
In Paris, both Loos and Baker were émigrés, savouring the city’s jazz-age largesse, though their personal circumstances were very different. For Baker, her time in Paris propelled her into public consciousness and made her rich. Loos, by contrast, was a man in physical and professional decline. Separated from his second wife Elsie, he was ageing and impecunious, suffering from partial deafness and the effects of stomach cancer some years earlier. He was also sterile from contracting syphilis as a young man.
Loos needed work, but did not speak French, a major disadvantage in his dealings with clients, building firms and the authorities. So the prospect of Baker as a conspicuously stellar patron was doubtless galvanising. Even if unrealised, such a project could be a useful strategy for soliciting work. Ultimately, however, apart from a house for Tristan Tzara and the interior of Knize, a gentlemen’s outfitters, his other French projects remained unbuilt and he returned to Vienna in 1928.
That same year, a model of the Baker House was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne. Among fellow exhibitors and visitors was Le Corbusier, who was to encounter Baker in November 1929 on board the liner Giulio Cesare en route to São Paulo. Famously, he became smitten with her. ‘In a ridiculous music hall in São Paulo’, he wrote in his diary, ‘Josephine Baker sang “Baby” with such an intense and dramatic sensibility, that I was moved to tears.’ Like Loos, he put himself at Baker’s disposal, offering to design a villa for her.
During their return to Europe on the Lutétia, the pair attended a costume ball, Baker as Pierrot and Le Corbusier as a pirate wearing a striped vest with broad stripes painted on his arms. It has been suggested that this monochrome masquerade alludes to the facade of Loos’s Baker House in a calculated affront to her previous architectural suitor. At another costumed soirée, Le Corbusier cross-dressed as Baker, his skin blackened and hips garlanded with a waistband of feathers. ‘What a pity you are an architect, Monsieur’, Baker is said to have exclaimed. ‘You would have made a sensational partner.’ A soigné response, doubtless honed through long experience of humouring ill-judged remarks and actions. (Though this must have been especially excruciating.) The villa project, like the Paris house, remained unconsummated.
Josephine baker and le corbusier at costume party on lutetia
Although the Baker House is well known in the annals of architectural history, it is only relatively recently that its racial and gender ideologies have come under scrutiny. Early critical studies invariably abstracted its protagonist to the role of muse, at once scintillating, erotic and elusive. Baker was, in effect, a cipher. Her life and opinions, beyond the role of exoticised fetish for powerful white men who were inclined to ‘cherchez la femme’, barely registered. Latterly, critics and scholars such as Beatriz Colomina, Anne Anlin Cheng and Christina Svendsen have sought to re-situate her both in her own right and in relation to Loos’s aesthetic schema.
Beyond the nuances of academic discourse, the facts of Baker’s life are worth repeating. Born into acute poverty in St Louis in 1906, she danced in the streets for money before her career assumed its meteoric trajectory. Renouncing her American citizenship she settled in France, and during the Second World War became a covert activist against Nazi occupation, smuggling details of Wehrmacht troop movements inscribed in invisible ink on her song sheets. After the war, she became involved in the American civil rights movement and refused to perform for segregated audiences. In a lifelong social experiment aimed at neutralising the toxicity of difference, she adopted 12 children from various countries as her extended family.
Underscoring her public stance against social and racial injustice, Baker developed a quiet, practical resistance that focused on creating private freedom. As Christina Svendsen notes, ‘her refusals became silences that ate away at the edges of what was said’. She did not write a conventional memoir; she played film roles subversively; she danced in ways that broke the rules even for jazz; she compromised her status as a sex symbol by adopting a dozen children. And she turned down a house by Adolf Loos.
Baker’s resistance is crystallised in the house she chose for herself, rather than the ones so aspiringly proffered by her Modernist admirers. Neither modern nor even in Paris, the Château des Milandes is a 14th-century castle in the Dordogne. She first rented it in 1937 and later purchased it, ultimately going bankrupt in an attempt to hold on to it. Her ‘dream home’, therefore, turns out to be a rambling utopia in a rural idyll, not an extremist modern exemplar in the city. In a dream rhetoric she internalises her surroundings, constructing an inner world, in effect the reverse of Loos’s notion of the primitivist dependency on externalised culture. Rooted in this historic, personally conceived and intimate domestic milieu, she finally floats into view, no longer a surface with nothing behind it.
This piece is featured in the AR’s March 2018 issue on Women in Architecture – click here to purchase a copy