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Adolf Loos (1870-1933)

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.

Biography

Adolf Loos
1870-1933
Key buildings
Café Museum (1899)
Kärntner Bar (1908)
Goldman & Salatsch (1910)
Villa Müller (1928)
Key texts
Potemkin City (1898)
Architecture (1910)
Ornament and Crime (1913)
Quote
‘The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use’

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!’

Reputations

This article is part of a series of essays that follow the trajectory of various well known and less well known architects. Read more at architectural-review.com/reputations

Illustration: Andre Carrilho

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