Sunday, August 29, 2010

Spoken into the Void: Adolf Loos and the Search for Truth

Art, which made the floor under the ancient's foot and the vault of the church ceiling over the Christian's head, is now cramped onto boxes and bracelets.  The times are worse than one thinks.   
- Goethe

The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use. 
 - Adolf Loos, "Ornament and Crime" (1908)
The outspoken critic of ornamentation, who nevertheless could not quite live up to his own ideal. Adolf Loos: the declared foe of the Viennese Secession and the German Werkbund. Pevsner’s “enigma.” While his texts, when taken as individual essays, are chock-full of inherent contradictions, Janet Stewart contends that the complexities and contradictions of Loos’ texts are a reflection of the modern age of which he saw himself a part. She sees “a ‘new’ Loos, simultaneously ‘modern’ and ‘traditional,’ whose sense of paradox identifies him as a sensitive barometer of the tensions characteristic of Viennese modernity” (9).


The evolution of Loos’ thought stemmed from two formative, contemporaneous experiences: the three years he spent living and working in the United States, and the state of Viennese architecture—and culture—that greeted him upon his return at the end of the 19th century. While the specific details of his time spent in the United States and the exact origins of the country’s influence upon him remain a mystery, two things are known: he worked as a craftsman, and he visited the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. The evidence of the influence of his experience in the United States—however debatable his actual activities there—lies in Loos’ body of written work that he would produce over the next four decades.

Loos has been cast as a man of paradox… both in his writing and in his design. However quixotic his rhetoric may initially seem, a moral search for truth and unfettered—or uncloaked—honesty prevails over the course of his thinking. Though at times, his solution entails nothing more than retreat into an idealized past, it’s a past that he sees as having honestly been developed. On the other hand, he speaks of, and often accomplishes an embracement of the modern, through truth in construction... by refusing to “beautify” and conceal the true nature of materials, of construction, and by refusing to employ obsolete practices of decoration.

It is difficult to pigeonhole Adolf Loos, yet that is exactly what many historians have done. Most studies take one of three stances: 1) they define the man by his most famous statement (ornament is crime), 2) they accuse him of hypocrisy (while he preached the absolute removal of ornamentation, his buildings would seem to directly contradict this), or 3) they cry resignation (Loos was a complex man—an “enigma”, in the words of Pevsner—and the disparities between his work and his words—because of a lack of evidence—cannot be explained).

In his body of architectural work, Loos does not contradict himself. He does not long for a return to a classical age, a return to ancient Greece. For modern man, the use of classical inventions, ornamentation of ages past, does not present a problem. Rather, he takes from the past what he can use, and exerts his own creative energy on the innovation and invention of the present. In “Ornament and Crime,” Loos explains:
Lack of ornamentation is a sign of intellectual strength. Modern man uses the ornaments of earlier or foreign cultures as he likes and as he sees fit. He concentrates his own inventive power on other things. (Opel, 175)


Adolf Loos was a product of—or more specifically, a reaction against—his times. As his fellow countrymen fought to erect barriers to outside influence, Loos embraced the cross-cultural free exchange of ideas as a boon to the progress of humanity. While he aligned himself with the members of the Viennese Secession in dismissing the architecture of the Ringstrasse as the mindless retreat into bygone eras, Loos criticized the Secession’s answer—the arbitrary fabrication of a new, “modern style”—as just as hollow as the preceding chapter.


With the ascent of an Austrian middle class—the liberal bourgeoisie—in the middle of the 18th century, came a change in the Viennese approach to building. The heart of the new approach involved developing the Ringstrasse, previously a fortified wall that had encircled medieval Vienna, and at the time, an open tract of land—a ring—cutting off the center of the city from the outer developments. The new, liberal ruling class planned to build upon the open land of the ring, erecting “a series of public buildings expressing the values of a pax liberalis” (Schorske, 31). Monumental in scale (see the interior of the Parliament building, Fig. 1), the buildings came to represent the triumph of the bourgeoisie, which had broken the chains of a dogmatic and stagnant past.

Fig. 1: Parliament Hall Interior (Hansen)

However, with no historical reference point of its own, “whenever it strove to express its values in architecture, it retreated into history” (Schorske, 36).

Loos spoke out against “the apartment buildings inhabited by the upper bourgeoisie, criticizing their false facades which functioned as empty signifiers, creating the illusion of a city inhabited only by the aristocracy rather than celebrating its actual modern bourgeoisie character” (Stewart, 77). Foreseeing the character of the twentieth-century modern man, Loos—in “Potemkin City”—contends that there is no shame in living within one’s means:
Further spawning Loos’ resentment of the State was the way in which the buildings of the Ringstrasse concealed the nature of their use. Even though the rise of a commercial/capitalistic society had coincided with the rise of the bourgeoisie, Ringstrasse architecture refused to acknowledge this:
Poverty is no disgrace. Not everyone can be born in a baronial hall. But to try and make others think so is ridiculous and immoral. We should stop feeling ashamed of living in the same building as many other people of the same social status. We should stop feeling ashamed of the fact that there are building materials we cannot afford. (Opel and Opel, 28)
At the forefront of the critique of the Ringstrasse was the established Austrian architect, Otto Wagner. Wagner denounced “the masking of modernity and its functions behind the stylistic screens of history” (Schorske, 62). This refusal to accept the retreat into history and the application of appropriate historical styles to the buildings of Vienna fueled the formation of the Secession. In the beginning, Loos took up arms with Wagner and his followers, which included Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich.
The dwellings located over the businesses subordinated them, absorbing them visually into their facades. Commercial needs were not permitted to dominate the face of the residential blocks or the social function of representation which the buildings had been designed to satisfy. (Schorske, 60)
Concurrently, the influence of the English Arts and Crafts Movement had begun to assert itself in Austria and other German-speaking countries. As a result, a fierce defensive nationalism began to take shape in architecture. Having seen the reality of English life, and the influence of English and American ideas upon technological progress, Loos fought to subvert this anti-English sentiment when he returned to his home country. “His analysis (of the nationalist discourse) is based on his rejection of the ‘false patriotism… (of) the Arts and Crafts Movement in Vienna” (Stewart, 53).


Wagner would lend voice to the Secession’s aims, predicting “that modern life itself would compel architects to find ‘a unique style to represent us” (Schorske, 83). At this point, Loos’ views begin to depart from those espoused by the Secession. The architect cannot seek a self-representational “style”—it must evolve naturally and organically. This is the basis for Loos’ criticism of the Secession and later the Werkbund. Loos would take issue with the motto of the Secession, as well: “To the Age Its Art, to Art Its Freedom” (Schorske, 84). This statement is inherently paradoxical to Loos. To Loos, art is eternal, while architecture and building should arise naturally of necessity from the modern age. Art cannot be free if it is bound to any specific “age”. Art endures—it is transcendent of epochs and stands up to posterity. To Loos, “combining art with a material function is a profanation of the great goddess.” In his essay “Architecture,” Loos wrote in 1910 (though he had previously voiced this opinion in one form or another several times in the decade leading up to this article):
Only when we have got rid of the great misunderstanding that art is something that can be harnessed to a practical purpose, only when the fallacious catchphrase ‘applied art’ has disappeared from the vocabulary of all nations, will we have the architecture of our times. (Opel and Opel, 83)
And so it was that Loos began his attack on a second front: against “modern” Viennese architecture. While he embraced the ideal of shunning a cowardly retreat into history and historicism, to him, the Secession, and later the Werkbund, was committing—every bit as egregiously as the old guard—the sin of arbitrarily slapping a style on a building and labeling it “modern”. This is no more apparent than in Fabiani’s Portois and Fix (Fig. 2), and in Plecnik’s Villa Langer (Fig. 3).

Fig. 2: Portois and Fix (Fabiani)
Fig. 3: Villa Langer (Plecnik)

Adolf and Daniel Opel explain in their introduction to On Architecture:
He was convinced that to give artists a determining role in design would mean attitudes to design and production would of necessity be influenced by the artists’ subjective approach to work and their often inflated individualism. For Loos the Werkbund was merely a continuation of the endeavors of the Sezession. It was not from the inventors or destroyers of forms that Loos expected lasting innovations to emerge, but from the simple craftsman in his workshop and from his craft tradition, which had fostered and perfected the basic types of all objects of everyday use, tried and tested over time. (10)
Even Otto Wagner, whom Loos admired for his use of material and spatial composition, was caught up in the Viennese wave of architectural rebellion. The stylistic decoration—Art Nouveau in character—of Wagner’s buildings at Linke Wienzeile are a perfect illustration of this.

Fig. 4: Buildings at Linke Wienzeile 38 & 40 (Wagner)

However modern the construction and organization of the building, Loos would argue that the applied, invented ornament arose arbitrarily and subverts the modern essence of the building by masking it with decoration.


Ornamentation is propagated, Loos reasons in “Ornament and Crime,” because it is all that survives from cultures of the past. Everything else has been exhausted by utility. Since it lacks the functional value of everyday objects, and therefore remains intact, ornament is passed on from age to age (167). To apply ornament—whether to one’s self, to everyday objects of utility, or to a building—is a criminal act to Loos, for several reasons. Above all, the design and creation of ornament wastes money, time and human labor that could better be spent on more worthwhile endeavors and innovations. Furthermore, ornamentation is no longer useful, so the arbitrary, subjective reinvention of ornament acts to resuscitate something that has disappeared of necessity. As early as 1898, Loos delineates his stance on ornamentation:
Fortunately, the great development of culture in this century has left ornamentation far behind… The lower the cultural level, the greater the degree of ornamentation. Ornament is something that must be overcome… As it progresses, culture frees one object after another from ornamentation. (Opel, 109)
Consequently, modern ornamentation is primitive to Loos, signifying a regression into the past. 

While ornamentation of the past was superfluous, it was not without some purpose. Until the modern age, Loos explains, humans moved at a much slower pace, and their gazes were directed upwards. As a result, the ornamentation of buildings engaged the human eye from the street. With the hurried pace of modern life, however, this no longer holds true:
A modern person, who regards ornament as a symptom of the artistic superfluity of previous ages and for that reason holds it sacred, will immediately recognize the unhealthy, the forced—painfully forced—nature of modern ornament. (Opel, 173)
Ornamentation, Loos explains, holds cultural significance for certain groups of people, and that it would be wrong to remove ornamentation in specific situations:

In ‘Ornament and crime’, he maintains that the Aristocrat is correct to respect the social meaning that the production of ornament still holds for sections of the population…. Loos describes the alienating effect of stripping ornament still imbued with social meaning from those who have nothing to replace it… (Stewart, 87)
For modern, civilized societies, however, the application of ornamentation is a sign of cultural backwardness, and a person within such a society who engages in ornamentation is either “a criminal or a degenerate” (Opel, 167). Even so, as many have been ready to point out, Loos’ buildings—while nothing like those of the historicists before him or his Secessionist contemporaries—are not without ornamentation. While the effect (and effectiveness) of Loos’ use of ornamentation may be debated, the ornament that he does include in his designs is not without purpose, and consequently remains consistent with his critique of ornament.


The most common critique of Loos revolves around the perceived disparity between his writings against ornamentation and his employment of classical ornamentation in some of his designs. How can Loos, the biggest critic of purposeless decoration, employ ornamentation in his buildings? Even Loos’ admirers, who acknowledge his contributions to modern architectural thought, seem to feel the need to qualify their praise. Theo van Doesburg, in On European Architecture, prefaces his commendation of Loos with a disclaimer, explaining, “Adolf Loos, no matter how many classical rudiments characterize his architecture, nevertheless belongs among the architects who think architecturally” (68). So, is Loos, despite his ability to “think architecturally,” convicted by his own words? Before answering this question, we must turn to Stewart, whose analysis of the paradoxical nature of Loos’ texts may explain the apparent incongruity of Loos’ buildings.

Stewart holds that Loos’ essays are inherently contradictory because that is the nature of modern life—simultaneously reaching to the future while clinging to the past, to classical antiquity. She writes:
Excavating Loos’s cultural criticism… (shows) how both the form and the content of his texts articulate he experience of being torn between modernity and antiquity, modernism and traditionalism, change and stability, Neu-Wien and Alt-Wien, old and new, global and local, city and country, exterior and interior, public and private, centre and periphery, heterogeneity and homogeneity, display and disguise, destruction and reconstruction. (169)
Loos’ contradiction as a mirror of the times exists, as Stewart has convincingly proven, in his texts, and it seems logical that this same argument would stand in relation to his architectural work. Does Loos turn to ornamentation because he is “a sensitive barometer of the tensions characteristic of Viennese modernity,” struggling simultaneously with a desire to embrace the advance of the modern age and an inability to break free from the chains of antiquity?

While this theory seems quite appropriate in an evaluation of Loos’ written work, his architecture admits no such contradiction. Rather, it follows a quite coherent form of thinking, and while its physical realization evolves throughout Loos’ career, it remains consistent with his central tenets. This returns us to the question of why Loos utilized ornamentation.

To Loos, ornamentation—in some forms and on certain levels—still served a purpose. It acted to engage the pedestrian and the visitor with the building, and it held cultural meaning for much of the population. As Loos concluded that the faster pace of modern life should have eliminated the application of ornament to appeal to humans’ upwardly-directed vision, he only takes ornamentation—when he uses it—as far as the first one or two levels of the exterior of his buildings. The Goldman and Salatsch building on the Michaelerplatz in Vienna (Fig. 5) illustrates this point perfectly.

Fig. 5: Goldman & Salatsch, Vienna (Loos)

The two lower floors are public, the business premises of the outfitters for which the building is named, while the upper floors are reserved for private use. As the street life is only connected to the business levels, and the public interacts with the shop, the bottom floors are created with an ornamental vocabulary. The Doric columns call attention to the entrance and serve to draw the customer into the store, while the ornamental details above the entrance appeal to the eye of the pedestrian. Because there is no connection between the private upper floors and the street, there is no need for the superfluousness of ornament. Therefore, it remains unadorned, saving material, time and money.

When he used ornamentation, Loos used classical ornamentation, both because of its symbolic significance and because it meant that he would not be wasting any energy or time on reinvention of ornament, the creation of a new “style”. Furthermore, he believed classical ornamentation to be better than anything man has invented since—whether that is a valid assessment or not is not the point of this argument. It is a value judgment. Loos consistently adheres to this opinion when moving between his texts and his buildings, and it coincides with his idea that the architect should make no drastic changes in form unless they are for the better. He believed that he could not improve upon classical form, so he devoted his efforts to using those forms to create meaningful and practical spaces.

Fig. 6: Haus Scheu (Loos)

On many of his later buildings, including Haus Scheu (Fig. 6), Loos practically removed ornamentation altogether, freeing himself from the submissiveness of designing ornamentation, and allowing himself the time to develop his innovative spatial concept of the Raumplan. To Loos, he—and consequently all who would encounter his ideas—would derive much greater benefit from his study of spatial composition in three dimensions:
I had something that would have been worth showing (in Stuttgart), namely a solution for the organization of living rooms in three dimensions, not two, from one story to the next, as has been the case up to now. This invention of mine would have saved humanity much time and labor in its development. (Opel and Opel, 185)
The realization of this concept, executed in the Moller House (Fig. 7), among many of his projects, came into being only because Loos did not allow himself to be bound by the cumbersome rules and unnecessary exercises that accompany the invention of ornament. 

Fig. 7: Moller House (Loos)

Adolf Loos used ornamentation when it served a purpose. He used classical ornamentation because he could not “invent” a better ornamental language, and he focused his energy on his own theories of the Raumplan. In “Ornament and Education,” Loos clarifies the position he had originally taken, reacting against the Ringstrasse:
Twenty-six years ago I maintained that the use of ornamentation on objects of practical use would disappear with the development of mankind, a constant and consistent development… By that I did not mean what some purists have carried ad absurdum, namely that ornament should be systematically and consistently eliminated. What I did mean was that where it had disappeared as a necessary consequence of human development, it could not be restored, just as people will never return to tattooing their faces. (Opel, 187)
So Loos abandoned the idea of ornamentation that had outlived its usefulness, such as the ornate detailing of a frieze or a cornice. He limited his application of ornament to the areas of his building it would serve to enhance the experience of the onlooker or the visitor. Taking at face value Loos’ brash assertion that linked ornamentation to crime, one could easily be misled into concluding that Loos’ architecture did not reach the ideal that he preached so vehemently. Upon closer inspection of his texts, applying what is said to his buildings, and looking within them at the innovations they contained, it becomes clear that all are the product of one mind, which produced a seemingly complex, but altogether coherent vision of architecture as a vehicle to improve the human experience.


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Loos, Adolf. On Architecture. Ed. Adolf and Daniel Opel. Riverside, California: Ariadne Press, 1995.

Loos, Adolf. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Ed. Adolf Opel. Riverside, California: Ariadne Press, 1998.

Mang, Karl and Eva (editors). Viennese Architecture 1860-1930 in Drawings. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1979.

Münz, Ludwig and Gustav Künstler. Adolf Loos: Pioneer of Modern Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1966.

Pevsner, Nikolaus. Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1960.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.

Stewart, Janet. Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Loos’s Cultural Criticism. London: Routledge, 2000.

van Doesburg, Theo. On European Architecture: Complete Essays from Het Bouwbedrijf 1924-1931. Basel, Germany: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1990.

Completed for Professor Thomas Hubka's "Historic Concepts of Architecture" graduate course at UWM, Fall 2003.

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