Adolf Loos Architecture 1910 Essay

Written Works

Among Adolf Loos’ many essays his most well known work is “Ornament and Crime”, published in 1908. The work basically summarized his theory on art and ornament. Loos considered ornamentation an unnecessary hindrance to the advancement of society. Ornamentation was immoral and degenerate, and the only way to regulate modern society was to suppress ornamentation. In the essay he compares the Papuan people to ornamented humans. Their tattoos are a way in which these people decorated themselves. Loos attributes this behavior to their “primitive” lifestyles and lack of advancement. The “modern,” or western, man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or degenerate. Only children and the Papuans would ornament themselves.

Loos goes on to declare art as erotic and ornamental. The cross was the first visual ornament. The intersection of horizontal and vertical lines represented male penetration and thus its appearance in art makes art erotic.

To Loos, the evolution of culture calls for the removal of ornament from objects of daily use. The urge for simplicity is justified as ornamentation is linked to style, which, like fashion, changes with each era. Once an object goes out of style it becomes obsolete, and so ornamentation is wasteful. Loos argues that ornamentation is also uneconomical. The removal of ornamentation would mean less work hours and more pay.

The main themes of the excessive waste and triviality of ornamentation are echoed in all of Loos’ other works. Essays such as “Potemkin City” and “Poor Little Rich Man” criticize the unnecessary decorative trend of Venetian society at the time in architecture, interior decorating, and culture. His 1898 essay “Principles of Building” stressed the importance of the use of materials in architecture rather than its outside appearance. A 1910 essay, “Architecture,” explained some of the differences in expectations in a home’s exterior and interior. He differentiated art and architecture by stating that houses were essential and meant to please everybody. Art was free to appeal to esoteric audiences. Architecture serves its inhabitants. Loos’s most famous catchphrase was that “form follows function,” and he had no qualms about reiterating this thought throughout all of his work

Ornament in the twentieth century was linked to a wider debate about how to develop a new style representative of a rapidly changing society. Within the context of fin-de-siècle Vienna, the argument against the use of ornament led by architect Adolf Loos was highly influential on contemporary and later architects. His essay ‘Ornament and Crime’, published in 1908, sets out his strongly held views on stopping unnecessary ornamentation while attacking the work of the Vienna Secession.

His main line of reasoning in ‘Ornament and Crime’ is that the use of ornamentation is stopping contemporary architects from finding a new visual language appropriate to the modern age; ‘the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use.’[1] Ornament in his mind ‘represents backwardness, or even a degenerative tendency,’ Loos strongly rejects historicism.[2] He is also concerned with labour conditions, and believes it would improve the lives of workers to stop production: ‘lack of ornament results in reduced working hours and an increased wage.’[3] Kenneth Frampton says Loos had interpreted contemporary practice as ‘craft slavery.’[4] Not just concerned with the producers of ornament, Loos also focuses on inhabitants of buildings, he wants ‘to cater for people with modern nerves and sees as his task the elimination of all that might disturb their way of living.’[5] His impulse was led by the belief that architecture could shape people’s habits and generally affect their lives.

Loos believed some critics misinterpreted his essay; in 1924 he stated: “I never meant that decoration should be ruthlessly and systematically done away with… Only when time has made it disappear, can it never be applied again.’[6] His strong belief that ornamentation is unnecessary led him to believe this would eventually be realised by society, leading to new forms taking over. It is important to remember that Loos’s Modernism was not decontextualizing, rather he was looking back on history and placing his work in relation to the evolution of architecture as necessary for changing society.[7] While some elements of classicism were in his mind unsuitable for the modern age, like window surrounds, Loos frequently employed others, for example the column.[8]

Looking at the Steiner House (1910) [Fig.1] as a case study we can see the manifestation of his ideas. The main façade to the street makes use of strong symmetry and geometry, with simple shapes and lines, and a strong monochromatic impact. The windows are set directly into the wall plane, with no ornamentation. The back façade [Fig.2] is even more simplified and stripped back, instead of continuing the sloping roof of the front, the roof becomes flat and the façade consists of simple cubic massing and symmetrically placed windows set directly into the wall plane. The strong effect of the house upon the spectator does not come from colour or any form of decoration, but the strong geometry and lines. This was Loos’ vision for the modern age, and is in stark contrast to the Jugendstil style employed by the Vienna Secession architects of the same context.

The Steiner House ‘initiated a series of houses built in which Loos gradually evolved his conception of the Raumplan or ‘plan of volumes.’[9] This concept is key as it represents the beginning of working through the issue of interior space that Le Corbusier develops with his free plan.[10] In many ways Loos anticipated the work of the International Style architects, and his stance on ornament was fundamental to the reasoning of later architects.

– GM

[1] Adolf Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’, trans. Wilfried Wang in The architecture of Adolf Loos : an Arts Council exhibition, ed. Yehuda Safran and Wilfried Wang (London : The Council, 1985), 100.

[2] Adolf Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’, 101.

[3] Adolf Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’, 101.

[4] Kenneth Frampton, ‘Introduction’ in The architecture of Adolf Loos : an Arts Council exhibition, ed. Yehuda Safran and Wilfried Wang (London : The Council, 1985), 9.

[5] Ludwig Münz and Gustave Künstler, Adolf Loos, pioneer of modern architecture (London : Thames & Hudson, 1966), 31.

[6] Münz and Künstler, Adolf Loos, 51.

[7] Dietmar Steiner, ‘The Strength of the Old Masters: Adolf Loos and Antiquity’, in The architecture of Adolf Loos : an Arts Council exhibition, ed. Yehuda Safran and Wilfried Wang (London : The Council, 1985), 20.

[8] Münz and Künstler, Adolf Loos, 32.

[9] Frampton, The architecture of Adolf Loos, 11.

[10] Frampton, The architecture of Adolf Loos, 12.

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