The Architectural Gadfly of Vienna
The Origins of Ornament and Crime

As if to distance himself from the culture that celebrated and commissioned Otto Wagner, the renegade architect, Adolf Loos (1870-1933) posed for photographs as a common man, a man of the people,  He glowered into the camera, dropping his head as if contemplating a bull-like charge. The lower half of his face is obscured by a large brush of a mustache, a common artifact of males of the period. Untrimmed and unkempt, a strange lack of attention from an architect who was concerned with form above all else, this formless facial adornment was a shambles compared to the neat uplifted curls at the ends of Josef Hoffmann’s mustache. To offset the rampaging mustache, Loos has dressed himself neatly and conservatively, as an upper middle class intellectual. From his carefully parted hair to his clasped hands, and neatly crossed legs, his pose suggests restraint. There is none of the trappings of grandeur that covered Otto Wagner. This is a stripped down man who has something to say. This is Adolf Loos whose mission it would be to damn decoration.

Adolf Loos

Loos came from a family of artisans and craftpersons in what is today the Czech Republic, and, according to his biographer, Panayotis Tournikiotis, was an indifferent student, indifferently educated. His education at the Superior Technical School in Dresden was interrupted by military service. He was unable to complete the course of studies but, as Tournikiotis noted, “His apprenticeship in the technical and construction of Arts and Crafts schools gave him experience uncommon among beaux-arts architects.” But, after studying in Dresden, Loos took an important step that distinguished him from his more highly trained counterparts, the went to America and visited Chicago and New York, the sites of the most modern architecture in the world. He remained in the country for three years, from 1893–96, a period of transition into modern technology in architecture. He was at the Chicago World’s Fair, present for the homage to Louis Sullivan who famously stated, in 1896, “..form ever follows function.” These new cities, sprouting skyscrapers, highlight how out of step with the modern world the city Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire itself had become. The author stated that “..Loos felt suffocated in the confined and conservative atmosphere of the declining Austro-Hungarian empire, and he thought that in America he would discover realism and freedom, a land where everything was possible. This former student of the Arts and Crafts who had wanted to become a mechanic was probably seduced by the American myth of practicality and hard work.” The courtly culture of the city of Vienna was an artifact of another century where nobility, now useless, waltzed while self made people were creating a new American Empire across the ocean. Loos saw in the skyscrapers an architecture that was, in contrast to the Ringstrasse, Vienna’s pride and joy, a product of a democracy that thought in terms of function and utility because Americans were in too much of a hurry to worry about their titles and privileges. However, this is not to suggest that the skyscrapers, the buildings that defined the modernity of America’s big cities, were “modern” in appearance.

Designed by Gilman & Kendall and George B. Post in 1870, the Equitable Life Assurance Agency headquarters at 120 Broadway was considered a major breakthrough in the development of the skyscraper because of its skeletal steel frame, lightweight fireproof construction, and passenger elevators, a first in an office building.

The first skyscraper, constructed in 1870 was the Equitable Life Assurance Building, which soared one hundred and thirty feet into the New York skyline, thanks to the revolutionary elevator. Although this building was a technological marvel, being the first office building to have an elevator, its façade was incongruously historical–sporting French mansard roofs and columns on each story. The design of the exterior actually visually softened the seven odd stories into a mere five. In other words, the future of architecture had arrived but architects had no language for the technology. The impact of these years in America is hard to access but Loos was probably more impressed by the engineering than by the historicism and ornamentation that was still part of architectural practice, even in this most modern on places. Adolf Loos was in his mid-twenties during him time in America, and, if it is unclear how these travels impacted his final theories or even his final style, for ten years, he apparently pondered the problem of a style for a “modern” architecture. At some point after the trip to America and visits to New York and Chicago, Loos became convinced that a manifestation of the architectural form itself was quite sufficient and that no building needed to be adorned. The task of the architect to present a building, not a façade covered with decoration. The Viennese architect and architectural theorist, Adolf Loos realized that the enemy of the modern appearance of buildings and the approach to the question of architecture was simple–it was ornamentation.

Loos began writing as soon as he returned, in 1897, and he famously criticized Vienna as “a Potemkin city,” writing, “The building speculator would most dearly like to have his façades entirely plastered from top to bottom. It costs the least. At the same time, he would be acting in the truest, most correct, and most artistic way. But people would not want to move into the building. And so, in the interest of rentability, the landlord is forced to nail on a particular kind of façade, and only this kind.” He noted the inauthenticity of the façades, describing them as “nailed-on poured cement.” As Loss announced, early in his writing career, “It would have been the artist’s task to find a new formal language for new materials. Everything else is imitation.” It is possible to imagine that these thoughts came to him as he watched the skyscrapers in New York and Chicago “nailing” ornamentation that did “belong” to the building itself.

In her book, Fashioning Vienna: Adolf Loos’s Cultural Criticism, Janet Stewart observed that when he returned to Vienna in1896 after his three year journey in America, Loos used his international gloss as a letter of introduction to the avant-garde intellectual and artistic society of Vienna. He wrote for newspapers, explaining American architecture and culture to his readers and used his new perspectives to question the values of Austrian and Viennese society. As Stewart wrote, “In a series of article in the Neue Freie Presse on the occasion of Kaiser Franz Joesf’s Jubilee Exhibition (1898), Loos justified his critique by arguing that his American experiences had allowed him to gain a new perspective on Austrian culture.” As a result of his literary notoriety, Loos was able to design the critically acclaimed renovation of the interior of the Café Museum, originally the Café zum Museum, in Vienna. The architect did not belong to the Secession and yet his work was regarded as “modern,” but, in this transition period, the critical reaction was confused. Perhaps vocabulary was lacking or still in a state of becoming, and certainly the architects themselves were caught in an in between state when “modern” was attempting to break away from that which was historical.

Café Museum in the 1930s with the original furnishings by Josef Zotti

Located behind the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Secession Building, the redesign of 1899 shocked the easily alarmed citizens of Vienna. In the Café Museum, Loos daringly used bentwood chairs with the curved backs that echoed the curved arched ceilings. Traditionally cafés had large cushioned chairs, but Loos used the small scaled down seats and made the most of a large space. The artists defended the defiant chair and rushed to adopt the café as their own, naming it the “Secessionisten-Tschecherl” or the “Café Nihilismus.” One could find the painters Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka rubbing shoulders with the writer Franz Werfel, while the philosopher to be, Ludwig Wittgenstein, sat quietly, nursing his coffee. The walls were painted green and Loos made the chair assertively red. The critic Wilhelm Schöldermann reviewed the new café in Wiener Rundschau in 1899, writing in the exuberant affected manner of the fin-de-siècle: “A curious event is the talk of the town’s ‘closed circles” Vienna has a new coffeehouse! You mean ‘Café Secession? No we mean Café Museum.’ Maybe you should call it ‘Café Secession,’ for what is modern about it has nothing to do with the ‘Secession’ whatsoever. For the Secession, tradition in nothing; for Adolf Loos everything. Since the Secession works with ornamentation, Loos would kill ornament. The Secession would stamp the applied arts through the individuality of the creative artist; Loos proceeds from individuality of the materials. The Secession is decorative and strives to make the construction fit the decoration; for Loos the construction is everything..What have we profited from this coffeehouse? What does it teach us? It shows that simplicity and elegance spring from the same root: from clarity. It dispenses with everything which is dispensable; it not only shows how the useful is contained in the beautiful but also how the beautiful is contained in the useful.”

Restored Interior of the Café Museum

This architectural debut allowed Loos to make his mark and gave his copious theoretical writings credence. The reviews make clear that his position on ornament and its banishment has been manifested in his architectural work. He published in Vienna and in Munich, then in Berlin, gaining an international reputation. Julius Meier-Graefe, well-known art writer and historian, described Loos as “architect and writer, artist and thinker.” In 1898 he published his firsts book of writings, Spoken into the Void, 1897-1900, for the Neue Freie Presse. His main targets were the Secessionist Movement and Josef Hoffmann and Josef Olbrich in particular. In Germany, targeted the Werkbund and its interest in industrial products, just as in Vienna he had complained of the Wiener Werkstätte and its philosophy of applied arts. Loos particularly objected to the total control of the architect of the interior design or the Art Nouveau desire for Gesamtkunstwerka as seen in Josef Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet. For Hoffmann, the achievement of the Palais is its internal harmonies that derived from his oversight of every element of the home. In contrast, Loos believed that the exterior of the home, the public face or male aspect, should be modest and self-effacing. The interior space, or the female aspect of architecture, should be divided into separate boundaries and defined by the way in which these spaces intersected and established their boundaries in a subtle interplay. Once the transitions among functions were created and once the relationships among these areas was settled then any furnishing must be decided by the inhabitants. Loos, in other words, provided the setting and the people who lived in the home were allowed to create the ever changing character of each room over time. 

For Loos, cladding–think again of the idea of clothing or covering–was the prime foundation and raison d’être for architecture. In stressing surface, Loos was thinking of space which is defined by cladding it or by dressing the void. In a reverse of conventional thinking, he would not think of structure until after he had considered cladding. Loos began his 1898 essay, “The Principle of Cladding” by discussing carpets. “The architect’s general task is to provide a warm and livable space. Carpets are warm and livable. He decides for this reason to spread out one carpet on the floor and to hang up four to form the four walls. But you cannot build a house out of carpets. Both the carpet on the floor and the tapestry on the wall require a structural frame to hold them in the correct place. To invent this form is the architect’s second task.” Always interested in evolution and human progress, Loos declared that the first shelter was animal skins and the more solid or fixed buildings came much later.

Perhaps more prolific as a writer than as an architect, Loos had plenty of targets in his war against ornament and decoration. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Vienna had embraced Jungenstil, with supposedly advanced architects applying it to new architecture that was independent of government taste, raising the question of appropriateness and suitability of an architectural style to the purpose and function of the building itself. As was pointed out earlier, the Ringstrasse buildings were functionally modern but in form but were deliberately old-fashioned and historical, stressing tradition and history. So, when faced with the choice between art nouveau and historicism, how could one formulate the concept of the modern? When considering the modern as form, it is useful to think in terms of a tabula rasa, a blank slate, starting with a clean surface, wiping away the past. Much of what Loos wrote was what could be described as cultural criticism and this large body of work is overshadowed by his most famous work, a culmination of years of critique of fin-de-siècle European society.

Ornament and Crime Lecture

In 1910 Loos wrote his most famous broadside, Ornament and Crime, in which he seems to equate the two. He was uncompromising in his stance against decoration, declaring: “The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.” He noted that, in the face of the historicism and eclecticism that was infecting architecture, it seemed that the early twentieth century had no style of its own and instead subsisted on borrowing and quotation from the past. He wrote in a florid style that is alien to us today, “Weep not. Behold! What makes our period so important is that it is incapable of producing new ornament. We have outgrown ornament, ew have struggled through to a state without ornament..Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls!” Loos lamented, “Humanity is still to groan under the slavery of ornament. Man has progressed enough for ornament to not longer produce erotic sensations in him..Man had progressed far enough to find pleasure in purchasing a plain cigarette case, even if it cost the same as the one that was ornamented.” As he watched the exuberant ornamentation of Art Nouveau sporting its splendors in Vienna and other capitals in Europe, Loos warned, “The enormous damage and devastation caused in aesthetic development by the revival of ornament would easily be made light of, for no one, not even the power of the state can halt mankind’s evolution.” In other words, this late flourish of decoration was regressive and could do little to halt progress. The architect believed ornamentation to be “primitive” a sign of a certain lack of civilization and that the lack of decoration was an indication of an evolution towards a higher level of cultural sophistication. While the Jungenstil architects of Vienna and the designers of the Werkstätte were thought of as cutting edge, Loos was even more radical and evolved in his purity. His architectural projects were private ones provided, for the most part, by a rarified clientele, who were interested in experimenting with modernity in the form of architecture. In his essay on ornament, Loos understood the cultural role that decoration had played in society and, therefore, he did not propose removing historical ornamentation all together, but he also understood that the culture had to evolve away from embellishment that served no purpose. Loos wrote, “Ornament is not merely produced by criminals, it commits a crime itself by damaging national economy and therefore its cultural development..Ornament is wasted manpower and therefore wasted health. It has always been like this. But today it also means wasted material and both mean wasted capital. As ornament is no longer organically related to our culture, it is no longer the expression of our culture. The ornament that is produced today bears no relation to us, or to any other human or the world at large. It  has no potential for development.”

Ornament and Crime, English edition

In 1913, this book was translated and published in French. In the Parisian circles, Ornament and Crime was understood as a polemic against ornament and was interpreted as a call for purity. However, Loos was not fundamentally opposed to ornament or decoration per se, just ornament that was not organic or disconnected from its own time. As Brian Andrews pointed out in his article “Ornament and Materiality in the Work of Adolf Loos,” Loos in 1924, wrote in “Ornament and Education:” “I affirmed twenty-six years ago that the evolution of humanity would cause ornament to disappear from functional objects, an evolution which would allow its ineluctable and logical path…But I never thought like the purists who pushed this reasoning to the absurd, that ornament should be systematically abolished. It is only where the passage of time makes it disappear that it cannot be reborn.” Andrews then brought up the issue of “masking,” a cousin of cladding. “Loos was operating in turn of the century Vienna, a most vibrant place intellectually, socially and artistically. Loos used Freud’s idea of masking in his domestic architecture. Freud spoke about how each person wears a mask, in other words, one cannot tell what another person is thinking by looking at their face. Loos manifested this idea in his houses. Loos’s interiors were conceived as a place of retreat from the shocking alterations in the public realm. The street or public elevations were often stripped of all ornament and were in effect dumb.” 


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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