Affirming authentic tradition as well as utility, even comfort, while attacking the Vienna Sucession as indulgently decorative, Adolf Loos is no simple anti-architect.
A new overview, reappraising and reinterpreting Adolf Loos (1870–1933) can begin and perhaps end with questions of art and artlessness. For the work of this early modern architect, in theory and practice, is often enough taken as only an extreme case of nihilistic early modern iconoclasm, out to deny art as such and prove all the braver for it. Ironically, Loos is often made to sound like a Marcel Duchamp of anti-architecture even though, ironically enough, he is somehow also cast as a patron saint of ultra-rational architectural functionalism.
Different in theory but likewise negative is also a persistent view of the Viennese Loos as a happily heartless architectural counterpart to the Vienna Circle of ‘logical positivists’ in philosophy, with its summary nullifications of whatever might be accused of not being empirical as hopelessly metaphysical – that circle from which Ludwig Wittgenstein, having in some measure made it possible, walked away. Scandalously enough, Loos did make something in the order of a claim that architecture, or, rather, the private house, should not be a matter of art; though as with Nietzsche, it would be dangerous to lose track of the ironist’s twists. Rather than contend with the terms of the nihilistic view we might seek to open up the question by teasing out Loos’s artfulness, taking Loos more artistically seriously in a variety of aspects.
Misconstrual of Loos has only worsened now that being all too well known an artist has come to imply being a media ‘star’, identifiable by performing a role in an art world that is a realm of entertainment rather than by producing notable works of art. Here Loos himself does not help his case by having been a bon vivant who liked creating a stir while managing not to ruffle the basic persona of a scrupulously groomed Anglophile (and Ameriphile) variety of the turn-of-the-century artist dandy. And as far as the art of architecture, specifically, was concerned, some ambiguity was inevitable. It had long seemed a commonplace that what made a mere non-art building into a work of architectural art was the superaddition of ornament borrowed from one or another canonical historical style (Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical), when Loos came along and claimed that such a conception was an affront to urbanity. The sophisticated modern city dweller should know better: applied ornamentation, like tattooing, should be evidence of low civility. Surely it was wrongheaded to think that ornament was what made an otherwise unqualified building architectural art: if anything, in modern times ornament was vain and vulgar.
In line with William Morris in theory, if not with the Viennese ‘Secession’ as offshoot of the Morrisonian Arts and Crafts movement, for designer-artists to be handing over to craftsmen ‘artistic’ designs for servile execution, no matter how up-to-date, signalled the ruination of craft traditions which had otherwise held artistic authenticity. A valid architecture should be like unselfconscious, unpretentious, local vernacular building, the praises of which are sung in his text ‘Architecture’ (1910). No wonder confusion set in about it being a fine thing for a building to amount to art, and about what, if anything, was to be the role of an architect who agreed with what Loos was saying. ■