ptah


LESLIE VAN DUZER
Adolf Loos
Readymade

 

Adolf Loos is surely best known for his masterful handling of the Raumplan, the design of space in three dimensions, and for his famously excessive essay Ornament and Crime in which he equates the application of ornament to a criminal act. But tonight I would like to posit the possibility that Loos's greatest legacy is not his magnificent play of space or his sardonic essays, but rather his tireless capacity to quote himself over and over again. For 35 years, Loos heeded his own dictate with great consistency: "Enough of the original geniuses! Let us repeat ourselves unceasingly!"1 Across a range of projects, from apartments to commercial interiors, from villas to housing blocks, in Vienna, Paris, Pilsen, Prague and Brno, Loos unapologetically deployed the same spatial figures, the same materials, even the same furnishings. He ordered imitations without hesitation and rejected innovations unhinged from genuine technological development. Rarely has an architect progressed so little over such a long career.

top

To appreciate Loos's preference for measured, evolutionary change, one must understand how he defined modernity. The dictionary offers two distinct definitions for the word modern. The most common use of the word is found in the second definition; it defines modern as that related to the latest and the experimental. The primary definition - the one embraced by Loos - defines modern as that related to the present period in history. A modern style was the 'correct' style for the present, no matter the moment in history; a modern man, by extension, was one who acts appropriately. According to Loos, the most modern of men - he who occupies the lowest rung on the social ladder but commands the highest respect - was the craftsman. The craftsman, with his deep respect for tradition and his finely calibrated adjustments to a slowly evolving culture - not the artist and definitely not the architect - was uniquely qualified to lead.

Loos immigrated to Vienna in 1896 and within two years managed to alienate himself from both those looking backwards and those looking forward, a rather inauspicious beginning for an aspiring young architect. In a series of intensely caustic essays published before his 30th year, Loos staked out his life-long positions on modernity, including extensive commentary on imitation and innovation. Rivaled only by the brilliant essays and aphorisms of his friend and fellow provocateur KARL KRAUS, Loos's provocative diatribes left few aspects of the decadent fin-de-siècle Viennese culture unscathed. He moved deftly without qualifiers between his critique of architecture and his condemnations of other everyday objects from underclothes to plumbing fixtures. His sharp tongue had a very long reach.

In his 1898 essay Potemkin City, Loos provocatively paralleled the Ringstrasse development in Vienna with the fabled Potemkin City, a canvas and cardboard construct erected to deceive Catherine the Great. His criticism does not target the controversial monuments that punctuate the Ringstrasse, or the 'scholarly archaeologists' who realized them, his champion GOTTFRIED SEMPER among them. Historical recreations of such high quality were beyond reproach. Rather the butt of Loos's criticism in this "tale of the deceiver deceived" was the infill between the monuments: the pretentious neo-Renaissance palazzos-turned-apartments with their nailed-on concrete garlands. The acceptance of one's place in society and the rejection of such transparent pretense were essential conditions for the emergence of a truly modern (correct) style. "Should we be ashamed to be nineteenth-century men and not men who want to live in a building whose architectural style belongs to an earlier age? If we ceased to be ashamed, you would see how quickly we would acquire an architecture suited to our own times."2

Loos was also highly critical of the excessive inventiveness of his contemporaries in the Vienna Secession. In his 1900 essay The Poor Little Rich Man, he told the story of a well-to-do client oppressed by his over-reaching and domineering architect. His argument against such excess was two pronged. Loos objected in principle to the Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art), for such claustrophobic environments rob the inhabitant of their personal history and any possibility for self-expression. Still more vehemently, Loos took issue with the very notion of applied art. He spared no words in his condemnation of Applied Art School professors who taught designers ('graphic artists') to slather objects of everyday use with newly invented ornament without imparting the slightest understanding of the crafts they were contorting. Such uninformed inventiveness, so thoroughly disconnected from tradition, had no possibility of being a meaningful measure of a culture.

top

Concerned more with being correct than being original, Loos wholly embraced and designed for well-established patterns of inhabitation. For each programmatic component (sleeping, entertaining, bathing), there was a customary and correct effect (intimate, noble, sanitary). "(...) The artist, the architect, first senses the effect that he intends to realize and sees the rooms he wants to create in his mind's eye. (...) These effects are produced by both the material and the form of the space."3 Loos's willingness to satisfy expectations engendered by tradition is evidenced by his repetitive use of specific program-space-material figures.

While the name Adolf Loos has become synonymous with the Raumplan (the complex stacking of spatial volumes realized in his suburban villas), the majority of his commissions were one-story apartment interiors in thick bodied, 19th-century buildings. The arrangement of space in plan and section was largely predetermined: an enfilade of two, three, four, and even five rooms strung along the street facade, linked by a central circulation path, entered perpendicular to the long axis. Within these confines, Loos distributed the domestic program predictably: the public spaces of the domicile - the dining room, salon(s), and occasional entry vestibule - were open to one another and flanked on one or both ends by private sleeping quarters. Centered, symmetrically framed passageways linked the public spaces and parted the furnishings, creating multiple seating clusters within a single space.

Loos's command over the section was essentially confined to his freestanding villas. Each spatial chunk of the Raumplan was shaped to give the appropriate effect for its designated program, each space well-defined using traditional architectural devices: local symmetries, bounded ceilings and floor planes, and centrifugally arranged furnishings - all moves that focused attention to the center of the room and reinforced a sense of interiority. Unlike in the apartment interiors, in the villas movement generally happens along the edges of each space. This figure repeats itself over and over: a place of stasis in the center, a path at the edge, discrete volumes linked by circulation threads.

Once each of the programmatic components - bedrooms, playrooms, service rooms, rooms for entertaining and rooms for solitude - was correctly configured and positioned, they had to be properly dressed. Materials, like spatial configurations, have commonly-held associations: mahogany is masculine, maple feminine; marble is noble, lacquer practical; tile is sanitary, wallpaper romantic. Gottfried Semper inspired Loos's belief that materials have the ability to exude their aura when and only when they are handled honestly and masterfully. Semper wrote: "Masking does not help (...) when behind the mask the thing is false or no good. In order that the material, the indispensable (in the usual sense of the expression) be completely denied in the artistic creation, its complete mastery is the imperative precondition."4 Loos's Law of Cladding followed: "We must work in such a way that a confusion of the material clad with its cladding is impossible."5 Painting cheap pine with white lacquer is no embarrassment, but covering pine with a mahogany stain is a pathetic act of deception that fails to achieve the desired effect. Loos was not arguing for a bare-all celebration of the natural properties of building materials; rather, he was pointing to the futility of flagrant pretensions.

With good reason, Loos scholars generally describe the architect's interiors room by room, acknowledging the importance of the program-material relationships: the lemonwood boudoir, mahogany dining room, the tiled bathroom. But what is missing from these descriptions, which is also missing from most accounts of the Raumplan describing it as a series of discrete stacked volumes, is any discussion of the spatial and material overlap between the rooms, that is, the architectural segues. Upon closer inspection, one notices that as the path of circulation connects one space to another, it drags along a connecting material thread. A walk through the Villa Müller in Prague is particularly instructive.

Just inside the front door, there are three distinct rooms: a green Opaxit (glass) entry vestibule, a white lacquered anteroom, and a burlap-clad cloakroom. While each space is individually and correctly dressed, there is one material that stitches them together; the red ceramic tile floor unites the entry sequence. Moving on from the anteroom up the stairs through a small vestibule and into the marble hall, the white paneling travels with us, while the parquet floor of the great hall and its marble cladding come to meet us in the vestibule. The marble dedicated to the living room ventures out of bounds, capturing one wall of the otherwise mahogany-clad dining room. The mahogany then migrates out of the dining room through an interior window, and up the banister to the bedroom level.

Another excellent example of material implicating space is HUGO SEMMLER's music room in Pilsen (1932). Each of the four walls is arranged symmetrically: a fireplace flanked by vitrines opposite a wide doorway leading to an adjacent room; two doors leading to a corridor opposite two windows facing the street. The crossing of these symmetrical arrangements creates a powerful 'sweet spot' in the geometric center of the space. The cladding, a wildly variegated black and white Skyros marble, unfolds around the room. Not only are adjacent slabs bookmatched, but the slabs are matched across the room creating a palatable tension in the center. The bewildering experience that results is comparable to the experience of refolding a large map inside a small car.

top

Loos moved seamlessly between the discussions of architecture and clothing, instructing us to dress our buildings and our bodies appropriately, that is, "in such a way that one stands out the least [Loos's emphasis]."6 If "modern man uses his clothing as a mask,"7 it followed that "the house should be mute on the outside and reveal all of its riches on the interior."8 The gentleman's suit and the villa's facade both contain significant slack between what is perceived and what actually is. While Loos satisfies assumptions on the surface, he deceives within the thickness of walls. One might reasonably assume, for example, that the two lower windows on the south facade of the Villa Müller reflect a common floor level on the interior, but they do not; in fact, a half level separates the floors. Such artful trickery continues throughout the interior. Structure is revealed and then alternately buried, even shattered into weightlessness by mirrored reflections. Apparent symmetry is not even close to actual symmetry; perceptually square grids are far from square. Loos's walls are quite literally space containers, dense with program, some disclosed, some obscured: structural supports and plumbing, bookcases and toy chests, lifts for people and food, safes and flat files, wardrobes and vanities, china cabinets and couches.

If the wall is the domain of the architect, the furnishings belong to the inhabitant. Loos complied with requests from his clients to select furnishings for their interiors, but for him interior decorating was no different, and certainly no better, than the work of a plumber or an electrician. It was a paycheck and nothing more. That said, Loos wrote a great deal about furnishings. Just as there are appropriate spatial figures and materials for each function he argued, so too there are correct furnishings. One notices immediately the eclectic assortment of chairs in Loos's living rooms. Such an array is essential because, as Loos says rightly, "resting after an intellectual endeavor demands a totally different position from relaxing after outdoor exercise."9 Loos repeatedly specified the same assortment of chairs: the upholstered Knieschwimmer for leg dangling, the small wooden bar chair for straddling, an 18th-century Chippendale chair for upright seating. And, why shouldn't he? For the duration of his career, after all, there was little change in the way Europeans sat.

There are two particularly instructive chairs from Loos's repertoire: the Chippendale dining chair and a straight-back chair he designed for a hotel exhibition. Unlike his contemporaries who eagerly designed the furnishings for their interiors, Loos preferred whenever possible to specify readymades. His favored Chippendale chair appears in many of Loos's dining rooms, including the Villa Müller. Significantly, despite the wealth of the clients, Loos purchased a single chair from the manufacturer in England and ordered replicas made locally. "Copy well, but copy strictly"10 was his stand. For Loos, a precise copy could, in and of itself, be a work of art. During the 2000 restoration of the Villa Müller, the magnificent dining table was repopulated with newly crafted copies modeled after the 'original' copies. Surely Loos was smiling from the grave.

Loos's design for the hotel room chair - a clever assembly of two readymade objects: a straight back wooden chair and a wooden coat hanger - could rightly be called an Assisted Readymade. Not unlike his contemporary, MARCEL DUCHAMP, Loos was an unabashed collagist. He used what he could from what already existed, opting for evolutionary over revolutionary change every time. An existing chair minus its top rail plus a hanger minus its hook was a worthy invention for the gentleman in need of a place to temporarily hang his dinner jacket.

Although designed for the domestic program, many of Loos's residential interiors have easily absorbed functions not originally intended. The apartment interiors in Pilsen have been occupied by an army-recruiting center, a radio station, an architects' club, the city building department, and a photographer's studio. The Villa Winternitz, a-residence-turned-kindergarten during the Communist era, was leased to a private advertising agency following restitution. And the Villa Müller, it has housed a variety of government agencies: a state textbook publisher, the Marxist-Leninist Archive of Czechoslovakia, and most recently, a study center and museum. What is remarkable is the ability of Loos's domestic interiors to comfortably absorb such a range of programs.

I would like to posit in conclusion that the durability of Loos's work might well be attributed to his reticence towards innovation, his respect for craft traditions, and his willingness to design for contemporary patterns of inhabitation. While his essays were adversarial, his architecture was not. The sustained resonance of Loos's built work is surely the ultimate testament to its modernity.

top

Leslie Van Duzer, Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, is co-author with Kent Kleinman of Villa Müller: A Work of Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe: The Krefeld Villas. She is currently collaborating with Maria Szadkowska on a book and exhibition on Loos's work in the Czech Lands. The exhibition will open at the City of Prague Museum in September 2008.
vanduzer(at)umn.edu

1 Adolf Loos: "Heimatkunst" (1914) in Trotzdem (Vienna: Georg Prachner Verlag, 1982), p. 130.
2 Loos: "Potemkin City" in Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, trans. Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1982), p. 96.
3 Loos: "The Principle of Cladding" in Spoken into the Void, p. 66.
4 Gottfried Semper: The Four Elements of Architecture, trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave & Wolfgang Herrmann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 258.
5 Loos: "The Principle of Cladding" in Spoken into the Void, p. 67.
6 Loos: "Men's Fashion" in Spoken into the Void, p. 11.
7 Loos: "Ornament und Verbrechen" in Trotzdem, p. 88.
8 Loos: "Heimatkunst" in Trotzdem, p. 129.
9 Loos: "Furniture for Sitting" in Spoken into the Void, p. 32.
10 Loos: "Furniture" in Spoken into the Void, p. 78.

top




close this window


Please click to see larger image.



-





-






-






-






-






-






-









close this window