Book Review: The Looshaus, by Christopher Long
The Looshaus shows how we understand the architect best through his buildings rather than his polemics
The House on Michaelerplatz
Despite a century of efforts to set the record straight, Adolf Loos remains frequently misunderstood both as an architect and as a thinker.
As an architect, his polemic against ornament tends to be read, erroneously, as anticipating the sterile classical "form follows function" modernism that originated in the wake of the Bauhaus, instead of the critical reaction to Jugendstil it actually was – to that peculiarly Viennese form of modernism that wallowed in ornament and epitomised in the work of his arch-rival Josef Hoffmann. It was, in the words of Friedrich Achleitner, doyen of contemporary Austrian architecture critics, a radical critique of Austrian building practices.
As a thinker, Loos was a critical modernist, with an approach to building suited to the peculiar needs of modern living. Thus there was a decidedly historicist moment in all his thinking about architecture. However his project went further: Like his friend and ally Karl Kraus, he realised that "modern" Viennese confusions about building and design were ultimately rooted in "modern" Viennese uncertainty as to how to live – and thus fundamentally an ethical matter.
The very plurality of values that is the earmark of liberal society could itself usher in a "value vacuum" he realised (and as Hermann Broch would later suggest), where superficial conformism and nihilistic narcissism were allowed to corrode the aesthetic judgment that is the defining characteristic of genuine pluralism. The polemics of both Kraus and Loos were essentially Socratic exercises in collective self-criticism.
Both in his buildings and his essays, Loos aimed at educating the confused.
Why should this be so difficult to grasp? The short answer is that Loos’s polemic, especially the famous essay "Ornament and Crime", is read as part of the controversies surrounding his buildings and thus independently of both his building activities themselves and the positive message of his other numerous writing on design, style and taste.
The result is that the essay has come to be seen as a kind of manifesto on the principles of building, as an ideology or dogma (or maybe a counter-dogma) within architectural theory, i.e., precisely what Loos attacked. In order to see, literally or figuratively, you have to know what to look for. And, in matters of taste, knowing what to look for is a question of appreciating the significance of nuance and detail.
It is this service that Christopher Long provides in The Looshaus, his richly detailed and fully documented monograph on every aspect of the planning and execution of Loos’ most (in)famous building. In this magnificently illustrated volume, Long focuses our attention poignantly upon what went into planning and executing that extraordinary structure and how its execution occasioned the equally (in)famous "Ornament and Crime", as well as a spate of other essays including "On Architecture", arguably his finest effort at articulating his contextual conception of building.
Indeed, Long underscores Loos’ efforts to produce a building "in harmony with the imperial palace, the square and the city," as the architect himself put it, one deeply rooted in Viennese building tradition, and which, above all, would not detract from the façade of the Hofburg.
That Loos was a profound admirer of the Biedermeier has long been recognised in his sharp separation between the commercial and residential parts of a building. However, his peculiar way of adapting traditional pre-industrial designs to a machine-age metropolis has seldom been so pointedly and precisely articulated. For example, Loos was so conservative as to design the bourgeois apartments on its upper floors en filade, in a straight line, as was customary in palaces and the middle class dwellings that imitated them – although Long fails to note this clear contradiction with the principle that otherwise guided Loos in designing private homes.
For all that, Long’s sharp focus on the Haus am Michaelerplatz illuminates the very core of Loos’ conception of building in all its details. To take a single simple, but poignant example, he draws our attention to the then-novel curved glass windows behind the classical pillars of the lower façade, which highlights the "manifest opposition between modernity and tradition" that is typical of the Goldman and Salatsch building.
Similarly, he underscores how Loos’ diatribe as attested in the Looshaus – part of an on-going debate among German architects – was directed first, last and always against superfluous ornament. Here he meant ornament "embellishing" a façade as opposed to the more elegant and organic form of ornamentation that emerged from his very materials. And Loos always insisted on the finest: The exquisite Cipollino marble lower façade of the Haus am Michaelerplatz contrasting with the lime plaster above, and the superb mahogany veneers in Goldman’s shop, are cases in point.
Furthermore, Long elegantly and succinctly clears up a perennial source of confusion by stressing how Loos’ main achievement as an architect was his way of structuring interiors by "curtailing and binding volumes" according to what has come to be called a Raumplan (or Raumplanung). For example, Loos was the first to realise that steel-reinforced concrete allowed space to be manipulated vertically as well as horizontally, and thus more economically than weight-bearing walls permitted, making possible a new relationship between the more-and-less "public" sections of buildings. Rooms could now be interlocking volumes within a cube, configured according to occupants’ needs.
However, it is precisely this, his most significant contribution to modern architecture, which is obscured if we approach Loos from "Ornament and Crime" or the equally famous essay "The Potemkin Village", where attention is only on façades. Once we have grasped this, even Loos’ verbal pyrotechnics can no longer distract from his greater achievements.
This sharp focus on the origins and execution of the Looshaus and its surrounding controversies allows Long to elucidate Loos’ place in modern architecture eloquently and with crystal clarity.
However, at the same time that very focus has a price, namely, that one fails to see Loos’ pivotal role in what art historian Anders Munch (see his monograph Den stilløse stil: Adolf Loos) and I (Wittgenstein’s Vienna Revisited) have termed Viennese critical modernism.
Loos was central to this highly self-conscious network of opposition to the predominant Viennese aestheticism, an opposition that he himself had originated in the late 1890s and that later came to be associated with his friend and ally Karl Kraus and Die Fackel. This network included Arnold Schoenberg and Oskar Kokoschka (and through him Egon Schiele) as well as Ludwig von Ficker, Georg Trakl and even Ludwig Wittgenstein, to whom, upon being introduced, Loos said, "You are me."
This side of Loos is scarcely represented in Long’s study; however, it would not be entirely fair to consider that a scathing criticism because, if we are ever going to sort out this other side of Loos, as Anders Munch, Friedrich Achleitner and others rightly insist, we desperately need precisely the sort of penetrating, detailed analysis of individual cases of the sort that Long’s book superbly exemplifies.
Austro-American philosopher and intellectual historian Allan Janik is senior research fellow of the Brenner Archives at the University of Innsbruck and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna. He is author (with S. Toulmin) of the path-breaking study Wittgenstein’s Vienna, translated into fifteen languages. A version of this review appeared originally in the Dutch periodical Nexus (Tilburg). It appears here for the first time in English, with permission of the author. See an interview with Janik in TVR Sept. 2011.
by Christopher Long
Yale University Press (2012)