Ornament and Crime: The Decisive contribution of Adolf Loos.
(In respons to the article written by Reyner Banham about Adolf Loos)
Reyner Banham wrote in 1957 an essay about the contribution Adolf Loos to Modern Architecture. Despite the fact that he is aware that A. Loos’s way of writing is mean and has a “damm-your-delicate-feelings”1 attitude, he defends that he is the one man that made the history of architecture change towards modernity: “plain roof, big windows , no decoration”2. His argument: the Zeitgeist is a way of calling our laziness of not caring enough about who talked to who first about modernity. But in this case he is sure he has sufficient proof that Loos, due to what he calls “literary evidence”3, was the father of modernity.
It is obvious that Loos, with his example and his writings, had something to do with this change of mentality. That, we can not deny. From the moment he starts writing in 1898, about how decoration should be understood, he, most certainly, creates expectation. He starts little by little, with smaller projects and interior renovations and he, progressively, will be assigned bigger projects. But, just as the writer Banham says, the most difference will be made when he, due to his constant work, starts to be republished in various magazines in 1912, 1913 and 1920 in the magazine L’Esperit Nouveau.
“For this reprint appeared after Le Corbusier had finished with his flower-box-smothered house-projects of the war years, but before Villa at Vaucresson that ushered in his new style. It was read, and of this we can be certain, by Erich Mendelsohn, between his first and second Dutch visits; after the decorated Luckenwald factory, and before the undecorated Sternefeld house. It appeared after Gropius’s decorated Sommerfeld House had been designed, but before the “reformed” projects ant the undecorated Jena theatre, …”4
Despite all the very impressive facts that he presents us, there are still “literary evidences” of other architects before Loos that were also concerned of not being able to create a style of their own and were aware that “something impractical cannot be art”5, as Otto Wagner had first said in 1896. Furthermore, we can add more proof that he was not the first to say something contrary to their contemporary style. Gottfried Semper had already spoken about the need to use materials according to their own nature in 1851.
“If the most suitable material is selected for the embodiment, the ideal expression of a building will of course gain in beauty and meaning by the material’s appearance as a natural symbol. Yet when allied with antiquarianism, this materialistic way of thinking had led to strange and fruitless speculations and overlooked the most important influences on development of art.”6
Another argument that Loos uses repeatedly in his articles is the clothing, how bizarre it is for a man dressed in a modern black suit with black buttons to go to a building not according to his need nor his time. But, once again, he was not the first to talk about this issue. Wagner wrote years earlier that “the appearance and occupation of the inhabitants should harmonize with the appearance of the room”7.
I have quoted all these arguments that other architects previous to Loos had written, in order to prove that it was not the work of ONE man what lead architecture to change, but, the consciousness of a society that knew that something was wrong and did not know what to do about it. Probably if Schinkel had not been so important to Loos, if Wagner or Semper had not written their thoughts before him, he maybe would have not cared about this issue or, if he had, he would not have been able to change the way the younger architects understood their duty. I believe Adolf Loos is fundamental to understand the progression from neoclassical to modern architecture, but, I think that Banham is too radical when believing Loos the only responsible for this fortunate turn of history.
Semper, Gottfried. The Four Elements of Architecture. Translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann. Introduction by Harry Francis Mallgrave. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press ,1989.
Wagner, Otto. Modern Architecture. Translated and introduced by Harry Francis Mallgrave. Vienna, Velag von Anton Schroll, 1896, reprinted, 1902.
Loos, Adolf. On Architecture. Selected and Introduced by Adolf and Daniel Opel. Translated by Michael Mitchell. Riverside, California, Ariadne Press, 2002.
Loos, Adolf. Ornament and Crime. Selected Essays. Selected and Introduction by Adolf Opel. Translated by Michael Mitchell. Riverside, California, Ariadne Press, 1998.
1 Reyner Banham. “Selected Essays by Reyner Banham, (A Centennial Book). Edited by Mary Banham, Sutherland Lyall, Cedric Price and Paul Barker. (California, University of California Press, March 1999), 17.
2 Ibid., 16.
3 Ibid., 17.
4 Ibid., 19.
5 Otto Wagner, “Modern Architecture,” in Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays. Translated and introduced by Harry Francis Mallgrave. (Vienna, Verlag von Anton Schroll & Co, 1896), 82.
6 Gottfried Semper. “The Four Elements of Architecture”. Translated by Harry Francis Mallgrave and Wolfgang Herrmann. Introduced by Harry Francis Mallgrave. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), 102.
7 Wagner, 118.