Biography of Adolf Loos

Architect of No Ornamentation (1870-1933)

Nearly deaf Austrian Architect Adolf Loos, c. 1929 with listening device, black and white photo
Nearly Deaf From Syphilis and Cancer, Adolf Loos, C. 1929 With Listening Device. Photo by Imagno//Getty Images (cropped)

Adolf Loos (born December 10, 1870) was an architect who became more famous for his ideas and writings than for his buildings. He believed that reason should determine the way we build, and he opposed the decorative Art Nouveau movement. His notions about design influenced 20th century modern architecture and its variations.

Adolf Franz Karl VikrLoos was born in Brno (Brünn), which is the South Moravian Region of what is now the Czech Republic.

He was nine when his stonemason father died. Although Loos refused to continue the family business, much to his mother's sorrow, he remained an admirer of the craftsman's design. He was not a good student, and it is said that by the age of 21 Loos was ravaged by syphilis—his mother disowned him by the time he was 23.

Loos began studies at the Royal and Imperial State Technical College in Rechenberg, Bohemia and then spent a year in the military. He attended the College of Technology in Dresden for three years, later traveling to the United States, where he worked as a mason, a floor-layer, and a dishwasher. While in the US, he became impressed by the efficiency of American architecture, and he admired the work of Louis Sullivan.

In 1896, Loos returned to Vienna and worked for architect Carl Mayreder, By 1898, Loos had opened his own practice in Vienna and became friends with free-thinkers such as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, expressionist composer Arnold Schönberg, and satirist Karl Kraus.

Adolf Loos is best-known for his 1908 essay Ornament and Verbrechen, translated as Ornament & Crime. This and other essays by Loos describe the suppression of decoration as necessary for modern culture to exist and evolve beyond past cultures. Ornamentation, even "body art" like tattoos, is best left for primitive people, like the natives of Papua.

  "The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate," Loos writes. "There are prisons in which eighty per cent of the inmates show tattoos. The tattooed who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats."

Loos' beliefs extended to all areas of life, including architecture. He argued that the buildings we design reflect our morality as a society. The new steel frame techniques of the Chicago School demanded a new aesthetic—were cast iron facades cheap imitations of past architectural ornamentation? Loos believed that what hung on that framework should be as modern as the framework itself.

Loos started his own school of architecture. His students included Richard Neutra and R. M. Schindler, both becoming famous in the United States after emigrating to the West Coast. Adolf Loos died in Kalksburg near Vienna, Austria on August 23, 1933. His self-designed gravestone in Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof) in Vienna is a simple block of stone with only his name engraved—no ornamentation.

Loos Architecture:

Loos-designed homes that featured straight lines, clear planar walls and windows, and clean curves. His architecture became physical manifestations of his theories, especially raumplan ("plan of volumes"), a system of contiguous, merging spaces.

Exteriors should be without ornamentation, but interiors should be rich in functionality and volumne. Each room might be on a different level, with floors and ceilings set at different heights.

Representative buildings designed by Loos include many houses in Vienna, Austria—notably the Steiner House, (1910),  Haus Strasser (1918), Horner House (1921), Rufer House (1922), and the Moller House (1928).  However, Villa  Müller (1930) in Prague, Czechoslovakia is one of his most studied designs, for its seemingly simple exterior and complex interior. Other designs outside Vienna include a house in Paris, France for the Dada artist Tristan Tzara (1926) and the Khuner Villa (1929) in Kreuzberg, Austria. 

The 1910 Goldman & Salatsch Building, often called the Looshaus, created quite a scandal for pushing Vienna into modernity.

Selected Quotes from Ornament and Crime:

" The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects."
" The urge to ornament one's face and everything within reach is the start of plastic art."
" Ornament does not heighten my joy in life or the joy in life of any cultivated person. If I want to eat a piece of gingerbread I choose one that is quite smooth and not a piece representing a heart or a baby or a rider, which is covered all over with ornaments. The man of the fifteenth century won't understand me. But all modern people will."
" Freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength."

This idea—that anything beyond the functional should be omitted—was a modern idea worldwide. The same year Loos first published his essay, the French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) issued a similar proclamation about the composition of a painting. In the 1908 statement Notes of a Painter, Matisse wrote that everything not useful in a painting is harmful.

Although Loos has been dead for decades, his theories about architectural complexity are often studied today, especially to begin a discussion about ornamentation. In a high-tech, computerized world where anything is possible, the modern student of architecture must be reminded that just because you are able do something, should you?

  • Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays by Adolf Loos
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  • Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, and the Road to Modern Architecture by Werner Oechslin, Cambridge University Press, 2002
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  • Creating Your Home With Style by Adolf Loos
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Sources: Adolf Loose by Panayotis Tournikiotis, Princeton Architectural Press, 2002; Selected quotes from "1908 Adolf Loos: Ornament and Crime" at www2.gwu.edu/~art/Temporary_SL/177/pdfs/Loos.pdf, fair use reading on The George Washington University website [accessed July 28, 2015]