Biography of Adolf Loos

Architect of No Ornamentation (1870-1933)

black and white photo of man with a listening device, holding one part in his left ear and a bell-type tube in his right hand
Adolf Loos, Circa 1929, With Listening Device.

Imagno/Getty Images (cropped)

Adolf Loos (born December 10, 1870) was a European 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, or, as it was known in Europe, Jugendstil. His notions about design influenced 20th century modern architecture and its variations.

Early Years

Adolf Franz Karl Viktor Maria Loos 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, and later made his way to the United States, where he worked as a mason, a floor-layer, and a dishwasher. While in the U.S. to experience the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, he became impressed by the efficiency of American architecture, and he came to admire the work of Louis Sullivan.

American architect Louis Sullivan is most famous for being part of the Chicago School and for his influential 1896 essay that suggested form follows function. In 1892, however, Sullivan wrote about the application of ornamentation on the new architecture of the day. "I take it as self-evident that a building, quite devoid of ornament, may convey a noble and dignified sentiment by virtue of mass and proportion," Sullivan begins his essay "Ornament in Architecture." He then makes the modest proposal to "refrain entirely from the use of ornament for a period of years" and "concentrate acutely upon the production of buildings well formed and comely in the nude." The idea of organic naturalness, with a concentration on architectural mass and volume, influenced not only Sullivan's protege, Frank Lloyd Wright, but also the young architect from Vienna, Adolf Loos.

Professional Years

In 1896, Loos returned to Vienna and worked for the Austrian architect Karl 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.

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 after emigrating to the West Coast of the United States. Nearly deaf from syphilis and cancer by age 62, 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 featured straight lines, clear and uncomplicated 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. He designed exteriors without ornamentation, but interiors were rich in functionality and volume. Each room might be on a different level, with floors and ceilings set at different heights. Loos architecture was in stark contrast with the architecture of his Austrian contemporary, Otto Wagner.

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. 

Loos was one of the first modern architects to use mirrors to expand interior spaces. The interior entry to the 1910 Goldman & Salatsch Building, often called the Looshaus, is made into a surreal, endless foyer with two opposing mirrors. The construction of Looshaus created quite a scandal for pushing Vienna into modernity.

Famous Quotes: Ornament and Crime

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."

" 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."

Legacy

Adolf Loos extended his architectural theories in his 1910 essay Architektur, translated as "Architecture." Decrying that architecure had become a graphic art, Loos argues that a well-made building cannot be honestly represented on paper, that plans do not "appreciate the beauty of bare stone," and that only the architecture of monuments should be classified as art  — other architecture, "everything that serves some practical purpose, should be ejected from the realm of art." Loos wrote that "modern dress is that which draws least attention to itself," which is Loos' legacy to modernism.

This idea — that anything beyond the functional should be omitted — was a modern idea worldwide. The same year Loos first published his essay on ornamentation, 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?

Sources

  • Andrews, Brian. "Ornament and Materiality in the Work of Adolf Loos." Material Making: The Process of Precedent, 2010. Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, p. 438
  • Loos, Adolf. "Architecture." 1910. http://http://www.mom.arq.ufmg.br/mom/arq_interface/2a_aula/loos_architecture.pdf
  • Loos, Adolf. "Ornament and Crime." 1908. https://faculty.risd.edu/bcampbel/Loos-Ornament%20and%20Crime.pdf
  • Sullivan, Louis. "Ornament in Architecture." The Engineering Magazine, 1892, https://www.readingdesign.org/ornament-in-architecture/
  • Tournikiotis, Panayotis. "Adolf Loos." Princeton Architectural Press, 2002

Fast Facts: Adolf Loos

  • Occupation: Architect and Theorist
  • Born: December 10, 1870 in Brno, now the Czech Republic
  • Died: August 23, 1933 in Kalksburg, near Vienna, Austria
  • Famous Writings: "Ornament & Crime" (1908); "Architecture" (1910)
  • Famous Building: Looshaus (1910)
  • Famous Quote: "The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use."