Loos Loosely \\ Jonathan Henry

Initial investigation into the writings and work of Adolf Loos led me to believe that his hatred for ornament and frivolity was immense. Yet through further inquiry, the heart of Loos’ intent was to find a true and appropriate architecture for the time. First and foremost, I understand the yearning for the quantification and qualification of the zeitgeist, but what is most essential to gain from the writings of Loos is that the act of design must be undertaken with an understanding of contemporary architecture’s issues and the state of the society within which it works.

Villa Muller - Adolf Loos 1930

Villa Muller - Adolf Loos 1930

Loos likes to make a distinction between the fields of art and architecture. He sees the main factor of separation through the intended functionality of each. Art is created with no functionality in mind. To say that, means that when art is sold or commodified that it ceases to be art. Arts function is not that of the object to be owned and traded but as the medium for arousing the emotions of the audience. Therefore regardless of the emotions being conveyed, if the art is conveying anything at all within the realm of emotion, whether it be disgust, lust, fear, play, banality or sadness, then art is doing its job.

Architecture on the other hand has an extremely specific functionality to its definition. Architectures function is to enclose space and it attempts to comfortably accommodate a structural need within the most efficiently functional manner as possible. While art has the freedom to express and convey any message the artist deems fit, it is the sole responsibility of the architect to create comfort. While art is responsible to no one, architecture is responsible to the client.

It is in this dichotomy that I must first make my grievance. After the protests of the Situationist and more importantly the Dadaists, arts function has continually come into question.  This is especially so within the art realm of sculpture.

Stan Allen, dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University,  describes the ambiguity of the line between sculpture and architecture through the critical associations of each. By suggesting a building is sculptural detonates a figural aspect of the design. Through the suggestion that sculpture is architectural is to denote the presence of tectonic form.  While these fields might differ, using one to talk about another provided the vocabulary to link the effect of one to the other. Rosalind Krauss, art critic and theorist based at Clolumbia University, sees this process taking shape because of the critic’s use of historicism.  Things that appear new and avant-garde are made to feel safer, comfortable and digestible with the assistance of historical precedent.  The ability to see the line from boy to man allows society to better accept the actions of the man. While the bounds of contemporary architecture are continually shifting further outside their socially held definitions, the use of fields outside their own becomes a necessity for the shift to remain viable.

Having the contemporary lines of art and architecture blurred places the functionality of one into the field of the other.  This most directly affects the field of architecture and its internal definition.  Even Loos is able to begin to breakdown his delineation of the two definition but does so only for architecture of specified function.  He sites in his essay ‘Architecture’ that, “Only very small parts of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument.” But he goes on to state, “Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.”  Loos’ exceptions are made because of the tomb and the monument act in the service of evoking various emotions through respective external appearances.  He also sees these two programs as functioning in the visual plane because they lack an internal functionality.

Loos in a sense becomes a proponent of the moniker “Form follows function.” stated by Ludvig Von Mies Van der Rohe.  Loos advocated architectures necessity to truth.  He believes that architecture must not only efficiently function, but it must also be recognized as itself.  In his essay “Architecture” he gives the example

“When we find a mound in the woods, six feet long and three feet wide, raised to a pyramid form by means of a spade, we become serious and something in us says: someone was buried here. That is architecture.” (A.Loos)

Here we see the effects of architecture to convey both emotion and sensibility.  Yet as a rebuttal to the Post modernists, we have seen a social understanding of the non-necessity of a buildings form to impart subconscious understanding of its function.  I myself had at one time attended a church that had no naive, had not towers and had no bells.  My one time church was located in a brown field abandoned strip mall.  Every day we see revived old factories, the place of production being converted into high-end trendy lofts.  We even see churches and tabernacles once held in reverence by society as a house of god, fitted and adjusted slightly to be utilized as concert venues for the music that, more than likely, would have be admonished by the very audience that housed the pews.  What used to be the job of the architect has become the job of the marketer?  When the bank needed to look like it was a place of security and a place of stability, it was the architect’s job to convey the message, but now with the FDIC insured (maybe not so much now considering the timing) and the proliferation of the Automatic Teller Machines, it is no longer a message needed to be conveyed.  Architectures permanence is continually challenged and so too should the forms that it takes.

Another layer of information that the architect has at their disposal is the use of decoration and ornament.  Loos make note to differentiate ornamentation and decoration.  He allows the use of decoration as a means to appease the client.  Ornamentation, defined by Loos, is the excessive use of decoration.  When the architect’s use of decoration has surpassed its necessity to create a sense of comfort for the client, it moves into the realm of ornamentation.  Referring back to our classical view of ornamentation, ornament seeks to be subservient to the truth of the structure and never stifle or conceal it.  Here too Loos has a definite view.  These views stem from his understanding of function at the heart of architectures definition.  Loos quotes Leon Battista Alberti’s definition of beauty in his article ‘Furniture for Sitting’ as, “An object that is so perfect that one can neither add to it nor take away from it without harming it is beautiful.” This is said in an effort to display the manner in which ornament might detract from the beauty of a building.  Decoration for decorations sake is pointless and worthless.

Loos make a distinction that is worth noting, and will be the point of reference for our future explorations. In “Vernacular Art”, he states that

“The house should be discrete on the outside; its entire richness should be disclosed on the inside” (AL)

With this statement Loos narrows the scope of decoration to the interior of the building. Loos sees the exterior of the building being in service to society.  In the era of his capitulations on the role of architecture, his state of mind was in contrast to the excessive and ornamental designs of those being produces by most of the turn-of-the-century architects in Vienna. His statement therefore allows those designed to express themselves and the will of their clients on the interior of their homes. But when it comes to the exterior, society at large should conform to one another and maintain an edict of stability and restraint. Restraint is what was currently missing from his Viennese society.  But how do we rediscover the concerns of Loos and implement his suggestions in the contemporary society that is not too distant from the one he criticized.

I would propose first that the melding of architecture with other professions allows architecture to respond to the concerns and solutions of other fields and incorporate the knowledge into theirs. These interests may have at one time not been of concern to the architect but with the speed of information and the instability of design intent it has become the architect’s responsibility to reflect on the current coexisting fields of art, politics, science, theology etc to forge a comprehensive design reflecting society’s density of information.  The current trends towards excessive decoration (ornament) is a reflection of the over load of sensation that occurs in our urban areas.  While in Loos’s day the use of architecture was to support the authoritative figure of the government and society and give permanence to each.  In contemporary society, architecture reflects not the socialist agenda but the capitalist system. While Loos draws the distinction from the interior to the exterior and their respective responsibilities in culture, our current culture has fundamentally changed.  Not only has society changed but so has the topology of the program.  If Loos would extend his statement outside the home and into the un-delineated public space of the capitalist mall, what would he suggest?


~ by jonathanhenry on February 28, 2010.

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