The Viennese architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) was one of the pioneers of modern architecture at the turn of the century.
Adolf Loos was born in Brünn (Brno), now in the Czech Republic but then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on December 10, 1870, the son of a stone mason and sculptor. Loos was deaf until the age of 12 and was hearing-impaired until the end of his life; this physical disability influenced his character, and he remained a loner as an individual and as an artist. In 1890-1893 Loos studied at the Technical University of Dresden. Between 1893 and 1896 he lived in the United States, mostly in Philadelphia with some relatives, but also visited New York, Chicago, and St. Louis. In 1896 Loos returned to Vienna and devoted himself to architecture. In 1898 he was associated briefly with the Vienna Secession. In 1917 he participated in World War I. Between 1920 and 1922 Loos worked as chief architect of the Department of Housing of Vienna in the newly established Austrian Republic. He resigned, disillusioned, in 1922 and emigrated to France. Between 1922 and 1927 Loos lived mostly in Paris and the French Riviera; he returned to Austria in 1928 and lived there intermittently until his death on August 23, 1933.
Although he began practicing in the late 1890s when Art Nouveau was at its peak, Loos was not affected by it at all. The fact that he had lived in the United States and thus had become aware of the advances in the commercial and domestic architecture of that country may account for this. Loos' earliest commissions were interior remodellings of stores and cafes. His first shop interior was done in 1898 for the Goldman and Salatsch haberdashery shop in Vienna. This interior, entirely straightlined and without any ornament, already showed his design principles and especially his mastery in the creation of articulate space effects.
His Museum Café of the next year, dubbed "Café Nihillsmus" for its plainness, was simple and unadorned, although effective architecturally. His Kärtner Bar in Vienna (1907) was a masterpiece in the exploitation of a tiny space and in the use of sumptuous materials.
Loos did many remodellings of flats, in which he used fine materials with polished surfaces uninterrupted by moldings; these would prove a potent inspiration to the architects of the next generation. In his free-standing houses Loos introduced the compact, block-like mass, although he did not subject it to the geometric rigor characteristic of the work of the Internationalists. But it was in the design of interiors that Loos revealed himself as a first-class architect; the dignity and coziness of his interiors and their deliberate suitability to modern living conditions have rarely been surpassed. In this Loos was inspired by English domestic architecture, which he frequently singled out for praise. Distinctly his, however, was the emphasis on precious materials and the creation of flowing spaces—very similar to those of Frank Lloyd Wright—and also the notion of Raumplan—that is, architectural composition with volumes of space as opposed to two-dimensional planning.
Loos' Karma Villa near Montreux in Switzerland from 1904 to 1906 may have influenced Le Corbusier. The Steiner House of 1910 and the Scheu House of 1912, both in Vienna, belong to his finest works. The simplicity of their facades, their flat roofs, white walls, and horizontal windows without any moldings, together with the openness of their planning, provided a great impetus toward the emergence of the International Style. Loos' larger urban work, the Goldman and Salatsch Building on the Michaelerplatz in Vienna of 1910-1911, aroused a storm of protest because it presented a plain unadorned facade opposite the Hofburg (Imperial Palace). Yet the ground story had marble-clad columns externally and contained internally Loos' articulate spaces increased to a monumental scale.
As chief architect of the city of Vienna in 1920-1922 Loos designed an experimental district in Heuberg which was only partly built and which included many types of buildings which were never realized but constituted the most advanced experiments in low-cost housing at the time anywhere in Europe.
At least as effective as his buildings were his writings, in which he advocated a functional simplicity of form. Loos was the author of numerous articles; those from 1897-1900 were collected in 1921 and published under the title Ins Leere Gesprochen (Spoken into the Void). Those from 1900-1930 were collected in 1931 under the title Trotzdem (Nevertheless). Loos published the article "Ornament und Verbrechen" ("Ornament and Crime"); in it he claimed that architecture and the applied arts could do without any ornament, which in itself should be regarded as a survival of barbaric custom. Indeed, Loos saw the progress of his era precisely in the abolition of ornament for economic and aesthetic reasons. Therefore he was a sworn enemy not only of the ponderous historicism of Vienna, but also of the style of the Vienna Secession, which he felt was nothing more than a search for a new ornamental vocabulary.
Loos instead proposed a strict functionalism, which in turn derived from the theories of the great German architect Gottfred Semper and from the rationalism of Otto Wagner, whom Loos regarded most highly. At the same time Loos maintained the deepest respect for ancient architecture; this found expression in the frequent use of classical architectural elements in his architectural designs. He even went so far as to propose a tower in the form of a Doric column in his competition entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower of 1922. It is important to note, however, that Loos' respect for antiquity was of a functionalistic nature: he always considered the question, what would the ancients have accomplished under the present conditions? In any event Loos' writings and architectural works provided great inspiration to the architects of the following generation who brought about the International Style of 1925-1950.
Further Reading on Adolf Loos
A beautifully illustrated monograph on Loos is Benedetto Gravagnuolo's Adolf Loos: Theory and Works (1982). See also Ludwig Münz and Gustav Künstler, Adolf Loos: Pioneer of Modern Architecture (English edition, 1966) and Mihály Kubinsky, Adolf Loos (1970). A brief critical discussion of Loos' importance for modern architecture can be found in Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (4th edition, 1977); Leonardo Benevolo, History of Modern Architecture, 2 volumes (1977); and Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design: from William Morris to Walter Gropius (2nd edition, 1975). An English translation of Loos' early writings is in Adolf Loos, Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays 1897-1900, translated by Jane O. Newman and John H. Smith (1982). Loos' collected works are in Sámtliche Schriften, 2 volumes (1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Altmann-Loos, Elsie, Mein Leben mit Adolf Loos, Wien: Amalthea, 1984.