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The Loos canon: Adolf Loos at the RIBA

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Ahead of an RIBA exhibition on Adolf Loos, Jay Merrick explores the peculiarities of the man behind the ‘Raumplan’ and the essay ‘Ornament and Crime’

Learning to Dwell: Adolf Loos in the Czech Lands, curated by Dr Irena Murray, is at the RIBA from 24 February to 3 May

How, to paraphrase that simpering song in The Sound of Music, do you solve a problem like Adolf? There he sits, in the photograph taken in 1930 at his 60th birthday party in the Villa Müller in Prague, lips pursed, foppish, dying. Seventy-nine years later, as I stand in a dark apartment in Pilsen, a torch beam picks out the beautifully detailed marble, mirrors and mahogany; one expected to see the hovering, razor-lipped smile of Czech architect Adolf Loos, heroic Raumplanner and blurter of dim-witted, monomaniacal pronouncements: ‘Tattoo’d men who are not imprisoned are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats.’ ‘A horizontal line: the reclining woman. The vertical line: a man penetrating her.’

When Loos met the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, he proclaimed: ‘You are me!’ I gleaned this apercu from Dr Irena Murray, director of the RIBA Library and curator of the Loos exhibition. But how could Loos have said that, when the anal precisions of the 1928 Villa Wittgenstein proved the two geniuses had little in common.

They certainly generate starkly different critical reactions. Consider Jan Turnovsky’s quaint essay, The Poetics of a Wall Projection, which obsesses about a single detail in the Villa Wittgenstein – the WP, as he acronyms it. Sample: ‘The WP appears at first to be a torso-like ordering element, flanked by two disorders – one conquered, the other rising anew… if the WP were not well enough integrated, it would provoke further ordering of the next nearest disorder.’ If you walk up the stairs of Loos’ Michaelerplatz Haus in Vienna, rising into the next split-level segments of space, you know this kind of dense, self-herniating analysis could never apply to Loos, or to the more profound effects of architectural space. 

The mezzanine’s shifting perspectives into the perimeter spaces, and the articulation of the Raumplan, invite systematic thought. But it is the sheer wordless sensuality of the overlapping spaces in abstractions of light, shadow, shine, matt surfaces, edges and muted colours that is compelling. The building, completed
in 1911, was one of Loos’ earliest; had he been assassinated the day after it opened, on the orders of the Hapsburgs (who were outraged by the building) his gift to architecture was safe. 

Loos’ jagged contradictions of thought and architecture form a unique psychodrama in which the evident and the occult jostle for pre-eminence. To sit in the American Bar in Vienna, for example, is to feel trapped in a Postmodern production of Bertolt Brecht’s satire, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The bar is grossly exquisite, a humidor of virtuoso effects. Yet to pass through the narrow, labial entrance of the 1913 Knize Men’s Outfitters in Vienna, is to discover how, even in a series of small spaces across two floors, Loos creates a masterpiece of flowing spatial syncopations.

In such physically compressed architecture, the difference between criminal ornamentation and correct, Loosian aesthetics is demonstrated. Every surface and detail speaks of craft and meticulous, time-consuming labour – ‘the price,’ as Loos put it, ‘that would allow the worker to earn more money and work fewer hours.’ He despised the idea of Modernist design – part-predicated on a vision of Fordist production lines – and this guaranteed his exclusion from the inner-circles of architectural radicalism in the 1920s.

However, the relationship between the Raumplan and what many might think of as Loos’ ultra-‘luxe’ materiality can raise serious questions about his one-level designs. The dazzling materiality of the Michaelerplatz Haus and the Villa Müller are meaningful because they serve the spatial effects of multi-level Raumplans. The similarly beautiful materials and surfaces that Loos created in the one-level apartments I visited in November were impressive, but the surface contrasts and articulations of plan seemed relatively overwrought, if not stolid.

But to investigate the 11 levels of the 1930 Villa Müller, Loos’ last major work, is to walk through a brilliantly exposed idea: you can see into four other levels from the living room. To pause in the dining room or the tiny, split-level boudoir with its original erotic Fragonard prints is to experience a decisive tipping-point between the classical-cum-Art Nouveau tendencies of the Vienna Secession and a deployment of space and materials that still feels shock-of-the-new. 

In the Villa Müller, Loos is revealed as modern architecture’s most thrilling space invader. He nevertheless remains an intractably infuriating architectural prophet. ‘Soon the streets and the cities will glisten like white walls, like Zion, the holy city, the metropolis of heaven,’ he wrote. ‘Then we shall have fulfilment. But there are some black elves who do not tolerate this.’ Cue Julie Andrews. Or Lotte Lenya, droning Brecht’s Alabama Song.

Dates for the diary

-The Exhibition Learning to Dwell: Adolf Loos in the Czech Lands, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, W1B 1AD 24 February-3 May.
The main Loos exhibition, Learning to Dwell, opens at the RIBA on 24 February. It focuses on the architect’s work in his Czech homelands, such as the Villa Müller, as well as other apartments and interiors Loos used to exhort his clients to ‘learn to dwell’.

- The Talk: Great Architects: Adolf Loos, RIBA, 29 March, 18.30
Eva Jiřičná, Ivan Margolius, Dalibor Vesely and Irena Murray will debate Loos’s influence as an architect and polemicist and the significance of his work today.

- Library Display Saving Loos: The Unknown Legacy of the British Architectural Library, RIBA Library, 24 February – 3 May
A display of previously unknown material from the RIBA collections whose library helped save the Adolf Loos Archive during the Second World War, examining English influences on Loos’ design thinking.

- The Tours
Lunchtime exhibition tour with the curators, RIBA, 25 February; Gallery talk, 5 April, 18.30.

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