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Timeless texts

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On Architecture: Writings by Adolf Loos Selected and introduced by Adolf and Daniel Opel. Ariadne Press, 2002. 205pp. £16.95

Adolf Loos has had a bad press. 'Influential a polemicist, ' says the substantial entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, while in Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Reyner Banham says: 'Among the effective contributors to the body of ideas that supported the Modern Movement, one must certainly number Adolf Loos. Yet his contribution was sporadic, personal and not always very serious in tone.'

Sinful! But that was back in 1960. Maybe in a more irreverent age we might reconsider his wickedness and see what this figure, dead some 70 years, has to offer us.

Born in 1870, the son of a Czech stonemason, Loos moved to Vienna around 1896 where his working life began. There he remained until his death 37 years later, in a career spent both in public service for the city of Vienna and as a private practitioner.

His wide range of interests is manifest in his writings for both the specialist and popular press. In all Loos touches - his architecture or his often scorching criticism - his honesty and fearlessness shine through.

A perceptive introduction by Adolf and Daniel Opel precedes the 42 essays. All are fascinating: not just a 'good read', but timeless in what they say. Essay 34, 'The Chicago Tribune Column', with an accompanying spontaneous sketch, explains his competition entry - a gigantic Doric column to house the offices of the newspaper (right).

This superlative exercise in wit (a quality seldom present in architecture, notwithstanding Sir Henry Wotton's 'Delight') is frequently confused by Loos' critics with Revivalism. Rather, it shows some of his depth.

'Grand Babylon Hotel', written in 1923, again displays an enviable creativity. Named after an Arnold Bennett novel popular at the time, this mouth-watering design should get a CABE commendation. See too, another 'cracker', 'The House with One Wall', of two years earlier - a most convincing project for prefabricated housing.

The last essay, 'Project to save a Pine Wood', has an elevation of the hotel that Loos proposed for a woodland site, as an alternative to a scheme approved by the planning authority, which would destroy most of the trees. The short accompanying description of his building indicates how the wood could be appreciated from the street by the passer-by as well as by guests in the hotel. Technicalities of planning and construction are also given. The humanity and skill of a 'complete architect' is summed up in this essay, which appeared two years before Loos died. Its sheer economy - evident in Loos' writing and his architecture alike - cannot but impress.

To prolong enjoyment in the company of this very great man, I recommend with as much enthusiasm a companion volume of essays, Ornament and Crime. Published in 1998, it is equally attractive, inexpensive, and readable.

John Bancroft is an architect in Haywards Heath

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