Adolf Loos
Adolf Loos; drawing by David Levine


The rapid, confused emergence of modernism in the late nineteenth century as a broad cultural movement self-conscious of its break from history drew architecture into its wake everywhere in Europe. But nowhere more than in Vienna. The reason is not far to seek. It lies in the city’s great mid-nineteenth-century redevelopment, the Ringstrasse. There Austrian liberalism, as is the way of triumphant movements, built after 1860 its city on a hill, celebrating in stone its victorious values of rational ethical Recht and refined aesthetic Kultur. The Ringstrasse area was built into the old imperial capital like an Austrian Canberra or Brasilia into the wilderness. In a grand, homogeneous space was concentrated a complex of monumental public buildings—museums, theaters, the houses of constitutional politics, etc.—and palatial apartment buildings to house the elite. Conspicuously missing from this model city-within-a-city was any place for the industrial workers and work life on which the power of its builders largely rested.

Two features gave the Ringstrasse its importance for the origins of modernism in Austria: its power as a cultural symbol and its historicist style, in which buildings were constructed on Gothic, Renaissance, and neoclassical models. Such was the symbolic force of the new quarter that the Austrians named the whole era of liberal ascendancy for it: die Ringstrassenära, as the English call the same era, after their queen, the Victorian Age. Whether evoking pride or arousing revulsion, the Ringstrasse made of architecture a major subject of public passion and controversy. Thus a contemporary liberal historian, Heinrich Friedjung, hailed the Ringstrasse development as a redeemed pledge of history, wherein the labors and sufferings of centuries of ordinary burghers, whose wealth and talent, long buried, were finally exhumed “like huge beds of coal” in the nineteenth century. “In the liberal epoch,” Friedjung wrote, “power passed, at least in part, to the bourgeoisie; and in no area did this attain fuller and purer life than in the reconstruction of Vienna.” The architect Adolf Loos, on the other hand, in one of his earliest and most arresting critical forays, branded Ringstrasse Vienna in 1898 with an epithet that stuck: “the Potemkin city.” Its architecture he viewed not as the symbol of a fuller and purer life, but as a false front, screening the hollowness and corruption of Austrian society.

In the symbolic struggle over mid-century liberal culture, the so-called historical “style-architecture” in which the Ring was executed became an issue. For the builders and champions of the Ringstrasse, the multiplicity of historical styles, each usually associated with the function of the building it clothed, was itself a sign of the assimilation of the riches of the past by the new educated man. Each building was executed in the style of an era associated with its function: the Parliament in Greek classical, the Rathaus in Gothic, the style associated with the medieval commune, the university in Renaissance style, and the theater in Baroque. The apartment houses were modeled on Renaissance palazzi. For the rebels and critics, on the other hand, the historical styles were signs that the bourgeois was concealing his identity under masks of the past; or—the other side of the coin—that he had failed to find an adequate stylistic expression for his own truth. In rejecting the legitimacy of historical style-architecture the makers of modernity in the late 1890s initially found common cause. If they had a common hell that brought them all together, namely, the moral shortcomings of the Ring’s historicism, it soon became clear that the critics had very different heavens. It tells us something about modernism and about Loos’s place in it to discriminate among the critical tendencies.

One can distinguish four schools of architectural criticism of the Ringstrasse, each of which was embedded in a different idea of culture. Two of these had public and social standards, two had private or psychological ones. The public-social critics and the private-psychological ones belonged to different generations. The two leading social critics, Otto Wagner and Camillo Sitte, were born in the early 1840s, and had lived their mature professional lives in the heyday of liberalism, during the three decades after 1860 when the Ringstrasse was built. Only late in life, in the 1890s, did both men, Wagner and Sitte, develop their critiques of the Ringstrasse.

The psychological architect-critics belonged to the next generation, born in or about 1870. They matured in the 1890s when the great public construction program of the Ring was essentially completed, and commissions for public buildings had largely dried up. Thus, regardless of political and cultural changes, the economic conditions of architecture alone effectively confined the professional opportunities of the younger generation to the private, largely residential sphere.

The two major critics of the older generation, Sitte and Wagner, saw in the Ringstrasse’s design two traditionally recognized elements of architecture in tension: art and utility. Each advocated a different one of these values. Sitte set himself up as “an advocate of the artistic side” against what he saw as the cold, spatial planning of the Ringstrasse, which was adapted to the flow of traffic. Accepting historical style in architecture, with all its capacity for symbolic significance, he called also for the revival of historical design in urban space as well, with a stress on squares rather than on vehicle-dominated streets as in the Ringstrasse design. For him the wide circular street produced anomie and agoraphobia, both associated with the harsh individualism of modern life. Sitte’s project was to restore the square in order to arrest the driving flow of men in motion in a space conducive to sociability and congregation. The square was for him the urban form that could generate and sustain community, could restore the sense of belonging to a polis that hectic modern commercial culture was killing.


Like Sitte, Otto Wagner criticized the Ringstrasse for the contradiction between its stylistic profession to tradition in architecture and its rational modernism in street layout and spatial design. But where Sitte demanded a greater fidelity to history, Wagner sought to overcome the antinomy from the other end. He championed the primacy of utility, of modern function. For his city expansion plan, Wagner chose a motto that would have chilled the heart of Sitte: “Artis sola domina necessitas” (“Necessity is art’s only mistress”).

Wagner had for two decades been a successful architect of Neo-Renaissance apartment buildings. Then he became involved with the design of Vienna’s municipal railway system. His imagination caught fire with the possibilities opened for the city by new technology. He proclaimed the infinitely expansible modern city, the megalopolis. Architecture and urban planning must “adapt the city’s image to modern man,” a frankly economic man. Wagner saw him as energetic, rational, efficient, and urbane, a businesslike metropolitan, a bourgeois with little time, lots of money, and a taste for the monumental. In his innovative textbook, entitled Modern Architecture, Wagner called for the recognition of function (or, as he called it, Zweck, “purpose”) as the determinant of form. During the nineteenth century, he said, the pace of social change had moved so swiftly that architects had recourse to historical styles devised to answer the needs of earlier civilizations. The time had come to create an artistic style for the city consistent with new technologies and building materials, as had been done in the case of railway trains and bridges. “The function of art,” Wagner proclaimed, “is to consecrate all that emerges, in the fulfillment of practical aims.” Architects and city planners must “make visible our better, democratic, self-conscious and sharp-thinking essence, and do justice to the colossal technological achievements as well as to the fundamentally practical character of mankind.”

Wagner showed the way by developing a radically simplified building style suitable to the vehicular perspective on great urban thoroughfares. Anomie held no terrors for this vigorous proponent of a busy megalopolis where the millions would be accommodated in large housing blocks. In these great blocks, Wagner believed, uniformity would be raised to a monumentality directly expressive of modern economic man whom the builders of the Ringstrasse had hidden in the costumery of “style-architecture.”

Sitte and Wagner, in opposite ways, thus attacked the Ringstrasse’s historicist synthesis of art and utility, Sitte with the aim of restoring community, Wagner with the aim of creating a modern metropolis for modern commercial society. Both men were wholly committed to the public sphere, in which for them the individual acquired his meaning, and from which architecture acquired both its function and its form.


Meanwhile a younger generation of Austrian intellectuals developed a more thoroughgoing rebellion against the cultural synthesis of the liberal fathers: first in politics, then in literature, and finally in art and architecture. The organizational expression of this revolt in art and architecture was the so-called Secession movement, founded in 1897. Its very name implied withdrawal from the culture of the elders. The motto inscribed on the Secession’s exhibition hall proclaimed its break from the past: “To the time its art, to art its freedom.” At first this commitment extended to public and private culture alike. The organization’s periodical, Ver Sacrum (“Holy Spring”), proclaimed in its issues of 1898 the regeneration of Austrian society through culture, indicting as corrupt and moribund the traditional historicist art of the mid-nineteenth century. It was Adolf Loos, later the most implacable foe of the Secession, who formulated for it the indictment of the Ringstrasse and its culture, under the title “The Potemkin City” (one of the essays later collected in his book Spoken Into the Void). The basic charge was hypocrisy. “Whatever the Italy of the Renaissance produced in the way of lordly palaces,” he wrote, “was plundered in order to conjure up as if by magic a new Vienna for Her Majesty the plebs.” The apartment houses of the Ring were occupied by “swindlers,” parvenus who, however small their little room and bath within, presented themselves through the façades of their dwellings as feudal lords.


All Secessionists could agree on hypocrisy, on what was false in the pretentious world of bourgeois Bildung as expressed in the Ringstrasse. To restore its integrity, Sitte and Wagner had each espoused half the mid-century synthesis of historical style and modern urban space—Sitte the former, Wagner the latter. Loos and the Secession’s moralistic-aesthetic critique rejected the whole synthesis in the name of honesty, of truth.

But what was modern truth? And what was the role of art in modern life? Here die Jungen divided, in architecture as in other domains of higher culture, into two camps: the aesthetes and the ethicists. Both were concerned less with society than with the psyche, less with Wagner’s and Sitte’s communitarian economic man than with the man of feeling. The artists of the Secession shared the preoccupations of contemporary Jung-Wien writers such as Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal: on the one hand, they explored the instinctual life, especially that of eros, and the dissolution of the boundaries between the “I” and the world, between thought and feeling; on the other, they tried to create a new, suprahistorical beauty in architecture and the applied arts to satisfy the sensitive souls of the aesthetically cultivated. Inspired by the English arts and crafts movement, though not by its social theory, the Secession designers worked to transform the use-objects of daily life into works of art. The presumed client, the new man of Bildung, in contrast to his predecessor who enriched his life with the works of acquired historical culture, was expected to define himself from within, to refine his own psyche into art. The forms of living—the house, its furnishings, its art—were to be personal expressions of each man’s soul and beauty.

Under these circumstances, the architect became less the builder and more the artist. A new terminology reflected the change: the architect became a Raumkünstler; architecture was called Raumpoesie. (This in contrast to Otto Wagner, who changed the title of Moderne Architektur to Moderne Baukunst, the art of building, not poeticizing in space.)

Hermann Bahr, a writer who had his house designed for him by the architect of the Secession’s building, Josef Olbrich, describes how, in principle, one should approach one’s architect:

I would first have to tell the architect about my inner beauty…through my favorite color, poem, song, my favorite hour of the day…. Then he would know me, could feel my essence. This essence he would then have to express through a line, to find the gesture of my essence. Above the gate a verse would be inscribed—the verse of my essence. And what this verse is in words, that same thing must be in every color and every line; and every chair, every wallpaper, every lamp, would be that same verse ever again. In such a house, I would everywhere be able to see my soul as in a mirror. This would be my house. Hier könnte ich mir leben, looking at my own image, listening to my own music.

The soon fashionable personalist aesthetic did not often produce such narcissistic extremes, but some of the most important work of the Secession architects reflected its spirit. Especially prominent was the integral conception of exterior and interior, with common motifs serving to unify inner space and outer world. In the nursery of Olbrich’s Villa Friedmann one can see not only the mottoes, but the attempt to dissolve the walls symbolically, bringing nature into the interior by means of wall paintings consistent with the external scene. Panpsychism and pan-naturism are fused in the organic forms of the specially designed furniture.

In the famous Palais Stoclet (see photograph on following page) built by Josef Hoffmann, with Gustav Klimt and other Secession artists responsible for the decoration, the aim was to provide both a scene for and a symbol of the life-beautiful. The exterior, with its molded bindings to contain the marble-clad blocks of which the house is composed, is a veritable jewel box for the precious and cultivated life it was to house. In consonance with the oft-cited aim of Oscar Wilde, to infuse all life with art, even the clothes of the Stoclet couple were designed to harmonize with the rich, uniformly stylized décor of their house. The portraits by Klimt that date from the time of the building of the Palais Stoclet (1904–1911) reveal the same hermetic encapsulation of the human figure in a luxurious interior whose symbols are without any historical reference.


In the face of this kind of glorification of art and its appropriation to the sybaritic life-beautiful that soon dominated the Secession, Adolf Loos and his literary ally, Karl Kraus, opened a second front in the crusade for a purified culture. They dissolved the brother band that had revolted against the Ringstrasse fathers into fratricidal warfare, a warfare of ethicists versus aesthetes. Where the aesthetes of Jung-Wien had broken the Ringstrasse synthesis of aesthetic and rational culture by assigning primacy to the aesthetic culture of feeling and the senses, Loos and Kraus took up the other half of the tradition, exalting Geist, Mind. The Secessionists turned to the arts for their redemptive power, their solace, or their capacity to produce a life of refined beauty, of poetry. Against them Loos and Kraus upheld and expanded what they saw as the masculine virtues of Reason, ethics, and the honest truths contained in ordinary language, whether in words or in things. By 1900, Kraus and Loos, doughty last puritans, found each other as champions of the virtues of truth against the corruptions of beauty, whether that beauty was historicist in conception as with the fathers or modernist as with the brothers.

Kraus expressed the idea of the two-front warfare at once parricidal and fratricidal, which he and Loos unleashed:

Adolf Loos and I—he in artifacts, I in words—have done no more than to demonstrate that there is a distinction between a vase and a chamberpot, and that culture has its running-room within this difference. The others, however, the men of “positive” outlook, are divided between those who treat the vase as a chamberpot [the historicists] and those who treat the chamberpot as a vase [the modernists].

Kraus for his part chose two arenas of critical action: the press and the theater, the two most important verbal media of Viennese nineteenth-century liberal culture. The crime of the press was to deform the pure referential function of language in factual reporting with the personal coloration of the journalist. Art, or better, artfulness, in journalism was the means whereby the power elite and its journalistic servants manipulated the public. Kraus’s method for redeeming the word from the aesthetic corruption of the press was close critical analysis of particular newspaper stories. He knew how to make the distorted language of reporting yield up its deeper factual and ethical truth that exposed the abuse to which it had been put. In his one-man journal, The Torch, Kraus exposed like an angry prophet the corruption and hypocrisy prevailing in the public realm.

While demanding rigid moral standards in the public sphere of politics and law, Kraus championed sexual freedom and self-determination in the private sphere. In general, Kraus was a kind of antibourgeois bourgeois, upholding the traditional moral values of his class against the practices of his class. It was a hallmark of his cultural criticism that he saw art and the aesthetic as crucial instruments of corruption of the public, serving venality rather than veracity. Art, as expression of the affective life, had, in Kraus’s view, best be confined to personal experience, isolated from the public world of power and promotion.

Even in the theater, Kraus hoped to restore purity by withdrawal to the private sphere. He believed that Vienna’s theatrical public was corrupted by the excessive stress on the performance skills and popular cults of the actors at the expense of the texts. When Lessing in the eighteenth century created his German national theater for moral, social purposes, he announced that he was making the stage into a pulpit. Kraus, over a century later, went the opposite road: to save the text, the truth of the word, he removed the play from the public stage to the lectern. From it he gave private readings to select audiences. There the moral force of the word could be realized without the corrupting “art” of stagecraft.

In the same down-to-earth spirit that Kraus brought to cultural criticism through analyzing news stories, Adolf Loos tested the culture’s state of health by exploring the simple use-objects of daily life—household utensils, furniture, clothing, luggage, plumbing, etc. His bête noire, like Kraus’s, was art as it was injected into domains where practicality alone should rule. Not the artist but the craftsman should be our guide. Loos was not concerned with beauty except as it resulted naturally from finding a formal and material answer to a practical need. Again his first target was the historical style: “In the past two decades,” Loos wrote, “we have gotten Renaissance, baroque, and rococo blisters on our hands because of door handles.” He said that he made frequent pilgrimages to a new building because of a door handle. But would the reader not think himself fooled if he saw it? Its chief characteristic was—mere unobtrusiveness.

Simplicity, modesty, unobtrusiveness: such were the virtues that Loos linked to practicality and counterposed against the “stylistic” standards prevailing in the historical design culture of the mid-nineteenth century. It should be observed that all these virtues were ethical as well as aesthetic. Loos’s criticisms of objects were at the same time criticisms of the culture that produced them. The early Loos was nothing if not a functionalist; that civilization was highest, he said, which accomplished the business of living in the most direct and economical way. The Greeks “created only that which was practical…without concerning themselves about any aesthetic imperative. When an object such as a vase was made so practical that it could not be made any more practical, then they called it beautiful.” Are there any such civilized people in our age? Yes, answered Loos: “The English and the engineers are our Greeks. It is from them that we acquire our culture; from them it spreads over the entire globe.”

The craftsman and the English gentleman: these two ideal types run through Loos’s early criticism. In his Anglophilia, Loos simply shares an attitude fundamental to nineteenth-century Austrian liberalism. The gentleman represents for him the highest combination of bourgeois practicality and aristocratic grace, manifesting itself in a sense for the suitable, the appropriate. Clothing serves Loos as the vehicle for his argument. The German, he observes, asks whether a man is dressed “beautifully”; the Englishman asks only whether he is dressed “well,” “correctly.” For the gentleman seeks to be not outstanding but inconspicuous, properly attired for a given function, from bicycling to a formal occasion. Loos sees the same standard of fitness prevailing in English “living culture,” from railway cars to furniture. The English have liberated the craftsman from the artist-designer. The reform in our living environment would come, Loos maintained, never from above but from below. “And this below is the workshop.”

The position thus far developed by Loos as a critic was a modernism consistent with Otto Wagner’s in its stress on practicality. Wagner, however, thought on the grand scale of the res publica, as an urbanist committed to the commercial metropolis. He deliberately sought a new style that could represent modernity, an art to consecrate the practical. Loos thought on the small scale, of the multitude of practical objects of daily life. His practicality ignored the factory in favor of the artisan and craftsman who could be counted upon to avoid freighting his objects with adventitious decoration foreign to their purposes. Craft production for a specific purpose aspires to maximum efficiency and minimum cost—in labor, capital, and conception. Artists who add ornaments to give poetic status and meaning to useful objects violate the tendency to economy and rational function which is the mark of civilized man.

Loos thus sought not to find a new applied art, but to get art out of the crafts, just as Kraus tried to get literary art out of journalism. Art was not to “penetrate life,” but, on the contrary, to be rolled back to the purely private, expressive sphere where men and women could pursue freely their desires and their ways of making meaning, without dictation from the outer world—or even from the architect. The architect could help make their habitat, but could not and should not give “meaning” to their lives with his symbolic forms.

Loos’s most polemical gesture against the Secessionist conception of the architect as space poet was to declare him not an artist at all but a craftsman. The architect’s task was of the same order as that of the saddler or the tailor: to fill a practical need as economically as possible. Fantasy, so prized in the ideology of the Secessionists, properly belonged to the artist, but not to the architect. Loos distinguished the two from each other drastically, as follows:

The work of art is the private affair of the artist. The house is not…. The work of art is answerable to no one; the house to everyone. The work of art wants to shake people out of their comfortableness [or complacency: Bequemlichkeit]. The house must serve comfort. The art-work is revolutionary, the house conservative.

With such a distinction, Loos placed himself at a polar remove from the Secession architects for whom the house was a projection of personal identity. It helps explain why Loos could, with Kraus, champion Kokoschka and other radical young Expressionists. The cool, geometric neutralism of a Loos house and the febrile psychologism of a Kokoschka or Schiele portrait repelled with equal but opposite force the aesthetic unity of the house beautiful and its symbolic function as private mirror and public expression of the owner’s personality.

Loos carried his effort to deprive the architect of his status as artist directly into his own practice. He presented himself, especially to residential clients, with a kind of assertive modesty as a counselor on living space, an advisor in interior renovation and furniture procurement. Even making an allowance for his ironical rhetoric, one must recognize that Loos eschewed in principle the aesthetic architects’ attempt to design not only the house but all its furnishings. Loos’s stated procedure, at least before World War I, was to urge clients to learn homemaking as they would learn fencing: by doing, by taking the rapier in hand. The architect would serve, like a fencing master, as teacher and consultant.

What issued in his practice from Loos’s definition of the role of the architect was in fact a series of interiors, both in apartments and in his houses, furnished in the English manner, with paneling, cabinets, Sheraton and other traditional furnishings consonant with Loos’s ideal of gentlemanly comfort and sobriety. This conservatism did not preclude the creation (on occasion) of an environment designed for love life. On the contrary. The principle of interior organization was freedom. Loos was himself a man of powerful sexual appetite. (Drawn to women under twenty, he married three such, had additional affairs, and, like his friend the writer Peter Altenberg, tried to seduce children.)

The apartment he renovated and furnished for himself and his first wife, Lina, showed a combination of English sober comfort in the living room and frank sensuality in “das Zimmer meiner Frau.” Loos published photographs of both rooms in his short-lived periodical Das Andere, whose purpose was provocatively stated in its subtitle: Ein Blatt zur Einführung abendländischer Kultur in Oesterreich. The living room with its exposed beams and cozy corner fireplace could have been designed by Morris or Philip Webb; but the bedroom, with its ingenious integration of bed and floor through fur covering materials anticipates sexy Hollywood décor of the 1920s. What counts in the interior is intimacy, self-determination in privacy.

If we turn to the exterior of Loos’s houses, we find a quite different character at work. An absolutely ascetic geometricity reigns. The exterior is faceless, or, better, deadpan. It conveys no messages of any kind, symbolizes nothing, represents nothing. It has the virtue of gentleman’s clothing: it is unauffallend, not noticeable—literally “not striking.” “The house,” Loos wrote, “does not have to tell anything to the exterior; instead, all the richness must be manifest in the interior.” One can extrapolate from this a view of the public–private distinction in culture as follows: Richness belongs not to the outside, the public domain, but to the inside, the private one. The exterior no more reflects the public realm than it expresses the private. It is a mere divider between public and private, proclaiming nothing, imposing nothing, receiving nothing from without, transmitting nothing to the life within but light. It is a wall and a mask that, because it represents nothing, misrepresents nothing. It does not join, but delimits.


We are at the point where the place of Loos in the trajectory of Viennese architecture-as-criticism can stand forth in all its singularity. The major issue which his ethical culture-criticism led him to address in architecture was the relation between exterior and interior. This, not “art” and its proper function, contained the problem of modern man for Loos.

In the historical architecture of the Ringstrasse that was his point of departure, the exterior was unashamedly false to the interior. What all the culture critics—Wagner and Sitte in the older generation, the aesthetes and the ethicists in the younger—saw as falsification can also be seen as aspiration. The Ringstrasse apartment house made a statement, through historical vocabulary, about the weight and worth of the resident. Behind the Renaissance façades people lived in flats decorated in a wide variety of styles—Biedermeier, Empire, high Victorian, not to mention décors inspired by the Secession itself. If the façade misrepresented the interior organization of space, it was in order to proclaim the better the status of its inhabitants as people of acquired high culture. The exterior fulfilled the function of representation; the public mask would be presumed to make the private man. In the dialectic of exterior and interior, the façade had priority; the private man was expected to live up to the historical values the public realm conveyed.

In the architecture that Wagner developed according to his critique of the Ringstrasse on urbanist and utilitarian grounds, the interior began to assert itself over the exterior, but mainly through the methods of construction and the choice of materials. Wagner aspired to technological truth in his building form. His buildings, whether office buildings or apartment houses or subway stations, begin to be enclosed volumes rather than hollowed masses. But his exteriors remain public statements as well as expressions of new constructional truth. Architecture is conceived as an element in a larger urban whole, whose social functions and commercial and cultural values must govern its outer face. Wagner’s economic man no longer hides his modernity behind historical screens, but is conceived of as a vigorous and convinced participant in the metropolitan public scene. Wagner was the architect whose criticism and building practice liberated the economic and technical realities that had earlier been repressed, buried under historical styles. His modernism is the modernism of a new public man, and his buildings were meant to be experienced as such, outside and inside.

The Secession architects built the house for another kind of modern man, the man of sensitivity and high aesthetic culture. With them, the primacy of the public sphere was subverted. The house became, as the critic Beatrice Colomina has shrewdly observed, a characterization of the owner by the architect. The distinction between exterior and interior is virtually liquidated—“liquified” would be a better word—as the symbolic themes and forms flow freely between outer wall and inner room as in Olbrich’s fin-desiècle residences. As ego, id, and superego are melded in a single seismographic consciousness, the house becomes the mirror of the client. But it also presents him to the outer world. The public sphere has not been dissolved, nor the private encapsulated. For now the exterior gives expression to the personality of the private man, projects it into the public realm. The house serves both as private mirror and public image.

If Wagner transformed architecture within the public sphere, and the Secessionists established the primacy of the private by exhibiting it, Loos extended the logic of privatization by removing from architecture its representational function and its power of symbolic statement. A Loos house is a rational container, imperviously neutral. It cannot be read, for it says nothing; rather, it does something. Its exterior is a defense perimeter of the private man. It is fitting that the inveterate Anglophile Loos should have made the house a castle once again. But it is a castle in which the free private man no longer pays any obeisance to public duty, no longer wears a mark of civic identity. With the architect’s help, he organizes and disposes of his inner space and inner life behind an outer wall that neither affirms public values, like Wagner, Sitte, and the Ringstrasse architects, nor conveys private gestures in high aesthetic style, like Olbrich and Hoffmann. Out of his ethical impulses, his rejection of posing, his love of craft, and his hedonistic affirmation of the unsublimated world of desire, the cool Austrian gentleman built us a dream house of reason, where personal choice could be preserved safe from the public sphere. In it his relentless culture-criticism revealed both its imaginative power and, almost insistently, its social irrelevance.

Postmodern architects such as Aldo Rossi and Peter Eisenman have been drawn to Loos as a pioneering forerunner. In his introduction to Adolf Loos’s book, Spoken into the Void, Rossi pointed to an aspect of Loos’s outlook that helps us to understand why: Loos was the enemy of the redemptive claims of modern architecture, which “mythified its relations with industry and reformist politics.” Austere in its antisymbolic facelessness, its deliberate aspiration to an inconspicuous nonsignification, Loos’s puritan building style has indeed served those who have been transmuting the technological and social modernism of the first half of our century into the hedonistic formalism of the second.

Since World War II, as the depoliticizing of our own intellectual culture marches on under the banner of “anti-ideology,” architectural interest has shifted—away from the French technological rationalism of Le Corbusier and the German social idealism of the Bauhaus to the Austrian aesthetic modernism of Adolf Loos. Our postmodernists can see him too as the master of architecture as a language that expresses essentially its own nature; as an architect whose cause is not some ideology external to itself, but the art of building tout court; indeed, as a purist who disentangled architecture from culture and society; finally, as a pioneer of that postmodernist form of art pour l’art in which architecture becomes self-referential, an architecture about architecture.

From the point of view of architectural form and style, the appropriation of Loos by the postmoderns is surely understandable. But if one looks at Loos in his own time, the relationship between Loos and his admirers today raises problems. For, as we have seen, Loos was above all a culture critic, merciless in his indictment of his society from an ethical point of view quite foreign to the essentially aesthetic concerns of most postmodernists. If Loos, as Rossi implies, did not tell men how to live, he told them in no uncertain terms how not to live. He told them not to define modern life through history and not to confuse art with life.

Still, there remains in Loos’s critical and architectural utterance an affinity with the position of postmodernism. It lies in his vindication of the private, personal centering of life, posited against the claims of the public sphere to be the source of human identity and meaning. Loos became the uncompromising champion of the self-defining person and his claim to a psychologically gratified life. For that kind of man, Loos, both as architect and critic, built shelters.


Despite the avalanche of recent books on the arts of late imperial Vienna, there is as yet no comprehensive history of modern Austrian architecture. The Ringstrasse, to be sure, has received the most thorough multidisciplinary scholarly treatment ever accorded a modern urban development in the series Die Wiener Ringstrasse, Bild einer Epoche. Edited by the late Renate Wagner-Rieger, its many volumes have been appearing under various imprints since 1969.

The catalogs, usually in the form of collective specialized surveys, that have accompanied the recent spate of art-centered exhibitions of Vienna’s culture all contain articles on architecture in a setting of pieces on other aspects of culture. The most recent major shows and their catalogs are:

  • Venice, Palazzo Grassi (1984); Le Arti a Vienna (Venice: Edizioni la Biennale, Mazotta Editori, 1984).
  • Vienna, Historical Museum of the City of Vienna (1985); Traum und Wirklichkeit Wien (Vienna: Verlag der Museen der Stadt Wien, 1985).
  • Paris, Centre Pompidou (1986); Vienne, 1880–1938: L’apocalypse joyeuse (Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1986).
  • In preparation, New York, Museum of Modern Art (1986); Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture, and Design, Jim Leggio, ed. (Museum of Modern Art, 1986).

Monographs are now available in English on most of the major pioneers of modern Austrian architecture. George Collins’s work of twenty years ago, Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning (Rizzoli International, 1984) remains the essential reading on that influential urban theorist. The fundamentals of the work and career of Otto Wagner are provided by the somewhat pedestrian but well-illustrated monograph of Heinz Geretsegger and Max Peintner, Otto Wagner 1841–1918: The Expanding City The Beginning of Modern Architecture, translated by Gerald Onn (Rizzoli International, 1985).

No one has attracted more critical attention in the past decade than Adolf Loos. His early critical essays (1897–1900) have been published by the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in its valuable series Opposition Books, under the title Spoken Into the Void, translated by Jane O. Newman and illustrated by John H. Smith (MIT Press, 1982). The projected publication of the more influential second volume of Loos’s writings, Dennoch (“In Despite”) seems to have foundered along with the imaginative and vigorous IAUS that launched the translation project. No study of Loos’s life and work compares in scope and detail with Burkardt Rukscheio and Roland Schachel’s Adolf Loos (1982), as yet untranslated from the German, beautifully and informatively illustrated by its publisher, Residenz Verlag of Salzburg. Although the chronicle of Loos’s life in relation to his times lacks both analytic rigor and synoptic power, the book offers a mass of new and valuable biographical information, while the painstakingly compiled catalog of projects and completed works, generously photographed, opens new possibilities for Loos scholarship.

A briefer but still substantial work accessible to the English-speaking public is Benedetto Gravagnuolo’s Adolf Loos: Theory and Works, translated by C.H. Evans (Rizzoli International, 1982). A theoretician rather than a historian by temperament, Gravagnuolo offers a thoughtful interpretation of Loos in the light of the lively discussions of Austrian fin de siècle culture that have marked contemporary Italian criticism as it seeks to orient itself in the marshlands where Marxism, structuralism, and Nietzschean existentialism meet. Gravagnuolo’s treatment of such topics as Loos’s relation to history, to language, and to the limits of reason are often illuminating even when speculative. The catalog, though far less complete than Rukscheio’s and Schachel’s, provides stimulating comment on individual architectural works.

In a class by itself is the remarkable book by Eduard F. Sekler, Josef Hoffmann: The Architectural Work (Princeton University Press, 1985). Sekler brings to bear on this leading architect-designer of the Secession (Loos’s bête noir) a stunning capacity to rethink the creative processes of his subject. Sensitive to Hoffmann’s historical milieu and intellectual associations, learned in the local and international architectural models upon which Hoffmann could draw, Sekler thinks like an artist-craftsman as he confronts Hoffmann’s problems of design and construction. Instead of pursuing architectural history from a theoretical or general historical viewpoint, Sekler writes it from within, unifying by scrupulous empirical, retrospective analysis the aesthetic, social, and technical dimensions that informed the architect’s practical work. Never has the Secession been illuminated so fully from the reconstituted vantage point of one of its most creative participants.


This Issue

May 29, 1986