Use Of Classicism In Loos Work Cultural Studies Essay

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Adolf Loos is known for his scathing critiques of Viennese architecture and bourgeois culture, with its passion for ornate, decorative aesthetics. Although it is impossible to pinpoint the exact origins of his thoughts regarding ornament or modernism, his writing suggests that his time in America together with important philosophers and writers at the time helped to formulate and develop his ideas on modernism.

Loos was both a prolific writer and architect hence it is important to look at both aspects of his career to construct a comprehensive understanding of his views of architecture and modernism. The following paper will analyse his public architecture through his writings and works of whether the use of classism such as the column in Loos's works is considered to be ornament or monument. As it is impossible to analyse all of Loss's works, for the scope of this paper I have only chosen some of the most significant.

The culture and architecture of the United States (between 1893 and 1896) was an undeniable influence on Loos's architectural ideology. While in Chicago, Loos was introduced to the new American skyscrapers, the architecture of Louis Sullivan, and the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition. During this time it helped develop his opinions regarding arts and crafts, cultural evolution, and architecture's role in society. Among the small group of architects participating in the design of the Columbian Exhibition, Louis Sullivan was probably the most influential on Loos's work. Not only had Sullivan designed several skyscrapers and smaller structures throughout Chicago, St. Louis, and New York, but he would later, in 1896, publish the most influential architectural text about skyscraper design titled, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered." In this article Sullivan would insist on the tri-partition of the building into base, shaft, and capital. Like Loos, Sullivan wrote commandingly about the proper way of designing and ornamenting a building, considering both the functional and structural aspects as well as the building's artistic expression. Amongst other buildings which influenced Loos's architecture would be the skyscrapers of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the design for the Detroit Memorial Column [1] , and the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The skyscraper was an entirely new and exclusively American building type. These structures, would have been impressive to any foreign visitor, would have been of particular interest to anyone with an enthusiasm for architecture. Echoes of these American landmarks resurfaced throughout Loos's own architectural career in designs for public buildings such as the 1922 design for the Chicago Tribune Tower and his entry to the 1898 competition for emperor Franz Joseph's jubilee memorial church. A clear distinction is made in the way classicism is used in his public as opposed to private structures; using classical elements primarily on the exterior of his public buildings, while using the same components sparingly and only on the interiors of his residential designs. Although he is famed for his ant-ornament polemics, his use of classicism is undeniable and key to understanding his architecture. Loos's use of fundamental classicism is apparent throughout his architectural career.

It is important to understand the time when Loos lived. He worked in Austria at the height of distinct art movements such as the Viennese Secession, Jugendstil, and the Wiener Werkstatte, which Loos generally opposed due to their excessive use of ornamentation and their conflation of art and craft. Expressing frustration with the cultural, political, and artistic limitations of Austria, Loos often mocked Viennese culture through his written works.


It is through the writing of Loos that we are able to construct an understanding of how Loos thought architecture should function in a modern society. Unlike other architects of the early twentieth century, such as Henry van de Velde, Bruno Taut, or Theo van Doesburg, Loos did not write a program or manifesto defining a set of architectural guidelines by which all architects should abide. Although he did write a great deal about the problems of the contemporary Viennese architecture. According to Loos, architecture, like any other utilitarian object, should change and adapt to the needs of an evolving society.

After his return to Vienna in 1896, Loos wrote favourably about American culture and the modem disposition of its citizens in his magazine Das Andere (The Other), subtitled 'A paper for the introduction of Western Culture to Austria.' Loos was a prolific writer and began his career as an architectural and social critic, working with other social revolutionaries, such as the Viennese journalist Karl Kraus and publisher and art dealer, Herwarth Walden. Seen as a eccentric for his critiques of contemporary theory and culture, Loos often positioned himself in opposition to popular opinion and caused a great deal of controversy [2] . He did this in an effort to help Vienna move forward during this time of political collapse and social restructuring and tried to use Western culture as an ideal model for the Austrians to emulate and educate the Austrian public in terms of clothing, etiquette, table manners, and various other subjects. [3] 

In his most famous essay, "Ornament and Crime", published in 1908, Loos disparages the Viennese love for ornament in architecture and everyday objects. Once again he uses the Americans as an example of a more culturally evolved society, contrasting it with the Papuan natives who use tattoos to ornament their own skin. Also, how America's unornamented boxes and cigarette cases that he saw at the Columbian Exhibition as an example of how advanced their society had become, because they were no longer wasting time, money, and resources to create unnecessary ornament for their utilitarian objects. For Loos, ornament was a crime not for reasons of abstract moral, but because it presented itself as a form of foolishness, useless repetition, or degeneration [4] . In his writings ornament functions as the formal connection between architecture, clothing, and the human body. In each instance America is placed at the peak of this ladder of civilization. Similar to his article "Architecture", which discusses the progression of classical architecture, "Ornament and Crime" traces the progression of everyday objects from complexity to simplification, where America, Classical Antiquity, and England are the ideal models to emulate. It was in his writings that Loos most clearly formulates his architectural principles and his respect for American culture with a sense of hope and an ideal model for Austrians to emulate.


Loos's own manner of dress, which consisted of fine tailored suits, became his signature uniform and was rarely photographed wearing anything else. Loos intended to return from the United States and enter the Austrian society as a knowledgeable and refined gentleman of the most modem and rational taste [5] . His relationship with clothing was closely related to his theories in architecture and that the architect is not an artist but more a kind of tailor [6] . More than an attempt to look fashionable, Loos was trying to create an image that suggested his connection with Western culture and the idea of modernity. It was important to Loos that one always be "well dressed." For Loos, being well dressed did not mean being beautifully dressed, but rather to be well dressed meant to be "dressed in such a manner as to attract as little attention to oneself as possible.'' His wardrobe was as a source of self-promotion, as a sort of walking billboard that advertised his knowledge of the most advanced cultures. This is an important aspect in which we can relate the way he dresses to the way he ''dresses'' the column.

Public columns

Many of Loos's urban residences maintain a similar appearance to later Modernist works - stucco walls, straight lines, unornamented facades - but heterogeneity of design becomes increasingly apparent when looking at the interiors of his houses or his public buildings. In his use of classicism, his ideology regarding the way buildings should function in society, and his use of materials, Loos's public structures challenge the classification of his work as aligned with Modern design. As we have seen in his writing, American culture was a powerful influence in Loos's conception of what Austria should aspire to be. America was the utopian ideal, but Loos never returned to the United States and only designed one building that was to be constructed there. The massive Doric column submitted by Adolf Loos has puzzled many with its unprecedented design that seemingly held little parallel to the architectural values that the architect supported. Originating from thirty-two countries, over 260 architects submitted entries to the competition; each of whom developed his own vision of what an American skyscraper should look like. The organizers of the competition sought to provide civic improvement to Chicago by "erecting the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world," which would simultaneously improve the prestige of "The World's Greatest Newspaper" as well as the city of Chicago. Loos's design was a granite to rise out of an eleven storey cubical base, to reach to the full height one hundred and twenty metres, a design Loos felt would be equally as monumental as it was distinctive. [7] 


Loos's proposal for an immense Doric column has been seen as incongruent with both his writing and previous designs. Part of the ambiguity surrounding the design lies in inconsistency between Loos's design of the Chicago Tribune column and with his reputation as a critic who fought for the removal of superfluous ornament in both architecture and everyday items. I believe Loos's design was not only a literal meaning of a column for the newspaper but also used as symbolism as a ''pillar'' in public society. Despite the fact that Loos wrote a great deal, few of his writings were circulated outside of Vienna. Though Loos was known for often using a sarcastic tone in his writing, many scholars question the seriousness of his design, which can be interpreted as one colossal ornament. Skyscrapers were still a relatively new building type in 1922 and were being constructed primarily in the United States. The use of the classical tradition on such a monumental scale would have not gone unnoticed by Loos and may have contributed to his use of classical elements in his own architecture. Louis Sullivan in particular may have influenced Loos's design for the Chicago Tribune. In his article Sullivan insists on the tri-partition of the building into base, shaft, and capital. He says,

Certain critics, and very thoughtful ones, have advanced the theory that the true prototype of the tall office building is the classical column, consisting of base, shaft, and capital - the moulded base of the column typical of the lower stories of our building, the plain or fluted shaft suggesting the monotonous, uninterrupted series of office-tiers, and the capital the completing power and luxuriance of the attic. [8] 

Most probably I think Loos would have read Sullivan's essay prior to designing the Chicago Tribune Tower, as the evidence in the formation in his tri-parted design is clear, however, this is not the first time Loos uses tri-partition, he first uses it in the Looshaus on Michaelerplatz as well shall see further on. This essay appeared in Lippincott's March 1896 issue, just as Loos was leaving the United States to return to Vienna. In addition to Sullivan's influential essay and the Columbian Exhibition, where he would have seen numerous classical buildings and the large obelisk at the fair, there were also several American structures that may have influenced his design, including the tall ancient Egyptian obelisk in New York's Central Park and the Bunker Hill Monument in Massachusetts. It is evident that when he returned to Austria, American structures, particularly the Bunker Hill Monument, influenced his public architectural designs. As per his competition entry as submitted in 1899 for Emperor Franz Josef's jubilee memorial church.


Next to the church there was to be a tall tower similar to an ancient obelisk but with a sweeping base, similar in form to the Eiffel tower. This plan, juxtaposing the obelisk with church design, is most likely based on the Bunker Hill Monument which also places a large obelisk next to a small classical building. In Loos's essay ''Ornament and Education'' he writes:

Classical ornament brings order into the shaping of our objects of everyday use, orders us and our forms, and creates despite ethnographic and linguistic differences, a common fund of forms and aesthetic concepts [9] 

The design of the Chicago Tribune Column was not a drift into classicism, but rather a new aspect of his continuing relationship with classicism that actually spans his entire career.

Loos's classicism, like the classicism of the Renaissance, is looking to history as the basis on which to build the new rather than to copy its structures. Loos's essay, "Architecture," describes the progression of classical architecture towards more simplistic forms. To Loos, this progression was the correct path for the development of architecture and architects should continue in this direction. [10] Although famously known for his attack on ornament, his essay "Ornament and Crime" does not call for the removal of all ornament, but for the removal of ornament that is no longer relevant to its own time. [11] The column is extracted from its original context, scale, and function, radically altered and then placed in the contemporary context of the city. In the pamphlet accompanying his submission to the competition, Loos emphasizes and praises the jury's desire to build the most beautiful office skyscraper in the world. He argues that his design was both beautiful and distinctive enough to be identified with Chicago the same way that St. Peters is connected with Rome or the Leaning Tower with Pisa. Loos notes how the new, non-traditional architectural forms constructed in Germany, Austria, or France were characteristic of the American outlook on life right now, but were so common in American cities that a building of that style would not distinguish itself and would most likely become unfashionable as styles developed. ''Taking all of this into consideration, I have chosen the column as the best solution of the problem. The detached column is a tradition.'' [12] 

Public Buildings

Drawing on his personal experiences in another way, Loos's column creates a powerful impression due in part to his choice of material. Departing from the pristine white surfaces of classicism that could have easily been recreated in glazed white terracotta, Loos chooses to use black polished granite. Loos's father was a stonemason and Adolf gained an appreciation for fine materials early in life. Using marble, travertine, and other sumptuous stone in both his public and residential architecture, Loos chose to use the finest materials and left them unornamented. The way in which Loos used materials and classicism was consistent throughout his career. He deliberately accentuated the differences between interior and exterior, private and public, monument and house, creating a sense of duality in his work. Although Loos uses classical elements and the same fine materials in both his residential and public architecture, the way in which he uses them in each instance is very specific.

According to Loos, public buildings are for everyone and should reach out to all members of society. One building that perfectly embodies this duality between public and private space is the Looshaus in the Michaelerplatz. The first two stories of the building are intended for commercial activities and are covered in a green travertine, with four Doric columns marking the entrance. Above this commercial area is a white wall punctuated with windows, containing four stories intended for personal accommodation.


The contrast between the two functions of the building is clearly delineated by the treatment of the facade. The classical column here bears not structure at all, as they were placed at the very end of the building's construction. Not only that but you can see from the elevation that the structural steel grid does not actually align with the classical columns at all. In addition to the classical form of the column, the stepped, cubical form that the column rests upon is a reoccurring form in Loos's public designs. One of the earliest examples is a project for a department store in Alexandria, Egypt, designed in 1910.


Although never built, it is clear that Loos was fond of the design, having kept a watercolour painting on display in his house. [13] The design combines classical motifs with this stepped pyramidal form that later becomes a prototype for many of his monumental designs. In the project for the Grand Hotel Babylon that was to be built in Nicevor the design for Mexico City's Town Hall, both designed in 1923, Loos uses these pyramidal forms as the fundamental design element in his designs.



It has been suggested that these pyramidal plans relate to more ancient geometric forms, such as the Aztec pyramids or, in the case of the department store in Alexandria, a reference to Hellenism and the architecture of the Pharaohs. The base of the Chicago Tribune Column holds the most resemblance to his design for a mausoleum for the art historian, Max Dvorak, created in 1921.


Maintaining a similar silhouette to Chicago's column, but executed on a much smaller scale, the mausoleum was to reach a height of seven meters and be covered in black granite. The mausoleum is both a tomb and a monument and, like the use of classical idioms, something of the monumentality of the pyramid form spoke to Loos when designing public structures. All of Loos's public buildings make use of either or both classical elements or fine materials. I think Loos is using classical ornament as a way of bringing order into public spaces through the use of an architectural language that, according to Loos, is common to everyone. It was not a great change in Loos's work while designing the Chicago Tribune Column, but rather continued to develop his ideas of public architecture and the monumentality that could be achieved in American skyscrapers. Loos was perfectly aware of the loftiness of his own design, by saying:

The Great Greek Dorian Column will be built. If not in Chicago then somewhere else. If not for the Chicago Tribune then for someone else. If not by me, by some other architect. [14] 


I have come to the conclusion that Loos uses the classical columns in his work when he wants to emphasise a building and make it monumental or grand in some form. I think he believes that a monument of course is meant to last forever, and the only style that will last forever is the classical column, hence its implementation. This is evident in some of the villas Loos has designed, for instance the renovation of the Goldman house (1910), he introduces the classical column in the entrance. Due to the family name and importance in the city of Vienna, Loos feels Goldman should have a 'grand' entrance to his home. The same occurs in Villa Bronner, notice how he distinguished people's classes between house and villa. Never do you see a classical form or column in any of Loos's houses.

...unlike the work of art which does not need to please anyone. The work of art is brought into the world without being any need for it. The house on the other hand satisfies a need.. The work of art is revolutionary, the house is conservative... So the house should have nothing to do with art, and architecture should not be numbered among the arts? Exactly so. Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. The rest, everything which serves an end, should be excluded from the realm of art. [15] 

If viewed from the Modernist perspective, Loos's architectural oeuvre is fraught with contradiction and ambiguities, such as the Chicago Tribune Competition entry. This is not to say that no similarities or exchanges exist between Loos and the Modern Movement, but that Loos's work cannot be so easily classified as "Modern" and needs to be studied from a new perspective to be fully understood.

Loos's conception of modernity was cultivated out of an interest in Westernization or "Americanization," and an interest in an evolutionary scheme that is based on culture. As a way to evaluate these cultures, Loos places each civilization on a linear evolutionary scale defined by how a society ornaments its utilitarian objects. The modernity of the Modem Movement was based on technology and the machine as mechanisms that could vastly improve society. Within the canon of architectural history Loos has primarily been studied, and often misrepresented, through a Modernist perspective. Loos reached the height of his popularity in the twenties, but was then rediscovered forty years later, when the Post Modernists were asking, "Why is ornament a crime?"