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17 November 2007

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Adolf Loos seen through the keyhole

16 November 2007

This comprehensive book celebrates the mesmerising work of Adolf Loos and documents the vicissitudes of his profoundly unhappy life.

Adolf Loos: Works & Projects

Ralf Bock

Skira, HB, pp302, £58

4/5

What sets Adolf Loos apart from other masters of the modern house is his total separation of interior from exterior space.

Unlike those of Wright, Mies, or Corb, his interiors are completely isolated from the outside: windows are merely sources of light, and the occupants turn their backs on them, focused only towards the internal spaces. This seems to make Loos the tormented poet-architect of modern man’s repressed soul, and on this basis he has been much analysed by critics.

Architecture historian Beatriz Colomina has argued that Loos gendered domestic space by organising it as a miniature theatre with the woman forced into a preordained role. In his unbuilt 1927 Paris house for the African-American entertainer Josephine Baker, a grand staircase, very wide, leads dramatically up to an enormous salon and then up again to a swimming pool. If we go along with Colomina, this is Loos imagining himself transporting Baker up through a sequence of spectacular spaces and finally into the pool, naked: a fantasy elegantly concealed behind the house’s strikingly striped marble exterior.

Her suggestion that Loos was a man with something to hide is borne out by some curious remarks in Loos’ magazine articles, such as: “Modern man wears his clothes as a mask. His individuality is so strong that it can no longer be expressed,” and by the facts of his unhappy life.

Ralf Bock confirms Colomina’s argument, perhaps inadvertently, in his succinct description of Loos’ approach to house design: “A completely different type of urban villa that appeared to be very cubic and straightforward on the outside... using plain and smooth plaster for the facade finishes. The inside, however, revealed a safe, comfortable and home-like atmosphere through refined and opulent spatial effects and moods.”

“What made Loos a genius was his immense skill at working out interior dramas”

What made Loos a genius was his immense skill at working out these interior dramas: “The various living areas were interconnected, while their differentiation was no longer by rooms but by areas. In later designs these areas corresponded to different levels, creating the space plan (Raumplan) concept. All seating was oriented towards the interior spaces, which deliberately emphasised the distinction between the exterior and the interior, with a skillful sequencing of spaces through which he guided the visitor through the house.”

Loos’ fascinating three-dimensional spatial engineering is evident in a dozen masterpieces, such as his 1925 house in Paris for Tristan Tzara. Conceived as a small tower, it sits on the Montmartre hillside and uses the slope to break up the cross-section so that the internal spaces gradually rise, through meticulously graduated increments, from entrance hall to studio until we arrive in Tzara’s studio-bedroom.

Villa Moller in Vienna (1926-27) is another example of Loos’ brilliant manipulation of the section. An aggressively beautiful front elevation conceals an interior organised as levels, each level offering a completely discrete spatial experience. Instead of connecting one floor directly to another, the staircases insinuate themselves sensuously from level to level. The astonishing boldness of the house’s exterior deliberately hides the intricacy of its interior.

Bock provides harrowing details of Loos’ tortured existence. Born in 1870, his stonemason father died when he was only nine. A rebellious, disorientated boy, he failed in various attempts to get through architecture school. Contracting syphilis in the brothels of Vienna, by 21 he was sterile, and in 1893 his mother disowned him.

He went to America and for three years did odd jobs in New York, somehow finding himself in that process which, alas, Bock fails to explain. By his return to Vienna in 1896, he was “an autodidact who had neither completed a degree nor possessed any other apprenticeship training”, yet who had somehow become a man of taste and intellectual refinement.

He immediately entered a brilliant Viennese intelligentsia that included Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Karl Kraus, quickly establishing himself as the favourite architect of Vienna’s cultured bourgeoisie.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1918, his stomach, appendix and part of his intestine were removed, and by the time he was 50, he was almost completely deaf. Then in 1928, he was disgraced by a paedophilia scandal, and at his death in 1933, at the age of 63, he was penniless.

This book clarifies the immense refinement of Loos’ architectural language, which orchestrated interior space into processions and rituals using a completely original design language. Between 1910 and 1930, he produced one masterpiece after another, all of them fully illustrated here with new photographs and comprehensive, reliable drawings.

Many will know Loos’ bars in Vienna as these are public spaces, and some may have visited Villa Müller in Prague (1928-30), but most of his domestic interiors remain strictly private. Until now, there has been no satisfying monograph giving detailed information about all of them, but here at last is an almost definitive and thoroughly informative book on Loos.


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16 November, 2007

 

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