first published on Real Finishes January 6th, 2016
Ornament and Crime
by Adolf Loos
|Ornament and Crime|
Loos' writings are clearly polemical, positively hyperbolic in their criticisms, particularly of architecture, the decorative and applied arts. As an early member of the "Vienna Secession", a group of artists and architects who broke away from the established and conservative Vienna Künstlerhaus, his affiliation was not to endure long. Adolf seceded from the secession, pursuing an initially very individual course in search of the "Modern" aesthetic. The impact of his writings can not be understated. At a time of utter confusion in the arts in the face of industrial ascendance, entropy of culture and loss of traditions, Loos was articulating a crystal clear message, what at the time must have seemed to some as a potential way out if not a way forward.
Despite the fact that I disagree entirely with many of his conclusions, I find myself obligated to concur with many of his observations. Adolf Loos was not a ninny. If one cares to understand how and why the state of art and architecture are as they are today, being so distinctly different from what came before, why traditional craft lies in such a impoverished condition, then I might suggest reading his essays as a point of departure.
Advocacy for the Handwerker,
Criticism for the Architect
It comes as a surprise to many that Adolf Loos apprenticed in the family business as a stone mason and carver. Although he began studies both in engineering and architecture he never completed them, opting instead to travel abroad to America where he supported himself, among other things as a brick mason for which he received a certificate. His support for the independence of the handicraftsman, particularly from the academies of art and architecture, is a central theme in his writings, a position that never wavered.
|Medieval Griechengasse Straße, Vienna|
So everything of value save his back was wrested from the materialistic craftsman now placed under the alien authority of the man of ideas, forms, books and drawing, the architect who"has learned draftsmanship, and since that is all he has learnt, he is good at it. The craftsman is not...The architect has reduced the noble art of building to a graphic art. The one who receives the most commissions is not the one who can build best but the one whose work looks best on paper. There is a world of difference between the two."
|Majolica House, Vienna|
Loos called for an end to the academic abomination, for revolution:
“It is high time our craftworkers tried to throw off this uncalled for tutelage and started to rely on their own good sense. Anyone who wants to collaborate is welcome. All credit to anyone who is willing to don an apron and take his place at the humming potter's wheel, or strip to the waist and help at the furnace. But those dilettantes who want to dictate their designs to the creative artist from the comfort of their studios should stick to their own field, namely graphic art...if you want craftsmen in touch with the style of the times, poison the architects.”
Hmm...I've yet to try that last suggestion.
The Pogrom against Ornament
The multi-pronged attacks on ornament lack the coherence of some of his other arguments but were the ones to be most revered by the coming Modernist movement. He repeatedly makes a point that is largely verifiable: there was far more ornament applied to everyday items and architecture in the 19th century than at any previous point in Viennese and European culture more generally. 1800's Europe was dripping ears to arse in ornament, much of it shoddily conceived, near all of it culturally foreign.
Some of the appetite for ornament he attributes to the presentation of archeological discoveries as well as artefacts of the aristocracy to the public, particularly under interpretive curation at museums. Out of the tremendous cache collected, what was selected for display was typically the most enriched, bejeweled of items. Loos attributes their survival to being preserved as art objects, ceremonial showcases of ostentation and power. Utilising them as models for practical use therefore would be to miss the original intention completely. Unless of course the intention was to emulate the aristocracy or nobility of former times, an envious pathology that seemed to have infected the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. He thus describes a life lived amongst hallowed relics:
"The lives we lead are at variance with the objects with which we surround ourselves. We forget we need a living room as well as a throne room, and we are quite happy to let ourselves be physically abused by these pieces of furniture in antique styles. We bash our knees, and etch complete ornaments into our backs...our bowls, jugs, and vases has given us in turn renaissance, baroque, and rococo calluses on our hands."
|Le Sacre de Napoléon, Jacques-Louis David 1808|
Basically, the argument was that the bourgeoisie was not attracted to ornamentation because of their cultivated taste nor because it gave them any pleasure whatsoever, rather it was that they thought by having it others would think they had taste. Being a purely instrumental, shallow desire there was no qualms about selecting a cheap fake which only served to degrade craft further. By contrast Loos advocates for domestic architecture that the rooms of a house should have the mark of the owner and be comfortable for the family, also cultivating and reflecting their true tastes for good or ill. The one concession he makes to the aforementioned approach is perhaps for the parlour or a similar room for receiving guests where a specific outward presentation might be desired upon which he cautions, "rest assured that everyone will find the designer he deserves."
|Courtesy of The Original Morris and Co.|
This line of argument equating appreciation of ornament with ignorance and dirtiness, unfit for the clean modern man has stuck. It has been very damaging to architecture, culture and inadvertently yet undeniably damaging to traditional handcraft. Although there is some recovery, the aesthetic cleansing sprung from his polemic has yet a long way from being fully extricated. Not to end on a sour note I have to say there is much more to recommend of Adolf Loos' essays than that last bit of nonsense above such as his genuine concern for the physical and psychological working conditions of craftsmen and advocacy for the respect as well as equal treatment and rights for women. Finally, his additional essay simply entitled "Architektur" is one of the best expositions I've read on how architecture ought to relate to the landscape (natural and urban) and how architecture is not an art. In the spirit of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer, I recommend Adolf Loos' collected essays Ornament and Crime as an important reading for the contemporary craftsman.
Contributed by Patrick Webb