Friday, November 2, 2007

Nothing Left to Loos

Book Review: Adolf Loos; Buildings and Projects

Adolf Loos occupies a strange place in the history of modern architecture. Hugely influential as a writer, his sloganeering essays were often seen as far more radical than his architecture. The didactic rejection of ornament and historicism in his writing was far easier to assimilate than the curious mix of modern and traditional forms he used in his buildings. Today though, it is precisely this ambiguous relationship to Modernity that makes his work so compelling.

Loos’ designs are tense with contradictions: between bourgeois comfort and avant-garde radicalism, between luxurious interiors and austere exteriors, between symmetry and asymmetry, between traditional rooms and unfolding interconnected spaces and between structural coherency and spatial dissolution. The rigid cubic forms of his houses were like vitrines in which disembodied fragments of traditional domestic architecture - fireplaces, inglenooks, wood panelled dining rooms and marble clad hallways - were re-combined into strange new configurations. These elements were organised like free floating signifiers along tortuous manipulations of circulation and vista so that his houses became elegant commentaries upon, or representations of, domestic family life. None of this though fitted particularly well with Modernism’s tabula rasa approach and Loos’s designs remained comparatively under published,

This new book by Ralf Bock goes a long way to correcting that. It is something of a labour of love, begun as a project to photograph the surviving works of Loos and developing into a documentation of everything he ever built. For that reason it doesn’t feature some of his most interesting but un-built work such as the bizarre Chicago Tribune Tower proposal, or the designs he made when Chief Architect in the Housing Department in Vienna, although the author makes a single exception to the rule by including the fabulously suggestive but speculative house Loos designed for Josephine Baker. What it does do is to beautifully illustrate the work that he did complete.

It begins with a series of essays covering Loos’ work and life and then goes on to feature each design in some detail, using historical and wherever possible new photography by Philippe Ruault. Some of the projects have never to my knowledge been photographed before. It also contains new photographs of buildings that have been impossible to access for many years, including the exquisite Villa Moller, previously only known through a handful of black and white images, Here, ironically, it looks staggeringly contemporary.

The research on each project is painstakingly thorough and includes biographies of Loos’ clients as well as newly drawn plans, sections and elevations. These drawings cleverly highlight the plan’s innate complexity, indicating routes and vistas as well as Loos’ use of mirrors. These are often strategically placed to both aid the scopic control of the owner and to add spatial ambiguity. For instance, the writing desk in the study of the Rufer House is placed over a tiny internal window that looks over the entrance stair to a mirror reflecting the front door. Similarly, the stair in the Knize tailors shop in Vienna has a mirror placed on the half landing, making where you are heading to appear to be where you have just come from. Such games in spatial ambiguity seem to radically forsee the work of artists such as Dan Graham and find a contemporary echo in the use of video screens and CCTV by architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Diller and Scofidio.

It is often said that Loos’ work was essentially un-photogenic but the old photographs included here have a luminous, almost liquid quality. Light bounces off polished cherry wood, cipolin marble, brass and mirrored surfaces and filters mysteriously through translucent glass and opaque curtains. The traditional nature of these materials meant that Loos’ work was seen as a less radical proposition than that of Le Corbusier or Mies. But Loos arguably did something much more radical than either. He confronted the contradictory impulse of the 20th century: the fact that we could desire to be radically modern and remain deeply tied to the past. Loos’ houses avoided both a sentimental reproduction of history and an uncritical search for the new and instead explored a tense negotiation between the two.

This book is a worthy tribute to that achievement. It also shows how very beautiful his work could be.

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