Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Adolf Loos' fondness for English Arts and Crafts architecture is well documented. Like Voysey and Baillie Scott, Loos' best known works were villas for the wealthy bourgeoisie and his designs concerned themselves with accommodating their desire for comfortable and relatively informal domestic interiors. Loos' ingenious Raumplan concept meant that he took the rambling room plus a corridor layout of the typical Arts and Crafts house and folded it up into a tight cubic volume.

His prismatic boxes contain serpentine routes travelling both horizontally and vertically as well as backwards and forwards. Visitors to Loos' houses are faced with labyrinthine circulation routes that double and triple the apparent available space. Corridors frequently double-back on themselves or bifurcate to offer two separate routes to the same destination. Mirrors and internal windows are placed strategically to both amplify and confound the sense of an unfolding sequence of spaces.

(Plan of the Loos' Villa Muller annotated to show the sequence from entry to main living space.)

Loos exact contemporary in the UK, Edwin Lutyens was engaged in a similar if spatially less radical project. His houses also took the rambling, picturesque Arts and Crafts plan but formalised it into compact courtyard typologies. The reduction in scale in many cases of Lutyens' houses from their classical and Elizabethan antecedents meant that he also folded internal and external routes back on themselves in order to achieve relatively grand promenades.

(Plan of Lutyens' Homewood annotated to show the sequence from entry to main living space.)

If the Villa Muller is generally recognised as Loos' finest example of the Raumplan then surely  Lutyens' equivalent is Homewood, the house he built for his mother-in-law on the Knebworth estate. In both houses the entrance marks the start of a complex route involving ninety degree turns and blind alleys. Both have corridors terminating in blank walls before opening out to relatively grand and opulent spatial centrepieces. Both avoid an overall symmetry in the plan whilst constructing a series of intense local symmetries and dualities within it. In the Villa Muller the architectural promenade switches back and forth masking the final destination whilst revealing glances back to where you have just come from. At Homewood the route drifts diagonally across the house, extending what would otherwise be a short journey into something more complex and theatrical.

(Plan of the Venturi's Mother's House annotated to show the sequence from entry to main living space.)

Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown wrote about the lessons for modern architecture in Lutyens' designs in their 1969 essay Learning From Lutyens*. Previously Venturi had made extensive reference to Lutyens in Complexity and Contradiction, and an even more compacted and reduced version of the internal promenade occurs in the plan of his Mother's House. Here, the darkly recessed entrance again leads to a blank wall forcing an immediate ninety degree turn followed swiftly by another. Despite its spatial complexity, the entrance sequence is extended by no more than a couple of meters in all, suggesting that Lutyens' and Loos' richly paradoxical planning is applicable at a vastly reduced scale.

* Thinking about the much used and abused title Learning from..... it strikes me how clearly it reverses the implied spatial direction of Towards a New Architecture, one looking decisively forward and the other suggesting a glance back, at least in the sense that you can only learn from something that already exists. Quite so, you'd say, if it weren't for the fact that both titles could easily be swapped around - i.e. Learning from Las Vegas is also about a new architecture and Towards A New Architecture spends a great deal of time talking about the Parthenon. 


AM said...

I would like very much to know your opinion on (one of) the book(s) I’m currently reading: I AM A MONUMENT, ON LEARNING FROM LAS VEGAS by Aron Vinegar.

Charles Holland said...

Hi AM, I haven't read it. Actually not heard of it before but will definitely try to read it.

Salvatore D'Agostino said...

Charles Holland,
i agree with your final reflection.
Salvatore D'Agostino

Jimmy Stamp said...

I feel like I've read so much comparing Lutyens and Le Corbusier and, of course, Venturi and Lutyens, as you've noted. It's interesting to consider Lutyens and Loos together for once. And even more interesting to think about Loos and Venturi, in light of their obviously opposing views on ornament. LLV: Two great wits of architecture and a disciplinarian.

A couple years ago I attended a lecture by a PhD student from the ETH who presented her research analyzing the buildings of Venturi Scott Brown and Associates. Specifically, she had some terrific insight into what she called "The Venturian Knot". Through new models and diagrams she explained that while there is usually an overarching logic and organizational strategy to Venturi's plans --interior streets, servant/master spaces, etc-- his entry sequence is almost always a tangle of various modes of circulation. Like a knot, this tangle keeps the disparate spaces together. It was one of those observations that is so simple, but something that I haven't really heard many people discuss. Now that I'm aware of it, its impossible to ignore. The knot --perhaps it should be the Loosian knot?-- is surprisingly consistent throughout the institutional buildings as well as the houses.

On an unrelated note, your recent spate of posts and concerns of "blogicide" has inspired me to revive my own long-dormant blog. My writing was getting a little too precious and it's time for some experimenting! So, thanks!

Charles Holland said...

Hi Jimmy,

Thanks for your comment. VSB's interiors and the spatiality of their buildings isn't generally appreciated. Like a lot of very good architecture there's a sense of intense choreography about them, the organisation of bodies in space. Although they've never written about Loos, I suspect Bob and Denise are fans. Incidentally, I wrote a thing a while ago about both their and Loos's use of the miniature reproduction and the ambiguity of exterior architecture within the interior. Which Lutyens does too of course.

Thanks for comments re blogging too. Really looking forward to reading you again.