Fashioning Vienna by Janet Stewart

Christopher Long

In the spring of 1896, after a nearly three-year-long stay in America, Adolf Loos returned to Austria-Hungary. The immediate reason was a summons to take part in military maneuvers to be held during the summer, but Loos, who had just turned twenty-five, was also impatient to launch his career as an architect. Upon completing his military service, he set off for Vienna brimming with dreams and ambition. He soon found a position in the atelier of Carl Mayreder, a noted architect and professor at the Technische Hochschule.

Loos’s fervent desire to establish an independent architectural practice faced daunting obstacles. For one, Loos was an outsider in Vienna: born and reared in Brno in the provinces, he had spent only a brief time in the capital and thus had few acquaintances and even fewer connections to potential clients. Even more serious, however, was Loos’s lack of experience beyond a stint in the structural engineering department of the trade school in Reichenberg (now Liberec in the Czech Republic) and a three-year course of architectural studies at the Technische Hochschule in Dresden that he had failed to complete.

With few commissions coming his way, Loos turned to journalism, writing for several of the city’s newspapers and magazines, including Die Zeit, Die Wage, and Wiener Rundschau. Although Loos soon found architectural work, mostly designing interiors, it was as a cultural critic, rather than as an architect, that he first made a name for himself. Indeed, as late as 1902, in an entry he penned for the Directory of German-Austrian Artists and Writers (Deutsch-Österreichisches Künstler- und Schriftsteller-Lexikon), he described himself as a “writer on art” (Kunstschriftsteller).

Loos’s breakthrough as a journalist came in a series of articles published in theNeue Freie Presse, the city’s most respected daily newspaper, in 1898–1899. The essays are remarkable not only for their insights into contemporary questions of design but also for their brilliant and engaging style. Those who have never read Loos’s essays in the original German cannot fully appreciate their pacing, wit, and elegance of expression—qualities often lost in translation. Like the great satirist Karl Kraus, whom he befriended soon after arriving in Vienna, Loos displayed an uncommon aptitude for pithy observation—and for caustic remarks. Yet Loos never sacrificed clarity for effect: his writing is controlled, exacting, and, compared with so much of what nowadays passes for design theory, vibrant and readily comprehensible.

Loos’s essays also reveal the remarkable breadth of his interests. From the outset, he was preoccupied not merely with architectural and design issues but also with the state of health of Austria’s culture. He measured its vital signs by examining the objects of everyday life—furniture, clothing, household utensils, and plumbing. Loos’s observations, however, were never limited to aesthetic questions; his criticisms of “articles of daily use” were simultaneously criticisms of the culture that had produced them. Loos’s contention, repeatedly advanced in his essays, was that Austria lagged behind the West, especially England and the United States, and that only through emulating the Anglo-Saxon world could the country hope to reach its standard. His most forceful statement of this idea came in The Other (Das Andere), the magazine he launched in 1903, which bore the marvelously Loosian subtitle: “A Journal for the Introduction of Western (abendländische) Culture to Austria.”

Loos published only two issues of Das Andere. The magazine failed because he was unable to find an audience, and also because, one suspects, he lost interest in the venture. Beginning in 1904 with his commission for the Villa Karma in Switzerland, Loos found success as a practitioner, and writing came gradually to occupy a secondary role. But throughout his life, he continued, as Janet Stewart writes in her absorbing new critical study of Loos’s writings, to view architecture and design through the lens of the broader culture.

Stewart’s book marks a departure from previous explorations of Loos’s writings. A lecturer in German at the University of Aberdeen, where she also teaches cultural history, Stewart is interested not in explaining Loos as a theorist of architecture but rather in understanding the sociocultural context of his writings. Fashioning Viennadraws heavily on German and Austrian studies, as well as on sociology, literature, and cultural history. This approach is well suited in many ways to an examination of Loos, who was equally at ease scrutinizing such disparate subjects as women’s hats, the making of ceramics, and the joys of travel.

Stewart offers a remarkably lucid, nuanced, and often perceptive account of Loos’s texts and their cultural frame. Her meticulously crafted analysis operates, she tells us, through the parallel processes of “deconstruction, assemblage, and reconstruction.” Borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s notion of “historical materialism,” she has sought to perform a “critical realist” excavation of Loos’s essays, to search out and collect “even the apparently most insignificant of facts, the ‘refuse’ of history” and to reassemble this material in such a manner that it might yield new insights into its context and meaning (8–9).

This method works very well in documenting the oppositions that underlie much of Loos’s thought. In Loos’s texts these contrasts are inevitably presented as diametrical pairings: backward versus modern, for example, or the parvenu versus the self-confident burgher. The most memorable of these distinctions emerges from his comparison, in “Ornament and Crime” (1910) and other essays, of the primitive Papuan, who tattoos his body, with the modern-day urban sophisticate, who abhors such cheap ostentation. Stewart recognizes, however, that Loos’s tongue-in-cheek remark that anyone in the modern world who sports a tattoo “is either a criminal or a degenerate” is not only a jab at Josef Hoffmann and the other Secessionists but also a critique of the old aristocracy whose “princely splendor and princely ostentation now only belongs in a museum.” Yet she is also sensitive enough to observe that Loos’s concept of the aristocrat assumes a dual role. Although he rejects the representational excesses of the old aristocracy, Loos substitutes the notion of a new intellectual aristocracy (Geistesaristokratie), “embodied in the figure of the English Gentleman,” whose “outer expression” of “simplicity [is] typical of the truly modern style” (82).

Loos’s writings are replete with such seeming paradoxes. But rather than disregarding them or rejecting the relevance of his writings because of apparent inconsistencies, as some recent writers have done,1 Stewart views Loos’s penchant for the paradoxical as a register of the tensions within fin-de-siècle Viennese society. Her argument, however, is not merely that Loos’s conflicting statements echo the restiveness and unevenness of his age, but rather that there is a fundamental “disparity” between Loos’s own vision of a “heterogeneous” modernity and the nature of the new as expressed in his writings (9).

While Stewart’s observation is undoubtedly correct, her analysis of this central issue in Loos’s thought seems to miss the mark slightly. Loos did indeed share the “hunger for wholeness” that defined the aspirations of so many of the young revoltés during the first years of the new century. It is also true that he was much too perceptive a critic not to detect the complex and multifarious nature of nascent modernity. But Loos’s prescription for the new was fundamentally bound up with his conviction that through rational thought the chaos of the industrial age could be overcome, or at least controlled. Loos did not abandon the search for a unified culture; instead, he sought to rephrase how that culture should be constituted. Reacting to the striving of the Secessionists to invent a new language of form, Loos early on condemned the frantic search for a contemporary style. His rejection of the Jugendstil was driven by his belief that not only was a contrived ornamental vocabulary fundamentally out of character with the modern age, but also that the search for style itself was superfluous. As he argued in the first issue of Das Andere, one need not even speak of style in the first place.2 Later, in 1908, in “Cultural Degeneration,” which assailed the Werkbund and its program, Loos contended: “We already have the style of our time. We have it wherever the artist, and that means a member of that association, has thus far failed to poke his nose in.”3

Loos’s radical restatement of modern design thus proceeded from his belief that “common forms” arise not through a conscious search for the “new,” but rather emerge on their own, as the result of the normal process of development. The creation of modern culture he regarded as neither an intellectual nor artistic endeavor; it unfolded through the attempts of ordinary craftsmen to fashion objects that conformed to the realities of daily life. Such commonplace products, Loos argued, were “so much in the style of our age that … we do not see them as being in a style.”4

Like some other critics and architects of his day, Loos found his model for a unified culture in tradition, specifically in the form-world of the Biedermeier. Loos’s attraction to the neoclassicism of the early 19th century arose from his belief in the continued power of Biedermeier simplicity, which represented for him a genuine expression of the social values of the middle class. His hope was that the recourse to Biedermeier ideals would establish a return to traditional modes of production and thus restore the former relationship between craft and cultural change.5 Loos’s call to hold onto traditional modes of production and design emerged from his awareness that only a renewed emphasis on utility and appropriateness could stem the increasing fragmentation of industrial culture. By rejecting the aesthetic ideals of architecture and the applied arts that had predominated during the second half of the 19th century, he sought to establish
a new path to modernism.

Stewart’s claim that Loos was “torn between modernity and antiquity, modernism and traditionalism, change and stability, Neu-Wien and Alt-Wien, old and new” (169), however, overstates the case. The persistent schisms that run through Loos’s writings are less a signal of Loos’s own ambivalences than of his concerted attempts to overcome the oppositions of his time. Loos’s backward glances are never mere nostalgia; he searched history for ways to solve the seemingly intractable problems of the present. Stewart’s contention that Loos’s “critique and analysis of modernity is predicated upon non-contemporaneity” (171)—that his “bourgeois” attitudes were out of touch with the new realities of the industrial age—presupposes the modernist belief in the need to break with the past. But Loos, like Josef Frank, Oskar Strnad, and a number of other early Viennese modernists, never accepted the notion that modernism implied the exclusion of the past. Throughout his life he continued to understand history as an evolutionary process; and it seemed only natural to him that some forms and ideas from previous times would retain validity in the present. As early as 1898, in one of his reviews of the Emperor’s Jubilee exhibition, Loos argued that certain past objects, because they represented the perfect fusion of functionality and form, were still suitable for modern use: “For it is not the new armchair we should give our time, but the best. In this exhibition, however, we only saw new armchairs. Even the best armchair will not be able to make any particular claim to newness. For ten years ago we already had armchairs that were quite comfortable, and our manner of sitting, our manner of relaxing has not since changed to any extent that might find expression in another form… . How difficult it is to find a better armchair! And how easy it is to find a new one. For that there is a very simple recipe: make it exactly opposite from the people before you.”6

Loos was painfully aware that the day of the artisan was passing, and he hoped that the new processes of industrialized production would not fall prey to aestheticization, which he feared would entail the loss of functionality, appropriateness, and, also, tellingly, permanence. His repeated admonitions of Henry van de Velde, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Josef Hoffmann, and the other practitioners of the “art nouveau” were an expression of his growing alarm that fashion was dictating the trajectory of cultural change, wiping away the search for more lasting values. It was not that Loos was “living in two worlds,” as Stewart maintains, but rather that he sought to preserve some of the features of the premodern world, genuinely believing that they could make the new, modern world better.

Stewart’s book raises an important question concerning how scholars establish a historical context. Her reading of Loos as a “cultural critic” relies on understanding the social, political, and intellectual currents of his day. But because she is focused on positioning Loos in the wider cultural milieu of the Viennese fin-de-siècle, she fails to address the extent to which Loos’s writings form a coherent response to late 19th- and early 20th-century debates on architecture and design. Loos’s search for a modern identity was also quite consciously a dialogue with the architectural and design professions. His digs at many of his contemporaries, while frequently amusing, were also intended to raise profound questions about the central issues of the time. Loos’s attitudes toward ornament, for example, must be examined not only in relation to the Secession or contemporary Viennese perceptions of fashion, but also against a long and ongoing discussion on the proper role of ornament carried on in the pages of Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration, Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst, and other leading German-language professional journals. Loos was aware of the work of theorists like Fritz Schumacher, Karl Scheffler, and Richard Graul on ornament and its meanings, and his writings constitute a thoughtful attempt to establish his own position in the debate. Although most of Loos’s essays appeared in more popular publications, his views were well known—and taken seriously—in professional circles.7 When Loos translated his ideas for “the removal of ornament” into built form in his design for the Goldman and Salatsch Building on Michaelerplatz, it was not for the most part the architectural professionals—or at least not the modernists—who strenuously objected, but rather those outside the profession who were unaware of the ornament discussion. To disregard Loos’s place in the larger architectural context of the Moderne in central Europe, as Stewart does, is to miss a great deal about his intentions, and also about the import and meaning of his writings.

Fashioning Vienna nonetheless presents perhaps the most complete and sharply drawn picture to date in English of Loos as cultural critic. The Loos who emerges from Stewart’s account retains the power one finds in his texts, and that in itself is a considerable achievement. Better than any other architectural critic of his time, Loos understood the problematic nature of modernity: his ultimate legacy was to offer us a creative and subtle way of sifting through its positive and negative aspects.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
Issue No. 1