White Walls in the Golden City

Jan Otakar Fischer

The Return of the Ville Müller

Behold, the time is at hand, fulfillment awaits us. Soon the streets of the cities will glow like white walls! Like Zion, the Holy City, the capital of heaven.
— Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime”

I recently attended a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. It was the concert version: no costumes, no scenery, no white beards for the protagonists. Such conditions place a special burden on the audience; listeners are forced to concentrate on the astringent, ethereal gyrations of the score as it abstractly reflects the efforts of the Old Testament brothers to understand the nature of their salvation. With no visual cues to assist—no rod, no golden calf, no pair of tablets—we had to engage the music on its own terms, and in so doing were exposed to the essentials of Schoenberg’s radical project: the description of a new kind of universe, infinitely permutable, unencumbered by convention, sensual and restrained. In the swirling dissonance of speech and song, we hear how Moses, the reluctant prophet, struggles to put the truth of God into words and clashes with Aaron, who believes the Jews can comprehend this truth only through a medium—an image. In the end the unresolved silence represents not only a sort of truce but also an acknowledgment that the truth confounds any attempt at representation, musical or otherwise. The concert was sold out, and when it was over even the elderly ladies, whose numbers swell when Mozart is on the program, applauded enthusiastically. The old avant-garde message, perhaps still not so easily digested, was rewarded for its pains.

Schoenberg began composing Moses und Aron in 1930, the year Adolf Loos finished the Villa Müller in Prague and celebrated his sixtieth birthday in its living room. Few would disagree that the two works have come to be recognized as the most powerful statements of their creators’ ideological and aesthetic concerns, the embodiment of ideas that had been percolating for decades. Yet whereas Schoenberg lived another twenty-one years and eventually went to America to spread his gospel, Loos was already gravely ill, and died in 1933; the villa in the hills of Prague would be his swan song. And although embraced by his friends and colleagues as the master’s most mature expression, the villa was soon condemned by history to a shadowy oblivion, in which it existed largely as a collection of provocative traces, ripe for speculation. The house would endure as its image, as banished from reality as was Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion after the 1929 world exposition, a defining work that receded into a black-and-white mythology. But since only last year, the Villa Müller has been resurrected—it is no longer merely an image but a restored original; as such it is attracting a new generation of visitors, who can decide if the myth matches the form, or indeed, if that remains a relevant question. How do we greet the fallen heroes when they return from the dead?

It is against the background of Czech culture that the Villa Müller begins to disclose its compound secrets, the story of its genesis and decline. Loos’s relationship to the Czech Lands was fixed at the start, when he was born to German parents in 1870 in Brno, the capital of Moravia, at the time well within the bounds of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As a young man he headed for busier places, studying in Dresden for four years before spending three formative years in the United States. In 1896 he returned to Europe, settling in Vienna, where he began publishing articles and establishing his career. Although the center of Loos’s professional world would remain Vienna—it was always the city and the society against and through which he directed his ideological energy—he maintained close contacts with Bohemia and Moravia, especially after the dissolution of the empire following the First World War. In 1907 Loos acquired his first commissions in Pilsen, and over the next quarter century he designed some two dozen projects for clients in that city and elsewhere in the Czech Lands, especially Brno. German-speaking Czechs were quick to notice and applaud his scathing polemics in the Viennese press, and Loos was invited to lecture in Prague often, most importantly in 1925, when he joined Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and J.J.P. Oud for a series of lectures that would effectively launch functionalism in Czechoslovakia. Soon after, Loos’s monograph, Spoken into the Void, was translated into Czech. Given the generous reception he received there, it is little wonder that Loos felt at home in Czechoslovakia, and it was through friends and clients that he met Frantisek Müller, a partner of a big civil engineering firm.

Müller was only thirty-eight in 1928, when he commissioned Loos to design a house for him and his family on a steep lot in the suburb of Stresovice, northwest of Prague Castle. Outwardly, he was not the typical Loos client. Müller was young, a builder acquainted with modern construction techniques and a man eager to make his way in cosmopolitan circles. Like so many in the entrepreneurial class, he might easily have embraced Le Corbusier’s Purist aesthetic, which was already dominating the scene among Prague’s designers. But at heart Müller was conservative and practical; he wore tailored suits, had an extensive art collection, appreciated order and calm, and was painfully reserved, his social engagement limited by a stutter.1 Müller knew Loos’s high reputation and work in Pilsen and wanted a Loosian creation of his own. A Czech architect, Karel Lhota, was hired to collaborate on the job, but Müller, knowing that Loos was in bad health, stipulated that the chief architect be involved at every stage of the project. There would be no compromises.

Only one early sketch of the Villa Müller exists; in it Loos works in plan and section to devise a schema that changed little as the project progressed. The design called for a stark white, prismatic, four-tiered box set dramatically into the slope parallel to a house to the east. On the south, a narrow street would service the main entrance at the highest point of the site, which then dropped steeply around the villa in a series of garden terraces to a major boulevard on the north. Each facade featured slightly offset or incomplete symmetrical arrangements of windows, projecting balconies, parapets and niches, in a fashion similar to but more sophisticated than that of the Villa Moller in Vienna, which Loos had just completed. The basement level, only half-embedded in the earth, incorporated a garage, staff quarters, storage space, and a boiler room. The floor above gathered the main spaces—living room, dining room, kitchen, library, and boudoir, all wrapped sequentially around a central stair core and occupying different levels in relation to each other. The private family rooms were on the next level: a master bedroom with flanking his-and-her dressing rooms, a bedroom and playroom for the Müller’s young daughter Eva, and a guest room and maid’s quarters. On the top floor were two more rooms: an attic space later fitted with a darkroom, and a breakfast room with doors opening onto an expansive roof terrace.

By 1930 the family had moved in, accompanied by a live-in chauffeur, governess, cook, and three additional full-time servants. By all accounts, the house was conceived and executed with great efficiency, enabled by an agreeable architect-client relationship. Müller opened his new house to a small circle of Loos’s colleagues and admirers, including Karl Kraus, Man Ray, and Arnold Schoenberg, who all expressed envy and delight. The Czech architectural press reveled in the fact that a major Loos work had finally landed in Prague, and when Loos chose the Müller’s house as the setting for his sixtieth birthday party, it was a gratifying sign of approval by the creator himself.

The Müllers would enjoy only nine good years in their Loos creation. The Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 would end the pleasant bourgeois life of the villa; the communist coup of 1948 would quash the Müller’s hope of regaining their former comfort. Indeed, the communist authorities decided that Villa Müller should serve not only its owners but also the state, and a government publishing operation was installed in Loos’s building. The Müllers were allowed to stay, but their living quarters were confined to the library and the boudoir. In 1951 Frantisek Müller died in the boiler room, a death ambiguously attributed to asphyxiation. His wife Milada struggled on alone, eagerly showing the villa to the occasional visitor and trying to maintain it in good condition. She died in 1968, soon after the short-lived Prague Spring. Not long afterward, the re-entrenched communists replaced the publishing outfit with a Marxist-Leninist Institute, and not surprisingly, access to the house was entirely cut off. For almost two decades, Loos’s last work was wholly the possession of the Czech Communist Party. The contents of the villa were dispersed and the structure fell into disrepair.

The Velvet Revolution of 1989 that swept away the old regime would eventually mean new life for the villa. When Czech architects serving as advisors to a newly created national heritage department examined the house in 1991, they were encouraged to find that while its general condition was poor, the interior surfaces and fittings were mostly intact. The villa was restituted to the Müller’s daughter, then living in England, but she had no use for it and put it on the market. At one point Czech president Václav Havel reportedly considered buying the house for himself; but when another offer, this one from a controversial financier, came close to a deal, the city of Prague intervened and bought the villa in 1995, placing it in the care of the City of Prague Museum.

That a reemergent, cash-strapped nation with a thousand-year legacy of remarkable architecture needing restoration would devote attention to a 20th-century house tells much about the cultural status and resonance of the Villa Müller. Few objected when $1 million was allocated for the restoration (done under the supervision of Václav Girsa, a restorer known for his work on medieval castles and his devotion to historical accuracy). Over the course of two years, the house and grounds were painstakingly analyzed and renovated: replastered, refenestrated, rewired, replumbed, reset, replanted. By happy circumstance, most of the furniture and art had long been stored in the Museum of Decorative Arts and National Gallery, and many pieces were brought back to the house. In May 2000 the villa opened to the public, an official “national cultural monument” that looked as new as the day it was finished seventy years earlier. All that seemed missing were the Müllers themselves.

The changing fortunes of the Villa Müller reflect the turbulent history of the culture and society that created it. Now that the building has been returned to its original state, now that the residue of occupations and depredations and neglect has been stripped away, we can at last reassess its place in the canon of European modernism. If the villa were once a comprehensive statement “spoken into the void” of a culture in crisis, what language does it speak today, rescued from the fog of old photographs and the acid polemics of Loos and his contemporaries? Villa Müller is now the only Loos house to exist as designed, and the only one open to the public. These facts alone give the house a significance it did not possess just a few years ago. What other sorts of significance might it have now, that it did not have in 1930?

When first completed, the villa was widely praised. Schoenberg was struck by its spatial complexity, writing, “Here everything is thought out, imagined, composed and molded in space … as if the mind’s eye were confronted by space in all its parts and simultaneously as a whole.”2 Man Ray wanted the French ambassador in Prague to see the villa and promote a Loos-directed architecture curriculum in Paris. In 1931 Loos’s associate Heinrich Kulka published the first German-language monograph of Loos’s projects, calling the Villa Müller, “the pinnacle of his work.”3 Many familiar with Loos’s career have agreed that the villa was his most personal work, the one that most fully expressed his ideas about architecture, and this opinion has hardly changed over the years, with historians such as Kenneth Frampton calling the villa “the apotheosis” of the raumplan.4 And yet the Villa Müller did not much influence architectural design in the region. The year it was finished, two other seminal works of modernism were also completed, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House (the latter in nearby Brno); these two houses, more than any other buildings, signaled that the architectural avant-garde that had learned much from Loos was now heading off into new territory, taking a new generation with it.

Still, Loos was admired in Czechoslovakia, even by those on the political left, like the critic and theorist Karel Teige, who might have opposed Loos’s unabashed embrace of bourgeois clients and customs, but instead hailed his minimalism and rigor. And in the 1920s, Loos disciples in Austria and Czechoslovakia—architects like Heinrich Kulka, Paul Engelmann, Jacques Groag, and even, briefly, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—continued to produce buildings under his influence. In the Czech Republic there may be a dozen houses by these and other designers that reveal attempts at Loosian facade-making and split-level room division, but these are at best imitative rarities. Teige’s vaguely ironic comment, written while the Villa Müller was under construction, is telling in its recognition of both the uniqueness and elusiveness of Loos’s achievement. He writes, “The most recent works of Adolf Loos, now close to sixty years of age, do not lag behind the works of his youth in their radicality and in the resoluteness of their solutions; they are superior only because of their greater maturity and the architect’s experience. (It is immaterial whether Loos through his own initiative was ahead of his time in the evolution of the new architecture, or if the times lagged behind Loos. One can say decisively, ‘Loos’s time’ has come only now).”5 In effect, as Teige argues, “Loos’s time” began only in his last years, as his ideas were reworked for the machine age.

Nonetheless, when modernism came to the Czech Republic, as elsewhere, it came in the form of the plan libre, not the raumplan. The functionalism advocated by Le Corbusier and by the Bauhaus—an architecture characterized by pilotis, strip windows, machined elements, and roof gardens—was embraced across the ideological spectrum, from radical Marxist gurus like Teige and his Devevtsil group, who lauded functionalism as an instrument of collectivization, to captains of industry and commerce who built private villas in the Prague hills. Architects like Evzen Linhart, Ladislav Zák, and Jaromir Krejcar were kept busy until the late 1930s designing Purist-influenced houses for film stars, politicians, doctors, and engineers—people of the same social class as Frantisek Müller. Functionalism was seen as the optimistic reflection of the new Czech state, and Prague’s two most prominent modernist housing developments, the Baba Estate of the Czechoslovak Werkbund, begun in 1928, and the “Prague Hollywood” alongside the Barrandov Film Studios, built at the same time, amply illustrate where most Czechs felt the future lay.

That the Villa Müller was esteemed in such a context might seem peculiar. This may be explained by the fact that the rules of functionalism were easier to understand and copy than were the subtleties of the Loosian raumplan. Loos’s houses were expensive, provocative, individual, and sophisticated, qualities that did not lend themselves to quick replication but did earn respect. A Loos house did not fit any progressive political agenda, nor did it promote any revolutionary means of production or construction. It was difficult to appreciate either through photographs (especially black-and-white images) or drawings, which in any case Loos did not widely circulate. A Loos house was an elegant conundrum, a puzzle for architects to explore and appreciate on its own terms. It resisted categorization. No other architect built a house in Prague, or anywhere else, that resembles the Villa Müller. Its influence must lie in the strength of its singular vision, not in its ability to spawn versions of itself.

Because so many of Loos’s buildings, especially the houses, have either been altered beyond recognition or remained inaccessible, and because their images come wrapped in the mantle of Loos’s own acerbic writings, the field of interpretation has been particularly open. The difficulty in getting inside Loos’s houses is reflected in the critical approach to them; so it is useful to see where on the critical screen the Villa Müller has turned up. In the 1960s Reyner Banham drew attention to Loos’s polemical writings and particularly to their role in inspiring the Futurists, the Dadaists, and the emerging modern movement when they were published in L’Esprit Nouveau in 1920. Despite a direct personal and philosophical influence on figures ranging from Le Corbusier to Walter Gropius, Erich Mendelsohn, Richard Neutra, and Rudolf Schindler, Loos did not have much more to say after the groundbreaking “Ornament and Crime” of 1908, according to Banham, who did not even discuss Loos’s built work.6 In subsequent years, Loos was attacked or idolized as a traditionalist, a classicist, or a Schinkelist, particularly in debates about postmodernism; but by then no one who had an opinion about Loos had been inside the Villa Müller. Kenneth Frampton saw the house as the culmination of an architectural career, but was more impressed by Loos the eviscerater of fin-de-siècle conventions than by Loos the builder who refused to see expressive tectonics as a necessary concern of modernism.7 More recently the houses, and particularly the Villa Müller, have been scrutinized by those wishing to compare Loos’s conception of domesticity to those of his modernist contemporaries, especially Le Corbusier.8 But in these cases, too, the analyses have been based primarily on—or indeed, have specifically thematized—the photographic evidence.

My first visit to the villa was in 1992, when it was still an empty shell awaiting a decision on its fate. In exchange for a gratuity, we persuaded a lone guard to let us in for twenty minutes, and I remember being struck, even without the furnishings, by the contrast between the crumbling, gray, mute exterior and the sumptuous, polychrome interior. But the feeling of being in a vacuum, in a space whose identity had been violently removed, was so strong that I was grateful to leave. My last visit was in May of this year, one year after the reopening.

A Czech woman working at the villa told me that in that first year, 5,000 visitors had come from all over the world—significant traffic, considering that publicity has been minimal and that access is relatively limited (tours are by appointment only). The houses on either side, conventional pitched-roof structures built in the 1920s, look considerably the worse for wear than does their impeccably plastered neighbor. The restoration has hugely enhanced the pristine nature of the cube, whose edges and near-symmetries are now set in sharp relief. The only hint of the polychrome within comes as a shock: the window frames are painted bright yellow, the original color. Ivy is being encouraged to scale the walls of the villa (not uncommon in Loos houses), and our guide suggested that the yellow window frames were intended to contrast with the green of the plant—this is perhaps a touch of Czech lyricism. At the moment, with its expansive blank walls and narrow windows, its orientation on a steep embankment overlooking a valley, and the two prismatic terraces set below the dominant north facade, the villa resembles a kind of suburban sphinx: the riddles of its interior remain secure. The silence in the face of what early 20th-century Viennese called the Nervenleben, the nervous condition of metropolitan life, which Loos sought to deflect, has not been broken.

The entry sequence of the house does not disappoint; it is a fitting passage into a Loosian domestic universe. You enter immediately into the system of the raumplan, whose shifts and boundaries are defined by subtle changes of level and material throughout the house.9 An offset main door in a travertine entry opens to a vestibule that is painted green and lined with opaxit tiles, which in turn opens onto a larger anteroom paneled in lacquered wood. A small flight of stairs twisting up and left takes you into a niche lined with floral wallpaper from which the first view of the main spaces is obtained. Here you occupy an interstitial circulatory zone in the ever-spiraling, packaged volumes of the raumplan, and several choices are possible: going forward into the large living room, the importance of which is marked by cipolin marble cladding along the south wall and corners; turning right up another short flight of stairs to a dining room several feet above the adjacent living room but visible from it; or turning left up a third flight into a nook containing a door to another realm altogether, the boudoir of Frau Müller, which you only eventually discover has a window overlooking the living room, directly above the niche you were just in. Before you know it, then, you are at the heart of the Villa Müller’s complex network, one that seems to be constantly shifting the visitor both alongside the main axis of each room and clockwise up through the house. There is no clear sense of which “floor” you are on, since the levels vary from room to room. Every surface is coded to signal a specific use and is unsparing in its richness—dark mahogany for the dining room and library, Delft tiles in a fireplace, shiny lemonwood for the boudoir, oak parquet for the living room.

An unexpected sky-lit stairway takes you to the private quarters, where the master bedroom is adorned with English wallpaper and flanked by spacious dressing rooms—paneled in maple for her, oak for him. Next door are the bedroom and playroom of Eva Müller, sporting a linoleum floor and a simple blue and yellow color palette not found elsewhere in the house. Another turn around the central stairwell takes you to the top level, where a breakfast room unexpectedly decorated with Japanese wallpaper and fittings opens onto a wide roof terrace looking north. Wherever possible, the original furniture, paintings, glassware, sculpture, books, carpets, and curtains have been returned to their original positions in the house, and the plumbing and electrical hardware, always of particular interest to Loos, have been beautifully restored. The English Twyford bathroom fixtures, the elevator, hanging lamps, and even the boilers shine as lustrously as the polished veneers. Frau Müller’s erotic Fragonard prints have been rehung in her boudoir, and the two fish tanks in the living room—one saltwater, one freshwater—host new aquatic life. The overall impression is one of privilege and insulated refinement, a house superbly appointed by a maniacal craftsmanship and articulated by a seemingly effortless spatial ingenuity.

A visit to the Villa Müller confirms several basic assumptions about Loos’s architecture. That there is a strict division between a reticent, unadorned exterior and a fluid, materially and personally expressive interior. That the character and disposition of space within the building package has priority over any definition of its tectonic structure. That although the spiraling raumplan and the non-axial entry to individual rooms tends to force people and furniture centrifugally to the edges of each space, the attention of the individual is kept focused inward. That it is not just the use or occupation of spaces, but the field of view between them that determines their value within the hierarchy of their arrangement. That the role of the architect is to provide a building suitable for the life of the client, not to engineer a machine for changing his relationship to society. To be sure, some eccentricities poke through to challenge the totality of the doctrine. The yellow windows with their occasional oriental arabesques are a hint of inner life on the exterior. The kitchen and pantry are unusually small and awkward for a family with a staff of six—large dinner parties would have been a feat. The servants’ rooms are tiny (and two are in the basement), and seem more afterthoughts than planned spaces. The child’s rooms are remarkably sterile despite their bright colors, and are so loaded with doors and cabinets that their comfort is questionable. The driveway is so narrow and steep that the chauffeur must have preferred parking on the street. The windows sometimes sit irregularly on the interior walls of the rooms they illuminate, showing that Loos did not just build from the inside out, but had to make normal compromises in developing his facades.10 The house is not perfect, and it is clear that in constructing a raumplan even the Villa Müller could not gracefully absorb all the distortions within the system.

But beyond revealing scattered inconsistencies, the experience of the Villa Müller compels us to reconsider other, darker conjectures about the nature of Loosian space. In her careful comparison of domestic interiors in the work of Loos and Le Corbusier, Beatriz Colomina has focused much attention on the Villa Müller, and more specifically on its representation.11 To Colomina, what is modern about the modern movement is directly related to its dissemination by the mass media—that it was promoted like a product in an advertising campaign skillfully manipulated by its creators. In this campaign Loos was no less capable than was Le Corbusier of providing the right aura for his work, although their tactics were very different. While Le Corbusier saved virtually every scrap of paper to leave to posterity to interpret, Loos destroyed much of the archival evidence of his work, arguing that “every work of art possesses such strong internal laws that it can only appear in its own form.”12 He claimed photographs were useless in trying to document his projects, but went to great lengths to control this photography. In the case of the Villa Müller, Loos asked Martin Gerlach to travel from Vienna to photograph the house in 1930, and ever since these photos have served as the basis for analyses, including Colomina’s. The camera captures a specific gaze, the intent of which is calculated. If we are to believe what it tells us, we must assume that its interpretation is as valid as any other, indeed, that “the perception of space is produced by its representations; in this sense, built space has no more authority than do drawings, photographs, or descriptions.”13 Whose house are we then to examine? The one depicted when just completed, the one occupied by the patrons who commissioned it, or the one restored at the twilight of the 20th century? For critics like Colomina, they are all legitimate versions of “Villa Müller.” When we are denied three-dimensional perception, however, we are left to the devices of those who control the media, and a certain paranoia can set in.

It is Frau Müller’s boudoir that draws the most suspicion. It is a curious, antimodern space, positioned at the crux of the raumplan, sealed off from the other rooms but linked to them visually and materially. It was here that Milada Müller found retreat, much as her husband found his in the more remote library. The boudoir is lit by a single exterior window. Set into the uppermost part of the room is a narrow alcove with a built-in couch and a table, above which is an interior window, looking toward the living room. While the man was sequestered in a corner of the house in dark mahogany seclusion, the woman was placed in a box suspended over, but not included in, the activities of the main social space of the living room. Who was watching whom? Who controlled the gaze and thus the business of the house? Was the boudoir a sentry box or a prison cell? No photograph of the boudoir can answer these questions, and were she alive I doubt that Frau Müller could answer them either, since they reflect contemporary concerns. A more interesting question might therefore be: Was Herr Müller allowed in the boudoir, or Frau Müller in the library? Were the spaces as gender-defined as we assume, fixed by intention rather than use? But even this we shall probably never know.

The insulation, emptiness, and introspection that Colomina sees in the photographs of the Villa Müller lead her to conclude that this was an architecture of “claustrophobia and agoraphobia,” a setting where the occupant was always a stranger performing a role on a private stage, constantly intruding from the margins onto some static platform. This stranger is denied a view out of the house by windows that are too high, too narrow or blocked, or by mirrors that keep the gaze reflected inward. He must be protected from the distractions of the surrounding city, whose intensity he cannot cope or compete with. Better to keep the mask in place, the voyeurism a private affair. Viewed in these terms, Loos becomes a puppet master who cannot break free of the system he has set in place. The lid on the jar is screwed ever tighter. With Le Corbusier the reverse is true, of course. The Villa Savoye is a postwar film set—not a prewar stage—where the actors are forever focused outward, peering through the strip windows at the landscape and claiming it for their own. Perception here is not static but rather in motion. For Colomina the irony is that in the end both regimes lead to alienation. “The subject in Le Corbusier’s house is estranged and displaced from his/her own home,” exactly like the poor Loosian occupant, except in this case it is because there is no possibility of stasis.14 In a Loos house, the subject is always about to arrive; in a Le Corbusier house, he has always just left.

There is indeed an enhanced interiority in the Villa Müller, and a certain “fetishization of surface,” expressed in material and color, dramatized by its retreat on the exterior. But there is no suggestion that the Müller family ever felt estranged in their house or sought isolation from the dynamic world that was Prague in the ’30s. The supposed split or tension between outside and inside dissolves into a kind of détente, or as Leslie van Duzer and Kent Kleinman have expressed it, “The exterior has no intention of answering questions it poses, and on the interior, where the answer is revealed, there is no longer a question.”15 In concrete terms, the design allows for three different terraces on the way up to the top level, where any remaining sense of confinement evaporates on the roof deck, whose east-flanking wall was left open to frame a view of Prague Castle. The spiraling twists of the raumplan explode into the sky, and from the roof you see not the disturbing vision of the “metropolitan spectacle,” but a suburban panorama now fringed by the prefabricated apartment blocks that the communists erected thirty years after the house was built. When her husband died, Milada Müller fought to keep the spirit of her house alive in the face of true alienation—alienation imposed by a dictatorship, not a room with small windows.

It is credible to argue that the critical moment for Loos came early, that it was the turn of the 20th century that needed and got him. The irreverent parables and caustic wit of his essays (so rarely about architecture and almost never about his own work) aimed at the Vienna establishment, coupled with the shock and novelty of the Café Museum (“Nihilismus”) and Michaelerhaus, were likely the most influential weapons in his arsenal. These works spurred a revolutionary modernism whose freedoms were taken to logical extremes, far beyond what Loos ever considered appropriate. But if we are to understand Loos as an architect with an individual evolution, we can now experience the Villa Müller as the final embodiment of ideas that began to crystallize in Vienna during the confrontational times of the early 20th century. The villa was a quiet fulfillment seventy years ago; its restoration has served to alter the study of Loos. New questions arise: has the villa become what Loos claimed a house should never be—an art object? Or a monument in spite of itself? Is a carefully preserved house without owners simply an anachronistic museum of bourgeois life? Some may think so, but as more and more visitors make the pilgrimage to Stresovice in coming years, the discussion about Loos and his architectural legacy will develop in ways not before possible.

Formal portraits of Adolf Loos made late in his life often show something he wished the viewer to know: that he suffered from deafness. An ear horn or a cupped hand identify a malady Loos regarded as both a blessing and a curse. It signified his isolation from the world, but also his integrity and devotion to higher truths beyond the immediate, sensual realm. Like his friend Schoenberg, Loos imagined himself a prophet. Both sought to exorcise the superfluous and the obsolete through a new language of refinement and abstraction. There is no doubt that the figure of Moses had a powerful attraction for both artists, and it is possible to imagine Loos identifying his burden of deafness with the particular hindrance Moses faced—his inability to fully articulate the truth. The battle against ornament was a stand against chaos and degeneracy, conducted in the midst of a disbelieving public. The prophet was doomed to frustration, convinced of the truth but afraid his words would be lost in the distorting babble of those who placed more value on appearances. In such a situation it might be an advantage not to hear, to be silent. Schoenberg never did compose the music to the third act of Moses und Aron. Did Loos reach the promised land? Was ornament banished forever? With the passing of one crisis of culture comes the onset of the next. Loos predicted the American century, which is perhaps now coming to a close, and would have recognized that contemporary issues like globalization, gender, public order, and personal freedom were not so new as we think—indeed, they could be addressed in the simple form of a house. More than forty years ago Reyner Banham said that Loos was “in that special limbo of oblivion reserved for those who have ideas that are too good to belong to one man alone.”16 Loos may have rather enjoyed wandering in the desert, but in the end he had no doubt that he had glimpsed Zion, where, naturally, all good ideas are shared.

Harvard Design Magazine Issue No. 1
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Issue No. 1