Adolf Loos’s Essay “Ornament and Crime”

August 9, 2021

Functionality and economy of space are urgent notions nowadays as well as the development of minimalistic style for interior and exterior of buildings. Adolf Loos (1870 – 1933) was a pioneer in developing the idea of functionality of a building instead of its decoration. He was sure that architecture is free of art; in his opinion, these are different fields with different purposes. His ideas of denying ornamentation reflected in numerous essays, and the most famous among the former ones is “Ornament and Crime” written in 1908. The architect may be rough in his expressions, but he appears to be a modernist in architecture, so he states his position squarely as well as he designed his Mueller House. Newspapers entitled the building “a monster of a house,” “a highest blossom of mental perversity,” which means, the villa is not an ordinary building. It is as challenging, as the author’s writings are. Although, if to go in-depth of its analysis, one may ask oneself a question whether this building is so out of aesthetic taste, or this is the first prejudiced reaction. The ideas of “Ornament and Crime” reflected in Loos’s architectural work as the beginning of the modernist movement in architecture. The influences of the text are obvious in understanding the main aesthetic and philosophical idea of simplicity and economy of Loos’s buildings, but there are some contradictions between the text and the house as well. In some aspects, the text supports the design of the “Mueller House” and in others it fails to appeal to the writing.

Loos’s ideas, described in his essays, often contradict each other and more often – restate the same ideas. “Ornament and Crime” may be considered the essence of his works, where he explains his point of view in square way. The main idea is equating ornament to crime, as it suggests nothing new for the 20th century. He claims the displacement of one from the other is a sign of criminality or degeneracy. His point is creating a brand new form, where the art focuses on the practical function of an object, which dominates over its decorative function.

The first thing to discuss, the Adolf Loos’s essay “Ornament and Crime” applies to the Mueller House in its idealistic aspect. In his essay, the architect spurs the readers to turn away from the ornament. The concept of ornament here has a deeper meaning, than decoration. Loos describes it as a symbol of old-fashioned lifestyle and out-of-date thinking. He believes that ornament equals an unimportant and expensive lack of necessity and functionality, which slows down the fast-changing development of a modern man. This idea or even obsession with pared-down design reflected in the design of the white cubic facade of the building. In the essay, he said that he would prefer smooth leather of his shoes, than the ornament holes in them; this is what he practices in house exterior design. The simplicity and plain style of the appearance, advocated in the essay totally reflect on the outside of the house.

The Mueller House was first designed in 1928 and completed in 1930 by Loos for a civil engineer and building contractor Frantisek M?ller, partner in the building company Kapsa & M?ller, and his family for living. It is sited in a western district of Prague, Stresovice, on a steep slope facing towards Prague Castle, the Hradshin, Czech Republic. The eastern and southeastern parts face neighbouring residences and all other ones border the public space. The western site is turned into a private garden place. This is an example of multi-functionality in different aspects, cultural and practical, – the house has a good view from the windows, terraces, balcony, the garden is hidden for private use, and the facades, which face public space, demonstrate the modernist style of the building.

Since the purpose was the family life, the main task was functionality; Loos designed the house according to the family needs and to the function of each particular space. As he said, the aim of his architecture was not to design plans, but spaces, not floors, but levels and dimensions. Each room has different ceiling heights; higher ones require to the kitchen entrance room, dining room, and hall, which are the public spaces of the house, while the lower rooms (bedrooms, for instance) appeal to privacy. According to the Loos’s idea of spatial plan, all the rooms include open connection, which he realized with the staircases and the penetrated walls between the rooms and the staircase. As the rooms have different heights, there is a continuous vertical access system of a vertical staircase from the basement to the roof and non-continuous access system of platforms, connecting hall and boudoir, for instance. One may recognize the spatial planning of the house from the facade only by noticing different sizes and levels of the windows, but it is not recognizable from the outside, which differs from the internal structure.

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So that, the family of Mueller’s had lived in the house for 18 years, until the historical events made them leave the house. Sooner, the house was occupied for Communists needs and, nowadays, it serves as a museum and a memorial of Modernist architecture with guided tours. Such changes of the inhabitants of different outstanding buildings, especially the private property, were not rare in the countries, which were under the Iron Curtain. The radical shift of the inhabitants significantly influenced the building and changed its history from the family-sized to the society-sized. The style of the building absorbed particularly the Social Realism influence, which converted its elegant asceticism into the proletarian one, while the Communists used it as a building serving administrative needs.

Applying to the text, one may notice that Loos did not just refuse the ornament. He did not accept the way Art Nouveau and Secessionist architects used it. It had no historicity and nothing new in his opinion, while the Mueller House appears to contain culture, history and economics marks. This outstanding family residence reflects the ideas of freedom and revolution of the avant-garde movements of its contemporary period. It is brand-new starting from the inner structure, not only the outer appearance as it was in other movements, for Loos’s opinion.

Loos’s way of thinking is far from that of the artists, his essay is split into parts of different fields: economics, politics, art, crafts, life stories and music; there are attempts of psychological and sociological description of the problem stated. His manner varies from the challenging and impatient one to the persuasive and analytical. His writing structure seems to change levels and invite to different rooms. Here, one may refer such kind of thinking to a spatial one. Loos thought himself not an artist or even an architect, but a builder. Such an original view on the architecture made him a revolutionary, who invented a so-called Raumplan (volume or spatial plan). The challenging manner of writing grew into the challenging design of the Mueller House.

According to the text of the “Ornament and Crime”, essay contradicts the building in some aspects. Loos believed that the materials of a room should match its use and mood, so he used marble in public parts of the house and wood for intimacy or pale maple for a woman’s dressing room and oak for a man’s one. At the same time, he said in his essay that an architect’s deal is not furnishing, but creating space with walls only, creating the static furniture, while the householder fulfils the space with other appliances. The today’s function of the house contradicts Loos’s idea, so far.

Nowadays, it is a museum with galleries of artworks and paintings. There were paintings and luxuries in the rooms even before the house became a museum; and this reality does not go in line with the idea of austerity of the house. Even more, after the house was restored, all the rooms had white walls, which is opposite to the thought of functionality, as all the rooms look similar, but with different size only, while Loos created the spaces and volumes paying special attention to the colour of the walls and static furniture and appliances, such as lights, tables, sofas, etc.

The controversial fact is that Loos referred ornament to the primitive society and said that the contemporary and modern society must invent a new ornament, while the cubic form of his building is a primitive one, according to the geometry. There are no new ornaments, but the whole work is directed to the inner structure change, but not on the outer one. He created a 3-dimensional cubic beauty, which referred to another area, than the decoration. Decoration of a house priory cannot be practical, so he did not invent anything in the field, he was peering.

Another point is that the essay does not address to architecture or house building. The only thing appealing to the design is the absence of ornament, but there are no ideas, dealing with the volumes and interlocking spaces. The essay explains the idea of Loos’s understanding of modernity, but the concept of ornament as a crime does not refer to the building. If one reads the essay without supporting it by visual material, he never will conclude that this architect invented the three-dimensional planning instead of flat plans.

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Meanwhile, only observing the Mueller House without reading gives more information about the author’s ideas for those who own the spatial way of thinking or special knowledge. However, the knowledge of Adolf Loos’s theoretical background increases its understanding. It is important to understand Loos ideas and analyse his architectural works for those who want to become architects because both essays and buildings emphasize the increased, up-to-date and three-dimensional thinking and evokes a desire to create not according to the past or predicting the future, but constructing the present.

In conclusion, Adolf Loos was a pioneer in creating spatial plans, different approach to constructing the structure of a building not based on the symmetry and beauty and sometimes, fake beauty, as it happened in Art Nouveau style, but on the practical functionality and improvement of comfort. The Mueller House completely reflects the main idea of the author in its outstanding design, but contradicts some problems, raising by the architect in his written works, mostly because of the historical context of its usage and its inhabitants. Loos’s essay “Ornament and crime” is not a professional architectural reading and it cannot be an instruction for a work, but it is a key of realizing the aim of the author. It points at the aspects, which an architect should count to create something outstanding.