Adolf Loos: Biography, Architecture & Buildings

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt

Benjamin has a Bachelors in philosophy and a Master's in humanities.

Adolf Loos was the founding thinker and creator of the Modern architectural style. Loos' controversial views played out in writings such as 'Ornament and Crime' and in his buildings, like the Looshaus, where Loos challenged Vienna to embrace the march of progress and turn away from Art Nouveau and ornamental designs

'Weep not! Therein lies the greatness of our age, that it is incapable of producing a new ornament.' - Adolf Loos, from 'Ornament and Crime'

A photograph of Adolf Loos
Adolf Loos Photograph

Have you ever walked up to an old building with ornate decoration, elaborate curlicues, and impeccable stonework? Does it fill you with awe and beauty to see the amazing details and attention paid to the design and structure? Do you ever wonder why buildings aren't built that way anymore? Not if you are Adolf Loos, the founder of Modern architecture and the best known critic of decoration.

Adolf Loos was an architect who grew up in Germany and was the leading critic of the use of decoration and style in architecture, which he argued needed to be functional. Loos viewed the use of design and ornament as childish and backward. He frequently railed against the idea that buildings should be made visually pleasing in any way that did not add to, nor flow from, the function of the structure.

Adolf Loos Biography

Adolf Loos (1870-1933) was born in Brno, Moravia to a stone mason who taught his son the importance of the utility of design and helped Adolf appreciate the time and energy that was taken in design. Loos attended college in Austria and served in the Austrian army in 1889. He briefly moved to the US in 1893, where he studied American industry and architecture for three years while forming his philosophy of design. After moving back to Austria in 1896, Loos worked for the architectural firm of Carl Mayreder and published articles about social life in the newspapers.

Adolf Loos: Ornament and Crime

After reestablishing himself in Austria, Loos railed against the trend of Art Nouveau which was popular in Austria. Loos saw the use of intricate designs in Art Nouveau as childish and immature and claimed that the march of progress in history was toward a time when ornament was no longer a part of design. Loos believed that humans would evolve to be able to appreciate architecture and utensils for their intrinsic beauty as functional objects. Remembering the work and value of his father's time as a stone mason, Loos argued to Austria and the world that the inclusion of needless decoration was a waste of money by the designers, and a waste of time by the builders (and therefore criminal). Instead, he proposed that society should embrace forms which existed to serve a function, as was the case with the industrial buildings Loos saw during his time in America.

In 1908, Loos published his landmark essay 'Ornament and Crime' where he made a moral case for architecture to abandon ornamentation. Loos argued that it was not just preferences or taste that drove people to prefer style in their structures, but that this preference also imposed harsh social costs on those in other classes who were occupied with the work to make a design which served only to entertain, which Loos found childish. From his writings, we can see the origin and justification for the mantra of modern architecture that 'form follows function'.

Adolf Loos Architecture

Ironically, the founding theorist of Modern architecture did not, himself, design many buildings. Loos' earliest work, which revealed his values of function following form, was the Café Museum.

Cafe Museum
Cafe Museum

The structure was built so that the exterior was entirely a result of the function of the building, and Loos used materials to give the structure its color rather than adding decorative coats of paint. The beauty of the building comes entirely from the use of the various materials Loos incorporated into its function. Loos worked to make the luxury of the piece flow entirely from the beauty of the materials and the visual appeal of its utility.


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