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page 5 | may 2008 | issue no.1

european forum at the hebrew university

Adolf Loos and Modern Architecture in Vienna

Kobi Ben-Meir

Until the end of the 19th century, the dominant architectural style in central Vienna was "Neoism": Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Baroque, and so on. However, the late 1800s saw the emergence of a new style generally referred to as "modern architecture." This new architecture developed in response to the immense social change experienced in most European cities: middle- and lower-class citizens from the agricultural suburbs flocked into the industrialized cities, generating the need for cheap, fast-built housing. The new approach to architecture - simple buildings designed according to a specific function - suited the new social climbers. The upper-middle class and the bourgeoisie openly aimed to express their rising social status. New architectural forms were developed in order to distinguish these groups from the older oligarchies. Modern architecture put much more emphasis on functional interior design to suit the specific owner. Functionality, rather than decoration, became the motto; and the form was designed according to its function. The new "International Style" was a mixture of several modern approaches: German Bauhaus, the architecture of the Swiss-born Le Corbusier, Italian Futurism, and Russian Constructivism. Tel Aviv and Brasilia, for example, were new cities designed according to modern demographic structures, but older cities such as London, Paris, and Vienna had to develop new urban planning to meet the demands of urban change and growth. Vienna is a fascinating example. By the end of 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I embarked on the extension of Vienna beyond its antiquated walls. The crumbling walls of the city were torn down and replaced by huge boulevards--the Ringstraße. This new open ring became the hub of the bourgeois struggle for social recognition and, therefore, developed into the ideal site for with small stucco sculptures but, most important, is covered by a copula made of gilded laurel leaves. The Austrian architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) was not only one of the great architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but he also defined archimodern - is found in Michaelerplatz in the heart of Imperial Habsburg Vienna. Loos's House was commissioned by a firm of tailors, Goldmann & Salatsch, and was constructed according to his plan from 1909 to 1911. It stands in direct contrast to its architectural surroundings: to the southwest the grand semicircular entrance to the Hofburg, the imperial palace of Vienna, and to the southeast the 18thcentury façade of the medieval church of St. Michael. Loos's House is characterized by strict geometry. The simple façade, naked of ornamentation, first appeared as a strange creature in the heart of the traditional Viennese square. Loos's architectural philosophy ­ the importance of plan over interior design, geometric form, and the simplicity and lack of ornamentation of the exterior ­ is even better presented and further articulated in his Moller House, which manifests his mature style. The Moller House is composed of a series of intertwining cubical and rectangular structures existing in complementary balance. The constant rhythm of forms is echoed by the windows, portals, and interior staircases. The exterior is naked of any "criminal" ornamentation, making the harmony of the shapes and the equilibrium of the mass its only decoration. Loos's approach focuses on the functionality and simplicity of the building and anticipates the great architectural movements of the 20th century such as Italian Futurism, German Bauhaus, and the architecture of Le Corbusier, and helps to define what highmodern architecture is. The Moller House was built from 1927 to 1928 at Starkfriedgasse 19 for the Jewish textile industrialist Hans Moller. Moller and his family lived in this unique house until Hitler came to power. Like many other Austrian Jews, they fled and found refuge in Palestine. Moller bought a share in the Ata textile factory in the lower Galilee and became its general manager. After the war he made a claim for his house in Vienna and, not without a long legal struggle, regained it and decided to donate it to the Israeli government. Ever since, it serves as the residence of the Israeli ambassador to Austria. Some

Adolf Loos, Moller House, Starkfriedgasse 19, Vienna, 1927-1928; at upper right: the Sezession Building, Karlsplatz,Vienna, 1898; at lower left: Loos House in Michaelerplatz, Vienna, 1909-1911; at lower right: Entrance to Alte Hofburg, Michaelerplatz, Vienna.

modern Austrian architecture. It is no coincidence that next to Karlsplatz, on the Ringstraße, Josef Maria Olbrich built in 1898 the Sezession Building. It was identified with the Sezession, a new Viennese artistic and architectural movement comprised of artists, graphic designers, and architects who, in a highly publicized manner, resigned from the Academy of Fine Arts, which they regarded as old-fashioned and restrictive. The Sezession movement maintained the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk ­ an overall art-piece in which the architect not only plans and builds the house but also designs and decorates it in a homogeneous style. The Sezession Building was erected in defiance of the NeoClassical building of the Academy of Fine Arts, located close by on the inner side of the Ring. It is decorated

tectural modernity. His place in the architectural topography of fin-de-siècle Vienna was difficult because he contended with both architectural styles: the historic Baroque buildings of the Imperial capital on the one hand and the Sezession movement on the other. Loos's architectural philosophy and his attack on the ornamental style of the Sezessions are textually expressed in his 1908 article "Ornament und Verbrechen (Ornament and Crime)" in which he describes architectural ornamentation as a barbaric act. He maintained that cultural progress coincides with the removal of decorations from their environment. In a deliberate contrast to the Sezession approach, Loos separated his building from the dwelling and concentrated on the plan itself. For him the plan of the building is formed by its function, and its function comprises the interior dwelling area, which is to be decorated according to the dweller's own taste. Therefore, because they serve no function, exterior ornaments should be banished from the façade. Loos's encounter with both traditions - the historic and the

weeks ago a group of students from the European Forum visited this house on a study trip to Vienna, organized by the Center for Austrian Studies. The interior of the house is impressive and looks as if little had changed since Adolf Loos created it some 80 years ago.

The author is an MA student in the European Forum, specializing in modern and contemporary art.


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