Adolf Loos Exhibition at Špilberk Is As Confounding As the Man Himself

Image source: MuMB.

This year, Brno is making a big deal out of Adolf Loos. His 150th birthday is an excuse for a series of exhibits and events around town (and around the country), and they’re building a sculpture in his honor at Janáčkovo náměstí. One of the first major events of this “Year of Loos” is an exhibition by the Muzeum města Brna at Špilberk Castle entitled “Adolf Loos, European: His Legacy in Brno and Beyond” (Evropan Adolf Loos: Nejen brněnské stopy).  

If you have no idea who Adolf Loos was, or why Brno would want to celebrate his legacy, I’m sure you’re not alone. Before I went to the exhibition, I knew very little about Loos, except that he was a famous architect who, I assumed, had designed some buildings in and around Brno.  

Adolf Loos. Photo source: MuMB.

After spending a slightly bemused 45 minutes or so at the museum, I learned that I had assumed correctly – he was, in fact, a famous architect, who definitely designed at least one building in Brno, and probably had a hand in designing a few more around the city and in nearby towns.  

But I can’t say I left the exhibit with a clearer understanding of Loos’s life work as a whole, or why he was (and is) considered so important. In fact, I left a bit perplexed. After looking at the five or six rooms of fairly sparse materials on display, I wondered why there was such interest in, and respect for, someone who seemed to have spent most of his time designing expensive villas for wealthy industrialists (that is, when he wasn’t writing them curt letters about how they had ripped him off or wasted his time). I also was left wondering what claims Brno, and the Czech Republic of the 21st century, might want to make about the legacy of Loos, a man who was both Austrian and not Austrian, Czechoslovak and not Czechoslovak, self-promoting and yet secretive, intimidating and antagonistic toward – well, everyone, it seemed – not least the aristocracy, the art world, and the popular culture of early 1900s Vienna. It seemed like there could be many lines to follow (some straight, some not so straight) when presenting Loos to a Brno museum-going audience – but the exhibition didn’t seem to offer much help in following them. 

Armchair design by Loos. Photo credit: JL / Brno Daily.

And that’s a shame, because since then, I’ve done a bit more reading up on Loos, and it turns out he was a very fascinating person! (Or, as my Spanish teacher once said about Salvador Dalí: “Era un tío muy complicado”). After looking at photos of his more famous works outside Brno, and especially after reading his sensational 1910 polemic “Ornament and Crime,” I think I understand a bit better now why Loos still commands attention. And after reading some commentaries on his larger influence, and on his (literally) criminal record, I can also see why it might be easier to avoid some of the larger, more disturbing questions raised by his life and work – especially if you want to celebrate him in a not-too-complicated way (which might be what the city is hoping to do).

Because if it’s complexities you’re after…Loos has them in abundance. Whether you decide to visit the exhibition or not, I recommend reading “Ornament and Crime.” It’s only a few pages long, and it’s a fun read (can “fun” mean also sort of horrifying? Because that’s how I mean it). Most commentaries on this short essay will tell you that the main point of it is basically just the title, rephrased as a proclamation: Ornament is a crime. And yes, that’s pretty much the gist of it. Loos tells us that he has discovered a great “truth”: that “cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of ornament from articles in daily use.” In other words, the most advanced and modern man is the one who appreciates when everyday items (clothes, furniture, buildings) are made without unnecessary design elements (Loos doesn’t define “ornament” precisely, but some examples he gives are fancy gold braids on hosiery, colorful illustrations on dishes, and inlays and carvings on wood furniture). Loos argues that ornament wastes precious time and money, since decorated goods take longer to make, and fall out of fashion more quickly. In contrast, items without ornament are simple, lasting, and timeless.  

Dining room of the Bauer Chateau in Brno, designed by Loos. Photo credit: Martin Polák.

Summed up in that way, Loos’s argument sounds pretty sensible. And along the way, he makes some brutal and brilliant jabs at his contemporary culture which seem very prescient of our current anxieties about state-supported capitalism. He lambasts the Austrian government, saying that the State believes its job is “to retard the cultural progress of the people” since “a nation on a low standard is easier to govern.” And he perfectly anticipates what we now call “planned obsolescence” (you know, that mysterious sense that you need a new iPhone because your old one (from two years ago) won’t support that cool new app): “A consumer who has his furniture for ten years and then can’t stand it anymore and has to re-furnish from scratch every ten years, is more popular with us than someone who only buys an item when the old one is worn out. Industry thrives on this.”  

But some of the details of Loos’s manifesto are much more devilish. Loos is clearly happy to play the provocateur, and the extremes to which takes his argument would be laughable if you didn’t suspect that he kinda sorta takes it all very seriously. “Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats,” he tells us in the first few lines. “If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.” Baristas of the world, beware! And a bit later, he enters a state of unhinged rapture, envisioning a world swept clean of ornament: “Look, the time is nigh, fulfilment awaits us. Soon the streets of the town will glisten like white walls. Like Zion, the holy city, the metropolis of heaven. Then we shall have fulfillment.” Spoken like a true supervillain. 

Tables and chairs designed by Loos. Photo credit: Michaela Budíková / MuMB.

And indeed, some writers have laid blame on Loos (along with the American architect Louis Sullivan, who Loos admired) for providing the first theoretical justifications for all that is truly hideous about 20th century architecture and city planning. Loos’s condemnation of ornament, taken to its logical extremes, and co-opted by political ideologues, probably helped turn many of our cities and neighborhoods into brutalist geometric tunnels of glass, steel, and concrete. As Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson put it in their fantastic essay “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture”: “An allergy to ornament sentences humanity to eternal tedium, with nothing interesting to look at, nothing that we will notice on a building the second time that we did not see the first time.”  

Of course, Loos didn’t always put his money where his mouth was – and so the actual work that he did for wealthy clients in his lifetime isn’t as severe or as devoid of ornament as his writings might suggest it should be. At their finest, his buildings (especially the interiors) are elegant and beautiful (now that I’ve seen photos of the interior of the Villa Müller in Prague, I really want to visit – it looks amazing). So, rather than assuming that Loos was all for a total prohibition of ornament, it might be more honest and charitable to say that he thought showy ornamentation and outward complexity should never be used to try to hide or make up for a lack in the basic form a building should have to fulfil its highest purpose. Which is a marvelous thing to want to show the world. Unfortunately, it might be that too many architects after him didn’t appreciate the subtleties in his work, and instead took his fanatical words too literally. 

The “Loos” chair. Image source: MuMB.

If such theoretical issues aren’t enough to get you wondering about what to make of Loos, then maybe this will: he was also a convicted child molester. You won’t find mention of this in any of the promotional materials surrounding the “Year of Loos,” but in 1928, when he was 58 years old, Loos was accused of sexually abusing three girls, ages eight, nine and ten. The trial was conducted in secret, the testimony of the girls was dismissed as “unreliable,” and the court records seem to have been “lost” for a while, so it’s only in 2015 that a study by Loos scholar Christopher Long appeared analyzing the incident (here’s a great review of Long’s work on Loos, which includes more details on the trial). Loos was acquitted of the more serious crime of “satisfying his lusts” on the girls, but he was found guilty of “seducing them to indecency” by getting them to pose for him naked while he sketched them. In the end, his sentence was suspended – but he was not exonerated.   

My point in bringing up all these controversies surrounding Loos is not to suggest that Brno should avoid dealing with his legacy. Loos is certainly one of the most fascinating native sons of the city, and it would be really great if more people knew about his complexities, and if the events of this year’s Loos jubilee were designed to grapple with those complexities.  

Villa of Brno industrialist Viktor Bauer on the grounds of his sugar refinery factory in Hrušovany u Brna, designed by Loos. Photo credit: Martin Polák.

I have my doubts, though, that the exhibit at Špilberk will help much in opening a rousing debate. My guess is that most visitors to the museum won’t know much more than I did about Loos on arrival – and I worry that they will leave not knowing all that much more. The exhibit focuses exclusively on the three or four building projects Loos designed (or partially designed) around Brno – a few houses and a factory. The multimedia displays are attractive and varied (for each building project, there are scale models, videos, and prints of historical documents and photos). Someone who is super into architectural details might enjoy lingering over the descriptions of windows, staircases, galleries and podiums. But overall, there isn’t enough overview or contextualization to help a Loos newbie see how these small details connect to bigger ideas. 

The layout of the exhibition is also a bit weird. At the entrance, outside the first room, there is a photo of Loos and a quote about how he saw himself as a “European” (a potential theme of the exhibition? – except it isn’t really taken up again later in the show). As I entered the first room, I found myself alone in a long room that looked like a green marble tomb. It turned out this was a reconstruction of the dining room of Bauer Chateau, Loos’s main project in Brno – but I had to stumble around and read a few of the wall captions before I got my bearings. I didn’t see any introduction to the main ideas of the exhibition, or any overall statement of purpose. Maybe this oddly barren first room is a clever attempt at showing Loos’s disdain for ornament – but, again, I’m not sure the average visitor would pick up on that. I was confused at the end of the exhibit, too; the last room focused mainly on Loos’s father, who was a successful stonemason in Brno. I thought for a second that I had made a mistake and walked through the whole exhibit backwards, since I seemed to be going back in time, and there wasn’t a final summary or any other signal that this was the end of the exhibit. But I asked an attendant, who assured me that I had gone through the right way, and yes, that really was the end of it.  

Tombstones of Maria and Jacob Schreiber, at an unspecified Jewish cemetery, probably in Moravia, designed by Loos. Photo source: MuMB.

Of course, it’s a perfectly valid choice to create a small and very narrowly focused exhibit. There are, and there will be, many other places to see Loos’s other work, and yes, there’s the internet, so a curious visitor like me can always find out more if they want to. But this exhibition, since it’s inside the city’s main tourist attraction, and especially since it’s supposed to be the opening event of the Loos celebration, could have been a bit more welcoming for the uninitiated. And it could have engaged more directly (even if only briefly) with the more inspiring and troubling aspects of Loos’s life and work.  

I hope that in this “Year of Loos,” the city and the country don’t try to whitewash or water down the legacy of this complicated man, and I hope these events lead to more reflection on what it might really mean to celebrate such a radical, revolutionary, and perhaps dangerous man, who saw himself as a citizen of the world. And Brno should also take note of what’s been happening recently in the US, the UK, and other countries which are convulsed (again) in violent reevaluations of the darker aspects of their history. If you are going to build a new monument, it’s good to be as clear and as honest as you can about what vision, what version, of the past you are honoring – so that today’s heroes are less likely to obsolesce into tomorrow’s nation-dividing ambiguities.   

A bust of Loos. Photo credit: MuMB.

“Adolf Loos, European: His Legacy in Brno and Beyond” is open at Hrad Špilberk from 9am – 5pm, Tuesday through Sunday, until December 31, 2020. 

More info can be found here.

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