The moral question in Adolf Loos
Ph.D. candidate, Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto, Portugal
The Austrian architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933), considered a nihilist by his contemporaries – partly because of his devotion to the simplicity – was indeed a lover of life and his time. As Loos writes: “yes, our time is beautiful […] so beautiful that I would not want to live in another” (Loos, 1898a: 36). Still, his identification with classical culture has a strong emphasis on his reflections, notably his conception of beauty, but also the importance of truth, and especially justice – the three highest ideas of the classical (Platonic) triad.
“Architecture seeks the true, the beautiful and the just – classical thesis. That is: it is no enough for the number to be exact; it must also be fair and beautiful. Beautiful and moral quantities […] this is the difficulty of the architect.” (Tavares, 2008: 7).
About the idea of beauty, writes Loos: “by beauty we mean supreme perfection […] it is this completely out of the question that something impractical can be beautiful […] but the practical object on its own is not yet beautiful” (1898b: 75). And he concludes thus: “an object that is so perfect that one could not add anything to it or take anything away without adversely affecting it is beautiful” (1898b: 75). Loos’ conception of beauty is then close to the Aristotelian-Stoic finalist conception: a certain thing is beautiful when it fulfils its purpose perfectly. Convergences are also found in what is Loos’ ideal of (architectural) language – simple, discrete but singular (Loos, 1910) – and Aristotle’s (poetic) language – the best form of language is that which is clear and at the same time unusual (Aristotle, 1970).
Loos’ critical position has implied the quest for the improvement of society – not considering it, as Friedrich Nietzsche, something finished. The author resorts to (critical) reason to question the dogmas and established truths, in defense of self-thought – with echoes of Immanuel Kant’s motto, sapere aude. This explains his constant promotion of own thinking – warning men not to be enslaved by trends or fashions, and to use their understanding without (the necessary) guidance of others.
As referred by Aldo Rossi, the moral question is decisive in Loos’ reflections and recurrent in his writings (Rossi, 1977). However, and despite references to God, Loos does not evoke Him to substantiate his moral precepts. Like Immanuel Kant, his ethical understanding is not supported by faith, that is, it is not faith – due to its fallibility – a decisive factor for the validation of his moral system. A moral that does not have the absolute (or any ideal) as a reference – it is man (individual and social) its fundamental coordinate.
According to Loos, the detachment from ornamentation in culture is understood as an improvement of man – “freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength” (Loos, 1908, 234) – and is, in his view, one of the characteristics of modernity. Modern man has learned “to appreciate the beauty of bare stone” (Loos, 1910: 92). This improvement is not merely a matter of aesthetics, but a moral one, since, according to his conception, culture is the balance between the physical and the mental-spiritual well-being of a given people – and only with this equilibrium can be assured of wise behavior and thinking (Loos, 1910).
The separation that Loos establishes in his definition of culture – between physical and mental-spiritual dimensions – is not inconsequential. Indeed, it is precisely in this separation that most of his reflections are structured. Arts and crafts correspond to the elements of this separation, and they are, according to Loos, pillars of a people’s culture. Through utilitarian objects, the craftsman deals with physical needs; through works of art, the artist deals with mental-spiritual needs.
When Loos refers that the urban society of his time – the second half of the nineteenth century – is devoid of culture, he notes the inability of his contemporaries (especially artists) to respond to the real needs of modern society. To a large extent, this inability was due to a misleading and simplistic understanding of what had been the essence of man’s (cultural) productions. The fear raised by the supposed lack of “style” of the time – which was no more than the absence of ornament, proper to the development of modern society – led to the instability of most disciplinary, technical and artistic areas, including architecture.
“Havia rigor./ Oh, exemplo extremo./ Havia uma essência de oficina.” (Helder, 1996: 129).
Loos considers that the architects of his time reduced the “noble art of construction” to a graphic art, installing the confusion between the (architectural) object with its representation, the architectural quality with the representative virtuosity, the substance with the emergent. The perversity of this paradigm shift lies in the purely formalist understanding of architecture – under the “drawing dilettantism” the architect forgot his necessary connection with the real (Loos, 1897).
According to Loos, it is not morally defensible that the architect fails to meet human demands based on his idiosyncrasies and artistic yearnings (in Rossi 1977: 227). As the author states: “I will never admit that the proven forms we have become accustomed to over the centuries can be altered by the need to give wings to fantasy” (Loos, 1924: 262). More than artisticity (or poetics), consideration for man’s need must be the foundation for achieving the perfection of the architectural object (in Siza Vieira, 2000).
Faced with the degeneration of architecture of his time – based in the disciplinary convergence with arts – Loos proposes a reform from the “construction site” – “we need a carpenter’s culture” (Loos, 1908: 209). Thus, re-conceive architecture as a building art and the architect as a master builder provided with erudition. As in Vitruvius, Loos understand the architect as a bricklayer who has learned Latin, but has remained a bricklayer (Loos, 1908). The architect’s hand should at the same time be “the hand of the cathedral mason [and] the hand of the painter of manuscripts” (Focillon, 1988: 15). Loos calls for a return to the “real” or to the “truth of real” – the architect as a “suitor of truth” (Nietzsche, 1984: 21) – surpassing art itself.
Loos’ ontological redefinition of architecture – “for a new ethical and aesthetic canon for the twentieth century” (Loos, 1926: 270) – is in his view an unavoidable step: on the one hand, to search for the right place of architecture (as a discipline and profession), on the other hand, to understand to what moral the architect must answer, whether to the moral of the artist or to the moral of the craftsman.
Both utilitarian and architectural objects obey a functional determination and, therefore, will be as perfect – and according to Loos’ conception, beautiful – as they best correspond to the function for which they were designed – “the beauty of real technical objects” as referred by Theodor Adorno (1984: 76). On the other hand, as with the utilitarian object, the purpose of the architectural object must be evident to man – “the stone gravely declares that which it shuts in […] and this work of stone, conforming so closely to the truth, strongly proclaims its stern purpose“ (Valéry, 1956: 84).
However, despite this correspondence, Loos considers that the architect has a particular duty: the consideration for the moods that his productions arouse (Loos, 1910) – something that is far beyond the craftsman’s scope. In his celebrated dialogue – Eupalinos or the Architect – Paul Valéry clearly formulates this question:
“Eupalinos was the man of his precept. He neglected nothing. […] He gave a like care to all the sensitive points of the building. […] During the process of construction he scarcely left the works. I truly belive that he knew every stone in the place. […] But all these delicate devices making for the permanence of the edifice were nothing to those which he employed when the elaborated the emotions and vibrations of the soul of the future beholder of his work.” (Valéry, 1956: 74).
Architecture arouses moods in man, and it is the architect’s duty to be aware of this affectation and to give it a concrete and appropriate expression. Like art, architecture works with a nonphysical – or according to Loos, spiritual – dimension. However, while the artist has the freedom to use the moods he provokes for a particular purpose – the manipulation of these stimuli is part of the artist’s scope – the architect has the duty to adjust to a particular purpose or program the mood that best suits man (individual and social).
This is because in the case of the artist, his production – the work of art – is his private affair and therefore does not have to answer or please anyone. In turn, the architect’s production – the architectural object – concerns everyone, and must be universally pleasing (Loos, 1910). It is important to clarify that this “duty to please” is not a matter of taste, but an imperative consideration of everyone’s needs.
In principle, “true” art arises from an artist’s inner or immanent need – as Lautréamont suggests “the poet sings to himself and not to his fellowman” (2011: 295) -; while architecture arises from an external or transcendent need to the architect. This idea is also expressed by Fernando Távora: “[the architect] uses his profession for the benefit of other men, of the society to which he belongs” (1982: 74). It is then the moral question that moves architecture away from both the field of crafts and arts.
Precarious hypothesis: the artist’s moral duty will be solely to be free; the architect, in turn, has a moral duty to serve human needs with excellence. It seems to be this idea of serving the others, so present in the production of a craftsman, that Loos wants to highlight and rescue for the field of architecture. Serve, however, not only the material needs as the craftsman, but also the mental and spiritual needs as the artist.
The ideas postulated by Adolf Loos (mainly) in the early twentieth century are of undeniable relevance today. The question of representation is a paradigmatic case. Nowadays, the confusion between architectural object and its representation seems to have intensified. Graphic virtuosity – also through the possibilities introduced by the new representation technologies – ensured the protagonism of the image over the content.
On the other hand, the architect’s relationship with the construction also seems increasingly distant. Practical knowledge of construction, techniques, materials and their handling, seems to be less and less relevant in the contemporary architect’s repertoire.
It is possible to perceive in today’s circumstance the danger of combining architecture and art. The architect, taking himself as an artist, departs from his main and noble purpose of responding to the needs of man. May the ontological (re) framing that Loos proposes allows, if not more, to reflect on this architect’s fundamental imperative: his moral commitment to society.
 There was rigor./ Oh, extreme example./ There was a workshop essence.
 “What we need to do now is to wrest new forms and lines from life, habits, comfort and utility! Get to it, journeymen, art is something that must be overcome!” (Loos, 1897: 9)
 “When we come across a mound in the wood, six feet long and three feet wide, raised in a pyramidal form by means of a spade, we become serious and something in us says: somebody lies buried here. This is architecture.” (Loos, 1910: 103).
 “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. […] Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.” (Wilde,1985: 17)
 “The house has to please everyone, contrary to the work of art, which does not. The work of art is a private matter for the artist. The house is not. […] The work of art is responsible to none; the house is responsible to everyone.” (Loos, 1910: 98).
 “Human society: it is an attempt, so I teach, a long seeking: it seeketh however the ruler! An attempt, my brethren! And no ‘contract’!” (Nietzsche, 1995: 211).
 “The Critique of Pure Reason could not be written by a man who had five ostrich feathers on his cap” (Loos, 1908: 208).
 “Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’- that is the motto of enlightenment.” (Kant, 1995: 9).
 Moral understood as the object of ethics (Abbagnano, 1984: 682).
 “Mankind’s history has not yet had to record a period without culture. The creation of such a period was reserved for the urban dweller during the second half of the nineteenth century” (Loos, 1910: 91).
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Cover: Adolf Loos 1929 – Source: https://archipendolo.wordpress.com/2014/12/13/il-silenzio-degli-architetti-adolf-loos/
Fig. 1: Adolf Loos, project for Tristan Tzara House 1925 – Source: https://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/03/17/someone-is-buried-here-adolf-loos-on-architecture-and-death/
Fig.2: Adolf Loos, Villa Müller, Prague s.d. – Source: https://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/03/17/someone-is-buried-here-adolf-loos-on-architecture-and-death/i-do-not-draw-plans-facades-or-sections-adolf-loos-and-the-villa-muller/