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Ornament and Crime

loos table legs

You may be surprised to learn that Adolf Loos — friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schönberg, and Peter Altenberg and himself a key figure in the Viennese Secession — lived in the United States for three years from 1893 t0 1896. He was twenty-three years old on arrival. Most of Loos’s time here was spent with relative in Philadelphia, but there was also a trip to the Midwest: to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and to St Louis. Legend says he worked as a waiter.

One summer evening in 2000, Milton Yergens, Richard Kenyon and I enjoyed drinks in Loos’s “American Bar” in a lane off the Kärtner Straße; a sublime blend of context and company that I recall with relish. It’s difficult to imagine the American with more than a dozen patrons in twos and threes, standing at the bar or huddled on green leather bankettes around hexagonal bottom-lit tables.

The bar’s intimate scale is belied by a clever illusion which mirrors the coffered onyx ceiling —yes, I said onyx — reflected to infinity above wainscoted walls. I look forward to a manhattan there in early June. In the meantime, the architect’s sojourn in the United States and the prospect of his tour through the Midwest is too tempting to ignore. After all, Austrians Karl and Edith Wassermann operated a hardware store on North Broad Street; perhaps they hosted their fellow countryman for a few months in 1894.

Ornament and Crime

Loos was the same age as Josef Hoffmann and just three years junior to Josef Olbrich, yet he still seems to me on the fringe of the Viennese Secession, like the amicus curiae who supports the law suit without actually being named in it. Loos has always been in my Top Twenty, however, with other “also rans” of architectural history like Nicholas Hawksmoor, Alexander Thomson, Jože Plečnik, Burnham Hoyt, and other names you’ve heard.

Loos played a large part in my millennial “pilgrimage” of 2000: exquisite shop fronts in Am Graben, houses for clients named Rufer, Shue, Müller and Moller (that I can never keep straight), and of course the legendary American Bar. [The Shues, by the way, had a daughter Lisl who became an architect in Minneapolis and co-founder of Close Architects.] Indeed, Loos may have more in common with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whose early work was dominated by interior design rather than freestanding buildings, all of which shapes my thinking about Loos in Agincourt.


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