Adolf Loos: A Private Portrait by Claire Beck Loos
Adolf Loos (1870-1933) was one of Rudolf M. Schindler's principle influences. Loos, the Viennese theorist and architect, is widely thought to be 20th-century architecture’s most controversial figure. His scathing jeremiads on hypocrisy and ornament have generated their own torrent of interpretations, only to prove the enduring fecundity of his ideas.
But Schindler and Richard Neutra knew the man as well as the work. They gravitated to Loos because he was an original, the Classicist that Modernism can't ignore. Both younger architects frequented the Bauschule (building school) Loos founded in 1912. Huddled over kaffee or exotic American concoctions (for his students) and curdled milk (for Loos' stomach), he propounded his theories on the fly and conducted flâneur-esque building tours. The peripatetic teaching method would be familiar to the Stoics, and particularly apt for a school with no facilities and a Socratic faculty of one.
Schindler, especially, seized the potential of Loos's Raumplan, in which interior spaces vary according to function and status, resulting in three-dimensional puzzles rich in complexity. Schindler interpreted this emphasis in section, rather than in plan or elevation, against a backdrop of a new country, geography, and climate.
That is the historical connection between Loos and Schindler, yet these two books differ sharply in objective and tenor. Written by the two leading scholars of his work, the Schindler monograph distills ideas in earlier, larger works by the authors, as well as in a similar book on the Kings Road House by Kathryn Smith.
Schindler, Kings Road, and Southern California Modernismhas a three-part agenda. It burrows deep into the sequence of construction of the iconic 1922 Schindler-Chace house, designed as a duplex for R.M. and his wife, Pauline, and contractor Clyde Chace and his wife, Marion. Second, the book illuminates the contribution of Pauline, an unflagging activist, self-proclaimed Bolshevist, and gifted writer. Through her story a whole new house emerges, suddenly a fulcrum overflowing with people experimenting with everything from progressive education to dance. Finally, the book recasts R.M.'s importance as a far more influential Modernist than history has credited him for. In some ways this is a needed revision, but other polemical speculation warrants far further investigation, especially regarding Schindler’s possible influence on the work of Erich Mendelsohn and Mies van der Rohe. In any case, the house is a radical watershed by any criterion. The two essays flank new photography by Timothy Sakamoto, who captures the dwelling’s earthy materiality, the integration of Japanese sensibilities in the play of light and shadow, and, above all, the building's intimacy with its setting.
Adolf Loos: A Private Portrait was written by Claire Beck Loos, the Viennese architect's third wife. Claire, a photographer, a beauty, and a secular Czech Jewess, married-against her parents' wishes-an aging genius, broken in health and hopeless with money, but tender, impulsive, and unforgettable. They wed in 1929, when she was 24 and he was 58. She left "Dolfi" fewer than three years later and was devastated when he wouldn’t take her back. Spoken from his sick bed, he declared: "A woman who leaves me may not come back!" Nonetheless, Loos wept at her loss to his friend, the artist Oskar Kokoschka, and she managed to see Loos before he died in a sanatorium. For the next eight years, she appears to have no permanent home. In 1941 she boarded a train for the concentration camp Terezin, was transported to Riga, and killed on her arrival.
Claire wrote the book-first published in 1936-to raise money for the tombstone Loos designed for himself. The book is so very alive with his presence, however, that surely it was a means to keep him close to her. Filled with family photographs, it was recently republished in English. Beck Loos's niece and nephew, Janet Beck Wilson and Charles Paterson, along with his wife Fonda and their daughter Carrie compiled supplemental family commentary, helping to place the Loos couple in the context of their larger world and history.
In razor-sharp anecdotes, some a paragraph, some several pages, Claire writes in the present tense. The result is altogether Loosian: timeless, with as little ornament, but as much empathy, as any protégé could deliver. Here, theory in the flesh walks in. Claire recounts several telling moments: Loos dancing the Charleston with Josephine Baker; Loos having the foyer ceiling of the brilliant Villa Mühler (1930) painted a dark blue at the last minute to "lower" the still-too-high ceiling so that it conveyed the feeling of shelter he required. He scolds clients regularly and protects his craftsmen: "Never bargain a worker down … Give him rather a little more, and you will receive a thousand times better work." Shocked at his wife's letting an unattended soap cake dissolve away, he turns red: "Don’t you know that I have spent my entire life fighting against ornamentation, against the waste of energy, against the waste of material?" We do know, Herr Professor Loos. Thank you Claire Beck Loos and family, for sharing with us your exasperating, exhilarating adventure with him.
Schindler: University of California Press; hardcover; 112 pages; $39.95. Loos: DoppelHouse Press; hardcover; 200 pages; $24.95.
Barbara Lamprecht, M.Arch., is a Neutra scholar, writer, and qualified architectural historian specializing in Modern buildings