Recently, after several contributors to a TradArch discussion of Adolf Loos and his famous building in Vienna, Andres Duany pointed out that the windows in the upper floors don’t align with the building’s ground-floor features. Earlier comments had referred to the lush quality of the marbling on those ground-floor features as amounting to ornament.
And of course it is – notwithstanding that Loos is most famous as the author of Ornament and Crime (1910), a bible of modernist ideology. By the way, the building is on the Michaelerplatz and directly across from the palace of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, Franz Josef, who hated the Looshaus and refused to exit onto the plaza so as to avoid seeing the building. Indeed, as lovely as it might strike us these days compared with most iconic modernism, it is definitely several rungs down from the level of ornamental encrustation of its neighbors.
Anyhow, after Duany’s comment about the window alignment, Joel Pidel wrote the following, which strikes me as a most enchanting classical discourse on a supposedly modernist icon of a building. It is pure wonkitecture – almost archiporn in prose:
Just the in-between windows don’t align. But this “mis-alignment” is not an unusual classical feature, as we’ve pointed out in the past (Pantheon, S. Maria Novella, etc). It gives the elevation some tautness and rhythm by not aligning “everything.” But it needs the points of consonance (alignment at middle and ends) to resolve the “dissonance” or tension created by the intermediary windows not aligning. Especially since there is no intermediary plinth or platform between the upper stuccoed portion of the building and the lower stone portion of the building. Having such a “restated ground” above the entablature would possibly allow even greater flexibility in arrangement of the upper windows if it was desired. And, of course, he does the same pattern of “alignment/misalignment” on the side elevations.
After I asked Joel whether I could post his comment, he added:
Sure. With the caveat that this is with regard to the sliver of Loos’s oeuvre that we are discussing. Loos understood all of this because he was classically trained, and such “deviations” were part of the milieu of that education. The point is that dissonances can’t be arbitrary, but find their meaning subsumed within a greater resolution. Later, Loos deviates more fully from the classicism exhibited in his earlier work.
Personally, I’m no Loos scholar and have only seen his work in Vienna, but I would wager that the disparity between his polemic and his built work is simply the result of a call for something that he himself was not allowed to build at the time (based on his clients’ tastes and civic locations), and thus his work exhibits a gradual evolution and decreased ornament, in line with his polemic, as the taste for greater minimalism and experimentation allowed, particularly outside of civic contexts.
Below is a link to a column I wrote on a visit to Vienna, during which, much to my later chagrin, I forgot to go see the Looshaus.