September 27, 2017 | Author: Haşim Ari Demir | Category: Theodor W. Adorno, Ornament (Art), Aesthetics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Dialectic
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Adorno’s Reception of Loos. Modern Architecture, Aesthetic Theory, and the Critique of Ornament Daniel Sherer In Walter Benjamin’s essay on Karl Kraus (1931) Adolf Loos is given the role of “comrade in arms” to the Viennese satirist and moral thinker. Benjamin observes that just as Loos’ sought to separate the work of art from objects of daily use, so too Kraus maintained a distance between the spheres of art and information. Benjamin elaborates: “in his heart, the hack journalist is at one with the ornamentalist.” Apart from these cursory, and on the whole, rather understated observations, and a brief quotation of Loos at the end of the essay stressing the noble, human and wholly natural character of a mode of work that consists entirely of destruction, quite illuminating when applied to Kraus, Benjamin’s assessment of the Viennese architect and critic is incidental to the main thrust of his analysis, whose primary subject is the philosophy of language of Kraus the apocalyptic satirist. Although Loos and Kraus are seen as offering a genuine parallel, it is evident that any discussion of Loos could be dispensed with without compromising the argument. And although this parallel situates the satirist and the architect/theorist within a specific cultural field--early 20th century Vienna seen as an artistic laboratory for the modern era--at least as far as Benjamin is concerned, the supporting role that Loos is given can be seen as symptomatic. It shows above all that Loos was not a central figure in Benjamin’s cultural universe, even if in a subsequent essay, “Experience and Poverty” (1933), he is cast as a forerunner of modern architecture and as an epitome of modernist sensibility. Loos was of greater interest to Adorno, who explored the aesthetic implications of the Viennese architect’s critique of ornament in his essay “Functionalism Today” and in important passages in the Aesthetic Theory in addition to a number of other texts. It is surprising, therefore,


to find that in contrast to Benjamin’s interpretation of Loos, scholarly discussion of Adorno’s reading of this protagonist of modern architecture and thought is far from extensive. In what follows I shall attempt to fill in this lacuna by examining some aspects of the reception of Loos in Adorno’s aesthetic theory that have not received the attention they deserve. Loos, in fact, was a decisive point of reference for Adorno: his cultural criticism shaped Adorno’s approach to modern architecture and to questions of ornament from the mid to late 1960’s, even if the roots of his interest in Loos date back to the mid-1920’s when Adorno studied composition in Vienna with Alban Berg. More specifically, Loos’s anti-ornament polemic provided an important critical premise for Adorno’s reflections on the dichotomy of function and form, an aspect of aesthetic experience that proved to be equally significant for his theory of art, his critique of modern architecture, and his evolving understanding of the relation of technological development to the ideology of progress. Although Adorno adopted crucial dimensions of Loos’ position, he also reframed Loos’s views on ornament historically and critically, subsuming them within an argument that differs in key respects from Loos’s own. Vienna and Echternach: Ornament and the Dialectic of Progress In both the 1965 essay, “Functionalism Today” and in the Aesthetic Theory of 1969 Loos’s exposé of ornament is presented as an epitome of modern critical discourse and as a turning point in the historical unfolding of a form of cultural criticism which Adorno himself inherited. As far as architecture is concerned, the most salient point of critical engagement for Adorno is with the concept of functionalism. To the extent that Adorno considered ornament to be an obstacle to the clear articulation of function in accordance with Loos’ critical stance, he too was obliged to regard its removal as progressive and, in many ways, a necessary step.


But in Adorno, as in Loos, things are never that simple, in the first instance because of the former’s propensity to read Hegel against the grain: no teleology of any kind is available to the negative dialectician who takes his critical task seriously, which, among other things, presupposes the rejection of all closed systems. A crucial aspect of this task is to expose the ideological deceptions and false alternatives traditionally used to buttress the aesthetic domain--in short, to probe the shaky foundations on which the house of culture is built. Combining, in dialectical fashion, sociological considerations and an immanent aesthetic standpoint, Adorno, in the Aesthetic Theory, was the first to recognize that a basic presupposition of the aesthetic system constructed by Hegel, the idea of an ever closer approximation to metaphysical truth effected by artistic progress as art is “sublated” into philosophy--the famous Hegelian “death of art”—becomes questionable, and even absurd, at a moment, such as our own, when modern art enters a historical phase in which it is obliged to face the consequences of universal regression. In Minima Moralia the idea of political and social progress fares no better: in that text the march of the Hegelian World Spirit is derisively contrasted to the Echternachtertanz, a folkdance in the village of Echternach in Luxemburg in which the dancers move one step forward,

then two steps back. As this example suggests, whatever remains truly progressive in the idea of progress is always open to radical qualification for Adorno, whose reputation for cultural pessimism is well-deserved. Yet it is also true that this dimension of his thought sets the stage, dialectically speaking, for the simultaneous unfolding of a politics and theory of hope (or rather “hope against hope”). From this perspective real progress would involve humanity coming to know itself and its actual circumstances. In his lectures of 1964-65 titled “History and Freedom” Adorno makes the following paradoxical observation: “progress means escaping from the magic spell, including the spell of progress that is itself nature. This happens when human beings become


conscious of their own naturalness and call a halt to their own domination of nature, a domination by means of which nature’s own domination is perpetuated. In this sense, we might say that progress occurs when it comes to an end.” It is precisely in relation to this constitutive aporia of progress that Adorno’s theoretical project and Loos’s cultural criticism present as many differences as affinities. Adorno once trenchantly observed that from the slingshot to the atom bomb there is progress but that no corresponding progress in the moral sphere could offset the unspeakable horror perpetrated by technical advance pursued for its own sake. Yet for Loos, whose journal Das Andere carried the subtitle A Journal for the Introduction of Western Culture into Austria, the theme of progress was highly actual, if always presented in an ironic light that accentuates it cultural relativity. At the same time Loos was hardly indifferent to the benefits of technological progress, as is clear from his enthusiasm for English plumbing and his staunch Americanism. In part the difference between their respective stances, which is both very real and in some ways quite subtle, is due to the fact that Loos belonged to the preceding generation (Loos was born in 1870, Adorno in 1901). Adorno lived through World War II, while Loos did not: Loos died in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. “Progress” had a bitter ring for Adorno, who surveyed the ruins of global war and its unspeakable aftermath: he famously observed that poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. The points of tangency between their views of progress are thus colored by a considerable divergence of experience, which only makes Adorno’s return to Loos towards the end of his life all the more intriguing. Like many of his contemporaries, Loos moves from the assumption that the trajectory of modern culture follows an evolutionary path privileging progress on the technological front as well as within the sphere of everyday life, its utilitarian objects, codes of dress, and


techniques of the body. In this sense, technological progress in particular and its more broadly understood (albeit partly questionable) corollary of “cultural progress” in general are closely linked. Yet, unlike many of his contemporaries, Loos did not grasp any form of progress from a unilinear perspective. Modernity, from this standpoint, “is synonymous with the actuality of tradition. This actuality, however, is very specific, because one can no longer talk of an uninterrupted continuity in tradition. Economic developments and progress have led to a rupture in the organic relationship that existed between individuals and their culture.” For Loos, forward and backward were not mutually exclusive alternatives: in his view multiple cultural levels and temporalities can coexist or collide in a single historical moment, often with incongruous consequences. As a result, past and present interpenetrate in his work. Spatially this fusion of opposites found its most characteristic expression in the Raumplan and in the allied contrast, in reality a dialectical continuity, between the stripped exteriors of Loos’s houses and the layered complexity and luxurious cladding of their interiors. Ornament and the Rhythms of History From this nuanced temporal and spatial perspective ornament is permissible in the countryside while being anathema in the city. It is one measure of the complexity of Loos’ position that he did not reject ornament per se, as many critics and historians have erroneously assumed. Like other perceptive intellectuals of the finis Austriae--here one is reminded of the carefully choreographed alternation between urban and rural forms of life in Musil’s Man Without Qualities, or the stark contrast between lilting folk melodies and the harsh sounds associated with the modern city and industrialization in Mahler’s symphonies and tone poems--Loos noted that time moved more slowly in the provinces than in the Imperial capital. Loos argued that ornament, as a privileged repository of


the formal and erotic impulses of bygone eras, should not be totally repudiated. Here it is not so much a question of seeing Loos as that most paradoxical of men, the “radical conservative” or intellectual splitpersonality, but of recognizing something more historically attuned in his critical attitude: an insight into the internal contradictions of AustroHungarian culture. In this regard Loos did not only understand that ornament is subject to variable historical rhythms, but also maintained that to fall out of step with these rhythms can have a deleterious effect. Given the rootlessness of the inhabitant of the modern metropolis, in Loos’ view it would be intellectually dishonest as well as economically wasteful to pursue a program of ornamentation in the city. This, among other reasons, is why Loos’s critique hit its mark: in the twentiethcentury Grosstadt technical efficiency, the social consequences of industrialization and the functional optimization effected by the removal of ornament reflect a conception of culture that is more modern than the prevalent one in Austria at the time, in which the self-conscious artiness of the Sezession and Wiener Werkstatte was the dominant feature. Along with Alois Riegl (Stilfragen, 1893) and other protagonists of the Vienna School of art history, Loos was among the first to recognize that the differentiated temporality of ornament complements its ordering of space and its rhythmic articulation of architectural form. This temporality is at once experiential and historical. It is no accident that Loos compared a jaunt in the Austrian countryside to a journey back in time to the great ethnic displacements that marked the end of the Roman Empire, which may be an implicit citation of another book of Riegl’s, Spätrömisches Kunstindustrie (1901), published seven years before Ornament and Crime. Yet this aperçu, whose wit is only matched by its profundity, is also inscribed in the same general context as the ironic citations of Darwin and Haeckel that Loos used to associate the newborn’s sensorium first with that of a puppy, then with that of an ape, and finally with that of a budding Voltaire who presumably is more culturally advanced than the protagonists of the Sezession. Pursuing the


same transhistorical logic from a different angle, Loos elaborated an accelerated, and as it were, streamlined vision of classical tradition that makes it look strikingly modern. A similar approach is evident in his entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition, in which Louis Sullivan’s comparison of the modern skyscraper and the classical column achieves an ironic apotheosis, and in his quip that if the ancient Greeks had bicycles, they would have looked like ours, unencumbered by any surfeit of ornament. In Ornament and Crime Loos offers a polemical account of ornament that is buttressed by a succint history of what Norbert Elias has called the civilizing process. This is evident above all from such lapidary statements as “the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from objects of daily use” but also from the extension of the argument to architecture and clothing. The thematic, “ornament and its vicissitudes’’, once illuminated in its historical complexities through the merciless application of the blade of critique, revealed itself to be, at a deeper level, the history of man’s attempt to free himself of phobias and anxieties, leaving him ready, if not always willing, to confront the unadorned void. This void was modern architecture in its most fundamental condition. Ornament’s history is, according to Loos, basically the history of its removal: a normative, as well as empirical history, highly significant for the unfolding of modernity. What remains of ornament is atavistic, the sign of a retrograde condition in the city and of an earlier era in the country. In this last context it deserves all due respect: yet it has no place in the modern metropolis, which for Loos could be classical, to be sure, but without external decoration, either as singular detail or more integral component of a formal language. Ornament vs. Function Yet what precisely, in Adorno’s view, connects the removal of ornament from architecture and objects of daily use to the modern ideal of


functional optimization? And how does his attitude towards ornament relate to Loos’s position in Ornament and Crime? To answer these questions it is necessary to analyze the argument put forward in “Functionalism Today” before turning to the reading of Loos that appears in the Aesthetic Theory. Loos makes his first appearance in the essay hard on the heels of an anecdote about the perceived superfluousness of ornament in music. This is illustrated by Mozart’s response to a philistine member of the Austrian royal family who had complained that there were too many notes in the overture to the Abduction from the Seraglio. “Not one that is not necessary” was the composer’s prompt reply. With architecture things are not all that different. It would be just as philistine to condemn Baroque architecture (and art) for its ornamental excess as it would be to criticize Mozart’s overture for its potent flourishes, which, far from being extraneous, were part of the immanent logic of the composition. Adorno points out that this is due to a fact that Loos understood better than anybody: that criticism of ornament means no more than criticism of that which has lost its functional and symbolic significance. In this respect ornament is imbued with a historicity that cannot be gainsaid. On the one hand, “the difference between the necessary and the superfluous is inherent in a work, and is not defined by the works’s relationship—or the lack of it—to anything external to itself.” On the other hand, the criteria governing this difference undergo numerous modifications in accordance with the stylistic shifts and continuities that shape the history of art. In fact, a double historicity informs the argument put forward by Adorno at this point, as a consequence of the way he reframes Loos’s insights by assigning them to the early period of functionalism. He associates this period with Peter Altenberg in literature, most probably because of the minimalist drive to aphoristic concentration of this author, and with Le Corbusier in architecture, who famously championed Loos’s “Homeric cleansing” of the discipline.


Adorno situates historically between these two figures, and this gives his discourse a specific critical role and function that allows it to move beyond Ruskin and William Morris, critics whose insights he clearly drew upon. A significant turning point in Adorno’s analysis of the relationship of ornament and function can be seen in the historical transformation of ornament that took place in the period from Ruskin to Loos. This period is pivotal for the emergence of a modern aesthetic insofar as it was then that a revolt occurred, already found in Semper’s critique of the Great Exhibition in London of 1851, attacking mass-produced articles of use. All of these items were“pseudo-individualized”, as Adorno puts it, referring to the universe of kitsch objects as a parody, conscious or not, of the universe of genuinely individualized craft objects it supplanted. Yet as Adorno points out, even Loos noted the inadequacy on the purely aesthetic level of any return to craft inspired by such vague conceptions as Kunstwollen, will to form, Gestaltung or Stilisierung propounded in such diverse cultural arenas as the Vienna School of Art History, the Werkbund, and the Arts and Crafts Movement. While agreeing in a general way with Loos’s critique of mass production, Adorno singles out a specific argument that develops one of Loos’s most profound insights into the modern dialectic of ornament and function. Loos realized that utilitarian objects lose their meaning once they are disengaged from contexts in which their adherence to established functional codes was obligatory. In other words, the point at which useful objects are no longer useful is when their historically conditioned function expires. At this point they are no longer beautiful either. In this respect the super-added, and therefore highly artificial art of practical objects becomes a source of the pervasive ugliness of massproduced objects. The ugliness in question is only compounded by the fact that even the practical reorientation of the originally functionless art of the same era is driven into the clutches of the profit-motive. Contrary


to this tendency, and endorsing a course of action that was at least partly inspired by Ruskin, Loos called for a renewal of genuine craft production. This renewal would be integrated within the universe of modern technical development without having to borrow stylized forms —in a word, obsolete forms of ornament--from art. Aesthetic Identity, Abstraction, and Mimesis It is with reference to the opposition of ornament and function that Adorno’s account of the historical logic of ornament in “Functionalism Today” intersects the theory of ornament put forward in the Aesthetic Theory. In both texts, there is a recognition that the moment one succumbs to the restorative ideal, one falls—even in a mind as vigilant and critical as Loos’s—into a nostalgia for the superior aesthetic quality of the ostensibly nonaestheticized, purely functional object. In this sense the claims that Loos advanced for a functional aesthetic suffered, according to Adorno, from too simple an antithesis. Indeed, when dealing with these claims a wider problematic is involved which falls under the rubric of what Adorno called “the obsolescence of traditional aesthetics.” In his view, it is owing to the radical transformation of aesthetic categories that is a hallmark of modernity--a general shift that affected not only the traditional dichotomy of ornament vs. function but also the allied oppositions of form vs. content, beauty vs. ugliness and completeness vs. fragmentation--that an unprecedented conception of aesthetic construction arose that makes Loos’ opposition between functional and ornamental seem undialectical. This conception presupposes the assertion of a critical role for art in modern society. The argument Adorno puts forward for this role--one of the principal themes of the Aesthetic Theory-- is based on the inner dialectic of social reality and aesthetic identity. The latter refers to the integrity of the modern art work, which Adorno contrasts to subjective


identity. For Adorno a fake identity is foisted onto the subject everywhere in the modern world; the modern work of art in its identity and integrity offers critical resistance to this process of ideological conformism and cultural homogenization. As he puts it “aesthetic identity is different [from false subjective identity] in one important respect: it is meant to assist the non-identical in its struggle against the repressive identification compulsion that rules the outside world.”. Aesthetic identity is moreover intimately bound up with what Adorno calls the inherent functionality of art, which is synonymous with its social function. This idea of function dialectically appropriates the conformist principle of sese conservare, i.e., the drive to self-preservation, and turns this principle against the fetishization of identity that pervades modern society. Abstraction enters the argument both as corollary and as consequence of the thesis of aesthetic identity, which is not “identitarian” but rather corrodes the fake identity of subjects in its refusal of mimesis. Yet far from implying any direct equivalence between artistic mimesis and subjective identity, Adorno argues for modern art’s capacity to offer a critical model of non-identity in its embrace of abstract negativity. In his view, the latter provides a cultural precondition for alternate readings of the subject to emerge. In this sense, too, the paradox that “art’s function is to have no function” joins forces with its apparent, though not actual, counterthesis, that art’s most significant function in the modern world is critical. Art, from this perspective, becomes society’s social antithesis. From this perspective ornament has a double role. Impeding the modernist impulse to reduce architecture to its essentials, it can be seen as an obstacle to the optimization of function-as-program. On the other hand, in specific contexts of modern art (literary, musical, as well as visual) such as the highly stylized language of Joyce’s Ulysses, ornament has a critical purpose, and in this respect, an anti-ideological function. Clearly the concept of function (which always has something of a


sociological overtone for Adorno) assumes different valences when he is dealing with art and culture in general as opposed to architecture in particular. One can say, then, that Adorno only partly accepts Loos’ critique of ornament as impediment to function. Since for Adorno art is both a social fact (in Durkheim’s sense) and a relatively autonomous entity, art’s non-mimetic, abstract dimension--the one that would seem to be most clearly opposed to the ornamental impulse--stands the best chance of enabling the work to break free from the tyranny of the real. Needless to say, the mimetic capacity becomes even more evident in those situations when primitive forms of ornament such as tattoing and graffiti are stressed at the expense of the more sublimated and abstract forms typical of the Jugendstil and Sezession. Loos’s failure to distinguish adequately between abstract and mimetic forms of ornament is one of the reasons why Adorno saw him as falling short when discussing the complex relationship between the transgression of social and legal norms that falls under the category of “crime” and the atavistic return to ornament. Adorno observed in this regard: “He [Loos] seems to see in ornament the mimetic impulse, which runs contrary to rational objectification; he sees in it an expression which, even in sadness and lament, is related to the pleasure principle. Arguing from this principle, one must accept that there is a factor of expression in every object.” In this way Adorno, though appreciative of the assault on all forms of kitsch, especially of the Viennese variety, inherent in Loos’ anti-ornament polemic, discerns a puritanical tendency at work in its broad sphere of application. At the same time it is worth focussing on the wider implications of Loos’s emphasis on the mimetic aspect of ornament. In this respect ornament offers incriminating evidence of cultural regression. Adorno thinks that in assigning it this role, Loos goes too far. Indeed one may well ask why Loos projected something as seemingly innocuous as ornament onto something so apparently remote from ornament as


criminal activity. One plausible answer lies in Loos’s specific critical purpose: to reveal the underlying assumptions of ornament as a universal cultural phenomenon, modulated in its various manifestations according to diverse historical circumstances. At the same time, for Loos, it is necessary to recognize that the domains of ornament and crime are not totally distinct. He seems to have realized that the strange sensation of horror vacui is, in the case of ornament, that which abhors ambivalence. One might even say that the power of ornament is caught up at some level with the attempt to ward off danger, and therefore constitutes a kind of apotropaic activity. Ornament and crime would thus be linked for Loos not only by the pleasure principle, as Adorno asserts, but by an archaic fear of the unknown. Loos was aware of this aspect of ornament in connection with the idea of the mask and its inherent relation to cladding, even if it gets somewhat obscured by his interest in the erotic associations of ornamenting the body as well as the surfaces of the world in general. Adorno observed, in what is probably his most incisive critique of Loos’ position, that “that art aspires to autonomy does not mean that it unconditionally purges itself of ornamental elements: the very existence of art, judged by the criteria of the practical, is ornamental.” Apotropaic, magical, practices, as strange as this may seem to “modern” ears, were in fact eminently practical in many so-called primitive societies: in this regard what Loos condemns as impractical excess actually had, at the “origins” of ornamental formalization, a specific purpose, which Adorno calls “psychological” in that they fused symbolic, mimetic/expressive, as well as specifically utilitarian purposes. Art, in fact, is the heir of such cultic practices. In light of this observation Adorno’s critique acquires a new significance which is summed up in an insight that stands at its heart: “If Loos’ critique of ornament had been


rigidly consistent, he would have had to extend it to all of art. To his credit, he stopped before reaching that conclusion.” Adorno pointed this out in full awareness of the historicity of the ornament/crime analogy put forward by Loos while being equally conscious of the link between transgression and modern art that was obvious to anyone who lived through the turbulent historical period he had experienced first-hand. Architectural Ornament and the Aesthetic Moment of Schein Yet for Adorno, it is not so much the ornament/crime nexus which is at stake but rather the art/society nexus, the mediating term being the effect of ideological delusion. In this regard, at least in one of its moments, art wards off delusion, taking the form of critique, or assimilating it. This is the case even if a crucial aspect of modern art is to bring about, through Schein, the mobilization of appearances. Art contains within itself a tendency, reactionary in the extreme, to further the effects of mass deception by promoting the spread of the ideological principle as such. Yet it also contains a countertendency that seeks to expose the deception. The modern aesthetic field per se is thus a battleground between critique and ideology for Adorno: and as with every battleground, the outcome of what occurs on it can never be taken for granted. In his view, as in Loos’, one of the chief vehicles of regressive ideology is precisely the drive to cover surfaces with superfluous decoration. On the other hand, certain aspects of the modern art work—as already mentioned, the overt stylization of language in Joyce’s Ulysses--disclose an inner affinity with ornament, since the idea of a work in progress, or of a perpetually incomplete form of artistic action, has a deep point of contact with apparently anachronistic decorative impulses. Ornament, in this respect, cannot be invented, as Loos once remarked. Adorno thought that the remark should be generalized, since if ornament has no beginning, it implies a model of artistic production that has no end


either. This model operates in accordance with a logic of formal continuity manifest above all in its original cultural contexts. In these contexts, ornament arises organically from its social matrix, and is not authored by a single artist but contains a collective dimension intimately within its structure. At specific historical moments of art, as for instance in certain tendencies of Baroque art which Adorno calls decorazione assoluta, the modern critique of ornament, by which is almost certainly meant Loos though Loos is not named, is at once “anticipated and undercut” since the function of this pure excess, of this tendency to absolute formalization, is theatrical in nature, and hence in a certain way follows a social functionality its own. Here it is perhaps relevant to recall that Loos admired certain Baroque architects, especially Johann Fischer von Erlach: another instance of the multifaceted aesthetic sensibility of Loos, whose critique of ornament should not be read as repudiating ornament per se, but simply specific abuses of it, that Adorno seems to have taken further than Loos himself. On the other hard, it is interesting to note that Adorno, in his late essay of 1963 on the linkages between the musical, artistic and architectural avant-gardes in Vienna, underscored the link between the Loos’ aesthetic views and “ascetic elements” of the earlier Viennese Baroque, which he correctly pointed out, have yet to be fully investigated. Architecture, the only art form that is intrinsically connected with that which is not art, i.e., function in the sense of “program”, occupies a special position in Adorno’s dialectical reading of the collective dimension of art and its theoretical corollary, a partial or relative autonomy. Here artistic function and architectural function must be carefully distinguished: for as we recall, the function of art for Adorno is both social and critical, to break with regressive identity in the subject, whereas in the sphere of architecture function desigantes simply the non-formal, programmatic aspect as such. Architectural function and


ornament are therefore antithetical—but so are architectural function and form (even if the “aesthetic identity” of art which is key to its social function is in its way equivalent to form). Just as the relationship between ornament and crime, for Loos, is one of historical complementarity rather than of strict identification, so too the relationship between functionalism and the social determination of architectural form, for Adorno, is partial rather than total. The aspect of form which effectively escapes such determination, even as it registers it visually on the surface, is the Schein of decorative schemes, the ornamental pattern itself. It remains an open question as to whether architectural stylization--i.e. the Schein embodied in ornament-- could have a critical effect, though this would seem to be a dubious proposition given Adorno’s rejection of the restorative aspect of Loos’ emphasis on handicraft. Since Adorno never discusses Loos’s architecture, this hypothetical extension of a critical role for ornament cannot be verified by this sector of Loos’ output: yet from what we know of Adorno’s critique of certain forms of modernist domestic architecture in Minima Moralia—where he condemns, on the one hand, “living cases manufactured for philistines by experts,” and on the other “factory sites that have strayed into the consumption sphere”, it seems plausible to suggest that Loos as architect might have been spared the Adornian critical scalpel—or he might not have. In any case Adorno paid very little attention to the interior of Loos’s villas. Significantly, he observes that Loos’s criticism, but not his architecture, “like so much bourgeois critique of culture,” is characterized by an “intersection of two fundamental directions.” On the one hand, Loos realized “that this culture is not all that cultural.” On the other, “he felt a deep animosity towards culture in general, which called for the prohibition of any superficial veneer, but also of soft and smooth touches. In this he disregarded the fact that culture is not the place for


untamed nature, nor for a merciless domination over nature. It could not longer inflict on men—whom it supposedly upheld as the only measure-- the sadistic blows of sharp edges, bare calculated rooms, stairways, and the like.” Here Adorno seems to lump together Loos’ anti-ornament critique and subsequent functionalist dogma. If anyone is disgegarding anything here, it is Adorno who fails to mention the often sumptuous interiors of the Raumplan, which can in fact be quite soft to the touch (especially in the bedroom areas), and the welcoming, sheltering complexity of the inserted stairs, which serve as eloquent counterparts to the inglenooks in Loosian domestic space. At most one can say Adorno may have judged (or misjudged) Loos’s architecture, if he looked at it all, from outward appearances, ie. in terms of the austere treatment of the exteriors. Although Adorno never explicitly says so, it would seem that he takes it for granted that architecture’s Schein offers a partial equivalent to ornament. Remove the ornament and a return to pure architectural function is, on the face of it, not only possible but necessary: and this would seem to be the most effective explanation that one can find for the anticipation of a redeemed social world that the best modern architecture, even the most dogmatically functionalist, contains within itself as a critical potential. The removal of ornament is thus a distinctly redemptive act, but it is certainly not enough. It too is tainted by the ambivalence of a cultural lag, or better, a fundamental disparity between the image of a utopian Versohnung or reconciled world emanating from much of the greatest works of modern architecture, Loos’s included, and the actual sorry state of affairs which goes by the name of modern society. Yet the riven character of Loos’s architecture also tacitly registers the crisis of a culture that is divided from itself, an inner heterogeneity which , as already seen, Adorno overlooked. “Architecture Worthy of Human Beings”


For Adorno, it is likely that modern art will continue to unfold as long as the world is broken and irreconcilable: it would seem, indeed, to have quite a long lease on life under these circumstances. Philosophy, too, lives on since the chance to realize it was missed. And since modern art is often not only imageless in its abstraction, even when it comes closest to conceptual elaboration it is still quite far from being assimilated into the philosophical domain as this is traditionally conceived. Similarly, where some of the greatest art in the modern era is marked by nonconceptual abstraction, which acts as a reminder of the misplaced concreteness of contemporary social relations, at the same historical juncture modern architecture is condemned to await, even as it prefigures, a more ethical humanity which does not yet exist. Or, as Adorno puts it in an unforgettable phrase that captures much of the pathos of modern architecture in general and of Loos’s contribution in particular: “Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are.” The pathos of this thought is linked to a specific tension within modern culture. To be more precise, Adorno, citing the historical dynamic of functionalization inaugurated by Loos’s attack on ornament, argued that the fact that such diverse protagonists of modern architecture as Le Corbusier and Scharoun were unable to build more of their radical ideas stems from an antagonism inherent in modern architecture. This is “a social antagonism over which the greatest architecture has no power: the same society which developed human productive energes to unimaginable proportions has chained them to conditions of production imposed upon them: thus the people in in reality constitute the productive energies become deformed according to the measure of their working conditions. This fundamental contradiction is most clearly visible in architecture. It is just as difficult for architecture to rid itself of the tensions from which this contradiction proceeds as it for the consumer.”


Adorno purues this line of argument further by adding that “things are not universally correct in architecture and universally incorrect in men. Men suffer enough injustice, for their consciousness and unconsciousness are trapped in a state of minority: they have not, so to speak, come of age. This nonage hinders their identification with their own concerns. Because architecture is in fact both autonomous and purpose-oriented it cannot simply negate men as they are. And yet it must do precisely that it if it is to remain autonomous ….” The idea that an architecture worthy of humanity exists, and in so doing prefigures that very humanity whose horizon it evokes but cannot realize, lends Adorno’s reading its theoretical specificity. It enables it to match, and in some cases to supersede, many of Loos’ most penetrating observations on ornament. One might even say that Loos helped Adorno reach a critical point situated beyond the intellectual coordinates of Loos’s polemic both in theoretical and historical terms. Adorno, Loos, and Viennese Modernism As is the case with seminal texts, Loos’s critique of ornament stands at the intersection of a great number of readings, both potential and actual. Adorno’s is among the most significant, despite its total disgregard of the impact of Loos’ theory on his practice. To clarify the implications of this reception one must take into account the incidence of stronger and weaker readings able to bring out latent potentials within a corpus of thought or a given conceptual ensemble. When it came into contact with Adorno’s relentless critical gaze, Loos’ critique of ornament disclosed unexpected theoretical dimensions, clarifying areas of implication and cultural forms that Loos himself never had the opportunity of inclination to explore. To be more specific, Adorno, taking Loos as a point of reference, moved in the direction of an austere aesthetic that was disposed to shun ornament from the outset, preferring Schoenberg to Stravinsky, to


invoke the musical/architectural analogies of which Adorno was so fond. Here it is relevant to recall that Adorno probably first heard of Loos in Vienna in 1924, when he began studying composition with Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg). At the same time, he began to regularly attend the lectures of Karl Kraus, accompanied by Berg himself —an intellectual experience which the young Adorno never forgot and which had a profound impact on his development . It is no exaggeration to say, then, that a significant moment of Adorno’s intellectual formation occurred in the climate of the “apolitical yet culturally radical Vienna of Karl Kraus and the Schoenberg circle”—the same circle in which Loos himself actively participated. This reading casts a prospective light on the late Adorno’s reception of Loos, which from this perspective constitutes something of a return to an earlier cultural matrix. In this connection it is pertinent to recall an observation that Adorno made near the end of his life, which shows that Loos, Schoenberg and Kraus all contributed to the enunciation of a shared critique of ornament with a specific critical function in the universe of European modernity: “…Schoenberg, Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos were of one mind. They were the enemies of the ornamental, the comfortable enjoyment of an art that committed you to nothing, that rlied all too complacently on its own stability while lapsing inexorably into the merely sybaritic. Their polemics were directed at hacks in every realm, not just in journalism, against everyone who offered his own individuality, which was the same as every other, for sale in the marketplace. That complacent conciliatoriness of the Viennese softened the brutal demands of material production and hence created a space in which the intellect could move and thrive. But it also infected it.. This is why true intellect had to rebel and defend itself against the circumstances that had given birth to it.” It is also highly likely that Siegfried Kracauer’s Mass Ornament, which appeared in 1927, though it makes no mention of Loos, and develops a


theory of ornament that is wholly independent of, and in some ways antithetical to, Loos’s own, directed the young Adorno towards readings of modern culture refracted through the lens of a critique of ornament. Yet, whatever its formative factors, one thing is certain: in its ability to bring together diverse realms of cultural expression like music and architecture and to draw cogent theoretical insights from this comprehensive approach, Adorno’s reception of Loos equals in depth and incisiveness Loos’ own confrontation with an architectural culture in the grips of a particularly severe form of decorative corruption affecting all realms of design, clothing and the Lebenswelt. Ornament and its Discontents: Loos and Adornian Kulturkritik Given this complex situation, it is worth emphasizing that Loos was not simply grist for Adorno’s dialectical mill. Instead, Loos expanded the scope of Adorno’s aesthetic theory by framing the problem of modern architecture in a very specific way. The reference to Loos was decisive in that it gave Adornian Kulturkritik a new set of intellectual possibilities underscoring the historicity of ornament by highlighting its internal tension with function. Yet unlike Loos Adorno considered this last concept under diverse theoretical aspects, shifting the center of gravity of the theoretical consideration of ornament away from what he saw as traces of puritan moralism in Loos’ denunciation of decorative excess. Despite--or perhaps precisely because of--the fact that Loos did not construct a systematic aesthetics, but devised a series of aphoristic variations on the theme of the deleterious effects of misplaced ornament, Adorno, in the context of his dialectical aesthetics, felt justified in calling on him as a star witness in the trial against the decorative excesses committed not only in art and architecture, but in the field of language as well. By the same token, Adorno explicitly rejects any kind of dogmatic functionalism. And though they do not agree on every point, Adorno’s account of the historical and aesthetic implications of ornament could not have arisen, or at least would not


have taken the form that it did, without his theoretical assimilation of Loos’s nuanced polemic against the fin-de-siecle “culture of ornament”. This was a critique which, as Adorno was acutely aware, played a decisive role in the emergence of modern architecture. Yet Loos had a proleptic as well as a historical significance for Adorno. This is the case insofar as modern architecture, traversed by a highly differentiated set of utopian and/or reformist impulses, delineates, for Adorno, along with many other modernists who staked their theory and practice on the future, a society worthy of the architecture that prefigures it. In this respect Adorno’s reading of Loos joins forces with a theoretical “parallel action” linking his inquiry back to one of the main sources of Benjamin’s Rettende Kritik: the confrontation with Karl Kraus, who incessantly probed the flaws of the present in the hope that they would disappear in such a way that the negative contours they left behind would set the stage for the society to come. From the redemptive point of view offered by this confrontation, the respective “messages” of Kraus, Loos, Benjamin and Adorno form a unique constellation. Although this constellation cannot be said to align their different critical standpoints with an aesthetic purged entirely of ornament, it does indicate a historical horizon in which such an outcome is conceivable, without compromising the specificity of their contributions to the modern debate on the relationship between architecture and culture.


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