Adolf Loos and Auguste Perret were born only a few years apart——Loos in 1870, Perret in 1874. Both men were the sons of stonemasons, and both belonged to the generation of European architects that emerged around the turn of the century, entering into the profession without having completed their formal university education. Both also relied on new structural technologies——in particular, the concrete frame——in the realization of their key buildings. And both retained a fealty to classicism, an ideological position that, in the years after World War I, would distance them from the discourses then shaping modern architecture.
It is tempting to suggest that Perret was the Parisian Loos——or that Loos was the Viennese Perret——but, in fact, the comparison masks salient and important differences——differences that reach into the core of what each architect believed about the meanings and methods of building. Despite his broad philosophical view, Perret was first and foremost a constructeur: especially in his later years, he became increasingly fixated on the principles of structure and construction he had imbibed from his father and other teachers. He was heir to the grand tradition of French rationalism, of Eugèène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Julien Guadet, and Auguste Choisy, and of the precepts of structural logic they professed. Perret's aesthetic was a plea for tectonic refinement, material honesty, and meticulous execution.
Loos shared Perret's respect for the material substance of building, but he regarded the constructive aspect of his work as secondary. Foremost for him was always the question of how to fashion affective space——to evoke a particular mood or impression. Even while he employed the newest methods of building, he endeavored to remain free of structural restraints, often cladding or concealing the constituent elements of his work according to Semperian reasoning, which stressed surface over construction. He always sought the most economical constructive solution, not the most elegant or unalloyed one. Indeed, Loos's practice of mixing reinforced concrete piers, floors, and ceilings with load-bearing brick walls in his houses was born of expediency, not theoretical imperative. Loos was also content at times to be deceptive about the true nature of his constructive practices. The four great Doric columns that frame the entrance of the Goldman & Salatsch Building on the Michaelerplatz in Vienna (1909––11), for example, carry no weight at all (the concrete lintel above, which is tied into a reinforced truss system, is self-supporting), an idea that would have been repellent to Perret.
Perret and Loos also drew very different lessons from the legacy of classicism. In Perret's rigorously disciplined architecture, his application of classical columns, entablatures, and moldings serves to articulate and render the structure legible. The purpose of such elaboration, he contended in Contribution àà une thééorie de l'architecture in the early 1950s, was to leave an impression of unity and permanence, not to arouse the emotions.1 Loos, on the other hand, believed that the language of Western classicism, "which can no longer simply be eradicated from man's mind," still had the power to stir an emotional response, to evoke a feeling of reverence and a connection with the historical past.2 His application of classical elements was intended not to express tectonic relationships, but to contribute an impression of grandeur and refinement.
What the two architects share——beyond the superficial similarities in their biographies——is that they have often been poorly served by later historians. In the end, Perret's architecture was not merely an exercise in the possibilities of reinforced concrete, and the persistence of historical forms in his work was never the outcome of a stubborn nostalgia but of an effort to introduce an impression of timelessness. For his part, Loos, for all the stridency of his texts, was not, as is so frequently alleged, a modern-day Savonarola seeking to banish all ornament——only the ornament that no longer had purpose or meaning.3
These two books are contributions to a more refined understanding of their subjects, and both offer nuanced and intelligent assessments. Christian Freigang, who is professor of art history at the University of Frankfurt, wrote his study of Perret as a Habilitationsschrift, a fact that is clearly evident in the text's thoroughness and density. His intention, he explains at the outset, was to put Perret back into context, to examine the ways in which his work and ideas reflected the larger trends in French building in the period between the turn of the century and 1930. Freigang chose the 1930 cutoff date, he tells us, because although Perret continued to be active until his death in 1954, his thinking and practice evolved little after this time.
The book is divided into two parts: the first explores Perret's early architecture, before the First World War, the second, that of the 1920s. The first section is largely devoted to Perret's signal prewar work, the Thééââtre des Champs-Elyséées (1911––13). The building, much like Loos's Haus am Michaelerplatz, amounted to a debut of his mature principles——the first of his designs to merge the two main components of his later architecture, the constructive and the classical. The initial reactions to the theater were mostly negative. One critic referred to it as "the Zeppelin of the Avenue Montaigne," and another characterized it as "Munichois"——both referring, pejoratively, to its supposed German influences.
But Freigang notes that there were also commentators who saw in the design the glimmers of a return to French tradition, to the nation's long embrace of the form-language of Western antiquity. He points out that there was a strong political undercurrent to this assessment——that recognizable in the writings of most of those who favored the design was a strong whiff of anti-republicanism. For the political right in France, weary of eclecticism and the experiments with modernism, the theater established a possible connection to the Ancien Regime, to harmonious composition both in architecture and the social order. Perret's theater and his later works were central to a conservative revolution then sweeping French culture and politics.
The second and much shorter section of the book focuses on Norte Dame de la Consolation, in the Paris suburb of Le Raincy (1922––23). The church, built to commemorate those who had fallen in the war, especially the battle of Ourcq in September 1914, is a potent statement of Perret's ideas and aspirations. Although built simply and economically, it is among the best examples of Perret's ambition to make reinforced concrete aesthetically expressive. Freigang, however, emphasizes the important role the church's design played in postwar discussions in France concerning the renewal of Catholicism——the renouveau catholique——and Perret's efforts to forge a great synthesis of the two principal currents in the history of French building, the classical and the Gothic. Once more, contemporary observers saw in Perret's church a striving for continuity, "which is why," Freigang writes, even though Perret himself remained mostly above the political fray, "to a growing degree since the beginning of the 1920s [he] was acclaimed as the main exponent of a 'conservative' nationalist modern movement, which was understood as an opposing position to an 'international'…… 'bolshevist' modernism" (345). As a result, Freigang suggests, Perret's architecture cannot be interpreted merely through an examination of its structural features; the full meanings of his ideas and his buildings only begin to emerge if one grasps their deeper political and cultural substance.
One might make the same claim for Loos. Too often lost in the discussions about Loos and his work is the extent to which politics occupied a leading part in his activities. Loos was not only a cultural critic, but a vocal political one, even if his aims were sometimes veiled with satire or references to quotidian issues. His decision to leave Vienna for Paris in the summer of 1924, as Ralf Bock notes in Adolf Loos: Works and Projects, was not the result of "an architectural or design question, but a social, democratic" one (19). In the years after the war, Loos, in his position as head of the city building office, had pushed hard for the erection of private houses with gardens, which he thought would present individual families with greater freedom and protect them from economic crises and food shortages. The socialist municipal authorities, however, decided to launch an ambitious program to build high-density housing blocks. Loos, in disgust, resigned his position and left the city.
But Bock, who is a practicing architect in Vienna, is much less concerned with such questions than he is with the impact of Loos's spaces. With the French photographer Philippe Ruault, who supplied the marvelous color images for this book, he visited many of Loos's houses and buildings. "We were," Bock writes, "repeatedly fascinated by the spatial effect and atmosphere, which seized and emotionally affected us even 80 to 90 years after their realization. We were both surprised because the rooms were much more up-to-date and more alive than in the black-and-white archival photographs we had seen" (9).
Prior to his work on this book, Bock was not a Loos expert, and although his text offers a very good synthesis of Loos's ideas, it adds little that is new. Yet, by hewing very close to Loos's own statements and presenting his own sensitive examination of Loos's surviving works, he offers an accurate and keen reading.
The real import of this book, however, resides in its stunning new color photography. Ruault worked without any form of artificial lighting. He shows an acute understanding of how to translate Loos's often "difficult" spaces into two-dimensional images. His photos convey surprisingly well the mood and experience of Loos's interiors, their characteristic fusing of elegance and casual comfort. Not since Martin Gerlach photographed Loos's buildings for Heinrich Kulka's book Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten, in 1930, have such powerful and useful images of his interiors been presented.4
More than half of Bock's book is given over to a documentation of Loos's works. The presentation is neither complete (only thirty buildings or interiors are included) nor does it contain anything resembling the extensive history and description of his oeuvre found in Burkhart Rukschcio and Roland Schachel's Adolf Loos: Leben und Werk.5 But it does include clear, scaled plans, sections, and elevations, redrawn by Irene Ciampi and Thijs Pulles, that can be matched to the photographs, allowing readers to come away with a good sense of the spatial sequences of many of Loos's most important works.
Both books offer us a more lucid view of their subjects, albeit in different ways. The great virtue of Christian Freigang's study rests with his meticulous reading of the French debates in the years before and after the Great War, and his ability to place Perret in his time. The result is a view of Perret not as a mere structural rationalist or as a failed modernist, but a complex figure in a complex context. The one-dimensional architect of most architectural history surveys fades away here entirely. Ralf Bock's reading of Loos and his work, though brief, is faithful and perceptive, and the book's documentation will be very helpful to those seeking a better understanding of his buildings.
Auguste Perret, Contribution àà une thééorie de l'architecture (Paris: Cercle d'etudes architecturales, 1952).
Adolf Loos, "Kunstgewerbliche Rundschau I," originally published in Die Wage (1897), reprinted in Adolf Loos, Ins Leere geschprochen 1897––1900 (Paris and Zurich: ÉÉditions Georges Crèès et Cie, 1921), 24.
See, for example, Loos's response to a query about his views on ornament originally published in the Czech journal Náášš smeěěr in 1924: "Ornament und erziehung: Antwort auf eine rundfrage," reprinted in Adolf Loos, Trotzdem 1900––1930 (Innsbruck: Brenner-Verlag, 1931): 198––205.
Heinrich Kulka, Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten (Vienna: Verlag von Anton Schroll & Co., 1931).
Burkhart Rukschcio and Roland Schachel, Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten (Salzburg and Vienna: Residenz Verlag, 1982).