Loos and Wright: Early Modernisms

An assignment for an architectural history class at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Todd Gannon, 2013

As the Twentieth Century bore into its earlier decades, a definitive vein of architecture began to emerge from the quotidian tendencies of the prior centuries. Distinctive rejections of outdated assumptions began to supplant themselves into the built ethos of the times. While this eventually coalesced into the recognizably Modernist works of the later decades, a great deal can be formed from the comprehensive comparison of Early Modernist exemplars, particularly in their explorations of varied expressions of the investigative characteristics which would come to define the movement. To approach this internal investigation of Modernism’s roots, it proves particularly profitable to evaluate in comparative juxtaposition Adolf Loos’ Villa Müller and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin House, respectively in Prague and Buffalo, because, although both hold key tenants of the emerging style, each distinctly presents unique solutions to design imperatives. For example, while the Villa Müller modulates small autonomous spaces, the Martin House attempts to blend nearly all programmatic regions into one volume delineated among a series of planes. These contradictions between the proposals allow their dialectic comparison, summoning forth an idiosyncratic comprehension of Early Modernism’s variability.

In this examination, what is perhaps most evident at first gaze across the drawings is the dichotomy between the clearly aggregative nature of the Villa Müller against the unenclosed plateau of the Martin House. Built before the consolidation of Modernism in the forms of both the 1932 exhibition on the International Style at MoMA and the legible repercussions of the CIAM Conferences, only in their infancy at the time, the two differentiations of space set themselves distinctly apart within the heterogeneous atmosphere of Early Modernism. The consequences of these actions help to further the girth of the void by which the plans distance themselves conceptually. Whereas Loos carefully orchestrates the procession of his building in the tight regulation of circulation (Fig. 2), Lloyd Wright opens the barriers of his program (Fig.1), removing walls to create a continuous flow of space defined more by its formal context than any functional demarcation (Jackson-Forsber 23). To accomplish this, Wright carefully curates his spaces by a methodology entirely different from that of Loos. Thus, the two exert dissimilar characteristics in their minute control of the architecture in each building to the ends that they might be put in opposition by the results of their individual investigations. Loos halts his architecture, for the most part, at the individual room. With the notably fetishistic exception of the panoptic notch for Milada Müller in her eponymous house, in which embedded furniture allowed Loos to carefully detail the space, the overall scheme of the Villa rejects the notion of Gesamtkunstwerk which Lloyd Wright so wholeheartedly takes on. The Martin House instead becomes a tour de force of the architect’s own Prairie Style, attempting great efforts to promote the agenda that follows thereby. While this could be read purely on an aesthetic level, a deeper understanding aids in the heightened differentiation of the architectural philosophies purported by the two houses in review. We must therefore come to view the Prairie Style’s visual appearance as both a heedful interpretation of a functional agenda and a formal response to the American West, at once. In his liberation of the walls from their coincident connections to floors, Wright opens his design to allow a flowing, singular space. On the planes of the American expanse between the Appalachians and the Rockies, the hope rested that a vast horizontality could be engaged, connecting the home to its ecology and to the surrounding context (Rogers). Rested on a hill in the knolled city of Prague, Loos’ Villa Müller desires no such intentions. For it, the horizon took less priority in the formal execution of its architecture, thus shifting the prescribed intentions of its apertures to allow momentary interventions along otherwise starkly white façades. By contrast to Wright’s will in opening the enclosure of his design, Loos resisted the extroversion of his proposal in favor of a mannerly demeanor. Following a strict set of geometrical relations, Loos derived his façade in a manner most appropriate for his architecture, attempting to express neither emotionality nor ornament (Besser 22). Here in, the most basal ontologies by which the two architects derive the forms of their respective designs clearly demonstrate divergent interests in the development of the Early Modern aesthetic, later to be unified and, to some extents, homogenized under the epithet of canonical Modernism prevalent through the subsequent decades.

The highly differentiated approach to the façade of the Villa Müller, by which many small windows become seemingly unified only in their positioning within on an expansive flat plane (until deeper geometrical analysis, at least), continues to the interior. Rather than the agape and flexible methods played by Lloyd Wright, preemptively aiding the production of a Gesamtkunstwerk, the Villa becomes highly subdivided into a series of interlocking rooms organized by a central core of vertical circulation. By opening his space, Lloyd Wright effectively reduces the possibility that his patrons could adhere to their own personal desires in regards to furnishings. His clients were not interested in their authorship over the constant redefinition of the architecturality of this expansive floor plan, thus ceding to Lloyd Wright the ability explicitly define the interior design of the Martin House. In the innumerable possibilities of the open plan, Lloyd Wright gives himself, as the architect and therefor chief orator of the proposal, the implicated power to craft a Gesamtkunstwerk. Notable in this aspect is the repudiation of a designation as Gesamtkunstwerk in the work of Loos through its interior allowance of variously combined elements which were not designed by the architect (Colquhoun 288). Although Loos flexes a significant amount of control and even condescension over the furnishings which would adorn his designs, he resists the precise creation of their interiors beyond basic architectural elements, instead choosing to curate essentials while leaving the further choice of composition to the owners as their relationship with the home evolved (Barnes 11). It comes to considerable interest how both methods allowed for the appropriation of the built and stylistic elements of the time in manners which would come to be grappled with in later iterations of the larger movement as well as overall architectural history. Inasmuch as Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House and the Venturi House tackle the later ramifications of the contemporary ideals and ramifications of the Gesamtkunstwerk in contexts both of and after Modernism, an abutment of the Villa Müller with the Martin House reveals the pretext for their arguments, impositions into the emerging ethos of the aesthetics to follow during the Twentieth Century.

Beyond this theoretical dichotomy presented by the projects, a great deal can be explicated from the formal differentiation in their designs. As aforementioned, circulatory systems form the cornerstone of this comparison in defining both the material and metaphysical essences of the projects. Where the Martin House relies on a horizontally oriented axis running from South to North (Fig. 4), the Villa Müller primarily employs a vertical stairwell directly linked to the entrance from which shoot off a number of interlocked spaces leading upwards (Fig. 3). In the most basic case of these systems, both projects employ a processional logic, a set path curated by the architect. In the Martin House complex, this takes a linear path from the main house to a garage behind. Here, one finds the processional quality in the spaces through which Lloyd Wright pulls the spectator, ultimately questioning the true interiority of the project by only gradually opening the architecture of the walkway. While beginning within the main structure, it soon unwraps to stride between gardens, ultimately terminating at the opposite end of the lot. In so doing, the visitor is taken from a verily interior area, though diluted through the eradication of clearly definitive walls, to a semi-enclosed space and finally a completely natural pasture. By comparison, the Villa Müller takes an approach entirely different when understood formally. Rather than aligning onto axes (other than the main stairwell), the arrangement of spaces lead the visitor from the main entrance to upwards to the roof. This inherently forfeits plan-based comprehension in favor of a wholly spatial organization, outlined as the Raumplan theory by Loos (Jara 185). Not unlike the overall parti of the nearly contemporaneous House for Josephine Baker, Loos’ tactics in the Villa Müller involve an intertwining of spaces which invite adventurous wandering throughout the building while simultaneously engaging a singular core element. Whereas the Baker house revolves conceptually around its pool, the Müller residence emanates from a clandestine room from which Mrs. Müller could voyeuristically oversee the entire occupation of the house. While these two schemes vary greatly in their formal implications, basic ambitions align coherently. It is in the function of these implementations that the reviewer finds the variations, both of which revealed to be deeply invested in the individual agendas of the architects. In this respect, Lloyd Wright promotes a naturalist agenda, grazing the participant through a series of exposed spaces and gardens, while Loos engages a panoptic organization of spaces to the ends that the visitor must meander through the hallways of the building, all the time in the captive survey of the owner’s gazing eyes. Further within reasonable extrapolation is the novelty with which Loos’ Raumplan presents itself. Rejecting the traditional axial organizations of so many buildings before him, the spatial diagram employed in many projects, including the Villa Müller, develops a more locally organized aggregation of spaces interlocking in all dimension, proposing a clearly Modern classification of space.

This information compiled, the overlaying of the Darwin D. Martin House onto the Villa Müller reveals the momentary particularities of the time period from which they arose. These dichotomies, nascent from the variant overlaps and distinctions between the projects, allow for a apprehension of the state of Modernism before its canonization in the decades soon thereafter. Insofar as this culminates in a major shift in Architecture, the elements which were to swell in and stumble out of the field can be assessed. Where Wright’s rather symmetrical axial systems gave way to organizations more akin to Loos’ Raumplan, progressions in the synthesis of Modern architecture occur. Likewise, Lloyd Wright’s disregard for the direct connection between seemingly infinite floor and restricted wall seems fundamentally precursive for much contemporary opinion on the matter. The indexing of these decisive moments in the discipline proves the wealth which might be gained in such juxtapositions, gradually compiling to form an amassed lineage for architecture itself.

Works Cited

Barnes, Timothy J. “Josef Hoffman and the Emergence of Gesamtkunstwerk in 20th Century Architecture.” Not published, 2009. Web.

Besser, Joern, and Stephan Liebscher. “Adolf Loos: the Life, the Theories, Analysis of the Villa Mueller.” Bath, the University of Bath, 2005. Web.

Colquhoun, Alan. Modern Architecture. New York, the Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Jackson-Forsber, Eric. Historic Furnishings Report for Selected Spaces of the Darwin D. Martin House. Vol. 2. Buffalo: Martin House Restoration Corporation, 2008. Web.

Jara, Cynthia. “Adolf Loos’s Raumplan Theory.” Journal of Architectural Education. Vol. 48, Issue 3. New York: Association of Collegiate School of Architecture, 1995. Web.

Rogers, W. Kim. “’Organic Architecture’: An Ecological Approach in Theory and Practice”. The Pivotal Force of the Genesis / Ontopoesis of Human Life and Reality. Ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. Houten: Springer Netherlands, 2004. 381-390. Print.