A chronology of cultural interactions between Europe and the United States tends to be a narrative about identity formation. It concerns the transfer of the American artist from a pilgrim to the shrines of European achievement to an active participant in redefining the boundaries of art and literature.
European modernism was the spontaneous expression of gifted but rebellious youngsters. It was rooted in urban settings and the post-war influx of young American writers fleeing the puritanical spirit at home added energy to the avant-garde. The presence of African-American performers and musicians boosted the raucous mood amongst the cosmopolitan mix of artists in Paris and Berlin.
Modernism had started with joyful artistic irreverence, it suffered in the trenches and, under the repression of the 1930s, was forced to seek asylum in New York. As war in Europe became inevitable, most cultural exiles returned to America, bringing with them a bounty of experience to fructify the cultural landscape at home (the term “lost generation” is a misnomer).
Such an account however obscures the fact that young and curious visitors to the United States – unlike their elders who resented the prospect of “Americanization” – returned home inspired by what they had experienced whilst questioning Europe’s haughty pretension of cultural superiority.
City of Immigrants
Austria as a nation is the remainder of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which was a multi-lingual constitutional monarchy, incorporating speakers of Czech, Slovakian, Ukrainian, Croatian, Polish, Hungarian, Slovenian, and Hebrew. The nation’s diversity resulted from inland migration.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, industrial expansion triggered mass movement. Vienna clocked the highest immigration figures of all European capitals. Around 1880, more than half of the capital’s inhabitants had been born elsewhere.
At the turn of the century, Vienna was Europe’s third biggest Jewish city. In 1867 Jews had received full citizenship rights, leading to an influx of religious migrants from various other parts of the Empire. They made a significant contribution to Vienna’s cultural and scientific upsurge.
Jewish psychiatrists included Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. In the field of Zionist politics, Theodore Herzl and Max Nordau were dominant voices. Martin Buber lived in the city during this period. More than half of Austria’s physicians and dentists were Jews and so were more than sixty percent of the lawyers, and a substantial number of university teachers.
Jews were particularly active in music and theater. Legendary film maker Fritz Lang grew up in fin de siècle Vienna and he carried its artistic heritage with him for the rest of his days. Writers such as Arthur Schnitzler and Franz Kafka stood in the forefront of experimentalism. The Synagogue at Seitenstettengasse (built in the 1820s) symbolized the city’s tolerant atmosphere. Vienna’s Jewish population peaked at 192,000 by 1938.
Adolf Loos was born in Brno, Moravia, in 1870 where his father owned a quarry and stonemason’s yard. As a youngster he developed a passion for high quality building materials that would determine his career. He studied architecture in Dresden but did not finish his studies. Restless and talented, he despised the traditionalist nature of the course and argued with his teachers. In 1893 he packed his bags and traveled to Philadelphia to visit an uncle who had settled in the city.
He then moved on to Chicago and used the opportunity to spent time at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Two decades earlier (1871) the center of the city had been burnt to the ground. Its reconstruction gave architects the opportunity to apply new techniques in maximizing the usage of limited space. The invention of the elevator allowed for upward construction.
When Loos left Austria, he was convinced of the primacy of Germanic architecture. With a sense of pride he planned to make his way around the German and Austrian sections at the Exhibition. His preconceptions were common amongst his contemporaries, but in his case self-regard turned into embarrassment. What he witnessed at the European units were pretentious “reproduction” showpieces as most of the Fair’s buildings were executed in a neoclassical style – with one notable exception.
Louis Sullivan’s polychrome proto-modern Transportation Building was an attempt to develop an organic American style (the splendid Golden Arch entrance to the structure was one of the Exposition’s main attractions). Years later, in 1922, Sullivan argued that the neoclassical style of Chicago’s exhibition had been a major setback to the progression of American architecture.
Loos’s encounter with Sullivan’s work left an impact. At a time when Europe was taken by the florid Art Nouveau style of building, Loos witnessed during his travels a different dynamic in a quickly developing industrial powerhouse. Having visited St Louis and New York where he did a variety of odd jobs to support himself, he was ready to make his way back to Europe. He was a man with a mission: America had turned him into a modernist.
When he returned to Vienna in 1896, he was determined to hammer home Sullivan’s maxim that the shape of a building should relate to its intended purpose (“form follows function”). Loos was one of the first to condemn Europe’s prejudice towards American culture by acknowledging its vitality.
Ornament & Crime
Back home, Loos found a job at the Viennese studio of the urbanist Karl Mayreder in 1896 and set up his own studio a year later. Initially, he designed a number of café interiors, including the Café Museum at the Operngasse in 1899. Nicknamed “Café Nihilism,” Loos applied his emerging ideas on functional design. Described as a starting point of interior modernism, the café became a meeting place for Vienna’s literati and artistic vanguard.
In the meantime, Loos began putting his theories on paper, first by publishing his observations on Viennese culture and society in a local newspaper. This was followed by essays on architecture in which he attacked the Vienna Secession (the local version of Art Nouveau).
On January 21st, 1908 he delivered a controversial lecture in Vienna entitled “Ornament und Verbrechen” (Ornament and Crime), the text of which was first published in Cahiers d’aujourd’hui (1910, issue 5). His writings sparked uproar amongst colleagues as Loos lambasted the traditional and more recent Viennese styles of building.
The memory of giant industrial designs of American corn silos and steel water towers summarized the concept of functionalism for him. His rejection of ornament extended to anything that could not be justified for its rational function or utilitarian qualities. Instead of unnecessary decoration, he demanded that extra attention should be paid to interior layout.
Loos’s designs and writings paved the way for the Modernist movement in architecture. Le Corbusier praised Ornament and Crime as a “Homeric cleansing” of architecture.
From the outset, Loos ridiculed Vienna’s “fake” architecture. Stylistic confusion was most visible in the Ringstrasse, the circular boulevard around the historic center. Constructed after the dismantling of the city walls, the ring road was flooded with a deluge of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque public buildings, drowning every smidgen of contemporary inspiration or forward thinking.
Loos loathed the chaos of eclectic revival styles. The false facade of architecture seemed to pollute all art. Egon Schiele attacked euphemisms about the human body in painting; Arnold Schoenberg made an assault on musical melody and sonority; Adolf Loos took it upon him to become architecture’s agitator in Vienna.
In 1908 Loos completed what was officially named the American Bar, Vienna’s first Yankee drinking joint. Located at the Kärntner Strasse, the “Loos Bar” embodied the designer’s unsparing vision. Its interior had a geometric boxy layout with vertical columns, a square patterned ceiling, and a green-and-white “chessboard” floor.
Combining simple forms with elegant materials such as mahogany (bar and paneled ceiling), onyx (wall tiles), and marble (floor tiles), Loos used mirrors to cover one side of the small bar to visually enlarge the size of the saloon. Lights were placed around the bar to create an intimate “brown” environment. Loos’s design was a paragon of refined simplicity.
In this “Cubist” setting, white-coated bartenders introduced local and European customers to the taste of American cocktails, skillfully mixing Highball, Whiskey Sours, or Manhattans. Over the years Oskar Kokoschka, Jean Cocteau, Benjamin Britten, Orson Welles, and many other prominent figures visited the bar. The establishment was acknowledged as one of the city’s architectural jewels.
The American Bar survived the dark days of two world wars as well as Vienna’s bomb-scarred and depressed Third Man era. Loos’s desire for sanity and simplicity outlasted the excesses of racial nationalism.
Vienna’s Imperial Palace, known as the Hofburg, was a vast complex of ornamented buildings which included various museums, the National Library, and several government buildings. The Baroque entrance, the Michaelertor, was guarded by grand statues of Hercules and other heroic figures.
A mere few steps away from all this pomposity, Loos assembled his multi-functional modernist department store of Goldman & Salatsch at 3 Michaelerplatz. The contrast with the Palace could not be more telling. Emperor Franz Josef was outraged about the “monstrosity” being erected in front of his face.
Constructed out of steel and concrete, the “Looshaus” was the architect’s most significant work in the city. After the scaffolding was taken down from the building in the autumn of 1910, its bareness (without any symbols to suggest its commercial purpose) sparked a furious debate among city dwellers and journalists about the “dunghill” in their midst. The store became the subject of hatred and caricature.
In his days as a penniless painter living at a hotel for the homeless in Meldemann Strasse, Adolf Hitler made a modest income out of producing postcards of local cityscapes which included his view of Michaelerplatz.
Young Adolf despised modernism and the Looshaus in particular, not in the least because of its Jewish owners (although Loos was a Catholic himself, work for Goldman & Salatsch made him a “Jew by association”). In his streetscape Hitler simply painted out the Looshaus, substituting its predecessor. His penchant for obliteration started there and then.
Age of Bigotry
On August 23rd, 1933, Loos passed away in Kalksburg Sanatorium and was buried nearby. A year later, his body was taken to Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof where his resting place was decorated with a simple tombstone made according to his own design. One of the most exciting periods in the city’s history died with him.
Austro-Fascists took to the streets. In October 1932, Café Sperlhof in Leopoldstadt was attacked by Nazis. The establishment had been converted into a temporary synagogue for Holyday services. Praying Jews were beaten and hooligans smashed the building. Simmering anti-Semitism came into the open and remained unpunished.
Hitler visited Austria immediately following the Anschluss (the “union” of both nations) in March 1938. He made a triumphal entry into Vienna and was met by cheering crowds. The Aryanised Looshaus was decorated for the occasion with swastikas and a banner reading “The same blood belongs in a combined Reich!”
After the Anschluss, regulations on immigration and residence were replaced by German laws. The “rootless” nature of the city was under attack from patriotic fanatics. Anti-Semitic and anti-Slav resentment set the tone of public debate. Political opponents were arrested and large scale pillaging of Jewish properties was set in motion. Hotels, cafés, restaurants, cinemas, and shops were disowned. Tens of thousands Jews lined up at the American consulate to apply for immigration visas.
The paradox was painful: Vienna, a multi-national capital with a tradition of (religious) tolerance in which the modernist mind found a home and haven, produced a political system of unprecedented bigotry, reducing the once great city to a state of cultural irrelevance.
Illustrations, from above: Golden Arch at Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, 1893; Loos’s American Bar, Kärntner Strasse, Vienna; interior of Loos’s American Bar, Kärntner Strasse, Vienna; the Baroque portal to the Michaelertor, Vienna; Cartoon in Die Neue Zeitung, December 7th, 1910: ‘Die Mistkiste’ [Dung Box] on Michaelerplatz; Nazi decorations on the ‘Looshaus’ to celebrate the Anschluss; tombstone of Adolf Loos, designed by himself. (Zentralfriedhof, Vienna).