“Ornament and Crime”
is the title—often falsely quoted as the polemic “Ornament is Crime”—of a famous article written by the architectural critic and cultural publicist Adolf Loos in 1908.
We must bring to mind the spirit of the times to better understand and decode his ideas. Here a few quick facts about Loos: He was born in Brno (then called Brünn, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1870. His father died when he was only nine. In 1893 Loos, with just fifty dollars in his pockets, travelled to the USA where a brother of his father lived. After three years he returned to Europe and settled in Vienna. Besides working as a journalist, he was also active as an architect and, as one would say today, designer. He maintained close ties to artists such as Arnold Schönberg and Oskar Kokoschka and is considered one of the pioneers of modern architecture and its fundamental principle “form follows function.” Significant is his often overlooked critical distance to Bauhaus, which continues to be misinterpreted to the present day.
Adolf Loos’ thoughts are particularly fascinating exactly because, for one, ornament and object are often not delimited in a differentiated manner and, for another, because we have meanwhile entered a comparable discourse—that about the disappearance of the object. In our new world we “share” and no longer own things. Only that which can adapt to the new technologies seems to have a future. Those are theories, perhaps claims whose veracity still has to be proven, even though they are already influencing our attitude today.
For that very reason it is worthwhile to throw a cultural-historical eye on ornamentation, as I discovered by reading the truly interesting and stimulating catalog essay on the exhibition Ornament: A Panorama of Colours and Patterns in Ebeltoft. You’ll get a foretaste by perusing Dan Mølgaard’s article „Ornamentation – for dummies and other ordinary mortals!“ in this issue.
Only in retrospect we recognize lines of development. It becomes clearer who was connected with what and why. And precisely because this retrospective of ornamentation is so exemplary, it places today’s theories, which do not seem to be disputable, in a different light.
True or false? Adolf Loos wrote more than a hundred years ago:
“The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons in which eighty per cent of the prisoners are tattooed. Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.”
“Architecture does not belong to the arts. Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else, everything that serves a purpose, is excluded from the realm of art.”
People say a lot of things today as well. It’s worth our while to sharpen our focus and to practice the art of differentiation in our thinking. And not believe just anything.