Wednesday, March 5, 2008

‘Ornament & Crime’

The essay by the Austrian architect Adolf Loos ‘Ornament & Crime’ written in 1908, argues that all ornament is criminal in nature. Loos, “holds the Papuan up as an example of man who has not evolved to the moral and civilized circumstances of modern man, and who will therefore kill and consume his enemies without committing a crime. Had a modern — meaning a Western man — done the same thing, he would either be considered a criminal or a degenerate. By the same token, the Papuan may tattoo his skin, his boat, his oar or anything he may lay his hands on ... He is no criminal. But a modern man who tattos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate. Tattooed men who are not imprisoned are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If a tattooed man dies free, this is because he has died prematurely, before committing his murder.”( ‘Adolf Loos: The New Vision’: Joseph Rykwert) Ornamentation, he contends in modern society is without merit. It forces the laborer to perform work that performs no function, other than signatory (say, a crown moulding signifying the top of a wall). Loos professes that it’s a waste of material, effort and a needless expense. Ornament freezes a building in time, Art Nouveau, in Loos’ time…perhaps pluralism or minimalism in our time.

No trim, no ornament, no crime.

Stonco 150L, with 4A backplate

Does our house look dated already by virtue of the lack of ornamentation? There’s validity in the argument that economy has driven many of our decisions, including those to eliminate ornament…but I wouldn’t have chose ogee moulding even if I had an extra five grand sitting in my pocket. I question some of Loos’ arguments and the social conditions he supports them with, but at heart I have to say I agree with his thesis. Loos worked hard to allow each material to be expressive of its inherent qualities, the only object on my walls (until I can afford artwork…is that ornamentation?) are my $11 Stonco exterior grade lampholders…a modern torch of sorts. Oh yeah…there’s the Enje roller blinds (IKEA, 39”x98”, $29.99)…which I considered stitching colored thread horizontally to add some color to the room…ornament, tsk tsk.

It’s no wonder my kids are pining for the outdoors, their required reading lists now require German translation.


recovergirl said...

I love your house. I gotta ask -- do you find that the kitchen, dining, living area is noisy. Does sound just bounce off the walls or....not?

youngblood said...

Honestly, I can't say that I've noticed the main living space being noisy. It's a function of how much absorbent material is in the space. There was a marked difference between the reverberation before we placed our furniture and rugs in the space and after, much quieter after. One way to alleviate echo (or slap as acousticians call it), is to make the wall surfaces not parallel. This is why auditoriums have splayed walls, and by contrast why gymnasiums are so echo prone. Hope that helps.

Shawn said...


Your post took me back to a time when I thought Clement Greenberg and 50's modernism was the antichrist....

Anyway, the author reminds me a lot of the high-modernist mindset that Greenberg advocated. The idea being that artists needed to reduce their work to the bare essence - ornamentation was to be eliminated, as was any sort of cross-pollination of media. For instance, paintings shouldn't use perspective because perspective created a sense of 3-d space, which was the realm of sculpture.

Anyway, I agree with your ogee moulding comment. I find most American interior design trends to be garish at best. The faux-italian mini-mansions that dot our suburbs are about as bad as it gets. Nevertheless, I think a little color here and there never hurt anyone.

Best of luck with your project. Can't wait to worry about these details myself.

I posted a short bit about your cool blind solution on my blog here: