Wagner vs. Loos on Ornament


Whereas architects like Otto Wagner and Louis Sullivan see the development of original style and (by extension, ornament) as a necessary part of the style, Loos believes that the ‘failure’ to develop an original, unique ornament is in itself a style. Wagner’s understanding is that “new human tasks and viewpoints demanded a change or reconstitution of existing forms,” to say that a reciprocal determinism is in place which allowed both style and ornament to evolve, if not concurrently, then near so.§ For Wagner, the historical pattern of the architectural epochs has been broken - it is symbolic of the death of originality and this is a great travesty, for it means the death of Art. And is architecture not art? 

Wagner’s writing feels grandiose and heavy with a legacy and a drive to be remembered as an Architect (not just an architect), and the development of his Style is what will allow him to reach such acclaim. He feels almost high-strung, nervous, that the architectural ancestors should frown upon him.  Yet, even in his Postal Savings Bank, the pseudo-functionalism emerging out of and reciprocating an epoch of cold rationality is pseudo-ornamentalistic!

For Loos, the absence of ornament and the incapability “of producing a new ornament” is a continuation of architectural history.§ His vitriolic compare-and-contrast on the ‘savage’ and the ‘Now’ (being that Western, polemical, gaze), for him is proof that modern society has “outgrown ornament” because it has recognized the superfluous excessiveness of the ornament, and has succeeded in a fight “to freedom from ornament.”§

This is deeply tied to the separation of art and utility, and steeped to the beginning of modernization which carries with it an inseparable anxiety to capitalism. Loos notes that “it is a crime against the national economy” and, “[o]rnament is wasted labour power and hence wasted health. It has always been so.”§ Not only does this reverb deep sentiments of a desire towards efficiency - there is a natural symbiosis for Loos in efficiency for the sake of functionalism. Why bother producing a manufactured ‘inorganic ornament’ which has “absolutely no human human connexions, no connexion with the world order”?§ This ornament is nothing more than a mere toy, an empty gesture - much like the conditions of social experience and interaction identified by Simmel in The Metropolis and Mental Life.*

As the attitude of the epoch - stuck in a positive feedback loop as driven by capitalism - also drives the demand of production, and if the demand is what develops the lack of ornament, then it must be a continuation of the architectural epochs as we recognize that style is a result of ‘itself’! Here Loos’ thinking is clear. He is very much a product of his time, and that is something he leaves unaddressed. 

Loos fails to recognize, (or maybe refuses to acknowledge), that the architectural epochs evolve from each other. He seems to see epochs as separate, delineated blocks of time with hard starts and stops - he identifies the orphanage of “[m]odern ornament which has no parents and no progeny, no past and no future.”§ Wagner sees a natural, mutualistic evolution as he notes the “Roman style developed gradually from the Greek, and the latter from the Egyptian. Evidence still exists today of the unbroken chain of transitional forms between the flowering style of one style and that of the next.”§ The condition of that evolution - of the building on to the preceding epoch - is a notion that appears to have just entered the societal consciousness and yet, has already begun a hasty exit to leave the party quietly, inadvertently stepping on toes and only drawing more attention to itself. It seems that Loos is so deep in the middle of the fluxing conditions of Vienna and competing rejections and acceptions that he draws a line and picks a side, if only to stand his ground and to herald the progress of society in rejecting the excessive ornament and ‘their’ obsequiety to it. It feels as if he is making a point only to make a point. 

This line is most interesting to me: “It is not capable of developing.”§ Does Loos wish to say that ornament is the driver of style? The final stage of evolution of societal taste? But if there is no ornament, and all that one focuses on is the production of product, heralding the new age of generic efficiency, how will ornament drive style when there is no ornament? How does he propose that one can make nothing from something? Does it plateau here for him, much like Hegel’s loose concession that the Romantic period was the last period of ‘Great Art’?

*It is unclear to me whether Loos is driven by the influence capitalistic mindset and desires to see society ‘evolve’ further in a haze of faceless transactions by rejecting ornament (and if so, what is his end goal? and why?), or whether he is in agreement with Frank Lloyd Wright and believes that the machine is an emancipatory mechanism and will allow for others to pursue their desires more. I do not find that he elucidates this. 

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