Adolf Loos: The Principle of Cladding

During the latter half of the 19th century, a significant time in Vienna’s political history, architecture often reflected a historicist style with classical and renaissance elements (Friehs, n.d.). This style was particularly prominent in the monumental buildings of the Ringstrasse, which Loos (1898) criticised in his works about ornamentation and cladding. In these essays, he references themes of pure materials and rational design decisions; themes that would form the early principles of modernism in the 20th century, and influence architects such as Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

A fundamental premise of Loos’ manifesto, ‘The Principle of Cladding’, is the idea of purity and truth to materials - he stated that “the principle of cladding forbids the cladding material to imitate the coloration of the underlying material” (Loos, 1898, p. 244), using the example of skin-coloured women’s stockings. In a period in which Vienna experienced enormous development, due to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 (Cordua, 2016), Loos’ ideologies contradicted those popular within the traditionalist capital. Loos (1898, p. 243) furthered his point stating, “wood may be painted any colour except one - the color of wood”, with the example of the Rotunde [Vienna, 1873], as its wood cladding was painted to appear like mahogany. This lack of purity contradicts Loos’ ideology as he declared his preference to the English tramcars with their “pure colors” (Loos, 1898, p. 243). Despite his impact on modern design, many contemporary designers challenge his work, continuing the critical discourse by using modern techniques - Blaisse’s Casa da Musica [Porto, 2004] design features imagery of gold pixelated wood-grain applied to the surface of plywood, thus defying Loos’ (1898) principle, with specific reference to wood. His 1908 essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ demonstrated his opposition to decoration, and his belief that materials should be showcased and not concealed by unnecessary cladding and ornamentation. Villa Muller, a building designed by Loos in 1930, for the owner of a company that specialised in reinforced concrete (Architectuul, 2015), displayed this ideology. The simplistic, raw concrete exterior deeply influenced Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe (and thus the Bauhaus movement), and paved the way for brutalism pioneers such as Le Corbusier.

Another of Loos’ principal beliefs, was that suitability, applicability, and functionality should be at the forefront of design decision. He stated, “the reasons for cladding things are numerous...protection against bad weather...hygenic reasons...a specific effect” (Loos, 1898, p. 242). This demonstrates his utilitarian and pragmatic approach to design, which contrasted with the freeform, Art-Nouveau styles found in the work of the Vienna Secession (The Art Story, n.d.), (an art movement formed in 1897 that Loos often disparaged (Charles & Carl, 2014)), whose motto was ‘to every age its art, to every art its freedom’ (Rosenman, 2017). During his years spent in America, Loos discovered and admired the work of Sullivan (Craven, 2017), who coined the maxim ‘form follows function’ (Sullivan, 1896) when stating that, in order to create a design that didn’t reflect precedent, the form had to reflect the purpose of the building - an ideology that is clearly seen in Loos’ work, particularly the Raumplan of Villa Muller, in which the varying levels of the rooms reflect function and importance (Besser & Liebscher, 2005). Purpose and function were key elements in Loos’ principles as he stated, in the opening line of his manifesto, “even if all materials are of equal value to the artist, they are not equally suited to all his purposes” (Loos, 1898, p. 241). With reference to Semper, Loos (1898, p. 241) went on to state, “the architect’s general task is to provide a warm liveable space. Carpets are warm and liveable...But you cannot build a house out of carpets”, showing that Loos recognised the sensory aspect of design, yet held the factor of functionality and rationality as the focus of his concepts. Loos’ attitudes towards ornamentation and using only essential materials, could be perceived as an early interpretation of minimalist design. Having taken influence from Loo’s essays, figures such as Mies Van der Rohe, (through the influence of the Bauhaus, and his trademark statement ‘less is more’ (Heathcote, 2008)), brought minimalist design into mainstream culture in the mid 1900s, further showing Loos’ long term influence on contemporary design.

Loos’ manifesto further proved to be innovative, as he began to distinguish between the role of architect and interior designer before the term ‘interior designer’ was coined in the 1930s by the magazine, ‘Interior Design and Decoration’ (IDLNY, n.d.) - “both the carpet on the floor and the tapestry on the wall require a structure frame to hold them in the correct place. To invent this frame is the architect’s second task” (Loos, 1898, p. 241). This statement, inspired by Semper, demonstrates the distinction between the two tasks and begins to establish a hierarchy of importance. It could also be said to establish two separate materials: the structure (rational material), and the surface (sensory material). A more contemporary example of a study between structure and cladding can be found in Serres’ ‘The Five Senses’ in which he analyses the layers of a house “from rough concrete to bed linen” (Serres, 2016, p. 148), and the relationships and hierarchies between them - a concept perhaps inspired by Loos and Semper. Previously mentioned designer, Blaisse, continued the discussion of structure/cladding hierarchy with Casa da Musica, as she used textile and pattern that dominated the space, and curtains that obscured the architectural elements - the interior takes importance over the architecture, and the sensory experience of the space (created by the cladding) holds attention over the structure. This method of exhibiting the cladding, rather than the structure, can be seen in Loos’ Looshaus [Vienna, 1911] as the tone and grain of the extensive Cipollino marble cladding features as the main design element. Loos further supported this as he stated “my architecture is not conceived in plans, but in spaces” (Loos, 1930), alluding to the idea that Loos considered carefully the experience of the space, an approach that could be compared to the spiritual element of modern minimalism.

However, contemporary design is beginning to show evidence that flouts this theory of hierarchy, as modern architecture leads to the structure and cladding becoming one element. In Lupton’s essay, she analyses the skin-like properties of examples of furniture, clothing, and architecture, and the integration of skin and structure - “Panelite’s structural honeycomb core makes it strong and stiff yet lightweight” (Lupton, 2002, p. 1). This example of biomimetic architecture can be used to create both an interior and exterior wall, thus showing a development from Loos’ theory regarding structure/cladding hierarchy, as the structure and cladding serve as one surface that is both a rational and sensory material. This being said, whilst Loos proposes the theory of a hierarchy, he also recognises that the surface and form can hold equal importance in the overall effect of the design - “[the architect] senses the effect that he wishes to exert upon the spectator: fear and horror if it is a dungeon, reverence if a church...These effects are produced by both the material and the form” (Loos, 1898, p. 242).

Loos’ use of innovative materials and rational simplification led him to be an early leader of modernism, as he became a key architect in the Weiner Moderne, or Viennese Modern Age, movement. His contemporary approach appeared particularly avant-garde due to the current social and political state of Vienna, which Loos often spoke about in a satirical manner, “[the Austrian government] makes sure that puttees do not disappear from the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy” (Loos, 1908, p. 11). In his article, ‘Potemkin City’, he criticised the neo-Renaissance apartment blocks and monumental buildings of the Ringstrasse, and implied that the they were built solely to deceive the public into feeling a false sense of surety and abundance (Loos, 1898). However, Loos was not alone in his criticism of the development, with contemporary architects such as Wagner and Sitte sharing his opinion (Wolfman, 2012). Furthermore, Vienna was a cultural hub for the creative arts (being home to the music of Beethoven, and Vienna balls), even more so with the turn of the century and the political shifts, thus creating an audience for Loos’ revolutionary and innovative ideas. Having printed his manifesto, ‘The Principle of Cladding’, in Viennese newspaper, ‘Neue Freie Presse’, Loos’ “very daring law” (Loos, 1898, p. 243) was read by the general public and allowed him to influence a wide and varied audience - he stated “the man from the fifteenth century will not understand me. But all modern people will” (Loos, 1908, p. 228). His desire to break away from historical architecture and ornamentation, along with his use of contemporary materials such as reinforced concrete, show that he was designing in a modernist style before it really became popular after WW2, further showing his impact on contemporary design, even after his lifetime.


In comparison to the traditionalist values of the state, Loos’ principles were innovative and modern with their elements of minimalism and brutalism. Loos strived for a truth to materials, without unnecessary ornamentation, and a functionality to structure and cladding, whereas the architectural developments in the capital, (of what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire), were grand and monumental (Friehs, n.d.). Because of the time period, and the cultural, modernist nature of Vienna itself, people were likely more open to contemporary design, and so Loos was able to have a significant impact on modern architecture and design. He had influence on architects such as Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe, who would not only preserve his principles, but also develop and expand on them to create the modern movements of present-day.

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