No Sense of Crime

adolf-loos-grave-480x360

The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his paddles, in short everything he lays his hands on. He is not a criminal.The modern man who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate.  There are prisons in which eighty per cent of the inmates show tattoos. The tattooed who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies at liberty, it means he has died a few years before committing a murder.

The urge to ornament one’s face and everything else within reach is the start of plastic art. It is the baby talk of painting. All art is erotic.

The first work of art, the cross, was erotic. The first work of art, the first artistic act which the first artist, in the urge to rid himself of excess energy, smeared on the wall. A horizontal dash: the prone woman. A vertical dash: the man penetrating her. The man who created it felt the same urge as Beethoven, we was in the same heaven in which Beethoven created the Ninth Symphony.

But the man of our day who, in response to an inner urge, smears the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or a degenerate. It goes without saying that this impulse most frequently assails people with such symptoms of degeneracy in the lavatory. A country’s culture can be assessed by the extent to which its lavatory walls are smeared. In the child this is a natural phenomenon: his first artistic expression is to scribble erotic symbols on the walls. But what is natural to a Papuan and the child is a symptom of degeneracy in the modern adult. I have made the following discovery and I pass it on to the world: The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects. I believed that with this discovery I was bringing joy to the world; it has not thanked me. People were sad and hung their heads.

Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime”

The French and the Germans obviously couldn’t be further apart on these issues. Van Gogh and Gauguin had a completely different perception of “primitives” than Hermann Muthesius and Adolf Loos; the same could be said of other European artists like Picasso and Braque.Joan Miro’s embraced of children’s drawings, and it’s also worthwhile to note that Paul Klee, a Swiss-German, didn’t have any difficulty as seeing children’s art as worthwhile and even “progressive.” Further, even Loos himself deployed ornament on utilitarian objects, despite this shrill protest.

Knieschwimmer chair

Knieschwimmer chair

Aesthetic puritanism never seems to work out, but nonetheless, Loos was its most impassioned advocate:

If I want to eat a piece of gingerbread I choose one that is quite smooth and not a piece representing a heart or a baby or a rider, which is covered over with ornaments. The man of the fifteenth century won’t understand me. But all modern people will. The advocate of ornament believes that my urge for simplicity is in the nature of a mortification. No, respected professor at the school of applied art I am not mortifying myself! The show dishes of past centuries which display all kinds of ornaments to make the peacocks pheasants and lobsters look more tasty, have the opposite effect on me. I am horrified when I go through a cookery exhibition and think I am meant to eat these stuffed carcasses. I eat roast beef.

A fan of roast meat and boiled vegetables, Loos had a big impact on kitchen design, although somewhat indirectly. Loos outlook was utopian in the extreme. He sought to conserve the labor expended in ornamenting things to use it more productively furthering humanity. He did concede that some did get pleasure in the creative labor invested in ornament, and claimed that he would wear ornamented products to please others, though he took no pleasure in it himself. But he stood by his claim that the urge to ornament was counterproductive and wasteful, a primitive affectation for the masses.

The Taylorist “Frankfurt Kitchen” designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky was thought to be a liberatory design— freeing women to work in factories instead of the house. The simplified version of a kitchen, which dispensed with most food storage, sought to streamline the social habits and inheritance of the kitchen in the same way that Loos sought to strip away ornament.

Historical culinary practices were thought by the German modernists to be a “primitive” affectation with no place in modern life.

The most telling comment, as translated by Wikipedia, was this:

On her 100th birthday Schütte-Lihotzky commented “You’ll be surprised that, before I conceived the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926, I never cooked myself. At home in Vienna my mother cooked, in Frankfurt I went to the Wirthaus [restaurant/pub]. I designed the kitchen as an architect, not as a housewife.

Schütte-Lihotzky worked closely with Loos in the 1920s, and the changes to the kitchen wrought by her designs and the emerging new philosophy of the kitchen have had a deep influence on domestic design. Schütte-Lihotzky conceived the kitchen as an integral part of the living area, though it could be partitioned off if need be. This is in stark contrast to the English manor house tradition of a completely separate wing for domestic activities. This change presents interesting problems, both socially and architecturally.

Loos offered his solution in a 1926 lecture entitled “The Modern Settlement” suggesting that unpleasant cooking smells were best avoided, not by separating the kitchen from the living areas, but rather by only cooking foods which had pleasant aromas—ham, eggs, and beef steak. His argument for a rationalized system of food production and management has echoed across the twentieth century, with many unwanted side effects. I’m trying to track down much more material on this.*

Curiously, there seems to be an obsession among German architects of the early twentieth century with fire. Hermann Muthesius goes into great detail on the subject:

But an open fire is still indispensable for several activities at the English stove. First among these is the toasting of bread that forms so important an element of the English breakfast; toast entirely replaces our continental breakfast bread and rolls. The English are also still very fond of roasting meat on an open fire, a method of preparation that undoubtedly has great advantages; for the juices remain in the meat and meat prepared in this way is tastier and more easily digested. It would not occur to the English to add any kind of sauce to roast meat; and indeed, it needs none. At most they use one of the piquant sauces that can be bought ready-made such as the famous Worcester sauce. Consequently an important aspect of the higher culinary art, the preparation of sauces, is practically non-existent in the English kitchen. If one adds to this fact that vegetables are also simply boiled in water with nothing added and that all the dishes consisting of several ingredients combined and cooked together which our German cooking is so rich, are entirely unknown, it becomes obvious that English cooking is extremely simple, almost primitive. (The English House, 97)

So, the conclusion is—open fires, no sauces, no fancy breads, plus boiled vegetables equates with “primitive.” For culture, the English are (according to Muthesius) dependent almost entirely on the French. However, this doesn’t mean that their aren’t good things to say about this “primitive” English life:

But all English dishes are made from the best raw materials. Nowhere will you find a leg of mutton to equal that in England and their beef and vegetables are also excellent. Good materials make up for the lack of style; indeed, once one has become used to the artless English cooking, one has the feeling that embellishments would not find favor there; and once has made its acquaintance, the sophisticated French cuisine seems spineless, almost insipid. (ibid.)

It’s easy to see from this that the lack of embellishment in English cooking is the most positive thing about it, an aesthetic trend grasped by the Germans with a revolutionary zeal. Stripped down kitchen facilities, and stripped down food, become the hallmark of the twentieth century. Rationalized kitchens go hand in hand with rationalized food.


*After writing this, I discovered this passage in Adolf Loos’ 1910 essay titled “Architecture”:

If we were to come across a mound in the woods, six feet long by three feet wide, with soil piled up in a pyramid, a somber mood would come over us and a voice inside would say, “There is someone buried here.” That is Architecture.

This entry was posted in Craft, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

Leave a Reply