In his polemical 1910 lecture Ornament and Crime, Austrian architect Adolf Loos argued that architecture should rid itself of all superfluous ornamentation. He was, of course, speaking of the floral motifs, ornate pilasters and classical sculptures that embellish European buildings prior to the 20th century. Alongside figures such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Loos helped inaugurate architectural modernism, leading to the international penchant for stark white façades, industrial pane glass windows and minimal forms that spread across the last century. His personal views were both extremely influential and deeply bizarre, associating ornament with criminality, cultural degeneration, and so-called “primitive” otherness. Today, it’s difficult to confront the unconcealed racism and sexism of his infamous talk, particularly if one admires his stunningly austere and path-breaking buildings.
With their new book Ornament is Crime: Modernist Architecture, Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill nonetheless assemble a remarkable collection of buildings under a renewed Loos-ian heading. Thankfully, the pair dispense with an exclusively Western bias, for their new Phaidon publication features a truly global selection of striking modern homes, stretching from Rio de Janeiro to Los Angeles, London to Tokyo and Tel Aviv to Sydney. Spanning from 1910 up to the present day, it’s an impressive survey, certain to surprise even the well-versed with its thoughtful juxtapositions and inclusive gaze.
Inside the publication you’ll find a concise summary of the modern movement’s basic design principles: flat roof construction, simple geometric forms, expansive windows, and – perhaps above all – unadorned surfaces. In compiling their collection, the authors also made two surprising decisions that sets the project apart from most coffee table tomes. Eschewing chronology, they consistently place buildings from different places and times together on the same page, eliciting unexpected connections and formal dialogues. Complementing this gesture, all photographs appear in sumptuous black and white reproductions, casting the old and new in a common visual field. Interspersed throughout this wealth of images – dare we say, ornamentally – are quotes from avant-garde manifestos, leading contemporary architects and popular music. The book emphasises modernism in architecture as an enduring and pervasive sensibility, downplaying regional differences to highlight the collective aesthetic project.
To name but a few examples, there’s Loos’ Steiner House, built in 1910, which looks familiar and banal today – a testament to its revolutionary import. Viewed from behind, the bare white stucco façade and symmetrical distribution of rectilinear windows demonstrate its simplification of classical architectural principles, aspiring toward a strictly rational and functional design. Characteristic for Loos, the house reveals nothing of its intimate interior life, keeping separate the public and private realms. And certainly, no survey of modern homes would be complete without Le Corbusier’s iconic Villa Savoye, located outside of Paris. Crafted according the architect’s five guiding principles, the house features an elevated main floor, free interior plan, clean façade with long ribbon-like windows and a functional roof, acting as both sun-soaked garden and domestic space: a perennial classic of modernist architecture.
Ornament is Crime: Modernist Architechture is out now, published by Phaidon.