In his 1900 The Story of the Poor Little Rich Man, Viennese architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933) wrote a cautionary fable about a wealthy man who commissioned a house from an architect. This house contained everything he could ever possibly need: every object, every surface, every detail had been designed to perfection to harmonise and to create a perfectly aesthetically and stylistically co-ordinated lifestyle. The client is delighted with his house. But then he receives a gift from a friend. When the architect returns, he is horrified to see this trinket not intended in the original design and orders his client to get rid of it. Disillusion sets in and the wealthy client realises his life has been frozen; he can receive no more gifts, buy no more art, make no more changes. He is even chided for his slippers. “Have you forgotten already?” he asked teasingly. “You designed them yourself!”
“I certainly did,” thundered the architect. “For the bedroom! Those two impossible splotches of colour ruin the whole ensemble. Can’t you see that?”
The speculation is that Loos was writing about his Viennese contemporary, Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956 – the two architects were born five days apart) whose houses were all conceived as Gesamtkunstwerk – total works of art. Nowhere is this obsessive decorative holisticism more apparent than in Hoffmann’s imposingly gated Palais Stoclet in Brussels. Commissioned in 1905 and completed in 1911, the house was the zenith of the Vienna Secession, the arts-and-crafts-influenced Austrian equivalent of art nouveau, in which every detail was pored over, richly veneered or marbled, gilded, bronzed or decorated. The sparkling, swirling golden mosaic friezes in the dining room are by Gustav Klimt; there are furniture and fittings by Koloman Moser and Michael Powolny but virtually everything else is by Hoffmann, from the light fittings to the cutlery. If it wasn’t for its scale and its position in Brussels’ well-heeled centre, the house would look austere from the outside. It may be clad in marble, piped with bronze (which was once gilded) and crowned by a floral-capped tower guarded by a quartet of proto-fascist naked stone bouncers but, in the terms of the era, this is modest – no classical columns, no porticos, angels, carved friezes and so on. Instead, just plain white walls and a delicate but simple conservatory structure perched on the roof.
The house represents a key moment in the evolution of modernism, in the gradual stripping back of modelling and depth of the elevation, luxuriating in material rather than ornament. It is also an extraordinarily beautiful, if over-specified dwelling. Its details, so derided by Loos, can’t help but give some pleasure in their infinite attention to detail and in the architects’ dedication to the idea that design can enhance every aspect of domestic life.
In some ways, Loos’s own Villa Müller, built in Prague in 1930, has some surprising parallels with his nemesis’s Brussels palace. In other ways it is its diametric opposite. Firstly, there is the modesty of the exterior. Whereas Hoffmann’s house makes it clear that this is a rich man’s dwelling in the fine, self-effacing simplicity of white Norwegian marble, Loos’s house is genuinely, surprisingly plain. It is a white cube clad in render, the cheapest possible material. Its windows present an odd canvas to the street, irregular, inscrutable, all over the place. The house gives nothing away. It is worth noting that many of those architects who had been much influenced by Loos’s early work – Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and others – were by this time all designing houses of glass and faux concrete, dwellings that appeared lightweight and transparent, open to the landscape their terraces barely distinguishable from the interiors. Yet Loos had returned to the oldest form, the blocky cube: there were no structural acrobatics, no sculptural spirals or picture windows. Instead the Villa Müller is all about the interior life.
Loos carved a complex, interlocking series of spaces out of his cube. His genius was to be able to work more fully in three dimensions than almost any other architect before or since. The interior of the villa is a theatrical landscape of mezzanines and surprising glimpses of inglenooks and settles, conversation corners and galleries. He called this method “Raumplan” and he insisted that his houses were designed from the inside out.
The living room is a dense, complex, double-height space defined at one end by steps behind a thick marble-clad screen that creates a sculptural divider between this, the house’s principal public space, and the more private spaces beyond. Loos referred to the design of interiors as “a chess game in space”. You can see exactly what he meant as you move through seemingly incessant variations in height, scale, material, geometry and planes that step, recede, pile up and reveal. Every surface is revealed to have further depths – even the green marble has a fish tank mounted within it, its glass flush fitted to its flat surface. Other planes have bookshelves or niches sculpted from them.
A bay window in what is termed “The Ladies’ Room” creates an intimate, book-lined space with built-in seats clustered around a small table and an elegant pendant light. It is almost Arabic in conception, an idea of the women retreating to a more intimate realm still overlooking the more male main space. What might surprise visitors is the richness of the interiors. Loos is known for his dislike of ornament and often compared architecture to English tailoring; a robust tweed suit aimed at function rather than fashion yet which, through its time-proven craft and techniques, proved perfectly adapted for everyday life. But he was never averse to the exotic in materials. The interior is lined with rich green marble and highly-figured veneers of deep chestnut. There are yellow and green curtains and a deep, red-brick fireplace. It is like a multi-layered jewellery box, continuously revealing new treasures and new compartments. The study in particular has the feel of a ship’s cabin in which the surfaces and finishes and fittings have been carefully and richly crafted, yet in which nothing seems superfluous.
It is intriguing to compare the houses. Both were built for engineers, albeit of different riches. Hoffmann’s is luxuriously gorgeous and marks a moment in which art, architecture and design combined to create the ultimate show of wealth and taste. Yet it also proved a dead end. What more could be done? Just as the client in Loos’ story realises his life as a free man has ended, so the Stoclets (Adolphe’s daughters still live in the house) have been burdened by its beauty and its expense. It is now a Unesco World Heritage Site but also a historical artefact. For Loos, the idea of the house as a work of art was anathema. “The house,” he wrote, “has to please everyone, contrary to the work of art, which does not. The work of art is a private matter for the artist. The house is not.”
‘The Meaning of Home’ by Edwin Heathcote is published by Frances Lincoln, £12.99
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic