Adolf Loos, RIBA, London

“Architects,” wrote Adolf Loos, “are there to get to the bottom of life, to think through people’s needs to the very end, to help the disadvantaged in our society and to equip as large an amount of households as possible with perfect objects of everyday use. Architects are not there to invent new forms. But you can count the number of people in Europe today who will understand these views on the fingers of one hand.”

So it was in 1924, so it is today. Loos, born in Brno, Moravia (today the Czech Republic) in 1870, was the greatest architect of the early modern age. Yet beyond the rarefied world of architecture he is little known, precisely because he resolutely refused to show off. Whereas his contemporaries Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffman, Antoni Gaudí and others made their names with extravagantly decorated Art Nouveau palaces, Loos built boxy houses with plain white rendered facades and seemingly conventional, comfortably bourgeois but self-effacing interiors. But that was precisely his brilliance. He created rooms for living, not for display – he mocked architects who followed the fashion of over-designing every detail of a client’s life, so that there was nothing left but to live in a prescribed architecture that left nothing to the imagination. He extolled the functional but carefully tailored simplicity of an English suit or a pair of brogues or the rigour of American industry and the urbanity of New York’s steel-framed skyscrapers.

Despite the apparent simplicity of his white boxes, Loos’s interiors embody the complexity and contradictions of intellectual life in Vienna during the time when it dominated European bourgeois culture in every field from music and psychiatry to design and art (his friends included Wittgenstein and Schoenberg) and through the period it segued into socialism after the first world war and became central Europe’s most radical city.

He is best known for his 1908 essay Ornament and Crime, in which he equated decoration with degeneracy. But this essay, and its subsequent adoption as a proto-modernist manifesto, gives a false impression of the architect as a puritan. In fact, his most important idea was what he referred to as Raumplan, an interior in which deceptively simple spaces interlocked to create a complex series of spaces that inform each other, creating a depth of field and giving the impression that there is always something left to discover. His interiors, almost all of which are displayed at the RIBA in a series of meticulously detailed photos, are often clad in luxurious, dark veneers and richly veined marbles – he was against applied ornament but happy to use the grains and veins of natural materials to give richness and depth.

Bookshelves and fireplaces, steps and mezzanines create complex internal landscapes of cosy nooks and corners. This is not the architecture of a machine-age modernism that put clinical efficiency first and cloaked itself in self-conscious modernity as a stylistic tic, it is an architecture of homeliness, comfort and a retreat into the familiar: books, conversation and relaxation. It is as mature as modernism ever got and Loos’s influence can be seen clearly in the work of Alvaro Siza, David Chipperfield, Tony Fretton and countless others.

This exhibition juxtaposes a mass of intriguing photographs of (often traumatised) interiors with a few of Loos’s objects – an exquisite clock, a chaise longue, a yellow silk pouffe and a series of chairs. Each of these reveals how far Loos was from the severe modernist his reputation suggests; they are objects of luxury and delicacy that reveal a deep respect for the past and continuity and a refusal to create new forms for the sake of it. The problem – and this is no criticism of the exhibition – is that Loos’s architecture is all about space and that is the one thing that cannot be conveyed in this fine little show.

Different from his peers though he may have been, like Mackintosh and Gaudí, Loos died in 1933 impoverished and unlauded. This is a worthy reminder of why he should be remembered with gratitude.

Learning to Dwell: Adolf Loos in the Czech Lands’ runs until May 3

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