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things 15
winter 2001-02
Adolf Loos' entry for the Chicago Tribune Competition - click to expand
Adolf Loos's entry to the
Chicago Tribune Competition
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Joseph Masheck
'His Native Doric' and other columns
Adolf Loos and the Chicago Tribune

It is a fact of modern architectural history of which one doesn’t know quite what to make that Adolf Loos (1870-1933), the famous de-ornamentalising author of the essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ (1908) – that brazen polemic against ‘ornamental art’, no matter how well meant – spent an extended Wanderjahr, from 1893 to 1896, in America. Far in the future, then, was his no-two-ways-about-it outrageous submission to the 1922 competition for new headquarters offices for the Chicago Tribune, which was rejected for reasons which used to seem more obvious when modernism was in flower than perhaps they do today. In ‘Ornament and Crime’, the paradigm of ornamentation is tattooing, and while the tattoos of the cannibal Papuan and his ornamented boat and paddles are innocent, in Europe ‘The tattooed who are not in prison are latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats’,Adolf Loos, ‘Ornament and Crime’, in Ulrich Conrads, ed., Programs and Manifestoes onTwentieth-century Architecture (London: Lund Humphries; Cambridge, Mass. M.I.T. Press, 1970), 19-24, here 19. and that deserves to hold for all ornamental superfluity whatever! But here was a proposal for a skyscraper taking the form of a single huge Doric column, 21 storeys high, rising from a plain eleven-storey cubical base. Behold, one might once have thought, ornament total and absolute, from the man everyone thought had abolished any such thing. The Chicago Tribune project is so notorious in its own right that some who would recognise a picture of it will never have heard of him, while others may fail to connect it with a name known only from theory. Especially if all the latter know is that as a modernist Loos campaigned against ornament as such, the fact that the proposal in question was for an entire skyscraper in the form of a single huge classical Doric column, which is in a sense to say, one gigantic ornament, must seem incongruous.

This mature project for Chicago is related to another unsuccessful competition project from the very beginning of the architect’s career, his designs for a church in honor the emperor Franz Josef’s jubilee in 1898. His ideas for that project, which he developed on arriving home from America, include not only a massive Pantheon-like main building of simplified classical style but also, apparently after trying out several different alternatives, an accompanying freestanding tower. The general idea is relevant to the Chicago project because that is another tower and because in its various projections Loos was obviously thinking of something monumental and monolithic in effect. The Franz-Josef tower would actually have looked both vaguely ancient – as an updated, obelisk-like shaft – and ultra-modern – Eiffelesque with its sweeping, shallow-concave, but masonry, sides. One may think of a certain lighthouse important in the old ‘functionalist’ cause: the proto-modern concrete Eddystone lighthouse, in Cornwall, by John Smeaton, dating from 1756-9, which, already admired for its unrhetorical plainness in Emerson’s 1841 ‘Thoughts on art’, was mobilised by Siegfried Giedion in Architecture and the Phenomena of Transition (1971) with the implication that, not for anything ornamental but on the contrary for its deferral to engineering, the building could be considered ‘abstractly neo-Roman’.Joseph Masheck, ‘An American Utopian Schoolhouse Design’, rev. in my Building-Art: Modern architecture under cultural construction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 47-56, here 54, 244 n. 28. But the problem of ornament will not be dispatched so easily.

At first it will seem irrelevant to high Viennese modernism to recall that a good century before Loos the 19th-century American sculptor and architectural theoretician Horatio Greenough had insisted that the obelisk monument (1827-43) commemorating the Battle of Bunker Hill, early in the American Revolution, at Charlestown (now within Boston), in Massachusetts, had been his idea, specifically in contradistinction to a monumental column for the same purpose and site. It just so happens that one thing we do know about Loos in America was his awareness of the object of Greenough’s claim, thanks to a postcard view of the Bunker Hill Monument which Loos preserved. The Loos scholar Benedetto Gravagnuolo suggests that thought of the Boston obelisk made Loos pine for the opportunity, which is expressed so funereally in the essay ‘Architecture’ of 1910, to embody values transcending the mundane world of unsparing commodification, so that ‘Perhaps the Column designed for the “Chicago Tribune” competition of 1922 is an even clearer testimony to the reinstatement of this idea picked up in the United States, than the picture postcard of the Obelisk at Bunker Hill so jealously guarded among his papers.’ Benedetto Gravagnuolo, Adolf Loos; Theory and Works, trans. C. H. Evans (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), ch. ‘America’, 42-51, esp. 48, with ref. to Münz, below. Thanks to Joan Ockman for a stimulating conversation on Loos’s ‘Architecture’ essay.

The Bunker Hill connection has become something of a topos associated with the Italian architect Aldo Rossi (1931-1997), whom it has served to affiliate with our Austrian modernist master, but it was really the architectural historian Ludwig Münz, almost half a century ago, who called attention to the Bunker Hill monument, publishing a picture postcard of it from Loos’s papers in 1958. In the postcard view, the masonry ‘obelisk’ stands cheek-by-jowl with a little temple-fronted orthodox neoclassical building (all the more curiously in view of Loos’s early thinking about a tower to accompany the church he was designing). How very ‘American,’ Münz remarked, was the abrupt disjunctness of scale and articulation between the two so dissimilar elements, how ‘autocratic’ (selbstheerlich) their obliviousness to one another notwithstanding a basically Roman intent to ordain some kind of unity as a grouping (as in an effectively more European Roman-classic manner. Loos had sought in his Viennese church project).Ludwig Münz, ‘Über die Grundlagen des Baustils von Adolf Loos’, Der Aufbau 13 (1958), 393-5, esp. p. 395 (with illus.). Another influence, much closer to home and unavoidably conspicuous too (though seemingly not discussed) had stood ready in the middle of New York to corroborate a budding modernist’s likely fascination with the modern masonry obelisk in Boston, namely, the ancient monolithic, 69-foot so-called Cleopatra’s Needle (c.1475 BC) in Central Park, moved from Egypt in 1880. This must have been known to Loos from his time in New York because it was evidently one of the landmarks of the city. Not long after Loos left, a visiting European critic for whom it was one of the architectural sights to see, could take advantage of its familiarly as an index of the harshness to architecture of the New York climate, which already by 1900 was seriously effacing its hieroglyphics. Jean Schopfer, ‘American Architecture from a Foreign Point of View: New York City’, Architectural Review 7 (1900), 25-30, esp. 26.

Overlooked in regard to Loos and Greenough, however, is the larger matter of Horatio Greenough’s own homegrown American anti-ornamental theorising – involving a remarkably early if not quite sympathetic engagement with tribal art – in any possible relation to the sophisticated international anti-ornamentalism of Loos, with the American architect Louis Henri Sullivan possibly somewhere in between. It is not far-fetched to think of Loos as having been influenced by the architectural texts of Greenough, whose own tracts against architectural ornament were to be rediscovered in the heyday of postwar ‘functionalism’ in American architecture and design. In an essay bearing the title ‘Relative and Independent Beauty’, the aggressively anti-ornamental (as well as anti-baroque and unashamedly anti-Catholic, ‘WASP’) American – a type the cool Loos surely knew from turn-of-the-century New York could have dealt with – frames a definitive statement of his principal doctrine: ‘Beauty as the promise of Function; Action as the presence of Function; Character as the record of Function’. Horatio Greenough, ‘Relative and Independent Beauty’, in his Form and Function: Remarks on Art, ed. Harold A. Small (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947), 69-86; all Greenough citations to this ed. As to his lively response to tribal ornament, even before the novelist Herman Melville returned from the Pacific islands and stimulated popular interest in Oceania with Typee; A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo; A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas (1847), Greenough, aware of Flaxman’s fame as a sculptor,Greenough, ‘American Architecture’, op. cit., 51-68. I consider the pertinence of the offhand reference to the English neoclassical sculptor in an essay, ‘The Vital Skin: Riegl, the Maori and Loos’, in Richard Woodfield, ed., Framing Formalism: Riegl and the History of Art (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, forthcoming). wrote in the yet more important essay ‘American Architecture’ (1843): ‘When the savage of the South Sea islands shapes his war club, his first thought is of its use. His first efforts pare the long shaft, and mold the convenient handle; then the heavier end takes gradually the edge that cuts, while it retains the weight that stuns. His idler hour divides its surface by lines and curves, or embosses it with figures that have pleased his eye or are linked with his superstition. We admire its effective shape, its Etruscan-like quaintness, its graceful form and subtle outline, yet we ignore the lesson it might teach.’

Advancing Greenough’s general principle of beauty as the smiley consequence of a do-er, go-getter character, such passages implicate a general all-American aesthetic discourse of virtuous utilitarian beauty, celebrating efficient Lamarckian adaptation to function, and ever evoking a certain Biedermeierish rectitude. In ‘American Architecture’ Greenough’s praise of the functional beauty of a ship hull (60-62) recalls Hume (e. g.,Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), pt. v) as well as anticipating Le Corbusier (Vers une architecture, 1923). But against Hume’s aesthetic of the economical and the efficacious (e. g. ‘Why Utility Pleases,’ in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), sect. V, pt. i) stand Burke and Kant. On behalf of the proposition that ‘Fitness Not the Cause of Beauty’ (Pt. III, sect. vi), the former – as Greenough, who challenges ‘Burke on the Beautiful’ (87-95), must have known – adduces a miscellany of animals which, did fitness cause beauty, should deserve to be considered beautiful: the swine’s head, especially its snout; the pelican’s sagging bill; the hedgehog and porcupine, so well armed; the dexterous and limber monkey; the amazingly practical elephant’s trunk etc.; also, in man and beast, ‘the stomach, the lungs, the liver’ and ‘other parts . . . well adapted to their purposes’; Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. James T. Boulton (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958, repr. 1967), 105, 107. Also: ‘if beauty in our own species was annexed to use, men would be much more lovely than women; and strength and agility would be considered as the only beauties. But to have but one denomination for the qualities of a Venus and Hercules . . . is surely a strange confusion of ideas, or abuse of words. cont... The cause of this confusion, I imagine, proceeds from our frequently perceiving the parts of the human and other animal bodies to be at once very beautiful, and very well adapted to their purposes; and we are deceived by a sophism, which makes us take that for a cause which is only a concomitant . . .’ (106). Kant thinks pleasing feelings might count as useful, but then in light of self-interest ‘a hen is frankly better than a parrot, a kitchen pot is more useful than a porcelain vessel, all the witty heads in the world have not the value of a peasant, and the effort to discover the distance of the fixed stars can be set aside until it has been decided how to drive the plow to best advantage’; Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, trans. John T. Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), sect. ii, p. 73. (This would seem like a harsh assessment if so many Americans have not shown themselves aggressively proud of its specifications.) No less a critic than Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed (in English Traits, 1856), that in what can now be called his protofunctionalism Greenough adumbrated the Ruskin of Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849); and it was alongside, in the very shadow as it were, of Ruskin’s Seven Lamps that Greenough’s writings were rediscovered in the mid 20th-century heyday of functionalist theory. Quite likely as telling, however, in the immediate wake of Greenough’s ‘American Architecture’, which first appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review and was collected within a decade, is a passage in the second volume (1846) of Modern Painters where Ruskin says that the term beauty means two things: first, an ‘external quality of bodies’ which typifies divine attributes, i.e., ‘typical beauty’, ‘and secondarily’, a ‘vital beauty’ defined as ‘the appearance of felicitous fulfilment of function in living things, more especially of the joyful and right exertion of perfect life in. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 2: Of the Imaginative and Theoretic Faculties (New York: Wiley, 1885), 29; italics added. Raymond Williams, in his Culture and Society 1780-1950 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 141, riffs on the theme, returning several times to ‘felicitous fulfilment of function in living things’ as refrain, though (forgiveably) unaware that the crucial Ruskinian phrase might derive from the American source. 
Well, then, if John Ruskin may have read ‘American Architecture’, even though it would have been an obscure source in Vienna it could quite plausibly have been known to Loos during his American years (I have quoted from a popular New York edition of 1885).

Mentioning the Bunker Hill obelisk as a likely stimulus to Loos, the German architectural historian Eduard F. Sekler affirms the notion of Greenough’s conception, though without considering a possible implication of the fact that the admired plain prismatic obelisk was to stand specifically instead of a column. Eduard F. Sekler, ‘Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann und die Vereinigten Staaten’ (1983; 1986), in the exhibition catalogue Adolf Loos (Vienna: Graphische Sammlung Albertina, 1989), 251-67, here 260-61. Greenough, however, was not the only significant 19th-century American architectural theorist to oppose a monumental classical column with implications of ornamental-rhetorical vainglory. Loos may or may not have become aware of something as arcanely American as Greenough, but he was surely aware of the more contemporaneous architectural polemics of Sullivan. The great European anti-ornamentalist must have caught up with Sullivan’s important essay ‘Ornament in Architecture’, published mere moments before his arrival in The Engineering Magazine for August 1892, with its (rather Goethean) sense of somehow structurally expressive ornament in analogy with botanical leafage. Reminiscent of Goethe’s famous insight into plant germination, in the botanical gardens of Palermo in July of 1787; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey (1786-1788), trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (New York: Schocken, 1968), 363-64. Not that Loos would automatically have taken to Sullivan, who would probably have struck him as a fresh-faced new version of just what he was happy to be away from in the imperial capital, meaning, more or less, all that was connoted by the Viennese Jugendstil and the whole idea of good, virtuous reformed ornament. Escape to the other side of the world and what do you find? Another Otto Wagner! Loos, who followed on Gottfried Semper and shared with him a certain respect for even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ businesslike rationality, was something quite different. And what, after all, in all of modernism, might be considered more like tattoo – only good tattoo, as it were – than Sullivan’s ornament? From probably well before 1920, when Sullivan sent a copy of his collected Kindergarten Chats to his younger ‘brother in the spirit’ as he said, in a letter unfortunately lost, Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column; On order in architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1996), 19, with 397 n. 49. there would have been respect.

Especially in analogy with what Horatio Greenough had opposed for the Bunker Hill Monument, Adolf Loos’s 1922 Doric-column Chicago Tribune project must have been a facetious response to what they want – they being American philistines who think that architecture is the dolling up of workaday buildings with the plutocratic grandiloquence of the classical orders. It is well known that Louis Sullivan believed the classical eclecticism of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, would set American architecture back fifty years; not until 1924, however, the year of his death, was his Autobiography of An Idea published, where he says so, blaming, it is not so well known, capitalist cynicism for the world’s fair’s ‘naked exhibitionism of charlatanry in the higher feudal and domineering culture, conjoined with expert salesmanship of the materials of decay.’ Louis H. Sullivan, The Autobiography of An Idea (New York: Dover, 1956), 322. It deserves to be recalled that one of the essays first published in Interstate Architect & Builder in 1901-02, which Sullivan collected and edited (1918) as the (posthumous) Kindergarten Chats, a text exactly entitled ‘A Doric Column’ concerns a, to Sullivan, absurd proposal to memorialise the bicentennial of Detroit with the world’s largest monumental Doric column. That fatuous idea Sullivan treats wryly enough to have charmed even Loos, several times referring, in mock-deference to the diction of the illiterate rubes, to the ‘the architek’(sic). Sullivan, ‘A Doric Column,’ Kindergarten Chats and Other Writings (collected and edited 1918; New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947; repr. New York: Dover, 1979), 58-60. Moreover, in the essay ‘On scholarship’, Sullivan writes: ‘. . . When we ask an architect to build a memorial to the Great Lakes, the primeval forests and the hardy voyageurs – and he gives us a Doric Column, he is not scholar, he is a faker! So, when we ask an architect to build a twenty-odd-story office-building, and he throws up a swaggering mass of Roman remnants, he is not a scholar but a brute’.

Given the amusing sarcasm freely indulged in his writings by Loos, who had visited the World’s Columbian Exposition and criticised the German – though not all the Austrian – commercial wares on view, it is perhaps odd for it to be any less than obvious that Loos’s once notorious proposal of a colossal Doric column as office tower for a major Chicago newspaper was wilfully preposterous. I say ‘once notorious’ because a full architectural generation or more of postmodernism it needs to be explained all over again how this could have been pseudohistoricising and as such an affront at all. Loos must have known how to deal with the exasperations of such competitions after the rejection of his submission to that for Franz-Josef’s Jubilee Church in favour of the pleasant but hollow (like an overscaled toy) St Francis of Assisi, in the Mexikoplatz (finished 1913), by Viktor Luntz. 
Suddenly now, a modern century later, it has also become all to easy to go for Adolf Loos, who in his actual art is one of the great lights of our era, just for being the toughest dude around. Despite all the literary and cultural generalisations, Loos is not to be praised (or blamed) for every unornamented structure one sees – assuming one can still find postwar buildings not decked out in suburban ‘do-it-yourself’ post-postmodernism. Sullivan, ‘Mr Chicago’, who may thus have influenced him in the oddball Chicago Tribune project, was something more than a sentimentally limited semi-modernist capable only of leading American modernism part way along to some promised state of Nihilia. Masheck, ‘Note on Sullivan and the Rarefaction of Bodily Beauty’, Building-Art, 57-68. While the huge columnar tower ‘shaft’ has aways been the glaring problematic feature of Loos’s unexecuted competition project, oddly enough it becomes a subtler problem to consider the possibly diffuse influence, given the notoriety of the overall design, of its boxy base. I have particularly in mind the low, blocky British Empire Building and La Maison Française (1933) at Rockefeller Center, by Raymond Hood and others, by themselves but also in relation to the shaft of the R. C. A. Building behind. Hood’s reputation had gained by his winning the <i>Chicago Tribune</i> competition – in partnership with a son of the famous and just recently deceased social-realist novelist William Dean Howells (who by the way had written plays titled The Sleeping Car, 1883, and The Elevator (i. e., ‘lift’), 1885).

Just how serious – or possibly, how facetious or sarcastic – was Loos’s Chicago Tribune ‘Column’? The architectural historian Joseph Rykwert says, ‘Some critics have bypassed the scheme as a prank, but no one seriously interested in Loos and his work could ever maintain such a view’, and refers again more categorically in a note to ‘the curious notion ... still perpetrated... that there was something jocular about Loos’ scheme’. To him, Benedetto Gravagnuolo ‘persists in ascribing ironic intention to Loos and in considering the column a fragment torn from a context – analogous to Duchamp’s celebrated urinal’, whereas for Rykwert, Loos’s sense that moderns, like the Romans vis-à-vis the Greeks, inherited a situation in which ornament could no longer be invented but only adapted, which is ‘quite different from Duchamp’s view of the artist’s power to isolate and reveal by his or her choice’. Rykwert, Dancing Column, 19, 397 n. 51. Yet perhaps it is not so different from Duchamp’s attenuated fin-de-siècle sense of everything’s having already been done. Earlier, Rykwert had said that the Tribune column, though ‘wholly serious’, was ‘the crassest’ of his resorts to classical ornament. Rykwert, ‘Adolf Loos: The new vision’ (1972; 1973), in his The Necessity of Artifice, Ideas in Architecture (New York: Rizzoli, 1982), 66-73, 71. Hesitating to concede any crassness in my hero, I prefer to hold to the view that there most be some irreducible element of irony here. Rykwert is right to insist that Loos’s Doric column proposal was no mere joke, yes; but when he pits Loos’s design against Duchamp’s readymades he weakens his argument because it is widely conceded that Duchamp’s readymades are not only witticisms of curiously concrete sorts but also ‘moves’ in and about the game of art which are of the utmost significance for serious aesthetics. This is simply not paradoxical, even though it is of course all the more amusing that seemingly such slight cause can produce such formidable effect. Rykwert is right to insist that (in so many words) that the Chicago Tribune Column was a serious move; however, (1) Duchamp’s readymade only made art-sense, and (2) there was room for spoof in respect to the expectations Loos could reasonably expect the owners of Chicago newspaper to have.

The architectural historian Kenneth Frampton sees the fact that the tower’s ‘ostensibly load-bearing walls were shown as being built of coursed masonry, thereby totally denying any direct evocation of a classical order’ as ‘perhaps the most ironic aspect of this work, and the one that qualifies . . . [Loos’s] bizarre but nonetheless literal application of the classical norm’. Kenneth Frampton, ‘Adolf Loos: The architect as master builder’, introd. to Roberto Schezen, Adolf Loos: Architecture 1903-1932 (New York: Monacelli, 1966), 14-21, here 20. But why should the visible blocks of the masonry tower (the cubical ‘plinth’ building below was evidently to be steel-framed) be any more ironic, especially on such a huge scale, than the visible blocks of the would-be-monolithic 19th-century Bunker Hill ‘obelisk’ in Boston? Anyway, the outside walls of the tower weren’t very load-bearing, since the square core of a central shaft containing elevators and (rectangular) foyer was to rise on four steel beams. Also, the distribution of spaces on the circular floors of the tower proper is not as anarchic as one might suspect: whereas one might have presumed a condition of pie-cut wedges, only one room has no right angle. Münz and Künstler remind us that in the distribution of spaces on the supposedly awkward floors of the circular tower Loos had personal newspaper-office experience to fall back on, from his salad days in New York. Ludwig Mütz and Gustav Künstler, Adolf Loos: Pioneer of Modern Architecture (1964), trans. Harold Meek (New York: Praeger; London: Thames and Hudson, 1966), 192-5, esp. 194. The project just isn’t as kooky as we tend to assume it to be.

It should of course not be possible to maintain that the Chicago Tribune Tower was without irony, at least not with a straight face, i.e., impossible without thereby indulging in irony oneself. Yes, one may take the Doric-columnar tower as in some sense a cultural ‘return of the repressed’ in relation to the basic thrust of modernism against the ornamental vocabulary of academic classicism (if not always and everywhere the syntax); yet as it would be preposterous to attempt to maintain that Loos could have been unaware of that, it should also be to think that he was less than fully aware that there would be good reason for others to take it that way, regardless his private intentions. But there should be no ‘repressed’ to speak of if only the academic legalism , but manifestly not the spirit of the law, was negated. (Besides, what could be more Nietzschean than to enlist irony on behalf of truth; and did not Wittgenstein say that a whole philosophy could be written in the form of a joke book?)

In the text accompanying his competition submission, Loos seems to have been anxious about proposing an ‘inhabited column’, as though that were an illogical, oxymoronic idea; and such a scruple could hardly have been troubling had Loos been wholly given over to irony. Part of his defence was an appeal to the precedent of the Woolworth Building, which he would have liked to rival in height, but for a stipulated limitation in the Chicago guidelines, as likewise an inhabited ‘Gothic church tower’. Actually, in an intermediate category between monolithically solid and ‘inhabitably’ voluminous there was a recognised category in Roman architecture, including examples Loos indubitably knew, of a monumental column not ‘inhabitable’ but negotiable by a spiral stairway: columna cochlis, it is termed. As for the Woolworth Building, in 1916, soon after he arrived in New York, Marcel Duchamp had the idea of claiming taking its rising tower, then not yet clothed in Gothic detail, as a special readymade for facilitating ‘fourth-dimensional’ thinking by imagining the building, New York’s premier skyscraper, and emblematic of modernity despite its Gothic ornamentation, as a giant cabinet or vitrine with the many objects presented in the windows like so many three-dimensional ‘shadows’ from the fourth-dimensional point of view. Craig Adcock, ‘Marcel Duchamp’s Approach to New York: ‘Find an inscription for the Woolworth Building as a Ready-Made’, in Rudolf E. Kuenzli, ed., New York Dada (New York: Willis, Locker and Owens, 1986), 52-65. One is certainly welcome to consider that a joke, but not only: it required some serious imaginative analytical coming to terms with the implications of the new structure (even a joke is more than a punch line).

It should go without saying that any concern about there possibly being something wrong with the concept of an occupied column implies some minimum seriousness on ‘straight’ architectural terms. Loos might well have known of the country house in the shape of a single giant fluted, though protoromantically ruined, column, at the so-called ‘Le Désert’ near Marly, built in 1771, of which an engraving was published as early as 1801, Hanno-Walter Kruft, ‘Das schönste Bürohaus der Welt’: Der internationale Wettbewerb für den Chicago Tribune Tower (1922)’, Pantheon 39 (January-March 1981), 76-89, esp. 82. and which was to be included by Emil Kaufmann in his modernist classic Vom Ledoux bis Le Corbusier (1933), at the end of Loos’s life; though then again, he might have considered that instance frivolous. But on the farther historical side, as Loosian after-effect, I would suggest that among interesting possibilities is the Soviet low-tech functionalist Konstantin Mel’nikov’s cylindrical house (actually double-cylindrical), of stuccoed brick, built in Moscow in 1927-9, which I suppose nowadays some will dismiss as all too ironic or, if that doesn’t work, all too utopian.

By a fashionable intellectual cliché, Loos’s architecture is not only supposed to be ‘nihilistic,’ but this nihilism is taken quite contradictorily as (a) such a terrible thing to ‘lay on’ mankind and (b) so cool! This view especially appeals to literary people, in much the way Wittgenstein seems to offer opportunity to talk on about ‘the unsayable’ to those who evidently don’t see much to look at in pure, non-‘narrative’ art and architecture. If this sounds harsh, imagine if literary theory felt warranted to presume that all instrumental music was nihilistic, compared to any music with words! The genealogy of this puritanical obsession, traces back, according to the architectural historian Karsten Harries, through that unbearable windbag of theoretical doubletalk (not Harries’ terms), pseudo-radical because hopeless, Massimo Cacciari, through the architect Aldo Rossi’s self-identification with Loos, in the formative postmodern context, to the art historian Manfredo Tafuri. Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), esp. 373 n. 7. Why should everything modern or even modernist now be obliged to confess itself nihilistic or utopian anyway? What is this, Maoist China?!

Something of a hat trick is performed every time our literary friends analogise classical architectural ornament, and the modern abolition thereof, to figurative representation in painting and the modern abolition thereof; because in the early modern period the two categories were connected by the category of decorative, non-objective form, within which the classical order – with the column as finally not a humanoid representation at all – and, say, the systematic structure of curve and reverse curve in the long career of tendril ornament, were by no means merely two miscellaneous residues which some horribly purgative modernist Sack of Rome had yet to extinguish. What is rightly considered ‘abstract’ in Loos’s approach is a drive ‘to represent what is essential in an architectural inheritance, to avoid idle talk’; this entails not a simplistic ‘omission of all historical figures’ but ‘elimination of distracting figures’, and it ‘works itself out through a series of filters and distillations – the flat is made flatter, the black blacker’. What disallows sterile formalism is that such essentialisation is historically grounded in an abiding tradition, through I would disagree with the architectural historian David Leatherbarrow, whose terms I borrow here, in that I think that to be valid as such the essentialisation must somehow be an authentic enactment or presentation, necessarily firsthand and not ironic, or not only or finally ironic, and no mere secondary ‘representation’. David Leatherbarrow, ‘Interpretation and Abstraction in the Architecture of Adolf Loos’, Journal of Architectural Education 40/4 (Summer 1987), 2-9, here 8-9. Gervork Hartoonian, Ontology of Construction: On Nihilism of Technology in Theories of Modern Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), ch. 3, ‘Adolf Loos: The awakening moments of tradition in modern architecture’, 43-55, underlines the seriousness of Loos’s sense of architectural tradition, which is both pervasive and specifically manifest in the Chicago Tribune project.

What about the form qua form? Obviously the Chicago Tribune Column would have been so huge as to read as one be logotypic device from any distance; at the same time but less obviously, its single flutes would each have had Brobdingnagian fascination in their own right as great deep semicircular (or semicylindrical) concave channels. There are tables designed by Loos which, for all their elemental look of precedentless simplicity, quite closely resemble ‘classic’ Chinese tables of late Ming / early Qing period (17th century), where just such a punctuating lateral ‘flute’ between top and rail is a clear and typical element equivalent to what in the base of an Ionic column (the proper Doric, as in the Chicago Tribune Column, having no base) is deep concave ring technically called a scotia (or trochilus, or cavetto).

To the fact that Loos’s maxi-column was to be sheathed specifically in polished black granite, nobody seems to pay much attention, perhaps because the striking, jewel-box elegance of that, which seemingly can not be dismissed as precious so long as it is so sublimely large and simple, is actually quite in character for Loos. But this does mean that no one gets to appreciate the stroke of practically surreal genius by which Loos reverses and thus controls the intertia of classical cliché, in particular the quintessentially romantic-classical cliché, circa 1800, of Greek marmoreal whiteness. When Flaubert called the Parthenon ‘black as ebony’ he was deliberately going ‘over the top’, not only conveying (quite ‘rationally’) the sort of aftereffect of an overload of bright sunlight but connoting (quite as intuitively) an equivalent overwhelming. Masheck, ‘Classical Sass: Notes on Soft Postmoderism’ (1984), Building-Art, 170-83, esp. 173. Calling the Parthenon black was no simple negation but an overwhelming into extra-ordinariness: think of an immense black pearl, by no means defective and hardly grotesque, but uniquely pure. Conceived as shiny-black, the Chicago column would have had the spiffiness of a new piece of industrial equipment, like a big plain knob made out of Bakelite. Relatedly: its fluting would have pertained to the generalisation of 18th-century rationalist forms in French purist art and design, such as the recapitulation of the simply faceted or fluted tulip shapes of 18th-century crystal in the excellent ‘Duralex’ glassware which is still in production – Baccarat for everybody.

All the crazier, it seems, in our tamer time, Loos’s proposal was not the only giant single-column entry in the Chicago competition. And besides the entries featuring colossal single columns by Matthew L. Freeman, Paul Gebhardt and Erich J. Patelski, the architectural historian Kruft has adduced the electrically illuminated ‘Edison Electric’ advertising tower, rising from a peripteral ring of smaller columns, in the crossing of one of the industrial buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, plus a little storage chest in the shape of a fluted column, Viennese, dated 1801, in the Museo di Capodimonte at Naples, and a bit more seriously as to precedent, a freestanding Doric-columnar fountain by Josef Hoffmann, in the garden of the Palais Stocklet in Brussels. Kruft, ‘Das schönste Bürohaus’., In the range of broader American influences however can also be mentioned the project of J. Graham Glover and Henry C. Carrel for a New York ‘Herald’ Building, now known to have been published not only in American Architect and Building News (6 August 1898) but also in Germany in 1902: Anton Schweighofer, ‘Wien wäre Weltstadt, wenn...: Zu den Arbeiten über den öffentlichen Bau von Adolf Loos’, in the catalogue Adolf Loos, ed. Burckhardt Rukschcio (Vienna: Graphische Sammlung Albertina, 1989), 191-215, with illus. on p. 204. Loos was aware of the Herald Building being built; and although this design, where a fluted brick tower not really qualifying as a self-sufficient ‘column’ is fused to one corner of an otherwise rectangular office tower, housing a newspaper at that, is less relevant to the Chicago Tribune project than, already, to another case of a single cylindrical corner tower fused into an otherwise rectangular block: Loos’s Villa Karma, built on Lake Geneva near Montreux in 1904-6.

Let us consider, too, Loos’s arriving at what finally looks like such an almost absurdly self-evident parti or decisive design conception. In what is ostensibly his first sketch for the Chicago Tribune Tower, in the Albertina’s Loos archive, the column idea occurs to the right of a related but likely prior idea on the same sheet, more clearly raised on a high cubical base in the role of plinth, but surmounted by an office tower in the shape of a square pier. By strongly suggesting that the column idea had superseded, in Loos’s thinking, an idea of a tall, slim, square tower upon base, it highlights not only the merely empirical historical fact of the artist’s intuitive rejection of one form in favour of another, but also the logical way this particular artist has negotiated his formal task. For the square pier or pillar is not only as much a category as the column but even more comprehensive than the column as a category, at least in modern architecture. More than ever since the introduction of steel and reinforced concrete structures, the pier is really the ‘unmarked’ condition of the vertical support, with the column a special case of the pier or pillar. In isolation, however, a single pier would effect no signification comparable with a column, all columns being ‘marked’ hence of special significance in themselves. In other words, while thinking of a tall slim office tower on a high square base might well have struck Loos at first as projecting a whole building in the form of a single pier, visualising the possibility on paper must have made him realise that, in the absence of other ‘linguistic’ contextualisation necessary to raise the issue of ‘orders’ at all, there is no reason to assume that a slim building rising as a shaft from a square plan is presenting itself in the form of freestanding ‘pier’, let alone ‘squared column’ at all. No; it turns out that if you want to make a point of the whole shaft as like a single colossal pier, you will have to face the linguistic fact that the more commonplace concept ‘pier’ is parasitic upon that of ‘column’, and the logical thing will be to reject ‘pier’ in favour of ‘column’ in order to make the point of a freestanding singular, noun-like ‘linguistic’ form.

A baseless Doric column on a plain boxy plinth would by no means signify nothing. Without getting into the Doric’s old claims to a special metaphysical aura: whatever terms one might prefer to account for its duality here, it is both committed to classical convention and given to a radically obviousness as ‘pure’ – uncompromised – form. In light of Loos’s critique of ornament as such, it seems that the Doric order, above all, need not stand at odds with modernity, not only in that it is the formally simplest order, the one already largely eschewing the sort of sub-ornaments, so to speak – which count as ornaments of orders, hence virtually ‘ornaments of ornaments’ – but perhaps also in so far as it might be as much unaffected ‘second nature’ to the sophisticated architect as the plain unselfconscious vernacular forms of the best local carpenter are to his thoughtful, if not theorised, productions (a subject Loos loved more profoundly than did the ultra-utilitarian Americans with their leisure-time duck-decoy collections). The literal baselessness, in terms of ornamentation, of the Doric order, made the bottom element of the building into an all the more significant unadorned yet ornamental (in the sense of respecting the protocol of the order) plinth. I am reminded of the way the New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, better known as a style-mongerer (e.g. the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1895-1902), produced something interestingly plastic, freer of conventional ornamentation, and all the more modern for it, when faced with the task of supplying a mere base for the Statue of Liberty (1886).

In that our Loosian theme concerns columns not built, especially insofar as what Loos sent the Chicago Tribune committee was an obvious dare (O. K., let’s see you build this), and an ethical-aesthetic comment, at that, by the author of ‘Ornament and Crime’, it now seems curiously pertinent that Berkeley, the 18th-century Anglo-Irish philosopher, had been stimulated by thinking of the Monument to the Great Fire of London (commonly but perhaps wrongly given to Wren) that it might be good sometimes to erect anti-monuments, ‘columns of infamy’ memorialising individuals whose antisocial deeds escaped less symbolic prosecution. George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, ‘An Essay Towards Preventing the Ruin of Great Britain’ (1721), in his Works, ed. A. A. Luce and T. E. Jessop, vol. 6, ed. Jessop (Edinburgh and London: Nelson, 1953, repr. 1964), 61-85, esp. 79-80, where the discussion works against Whiggish vainglorious building for self-monumentalisation. The anti-column notion recurs in Alciphron; or, The Minute Philosopher (1732), Dialogue V.

What sort of historia is all this amounting to, anyway? I find myself arguing that Loos’s giant column which was never built in Chicago owes something to a giant column which Sullivan did not want built in Detroit even as Sullivan, and Loos too, for that matter, were following in the line of the very Greenough who did not want a giant column built in Boston. But history is, so to speak, there already. As a modern type, the freestanding monumental column inescapably connotes the imperial Romanism of Napoleon and as such is charged with the ambivalences of him who was the first Lenin, or else Hitler (as if the difference didn’t matter), that radical commoner-turned-emperor – or was it that top banana, ultimate self-made man? There is no escaping the complexities of iconology, either: obelisks as alternatives are not simply Washingtonian and republican, antimonarchically Europa-frei but practically Hanoverian (e.g. Sir John Vanbrugh’s obelisk of dynastic identificiation at Castle Howard) if not freemasonically Egyptoid and consensus-behind-the-throne monolithic.

How all the more apt, then, in retrospect, for the first great modern instance not to have been Napoleon’s own great column in the Place Vendôme but rather that expressly anti-Napoleonic Doric ‘Nelson Pillar’ (1808), which used to stand in the centre of what is today O’Connell Street, in Dublin until it was destroyed just a generation ago, presumably by republicans whose children are now wizards of the merchant banks. Standing 134 feet tall until the night of 7-8 March 1966, its upper part was then eliminated, after which the rest was demolished by the army. What seems strange now are both that political dissociation from Britain was still so much stronger than economic re-affiliation that no one dared move to ‘restore’ a Nelsonian status quo (or even think of fixing the thing and putting the Irish patriot James Connolly on top, but then nobody asked me); or else that despite the high popularity in humanist circles, from just that cultural moment, of the romantic idea of the ‘broken column’, it should not have been decided to keep the standing ‘pillar’ precisely as a ruin-as-such, especially as this might easily have been justified by a nationalist symbology.

So deep was the shapeless ‘high-cultural’ ressentiment, however, that destructive self-deprivation somehow seemed the right thing to do (no doubt reinforced by the feeling that the legal army must have the last word over and against the underground army, or even more bluntly that the answer to bombing is naturally bombing). How strange thus at this distance in time, that in a country where many would have defined themselves as socialists, nobody felt that what was being effaced was theirs (had they not built it, they who prefer the hands-on sense of that verb?) something they were entitled to inherit, subsume, surmount.

Well, then, how charmingly conflicted the pillar already was when – a fictional century after it was erected and manifest in print at the very moment of Loos’s notion (as the Irish say) for the Chicago Tribune as a gigantic newspaper column saved from mere punship by the indestructible solemnity of the Doric order – a quite counterfactual pair of spinsters in James Joyce’s Ulysses made a special day in 1904 of going up the Nelson Pillar, all told in the language of a newspaper report as if at second textual hand:

– They want to see the views of Dublin from the top of Nelson’s pillar. . . . They put on their bonnets and best clothes and take their umbrellas for fear it may come on to rain. . . . They give two threepenny bits to the gentleman at the turnstile and begin to waddle slowly up the winding staircase, grunting, encouraging each other, afraid of the dark, panting, one asking the other have you the bawn, praising God and the Blessed Virgin, threatening to come down, peeping at the airslits. Glory be to God. They had no idea it was that high. . . .

When Stephen Dedalus finds himself in a noisy Dublin newspaper office where stories are being composed, one interrupting another, with draft headlines shouted out, one is ‘HIS NATIVE DORIC’ See Masheck, ‘Politics of Style: Dublin Pro-Cathedral in the Greek Revival’, Building-Art, 29-46, on related matters. Tennyson, on receiving a copy of Alfred Percival Graves’ Songs of Killarney when it was published, in 1873, had characterised them to the author as ‘Your Irish Doric’, as would be reported by Graves in his Irish Doric in Song and Story (1926) but only after Ulysses was published.. And then: SOME COLUMN! THAT’S WHAT WADDLER ONE SAID. That’s new, Myles Crawford said. That’s copy....’ Some Doric column indeed, and some Joycean copy, and as much as seconded by Loos in 1922. I am grateful to Kenneth Frampton for his encouraging response to an earlier draft of this essay.


things 15, winter 2001-02

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