A new look at “Ornament and Crime”

Adolf Loos’ “Ornament and Crime” is still regarded by some as an important manifesto of modernist architecture. But it has been strangely overlooked that it was also a manifesto for a dangerous notion of “cultural superiority”.

“Ornament and Crime” was first held as a short speech in the “Academic Association for Literature and Music” on January 21, 1910 in Vienna, four years before the start of Word War I. Loos presents two main arguments: That ornamentation is a sign of “degenerates”, and that ornamentation is bad for handicrafters and workers as it costs them time and effort. His first argument is based on the idea of “cultural superiority”, while his second argument calls for mechanization.

Loos argues that ornament is only used by the people of Papua, by blacks – which he calls Neger (“nigger“) and Kaffer (“kaffir”), – by Persians and Slovaks. It is a clearly racist argument which he fleshes out with metaphorical comparisons.

First, he compares the development of a child with the development of cultures. He writes: “At the age of two, (a child) looks like a Papua, at the age of four like a Germanic person, with six like Socrates and with eight like Voltaire”. 

He continues to say that “The child is amoral, the Papua is for us too. He slaughters his enemies and eats them…the Papua tattoos his skin, his boat, his rudders, in short everything he can reach. He is no criminal. The modern man, who tattoos himself, is a criminal or a degenerate.”

He introduces his second argument like this: “As the ornament is not any more a natural product of our culture, it is either a backwardness or a sign of degeneration, and the work of the ornamentist is not any more accordingly paid”. Loos’ second argument is differently calculated: he declares ornament as degenerate, ornament costs handicrafters time, they are lowly paid, and so, his argument goes, if they would make plain instead of ornamented products, they would spend less time making them and hence would get better pay for their product.

What at first glance comes across as concern for the handicrafters is in fact an argument for their disposal. On his earlier visits to Great Britain and the United States, Loos saw new factories sweeping the countryside. In 1910, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, of which he was a citizen, was still somewhat behind in terms of mechanization and industrialization, relying more on the work of skilled handicrafters. For Loos, craftspeople are agents of “degenerates”. By decrying ornamentation as “primitive” and calling for plain products, he denigrates the working mode of the craftspeople of his time and at the same time makes an implicit argument for mechanization.

Loos also insinuates that aristocrats are complicit with “low” cultures: “I preach to the aristocrats…the kaffir who weaves ornaments with a certain rhythm, the Persian, who knots his carpet, the embroidering Slovak farmer woman, … these he (the aristocrat) understands very well”.

Loos’ original text is clear in the meaning it wants to convey. The multiculturalism of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, its love of historism, its craftspeople, the new style of Art Noveau, all of this he considers culturally inferior and “degenerate”. Getting rid of ornament is his battly cry for “modernity”, but it is also a disguise for his fundamentally patronizing, racist concept of “cultural superiority”.

Throughout the 20th century, “Ornament and Crime” was considered by some as important for modernist architecture, but you can only do that if you either believe or willfully ignore its chilling arguments. It is a self-aggrandizing text and a manifesto for a racist notion of “cultural superiority”. It is high time to reconsider its messages. You can find the original (in German) here.