Adolf Loos and Ornaments
Adolf Loos has been a known advocate for eliminating ornaments from all design cultures. The germination of Loos’ journey to find beauty actually started with the toilets, through his earlier essay called "Plumbers". The essay is part of the collection of essays titled Spoken into the Void as a reflection on the inferiority of his home country’s plumbing fixtures compared to that of the English and Americans. Did this “inferiority” have to do with the sanitation quality? Or was it about the filtration system? None of them were of his concern, but rather, it was the ornamentation of the plumbing fixtures:
Our [Viennese] bathroom fittings might well be our weakest point… There are Rococo flush valves, Rococo taps, even Rococo washstands. Thus at M. Steiner’s we see excellent American style overhead showers, a new invention, all smooth and thus very elegant.
- Adolf Loos, essay "Plumbers" in "Spoken into the Void: Collected Essays", 1897-1900, page 48.
As a hearing-impaired individual, It is apparent that his enhanced sense of sight brought him to a deeper questioning of the unflattering patterns on the fixtures. In a technical sense, he complimented the American rotary water valve for its form and color, and saw the Austrian crank valve as an old hat and should be thrown away to compete with the higher cultural value of the Western world. The layers of ornamentations devalue the true function of an object, being all ostentatious without a true core.
Later in 1908, in Ornament and Crime, well-known to every architecture folks as THE anti-ornament manifesto, he spoke about ornamented buildings as people with tattoos, who are most likely to involve themselves in criminal activities (of course, we no longer condone this comparison). He emphasizes on the eroticism of ornaments, and sees that the evolution of culture only achieves when ornaments are removed from utilitarian objects. Through this fascination of anti-ornamentation, the beauty standard of 20th century architecture departed from ornamentation to truly the rawest articulation of materials.
According to Loos, with the elimination of unnecessary layers, buildings can become healthier, which is a direct reflection on the rejuvenation of wealth and health. We can now retrospectively decipher Loos' urgent message to the people to wake up from the obsession over ornamentation, as it was a waste of wealth and labor, steering our society away from true innovation. In this sense, Adolf Loos rallied a whole generation of designers to seek for beauty in commodities and fundamental expression in their creations. Thus, the curators of modern architecture saw their buildings as a statement of health and youth. Irony must really strike those who found his words as obscene and hateful if they see what we design nowadays.
Nudism in designed bodies
Like Adolf Loos has predicted, the modern architecture movement sheds its intricate corbels and drapes, literally losing the weights of the past, representing an almost naked expression of healthy and functional beings. Muchich's Jugendstil movement rejected historicism and neoclassicism, while advocated the organic sinuous curve as the anchor of its artistic expression.
When looking at the Krupp fountain by Hermann Obrist, one can see the graceful curves, revealing similarities to a naked human body, which sparked an inspirational influence on his peers to pursue the same path. For instance, modernist architect Peter Behrens was well-known for his revolutionary design of the AEG turbine factory. He channeled the Jugendstil principle by creating a new type of industrial factory that does not hide behind the clunky coat of neoclassical ornaments, unleashing the naked truth of each material. Hence, this transparency enveloped the daily happenings inside, and together, they harmonized like a well-oiled engine and clutter-free.
Nudism in human bodies
In the 1920s, the Jugendstil transitioned to a physical cultural phenomenon that was the Freikörperkultur (FKK, free body culture), an absolute hit amongst the working class and youth of Germany. Long before the hippie movement via the resistance to the Vietnam War, the German beauty movement promoted a holistic approach to living, including anti-smoking, vegetarianism, naturalism, and nudism. What these two had in common was the emphasis on naked beauty, not through a lens of sexualizing or objectifying, but through health.
Social nudism for humans became the driving factor of a beautiful, strong, and illness-free culture. An elementary school teacher turnt physical educationist, Adolf Koch was the one pioneering this healthy mind and body journey, who opened various Koch-gymnasiums for nude athletic activities.
Nudity was part of a pedagogical practice to expand athletic intellects of all genders, and within six years of this practice, he had achieved a grand total of 60,000 enrollments. The Weimar Republic was where the practice was having its moment, and no matter the sex, it was agreed amongst Koch students that beautiful, flexible bodies are best shown in the nude for all of their glory. In gymnasiums, nude humans would be seen rehearsing dance routines; out in the local grassfields, naked bodies would be seen sunbathing or bodybuilding. Unfortunately, some Germanophile nudist factions used social nudity as a propaganda for racial purity and coerced their youth to join the movement for completely different reasons than mentioned above. Nudism was no longer a representation of mind/body training, but had grown into a eugenics ideology. When the Nazi Regime took over in 1933, they ultimately banned public nudity altogether to eliminate all sorts of mixed-gender immorality.
While social media herds us into certain beauty standards, we can also reflect this mentality on the buildings we design. The majority of us gave up authenticity as our fatigue minds seek for the next idea for a beautiful and functional building. Architects and engineers strive for buildings to be better, more insulated, and more sustainable, just to shield us from the unpredictable turn of climate change. While being fully functional, they too, must uphold their beautiful facades.
Was all of this an effort for body positivity, whether this “body” is made of steel/concrete or flesh/bones? Yes, it is.
With the power of creativity, we streamlined many creations, mostly to serve and entertain our people. Our self image can be seen in a third-person perspective via many media outlets, reinforcing the self-surveillance complex more than ever before. This constant cycle has made us jaded from the fact that what we have without any ornamentation can be beautiful and full of potential. We yearn to be born again, or become immortal, all for a second chance to be beautiful again. We can learn through the journey of the Adolfs had taken before, they are just embracing the real nakedness above all. Thus, as we go on about the flaw-searching journey as humans, all the beautiful things that we see in front of us were once naked. Like Rupaul Charles, a queer icon and drag queen, would say:
"We’re all born naked and the rest is drag"
We shall stay hopeful on this design journey for our bodies and the world around us, while delaying the weathering power of existence as much as possible, with one beautiful creation at a time.