Adolf Loos: The Principle of Cladding

Even if all materials are of equal value to the artist, they are not equally suited to all his purposes. The requisite durability, the necessary construction often demand materials that are not in harmony with the true purpose of the building. The architect’s general task is to provide a warm and livable space. Carpets are warm and livable. He decides for this reason to spread out one carpet on the floor and to hang up four to form the four walls. But you cannot build a house out of carpets. Both the carpet on the floor and the tapestry on the wall require a structural frame to hold them in the correct place. To invent this frame is the architect’s second task.

This is the correct and logical path to be followed in architecture. It was in this sequence that mankind learned how to build. In the beginning was cladding. Man sought shelter from inclement weather and protection and warmth while he slept. He sought to cover himself. The covering is the oldest architectural detail. Originally it was made out of animal skins or textile products. This meaning of the word is still known today in the Germanic languages. Then the covering had to be put up somewhere if it was to afford enough shelter to a family! Thus the walls were added, which at the same time provided protection on the sides. In this way the idea of architecture developed in the minds of mankind and individual men.

There are architects who do things differently. Their imaginations create not spaces but sections of walls. That which is left over around the walls then forms the rooms. And for these rooms some kind of cladding is subsequently chosen, whatever seems fitting to the architect.

But the artist, the architect, first senses the effect that he intends to realize and sees the rooms he wants to create in his mind’s eye. He senses the effect that he wishes to exert upon the spectator: fear and horror if it is a dungeon, reverence if a church, respect for the power of the state if a government palace, piety if a tomb, homeyness if a residence, gaiety if a tavern. These effects are produced by both the material and the form of the space.

Every material possesses its own language of forms, and none may lay claim for itself to the forms of another material. For forms have been constituted out of the applicability and the methods of production of materials. They have come into being with and through materials. No material permits an encroachment into its own circle of forms. Whoever dares to make such an encroachment notwithstanding this is branded by the world a counterfeiter. Art, however, has nothing to do with counterfeiting or lying. Her paths are full of thorns, but they are pure.

One could cast St. Stefan’s Tower in cement and erect it somewhere, but then it would not be a work of art. And what goes for the Stefan’s Tower also goes for the Pitti Palace; and what goes for the Pitti Palace goes for the Farnese Palace. And with this building we have arrived in the midst of our own Ringstrasse architecture. It was a sad time for art, a sad time for those few artists among the architects of that time who were forced to prostitute their art for the sake of the masses. It was granted to only a small number consistently to find contractors broad-minded enough to let the artist have his way. Schmidt was probably the luckiest. After him came Hansen, who, when he was having a rough time, sought solace in terra-cotta buildings. Poor Ferstel must have endured terrible agonies when they forced him at the last minute to nail an entire section of facade in poured cement onto his University. The remaining architects of this period—with a few exceptions—knew how to keep themselves free of nightmarish agonies like these.

Is it any different now? Allow me to answer this question. Imitation and surrogate art still dominate architecture. Yes, more than ever. In recent years people have even appeared who have lent themselves to defending this tendency (one person, of course, did so anonymously, since the issue did not seem clear-cut enough to him); so that the surrogate architect no longer need stand diminutively on the sidelines. Nowadays one nails the structure to the facade with aplomb and hangs the “keystone” under the main molding with artistic authority. But come hither, you heralds of imitation, you makers of stenciled inlays, of botch-up-your-home windows and papier-mâché tankards! There is a new spring awakening for you in Vienna! The earth is freshly fertilized!

But is the living space that has been constructed entirely of rugs not an imitation? The walls are not really built out of carpets! Certainly not. But these carpets are meant only to be carpets and not building stones. They were never meant to be taken as such, to imitate them in form or color, but rather to reveal clearly their own meaning as a cladding for the wall surface. They fulfill their purpose according to the principles of cladding.

As I already mentioned at the outset, cladding is older even than structure. The reasons for cladding things are numerous. At times it is a protection against bad weather—oil-base paint, for example, on wood, iron, or stone; at times there are hygienic reasons for it—as in the case of enameled tiles that cover the wall sur-faces in the bathroom; at times it is the means to a specific effect—as in the color painting of statues, the tapestries on walls, the veneer on wood. The principle of cladding, which was first articulated by Semper, extends to nature as well. Man is covered with skin, the tree with bark.

From the principle of cladding, however, I have derived a. very precise law which I call the law of cladding. Do not be alarmed. It is usually said that laws put an end to all progressive development. And indeed, the old masters got along perfectly well without laws. Certainly. It would be idleness to establish laws against thievery in a place where thievery is unknown. When the materials used for cladding had not yet been imitated, there was no need for laws. But now it seems to me to be high time for them.

The law goes like this: we must work in such a way that a confusion of the mate-Hal clad with its cladding is impossible. That means, for example, that wood may be painted any color except one—the color of wood. In a city where the exhibition committee decided that all of the wood in the Rotunda should be painted “like mahogany,” in a city in which wood graining is the exclusive type of painted decoration, this is a very daring law. There seem to be people here who consider this kind of thing elegant. Since the railway and tramway cars—as well as the entire technique of carriage building—come from England, they are the only wooden objects that display pure colors. I now dare to assert that this kind of tramcar—especially one of the electric line—is more pleasing to me with its pure colors than it would be if, according to the principles of beauty set out by the exhibition committee, it had been painted “like mahogany.”

But a true feeling for elegance lies dormant, although deep and buried, even in our people. If not, the railway administration could not count on the fact that the brown color of the third-class cars painted to look like wood would call forth a lesser feeling of elegance than the green color of the second- and first-class cars.

I once demonstrated this unconscious feeling to one of my colleagues in a drastic manner. On the first floor of a building there were two apartments. The tenant of the one apartment had had his window bars, which had been stained brown, painted white at his own expense. We made a bet according to which we brought a certain number of people to the front of the building and, without pointing out to them the difference between the window bars, asked them on which side they felt that Herr Pluntzengruber lived and on which side Prince Liechtenstein—these were the two parties that we told them rented the apartments. All of those who were taken to the building unanimously declared that the wood-stained side was Pluntzengruber’s. Since then my colleague has only painted things white.

Wood staining is, of course, an invention of our century. The Middle Ages painted wood bright red for the most part, the Renaissance blue; the Baroque and Rococo painted interiors white, exteriors green. Our peasants still retain enough good sense to paint only with pure colors. Don’t the green gate and the green fence of the countryside, the green jalousies against the freshly whitewashed wall, have a charming effect? Unfortunately several villages have already adopted the taste of the exhibition commission.

One will still recall the moral indignation that arose in the camp of the surrogate arts and crafts when the first furniture painted with oil-base paint came to Vienna from England. But the rage of these good men was not directed against the paint. They painted with oil-base paints in Vienna too as soon as softwood came into use. But the fact that the English pieces dared to display their colors so openly and freely instead of imitating hardwood provoked these strange fellows. They rolled their eyes and acted as if they had never used oil-base colors at all. These gentlemen presumably thought that everyone hitherto had assumed their stained-wood furniture and buildings were actually made of hardwood.

I trust I can be assured of the Association’s gratitude if, after such observations, I name no names among the painters at the exhibition.

Applied to stuccowork, the principle of cladding would run like this: stucco can take any ornament with just one exception—rough brickwork. One would think the declaration of such a self-evident fact to be unnecessary, but just recently someone drew my attention to a building whose plaster walls were painted red and then seamed with white lines. Similarly, the type of decoration so beloved in kitchens—imitation stone squares—belongs in this category. In general, any and all materials used to cover walls—wallpaper, oilcloth, fabric, or tapestries—ought not to aspire to represent squares of brick or stone. It is thus easy to understand why the legs of our dancers when covered with knit stockinets have such an unaesthetic effect. Woven underclothing may be dyed any color at all, just not skin color.

The cladding material can keep its natural color if the area to be covered happens to be of the same color. Thus, I can smear tar on black iron or cover wood with another wood (veneer, marquetry, and so on) without having to color the covering wood; I can coat one metal with another by heating or galvanizing it. But the principle of cladding forbids the cladding material to imitate the coloration of the underlying material. Thus iron can be tarred, painted with oil colors, or galvanized, but it can never be camouflaged with a bronze color or any other metallic color.

Here chamottes and artificial stone tiles also deserve mention. The one kind imitates terrazzo (mosaic) paving, the other Persian carpets. Certainly there are people who actually take the tiles for what they are imitating—for the manufacturers must know their customers.

But no, you imitators and surrogate architects, you are mistaken! The human soul is too lofty and sublime for you to be able to dupe it with your tactics and tricks. Of course, our pitiful bodies are in your power. They have only five senses at their disposal to distinguish real from counterfeit. And at that point where the man with his sense organs is no longer adequate begins your true domain. There is your realm. But even here—you are mistaken once more! Paint the best inlays high, high up on the wood ceiling and our poor eyes will have to take it on good faith perhaps. But the divine spirits will not be fooled by your tricks. They sense that even those intarsia decorations most skillfully painted to look “like inlay” are nothing but oil paint.

Originally published in Neue Freie Press
September 4 1898

Available in the collection Ornament and Crime
2019 | Penguin Classics

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