Loos' legacy lives on in Prague
His Vila Muller smooths out a turbulent career
Why would I set out on a snow-flurried Sunday morning shortly before Christmas for the Orechovka tram stop and climb a steep stairway to a sleek white cube of a home with yellow window frames perched high above Stresovicka street? Because I was one of seven people lucky enough to book the 10 a.m. tour of a villa that the Brno-born Viennese architect Adolf Loos, a father of functional architecture, built in 10 months of 1929-30 for Frantisek Muller, head of a large Plzen (Pilsen) building firm.
"The Muller villa was meant for a family of three, plus occasional guests and a nanny and the chauffeur, for an ideal total of seven persons," says cashier Jitka Viltova. "So after it was renovated in the second half of the ,90s and opened to the public as a museum last year, we thought seven visitors at a time would be the right number."
Adolf Loss. Born: Dec. 10, 1870, in Brno
Educated: Technical University, Dresden, 1889-90, 1892-93
Married: Lina Obertimpfler, actress, 1902, divorced 1905; Else Altmann, dancer, 1919, divorced 1926; Claire Beck, photographer, 1929, divorced 1932
Died: Aug. 23, 1933, in Vienna Though the windows are framed outside in bright yellow to lend an impression of flowers blooming on the slopes of Stresovice, the room in which Viltova takes my money is painted a much duller yellow. It used to be worse. It is here where tradespeople and casual callers were received; neither Muller nor Loos wanted them to linger long, so the room was painted in an unappealing mix of purple, black and yellow. The reception room where I hang my coat and strap on slippers while waiting for the guide is almost as austere, but brightened by a radiator painted flaming red: a motif that will be repeated throughout the building.
Lest one find such functionalism off-putting, the first main stop and hub of the tour -- the living room -- is anything but. It isn't just split-level, it is split-levels: perhaps the finest existing example of Loos' doctrine of Raumplan, or Living Space: a cascading style which broke down such horizontal concepts labeled vertically as upstairs and downstairs, first and second floor, etc. So many different rooms on different levels -- starting with a mahogany dining room on a mezzanine -- are reached via the living room that guides are hard put to decide whether the Vila Muller is three stories or four. One of those rooms, the lady-of-the-house's boudoir, is a mini-classic of Raumplan built on two levels: one for napping, the other for entertaining and looks down onto the living room through an interior window.
Elegantly clad in green Swiss marble and radiant in northern light, that large living room -- looming larger because its center is kept bare -- feels surprisingly cozy thanks to two fish tanks (one salt water, one sweet) and a surprising assortment of chairs. Two of them are recliners: The larger white one was used by Muller, who was, the guide informs us, 190 centimeters (6 feet 3 inches) tall; the smaller orange one by his wife Milada (a head shorter at 155 centimeters, or 5 feet 1 inch).
I could share the ample wonders of Vila Muller with you for a whole column, but I'd rather you saw it for yourself. Don't miss the dining room's round table, built in rings that could expand its capacity from six to 12 to 18 guests sitting on "Chippendale-style" chairs: one original from England plus 17 copied in Prague. Or Milada Mullerova's wedding china and glassware. Or the Mullers' art collection, starting with five Jan Preislers (four of them original) in the dining room. Then there's the sliding drawer for outgoing mail in Muller's study; the dressing rooms built to their users' heights and, on the top floor, the summer dining room: part Japanese and the rest in the 1920s Viennese "coffeehouse aesthetic." On the spacious terrace outside, a "false window" frames a glorious view of Prague Castle.
The Vila Muller is open for touring only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, including during the holiday season. Hourlong tours begin at 10 a.m., noon, 2 and 4 p.m. in groups limited to seven persons and must be reserved in advance. Tel. 2431 2012 or e-mail: email@example.com A tour in Czech costs 300 Kc ($8.50) or 200 Kc for "students, pensioners and invalids." Tours in English or other foreign languages may be reserved in advance for a surcharge of 100 Kc a person. Address: Nad Hradnim vodojemem 14, Prague 6. Trams 1, 2 and 18 to Orechovka. The Wright stuff Let me tell you instead about the man who made Vila Muller. Born into a German-speaking Moravian Jewish family in 1870, Adolf Loos trained with his father, a stonemason and sculptor. After studying architecture in Dresden and settling in Vienna, he traveled around America for three years, writing music criticism and washing dishes to make ends meet. At the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he encountered the work of the functionalist pioneer Louis H. Sullivan (1863-1924). Sullivan had said that his fellow architects should "refrain entirely from the use of ornament ... in order that our thought might concentrate upon the production of buildings well-formed and comely in the nude."
Frank Lloyd Wright (1869- 1959), who apprenticed under Sullivan for seven years, later credited Loos with doing for European architecture what he, Wright, was doing in the United States. Upon his return to Vienna, Loos designed the Cafe Museum, whose severity earned it the local epithet of "Cafe Nihilism," and declared war on the "Potemkin Village" architectural deceit that prevailed in the Austrian capital. In 1908, Loos published his most famous work, Ornament and Crime, and in 1910-11 designed and built his most controversial work, the "House Without Eyebrows."
Erected opposite the entrance to the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) and facing the Baroqued medieval St. Michael's Church, the starkly straightforward, functional store and apartment house on the Michaelerplatz was an instant affront, eyesore and scandal to Viennese decorative tastes. Not only did it lack arches over the windows, but critics also deplored its "sewer-lid facade" and "desolate poverty" amidst "marble splendor." It was said that the declining Emperor Franz Joseph, who died in 1916, stopped using the Michaelerplatz exit of his palace so as not to lay eyes on the Loos house. Nowadays, well-preserved after nearly a century, it harmonizes unobtrusively yet effectively with the square's somber grandeur.
Disturbingly smooth Nearly two decades after the House Without Eyebrows raised eyebrows in Vienna, Loos ran into similar problems in Prague when the City Council rejected Muller's first application for a building permit because the facade was "too smooth" and the design "disturbing." But, after almost a year's delay, token revisions were accepted and construction began.
Thrice divorced and living unhappily in Austria (after the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918, he had taken Czechoslovak citizenship), Loos hit the skids soon after he celebrated his 60th birthday visiting the Mullers in their new villa, which he considered his most beautiful achievement. Ruin awaited him back in Vienna, where (he said in a 1930 interview) "one must constantly fight something evil."
Like the painter Egon Schiele, who was prosecuted for obscenity in Austria in 1911 for drawing child nudes after being driven out of Krumau (now Cesky Krumlov), Loos was accused of "importuning children." Apparently, his penchant for bringing waifs home for a meal and a bath was misconstrued. He was acquitted. But the three-week pretrial interrogation had unhinged him and, after medical treatments in two spas in western Bohemia and a sanatorium in Vienna, he moved to France. His friend and protege, the painter Oskar Kokoschka, visited Loos in Paris toward the end. Unable to keep a dinner date at a restaurant that featured lobster in a red sauce, the bedridden Loos told his guest they'd eat together anyway. Reaching between his filthy sheets, Loos took out a huge lobster in tomato sauce and swung it wildly in the air. Function before ornament!
By Alan Levy
Alan Levy's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
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