Japanese professor brings ‘Raumplan’ of visionary architect Adolf Loos to life in models

Yoshiro Sakurai, photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

Japanese professor of architecture Yoshio Sakurai has over the past twelve years visited every building ever realised by Adolf Loos, the Brno-born pioneer of European Modern architecture in the early 20th century. A sketchbook and camera in hand, Prof. Sakurai was on a mission that has now been fulfilled: to create exact scale models of Loos’s best works.

Yoshiro Sakurai,  photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

Adolf Loos is perhaps best known for his radical philosophy that “ornament is crime” – manifested in houses taking the form of stark cubes, devoid of lavish external fin de siècle flourishes, yet intricate on many levels, figuratively and literally.

The influential architect is especially celebrated for his innovative ways of arranging interior spaces, in what he called a “Raumplan”, or a spatial plan – a deceptively simple term, describing the considered ordering and size of interiors. It was his way of dividing up rooms and spaces on both horizontal and vertical planes, physically and visually, based on function.

The overall effect cannot be readily gleaned from studying blueprints – it must be experienced in the flesh, as Prof. Sakurai of Toyo University explained at the Prague vernissage of his exhibit Adolf Loos Models, held in the grand salon of Villa Winternitz – the last project that Loos ever realised, in 1932.

“It was around 12 years ago that I started visiting the architecture of Adolf Loos … and I was astonished by the spatiality. During this time, we tried to understood the spatiality by making models. And finally, we made in total around 30 models. They kindly gave me a chance to make an exhibition here. We brought 13 models and arrived today.”

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

The “we” to which Prof. Sakurai was referring there in his opening remarks are his students at Toyo University, who spent countless painstaking hours over many weeks helping him to bring all the 1:50 scale models to life.

The “they” are David Cysař, whose great-grandfather commissioned Adolf Loos to build the functionalist Villa Winternitz, and his wife, Kristina. Together they administer the building, which is now open to the public after a complete renovation.

Although Prof. Sakurai’s visits to Adolf Loos buildings throughout central Europe began a decade earlier, it was only a few years ago that the model project began taking shape.

“During these two or three years, we started building the models and got in contact with every owner of buildings by Adolf Loos – in Vienna, in Prague – and they were always kind, and always enjoyed his architecture. Adolf Loos makes life happier for everyone, I think.”

“So, we arrived here, making models with the support of every owner, especially those of houses in Vienna. They were very kind in giving us materials and let us take photos to help us make the models.”

“All the materials are different because Adolf Loos himself changed things on the building site. So, all the plans are different and we have to analyse them. We have to decide which are right or wrong – or which may be right or may be wrong. It depends on the analysis of the space.”

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

Adolf Loos, born in 1870 into a German-speaking family in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, suffered from progressive hearing loss. By the time he reached his mid-50s, he relied on a hearing trumpet.

At the same time, Loos did not speak Czech and some of his projects here, such as the Villa Winternitz, may have been drawn up by his partner, an architect from Pilsen named Karel Lhota. After visiting the construction site, or perhaps earlier, Loos may have made changes. Much remains shrouded in mystery, says Prof. Sakurai.

The models by Prof. Sakurai and his students took on average about two months to complete, in part because he wanted to be faithful to how the buildings were actually realised, not to how they were planned – as plans have a tendency to change.

Although in most cases original blueprints do exist, he says, there are many handwritten notations on them, showing revisions that in some cases were realised in the final structures and in others cases were not.

I asked him how Prof. Sakurai, a Japanese architect, came to be so taken by Loos.

“That’s a long story! I studied architecture in Venice, Italy. My professor at the time very much loved the architecture of Adolf Loos. So, I learned from him, but I couldn’t understand what were the fascinating points in his architecture. So I started visiting, for example, the Loos houses and American Bar in Vienna. But it was always mysterious at that time.”

“After that, in the Czech Republic, some buildings began to open to the public. For example, the Villa Müller (in Prague) and also some Loos interiors in Pilsen. And finally I found the fascinating points over those twelve years.”

How long ago was it, actually, when you began studying under that professor?

“In the eighties. And in 1986 I visited the first (Loos building) in Vienna.”

You are considered the Japanese expert on Loos. Did you do your PhD on his work?

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

“I’m an architect not a researcher. So at that time, I was only visiting and taking photos. That’s all. But now I’m a professor at university, so I’m now doing many theses with researchers and publishing in Japan, not in the world. But we have now published A+U magazine, an international magazine, so maybe it is a starting point to extend my activity all over the world.”

In the earlier presentation, it was noted how Loos had been influenced by Japanese architecture and now it’s come full circle. Can you explain some of the elements that you recognise from Japanese architecture in his work?

“Fundamentally, European space and Japanese space are different. But modern space based on great architects such as Adolf Loos almost always reflects some idea of Japanese architecture or culture. Recognising the space could be imposed by many layers, or many elements that combine in one feature. And Adolf Loos created space continuity with different levels and so on. Maybe something aspects of Japanese culture influenced something, but it’s not very clear. So we have to find out now – especially me, a Japanese architect – would like to find what is the continuity between the cultures or influences between them.”

As a layperson, decidedly not an expert, I would guess that part of it is a certain minimalism and also all these sliding doors, and hidden spaces…

“Yes. Physically, yes – sliding doors are one influence from Japanese culture. And also sliding doors assure the continuity of spaces. Yes – open and sliding into the wall to create the continuity. Maybe that is a point. You are right. (laughs) I’m sorry I didn’t note it at first, but I have to say so.”

A ‘lost house’ for Josephine Baker

‘Lost house’ for Josephine Baker,  photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

Adolf Loos spent most of his adult life in Vienna, where he had an atelier and was a regular at the city’s coffee houses and cabarets. His best known Czech work is without question Villa Müller, completed in the Prague suburb of Střešovice in 1930.

He was commissioned by the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara to build a house in Montmartre (in 1917) and possibly was also asked to do so by the legendary cabaret singer Josephine Baker. He might have been exploiting his hearing loss to generate “misunderstandings” as to whether he had in fact been given a commission.

In any case, Prof. Sakurai lovingly built a model of Loos’s Josephine Baker house – which was never realised – as well as models of his famous standing projects and small houses that were commissioned but never built.

“We cannot know if Josephine Baker asked him to make plans. It was the third wife of Adolf Loss (Claire Beck) who said they had met in a cabaret or theatre and Josephine Baker said she had a plan from an architect but it was terrible. And he said, ‘I can do one for you!’ And she said, ‘Oh, you are an architect?’ That’s the story. We don’t know if she ordered it from him or he voluntarily made plans for her. It’s mysterious. And it remains like that.”

Whatever the case with Josephine Baker, and other plans commissioned or otherwise, Loos was certainly a prolific writer and a prominent figure. Over three decades he delivered polemical arguments in leading newspapers and journals, as well as in public lectures, about the role of art and architecture in everyday life. His buildings continue to inspire architect today, including Prof. Sakurai.

I suppose it’s quite difficult to choose one, but do you have a favourite – or perhaps favourites from different stages of his development?

“My favourite is the Müller house. It’s very interesting and stimulated me. From the entrance to the public space is a magical space. Müller is my favourite but also Scheu House (1913, Vienna) and the Rufer House (1922, Vienna). Rufer is the first compete house with the Raumplan. Villa Moller (1928, Viennia) is the best example of Raumplan.”

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

‘Ornament and crime’

Loos’s most famous essay, “Ornament and crime”, written in 1910 but published much later, was written when the Art Nouveau or Secession style was all the rage. The essence of what Loos repeatedly argued then and in his 1921 essay collection “Spoken into the Void” was that art had nothing to do with the everyday utilitarian object: “Everything that serves a purpose,” he wrote, “should be excluded from the realms of art.”

The architect’s own interiors, often lush with marble and textured wood, may seem to belie that at first glance. But in part they were intended not simply as visual features but as elements of a carefully engineered acoustics – perhaps to offset his hearing loss. Even in the case of Loos’s American Bar, a tiny temple of resplendent mahogany, onyx and marble. Or so the theory goes.

The exhibition Adolf Loos Models by Toyo University professor Yoshio Sakurai and his students is on display at Villa Winternitz in Prague until 16 June 2019. www.loosovavila.cz

Loos wrote many texts about the theory of architecture. Did he give clues about specific buildings – what he was trying to achieve?

“He himself? He tells almost nothing in particular about a single building – he was against (Modernist pioneer and fellow Moravian) Josef Hoffman and the tendencies of that time – but said nothing really about his own projects. So, it is not sure how he reached the simple form, but he really understand that the simple form is the expression of the new society to come.”