Ornament Beyond Ornament: Adolf Loos’ Tribune Tower

Adolf Loo’s entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower might never have been built but its massive dark image weighs heavy on the architectural imagination. A giant black marble, 21 story Doric column, standing on a cyclopean base and scaled up to skyscraper size is at once the dumb and provocative.

Especially coming from the same hand as Ornament and Crime, that hyperactive spiky cri de coeur, that desperate yet funny diatribe. Indeed, maybe its the tone of his text that might help us understand this most mysterious of Modern statements. Maybe it was sketched with the same calligraphic sweep as his manuscript. A drawing as manifesto, provocation etched into built form.

We could even understanding it working like a text, casting Loos as opinionated columnist where he is using architectural language to articulate a position. And what a strange position that is:

The building looks like a monument but its monumentality is, we must assume, an intentionally empty bad joke: a newspaper column monumentalised as a newspaper office. It may look like a column but it holds nothing up. The usual white Grecian marble is inverted as shiny black as though it were some kind of Bakelite desk toy. And of course, it inverts Loos’s own position as set out in Ornament and Crime. He gives us, instead of having “gone beyond ornament” with “plain, undecorated simplicity”, an ornament ne pas ultra.

Its inversion continues. The Tribune Tower is the most austere of ornaments. Not something comforting but an aggressive challenge. Loos’s Tribune Tower is dark. Not just in colour but in tone. It’s perversity and irony can only be read as a sarcastic gift to the cultural hobgoblins he describes in Ornament and Crime, as critique-by-fulfilment of an architectural culture that he stood against. Loos saw his Tribune Tower as an inevitable product of the culture he witheringly despised.

He wrote “The great Greek Doric column must be built. If not in Chicago, then in some other town. If not for the ‘Chicago Tribune’ then for someone else. If not by me, then by some other architect”.

The Tribune Tower is way, through all of its inversions, to tell a truth. Through utter deviancy Loos delivers the purest of architectural critiques, wrapped up in an indelible architectural image.

Tribune Tower plan, Adolf Loos

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