“Absence of ornament has brought the other arts to unsuspected heights,” proclaimed Adolf Loos in his 1908 essay and lecture “Ornament and Crime.” The quote precedes the hundreds of photographs of modernist homes compiled in the new book Ornament is Crime: Modernist Architecture by Matt Gibberd and Albert Hill. “Beethoven’s symphonies would never have been written by a man who had to walk about in silk, satin, and lace,” the Loos quote continues. “Anyone who goes around in a velvet coat today is not an artist but a buffoon or a house painter.”
Perhaps some of Loos’s railing against Art Nouveau has not aged well, yet his reaction to the ostentatious decoration of some early 20th-century architecture was echoed through the Modernist styles that followed. Ornament is Crime, published by Phaidon, takes a broad look at what is “modernist” in design, ranging from Loos’s own architecture to familiar names from the movement, like Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray, and Mies van der Rohe, as well as contemporary work by Snøhetta, Tadao Ando, and David Adjaye. All are represented in black-and-white photographs, their chronology and geography thus blurred.
“The result is a visual manifesto that seeks to reposition Modernism as a style that has transcended the generations to emerge remarkably unscathed,” Gibberd writes in a book essay. “Very clear themes emerge: flat roofs, cubic or cylindrical structures, large windows in horizontal bands, a truth to materials, and a tendency towards plain-rendered exterior surfaces.”
Gibberd and Hill are cofounders of the London-based Modern House estate agency, and that background guided the focus on the standalone modern home. Ornament is Crime is not an academic book on Modernism, and its essay portion is short. As in Peter Chadwick’s This Brutal World, a similarly visual compendium published by Phaidon, there are just brief quotes accompanying the images. Some are isolated on colored pages, and many are more aesthetically linked to the homes than directly to the world of architecture. One is from Oscar Wilde (“Sin is the only real colour element left in modern life”); another is a Prince lyric (“I’ve seen the future / And it works”).
So readers interested in a deeper consideration of Modernism’s influence on 21st-century design may be disappointed. Seeing structures like Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s 1925 Villa La Roche in Paris on the same page as Tidy Arquitectos’s equally blocky 2008 Schkolnick House in Santiago, or Loos’s 1910 Steiner House in Vienna mingling with the similarly cubic 2011 Rieteiland House by Hans van Heeswijk in Amsterdam, does have some wordless communication about this heritage. However, with the fixation in the alt-right media on Modernism as a symbol of the liberal elite, and the fact that many examples of this architectural movement are in public housing, there is more to discuss in the appreciation of the stark style. Modernism in private homes remains much more niche than, say, the McMansion, even while the utilitarian use of raw materials seems as current as ever. Ultimately, as Gibberd writes, the “purpose of this book is to identify [Modernism’s] key aesthetic characteristics and show how this trailblazing of architectural styles is still thriving in the twenty-first century.”