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Absence of Criminal Intent

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Those painted houses of Tiébélé [c.f. Final Reductions, Building Nature] are still on my mind. I found myself wondering how the villagers would reply if they were asked if they thought their houses primitive or sophisticated? I doubt they’d understand the question, or think a house should have to be either, or even could be one or the other. I don’t think it’s one of their criteria for evaluating the worth of houses. Not so us. It’s time to re-read Ornament and Crime.

The gist of Loos’ argument is clear enough: Ornament is something only primitive cultures engage in. I’ll abridge.

The Papuan tattoos his skin, his boat, his rudder, his oars; in short, everything he can get his hands on. He is no criminal. The modern man who tattoos himself is a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons in which eighty per cent of the prisoners are tattooed. Tattooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.

… what is natural for, a Papuan and a child, is degenerate for modern man. I have discovered the following truth and present it to the world: cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of Ornament from articles in daily use.

Loos’ argument reveals prejudices other than the aesthetic. He’s saying ornament is acceptable in primitive cultures because the people don’t know any better.  He never intended it to be a criticism of Post Modernism but the gist of his argument still holds in the neoliberal jungle.

Ornament is wasted labour and hence wasted health. That’s how it has always been. Today, however, it is also wasted material, and both together add up to wasted capital. As ornament is no longer organically linked with our culture, it is also no longer an expression of our culture. Ornament as created today has no connection with us, has no human con­nections at all, no connection with the world as it is constituted. It cannot be developed.

In this short essay there’s a lot to dislike about either the argument or how it is made but it’s not without humour.

The form of an object should last (i.e., should be bearable) as long as the object lasts physically. I shall try to clarify this: A suit will change in fashion more often than a valuable fur. A ball gown for a lady, only meant for one night, will change its form more speedily than a desk But woe to the desk that has to be changed as quickly as a ball gown because its shape has become unbearable, for than the money spent on the desk will have been wasted.

Loos was aware of planned obsolescence and product cycles. He saw how the production and sale of furniture obeyed the same rules as fashion but mistakenly thought architecture was any different.

This is well-known to the ornamentalists, and Austrian ornamentalists try to make the most of it. They say: “A consumer who has his furniture for ten years and then can’t stand it anymore and has to re-furnish from scratch every ten years, is more popular with us than someone who only buys an item when the old one is worn out. Industry thrives on this. Millions are employed due to rapid changes.” This seems to be the secret of the Austrian national economy; how often when a fire breaks out one hears the words: “Thank God, now there will be something for people to do again.” I know a good remedy: burn down a town, burn down the country and everything will be swimming in wealth and well-being. Make furniture that you can use as firewood after three years and metal fittings that must be melted down after four years because even in the auction room you can’t realize a tenth of the outlay in work and materials, and we shall become richer and richer.

The loss does not hit only the consumer, it hits the manufacturer above all. Today, ornament on items that need no ornament means wasted labour and spoilt materials. If all objects were aesthetically enduring for as long as they lasted physically, the consumer could afford to pay a price that would enable the worker to earn more money and work shorter hours. I don’t mind spending four times as much for an article which I am certain I can make use of and use up completely as I would for one inferior in shape and material. … in trades suffering under the tyranny of the ornamentalists, good or bad work­manship does not count. The work suffers because nobody wants to pay its true value.

Loos sees a distaste for ornament as an indicator of cultural superiority vis-à-vis other cultures, as an indicator of progress of one’s own culture over time, and as an indicator of one’s social level vis-à-vis one’s own culture. Loos covers all bases and is determined not to leave any wriggle room. He has much faith in his level of culture.

Modern men who revere ornament as a sign of the artistic expression of earlier generations, will immediately recognise the painfully laboured and sickly ornament of today. No-one can create ornament now who lives on our level of culture.

It is different for people and nations who have not yet attained this level.

Back in December 2011 I wrote the following in a post called Architectural Dogma. The first part has some similarities with Loosian thought.


Completely purge the building of all notions of architectural beauty. This would be a better use of resources and we would at last be able to see if a beauty-neutral building really makes us feel that bad after all.


People wishing to “add beauty” should be made to prove that what they are adding
1) Does not compromise the performance of the building,
2) Can be achieved without the use of additional resources, and
3) Actually is beautiful.

Misfits’ believes satisfying even one of these three conditions is impossible without a total re-think of what it is we want beauty to be.

Perhaps that time has come, and that my fascination with the painted houses of Tiébélé is due to them meeting the conditions of The Misfits’ Challenge.

1) The decorative painting doesn’t compromise the performance of the building and may even enhance performance in some extended and less tangible sense. tells me the designs depict the history and legends of the Kassena people who first settled the area in the fifteenth century. One such legend involves a sacred crocodile that helped villagers cross a mighty river. I can sort of see it now.

It matters little what you or I think. We assume the villagers derive some sort of satisfaction from painting their houses in this way but we have no idea what that satisfaction is. Maybe it’s just something they do out of habit without knowing or caring why. Even though we see the paint jobs as fancy graphics, we like to think the retelling of the crocodile legend serves to connect the villagers to their place but there’s a huge difference between ornament being used spontaneously and autonomously to connect people to a place and ornament being used cynically and ruthlessly to tell people what their place is. It’s a difference of intent.

2) The decorative painting can be achieved without the use of additional resources. 

Tiébélé society is agricultural and the decorative painting is performed by the women of the village. The houses are painted with a paint made from dirt, chalk and clay, and then polished and finished with a coat of lacquer made from a local plant. Additional resources are used but they have no cost. The labour involves no cost. This is an important difference between ornament in Loos’ society and ornament in Tiébélé society.  Loos’ economic arguments against ornament aren’t universally valid. If cheap ornament is popular in our societies then it only proves we are unwilling to make it ourselves from no-cost resources, or don’t want to pay somebody else to make it.

3) The decorative painting actually IS beautiful.

There are no absolutes when it comes to beauty. It is, apparently, in the eye of the beholder. Or, as philosopher David Hume put it, “

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves
– it exists merely in the mind that contemplates them.”

We know what Loos’ position was with his 1911 Vienna building now known as “LoosHaus”. The story goes that in the face of local and municipal opposition to its austere facade, Loos relented and added the windowboxes to the upper levels.

There’s a full line of them on the second floor, three on the level above and two on the level above that, all combining to form a diagonal pattern familiar to Viennese. It was simple and inexpensive, it made some people happy, and it made absolutely no difference to the building, which was a bank. I suspect the municipality was just showing Loos who was boss. You don’t see many photographs of those window boxes a riot of geraniums, petunias or marigolds.

Ornament as pretentious display doesn’t seem to have much aesthetic durability, as Loos observed. Perhaps the problem is with the qualifier pretentious. As far as ornament or is concerned, the first of the two houses below is obviously painted and patterned and the second [possibly also in Mali] has a pattern resulting from a construction process. I don’t see much difference between an applied pattern and one that may be intrinsic but is no less handmade. They’re both decorative. They’re both beautiful and I suspect it’s due to the lack of aesthetic (a.k.a. architectural) pretentiousness of both.

I see Tōgō Murano’s Memorial Cathedral of World Peace in Hiroshima as containing two more examples of The Misfit’s Challenge being satisfied. Bear in mind that construction began within one year of August 6, 1945. [c.f: Architecture Misfit #21: Tōgō Murano]

• • •

The carved window frames are obviously decorative in a traditional sense but what of the ordered pattern to the protruding bricks that make the infill appear to be floating independently of the concrete frame? See how the mortar appears to ooze from between the bricks, as if the building itself was weeping? In both instances, a minor contrivance has been applied to a construction process to generate poetic effect.

As far as the protruding bricks go, all someone has to do is think of it and another person keep track of when to do it. As for the mortar, the bricks must have it anyway and who’s to say if it’s more contrived to make the mortar weep like this or to point it with precision? In other words, is this bricklaying decorative as an intrinsic result of a construction process akin to that of the house I used above for comparison, or is this bricklaying decorative and intended to have meaning in the same sense as the painted houses do? Either way,

1) The decorative bricklaying doesn’t compromise the performance of the building and may even enhance performance in some extended and less tangible sense.  

2) The decorative bricklaying can be achieved without the use of additional resources. 

and, if you go with my interpretation above,

3) The decorative bricklaying actually IS beautiful.

• • •

17 Nov. 2018 Update
Here’s another example of ornament that passes The Misfits’ Challenge. It’s an old apartment building in one of the older parts of Dubai. I mentioned it in the 2016 post Misfits’ Guide to Dubai.

I always admire these apartments whenever I have reason to drive by. The ground floor apartments with their privacy and noise issues show how limited the budget must have been. Still, someone did the best they could to make the building attractive with overhangs and simple shading devices despite little budget for either. The sole decoration is the absence of balconies marking entrances and softening the corners of the building. These absences interrupt the balconies and the roof and parapet above. It’s architectural ornamentation yes, but it’s cost nothing




  • The houses are painted with a paint made from dirt, chalk and clay, and then polished and finished with a coat of lacquer made from a local plant. Additional resources are used but they have no cost. The labour involves no cost

    This isn’t remotely true, is it? It definitely involves a cost to the people who perform it. If the building wasn’t decorated, they wouldn’t have to do it. Perhaps you mean that the women of the village are expected to do it for no pay, but that’s not costlessness, it’s just exploitation.

    Or it’s considered worth doing for its own sake, as art. That doesn’t mean it’s not work though!

    • Hello Yorks, It’s true what you say about it being exploitation if only the women are expected to do it and for no (monetary) reward but then what of the men who are expected to do all the agriculture for no (monetary) reward? I prefer to think that the decoration is worth doing for its own sake and that the people that do it derive from it the additional satisfaction of doing it. Our frameworks of reference aren’t necessarily valid for cultures that, for better or worse or for one reason or another, don’t have the same values as us – a notion Loos was oblivious to. Graham.