Location, View and Tourism

In 1930 Adolf Loos completed two buildings: the (famous, urban) Müller House in Prague and the (not famous, rural) Landhaus Khuner in Payerbach, Lower Austria, some 90 kilometres from Vienna – two designs that could not be more different in appearance. While the Müller House is defined by the austere rectilinearity of its compact white cubic aesthetic, the Landhaus Khuner, being a country retreat designed for Paul Khuner and family as a vacation home, is almost rustic in its look with log-and-stone construction sheltered under a pitched roof and exterior colours ranging from grey and dark brown to green and red. Significantly, in the literature on Loos written after the Second World War the Müller House is hailed as a masterpiece, exemplary of the architect’s rejection of ornamentation, even the culmination of his oeuvre. Since then there has been a consistent flow of interest in the Prague house from the likes of Beatriz Colomina [1].

Around the Landhaus Khuner, in contrast, there has developed only a sort of hush – maybe precisely because it differs so strongly from Loos’s other realised projects. Or perhaps, from a perspective after the Second World War with hindsight about what had happened in 1930s Austria (a takeover by the far-right government being followed by the 1938 Nazi Anschluss), any association with traditional Austrian heritage was immediately suspect. Hence the Landhaus Khuner, when mentioned at all, is fleetingly treated with cautious interpretations [1: p.271–272]; oftentimes is simply omitted from accounts of Loos’s contribution. Most conspicuously, it was left out of subsequent exhibitions such as the 1985 Arts Council Exhibition on Adolf Loos, held in London. The result today is that several generations of architects, although readily introduced to Loos’s work, have remained unaware of the Landhaus Khuner. What this essay will do, therefore, is to offer a critique and reinterpretation of the house to help reintegrate it into our wider understanding of European twentieth-century architecture.

The crucial aspect to stress from the outset is the location of the Landhaus Khuner on the side of a mountain known as Kreuzberg, just outside Payerbach. Probably the most striking feature of this house is the stunning Alpine view it commands. Understanding the site is thus critical to an interpretation as it is not by chance that the building is placed where it is, in the Semmering Pass. Indeed, the Landhaus Khuner looks out upon the Rax and the Schneeberg, the last mountains above 2,000 metres on the eastern periphery of the Alps. In the divide between these two peaks lies the Höllental (Valley of Hell). The area is one of spectacular natural beauty [2: p.298–317].

Yet it is also the proximity of the Semmering Pass to Vienna that led to the area’s early development as a vacation resort. Between 1848 and 1854 the first railroad ever to be laid in mountains anywhere in the world was built there by Carl Ritter von Ghega [3]. Sixteen viaducts and fifteen tunnels were constructed, at the time a tremendous technical achievement (Figure 1). The modernity of this endeavour, in combination with the application of traditional building methods and materials (stonemasonry no less!), were, according to Wolfgang Kos, as appealing to the Viennese as the recreational value of the landscape. The train ride itself became an experience, with guidebooks in the early part of the twentieth century pointing out the most strategic compartment in which to sit so as to maximize one’s enjoyment of the vistas [4: p.22–23].

Figure 1 

Payerbach in 1854 with railway line and viaduct in the background [Courtesy of Ludwig Czerny and Carl Ritter von Ghega].

In his autobiography the Austrian playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler, a contemporary and acquaintance of Adolf Loos, mentions Payerbach’s train station. It is the year 1886 and the young Schnitzler is courting Olga Waissnix, wife of the proprietor of the Thalhof in Reichenau, a popular venue for Viennese society. Also located in the Semmering Pass, this retreat is likewise easily accessible from the city by train. Schnitzler writes:

‘And so almost eight days had passed … when finally, I was once again driven towards the Thalhof from the Payerbach train station, in a smart horse carriage according to the elegant Reichenau custom …’ [5: p.245]

The lives of Adolf Loos and Arthur Schnitzler outside of Vienna intersected not only in their fondness for this popular retreat. As Schnitzler mentions in his diary entry for 1st October 1911, on their way to the Semmering Pass the two men shared a compartment on the train. They talked about Loos’s Goldman and Salatsch menswear store on the Michaelerplatz, and the bitter public criticisms of its design, as well as about the poet Peter Altenberg [6: p.269]. This chance meeting was symptomatic of the close-knit cultural circles of what was termed ‘Young Vienna’, where the public realms of the published word, the coffee house, the train and the country hotel became synapses between different artistic directions.

In his analysis of literary attitudes to the role of landscape in the making of early-twentieth century Vienna, Dirk Niefanger – citing Kos and also Schnitzler – points out that this nearby countryside, in spite of its obvious recreational value, was regarded primarily as a background feature [4: p.23]. Sitting on the terraces of Alpine hotels, the views could be consumed for their atmospheric attraction: in this sense, the hotel terraces were the stages of activity, with the mountains as the theatrical setting. Speaking of his sojourn with his surreptitious lover at the Thalhof, Schnitzler described the same view that could later be seen from the Landhaus Khuner:

‘… thus the two of us were likely to stand for a couple of seconds, separate from the others, on a mountain slope with the view towards the evening valley; Olga drew lines in the air with the tip of her umbrella, as if explaining the area to me while she whispered: “Tell me again that you love me – I can listen to it a thousand times – if you knew how much I adore you.” Was it the Rax or the Schneeberg, reaching before me into the scarlet sky? Then and even years later I did not know, and could not discern them, since I hardly ventured for scarcely more than a quarter of an hour from the building, at the door of which, on the verandah of which, in the courtyard or garden of which the beloved could have at any moment appeared. Rax, Schneeberg, the woodland paths, the meadows, the sky above, all this was then hardly countryside to me. They were stage scenery, backdrops …’ [5: p.246]

The Alpine countryside had hence become yet another facet of Viennese cultural life. As if in a melodramatic performance the intricacies and intrigues of fin-de-siècle Vienna were simply transposed to a different scene. Elite society met there not by chance: trips were arranged together, and the available accommodations were just as ample as those found in the city [4: p.23]. It created an artificial rural fantasy, devoid of the actual discomforts and isolation experienced by most people who lived in the rural German-speaking provinces of what was then still the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And as such, fresh air and Alpine views became commodities, as did a train ride, a clean bed, and a hot cup of coffee.

Locating the Landhaus Khuner on the Kreuzberg thus gave it a prime location, not only in regard to its proximity via train link to Vienna, but also to magnificent scenographic views. Located on a sloping site, two of the house’s elevations effectively face back into the hillside, and thus are heavily constrained, meaning that the Landhaus Khuner appears to have only two visible frontages. The first of these is the north elevation, which is the de facto main façade of the building, since it looks out over the panorama provided by the Rax and the Schneeberg (Figure 2); the second is a westerly elevation that greets the approaching visitor, and which is overlooked by the sizeable window of the male client’s study/office on the ground floor and by the smaller windows of the wife’s and husband’s bedrooms on the first floor (Figure 3). The approaching visitor is therefore already firmly under the gaze of the house’s owners and has to ascend an external staircase to reach the large sheltered ground-floor terrace, which Loos has recessed by pulling in the end of the western facade. This outdoor stairway projects from the compact rectangle of the house’s plan, yet otherwise it is fully integrated visually into the basement level, both having been constructed of greenish-grey irregular stonework hewn out of the site from which the building rises (Figure 4).

Figure 2 

Northern aspect of the Landhaus Khuner (1928–30) [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 3 

Western aspect of the Landhaus Khuner, with access path [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 4 

Plans and elevation of the Landhaus Khuner [Courtesy of Heinrich Kulka].

There is however also a smaller, second entrance to the Landhaus Khuner that is virtually buried into the hillside on its eastern façade, at the far corner. In this way, the arrangement by Loos provides two contrasting points of access, diametrically opposite to each other. Intriguingly, in both cases the lower flights of the external staircases feed from two directions up to a landing that then consolidates them into a single upwards flight. When ascending the main external staircase, intended primarily for summer use, the visitors would no doubt have been initially distracted by the stunning mountain views, perhaps neglecting to glance through the picture window of the office on their right-hand side as they walked up. But they could not have failed to notice the highly convoluted path of the stair flights and intermediate landings, which in total requires them to charge direction by 90 degrees no less than five times. This main entrance staircase hence presents an almost labyrinthine character, its twists and turns unpredictable and not establishing any rhythm, taking over the visitor’s concentration – compelling them to follow the path that Loos had prescribed, while all the time being under observation by the house’s inhabitants (Figure 5). Arriving at the recessed terrace, the large glass doors that led into the ground floor living room would have stood open on a summer’s day, dissolving the boundaries between inside and outside, merging their distinctions, with just a couple of steps in between. Is the outside terrace therefore a part of the interior, or is the living room a part of the exterior? This distinction no longer seems to matter: they are both and neither.

Figure 5 

Western elevation showing the summer access route up to the Landhaus Khuner [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

In winter, in contrast, the ground floor of Landhaus Khuner was accessed by means of smaller stairs up to the far less conspicuous door in the eastern façade (Figure 6). Entering by this route, a very cramped hallway with a second lobby door – designed to keep out the cold wind – is flanked to its left by a room in which one could deposit skiing equipment, hiking boots and such like. This dark passage leads into a larger vestibule, a brighter area that operates effectively as the ‘turnstile’ of the house – its key logistical node. From the vestibule in one direction there is a corridor with a lavatory and which leads to the servants’ rooms of the kitchen, pantry and cellar staircase; in the other direction is the staircase up to the first floor (where again Loos repeats the idea of a twisting ascent, albeit not as elaborately as he did outside, with two lower flights joining at a landing), a door into a corridor along which lie two of the house’s four guest rooms, and most importantly of all, a doorway opening into the main central living room – and which, as noted, can also be accessed via the glazed exterior doors at the finale of the main summer entrance route (Figure 7).

Figure 6 

Southeastern aspect showing the door for winter access [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 7 

Vestibule of the Landhaus Khuner [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Using Loos’s familiar device of spatial suppression and release, the cramped rear entrance and vestibule (and associated rooms) are given a very low ceiling height intentionally kept at just 2.26 metres, with no forewarning of the dramatic Alpine vista one is about to experience in the main living room, where there is a double-height galleried volume of grandeur and daylight (Figure 8). The feeling of spatial relief is exhilarating. Loos termed this main living room the ‘hall’, and its key purpose is to connect occupants to the scenographic landscape through what can best be described as a glazed wall – I intentionally refrain from calling it a window, since it also contains the doors onto the external terrace – that spans from flank-to-flank and from floor-to-ceiling. It affords the genuinely magnificent spectacle of the Alpine landscape beyond. Indeed, the view through this glass wall, enhanced by the clarity of the mountain air, is overpowering to a point that it seems almost unreal. The effect is a mixture of surprise and disbelief that any landscape could be ‘captured’ in such a way. Thus, the Landhaus Khuner is inseparable from the panorama that emerges into its central living room via the large glass-wall screen onto which the hyper-realistic scenery appears almost as if it were projected as a film.

Figure 8 

Main living room/hall with its glazed exterior wall/doors and seating arrangement [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

The hall’s double-height rectangular area is sparsely furnished and yet there is an intriguing seating assembly next to the glazed external wall and terrace outside. Consisting of a round table encircled by five armchairs, only two of which are of the same kind, this irregular arrangement offers varying degrees of cushioning. As such, it accommodates each person’s need for diverse comfort requirements and thereby simultaneously emphasises a sense of individuality. Five people can gather around this single unifying locus, like planets around a sun. They are unable to huddle together in a group, as would be possible on a sofa, and the different chairs refute the feeling of equality afforded by identical seating. Those sitting in this area are hence not only exposed to the grandeur of the room and its view, but also to a realization of their own personality, based upon their selected seating preference. Again, this seating area acts like a stage, surrounded by the gallery on three sides, and offering maximum visibility to its occupants both internally and externally.

At the far end of the hall, back towards the small eastern entrance, is a large inglenook fireplace – and next to this, in the forms of a recessed niche, is the dining area (Figure 9). In both these spaces Loos also reduces the height to 2.26 metres, with their low ceilings reinforcing the notion of shelter in contrast to the psychological overexposure of the double-storey hall. Once again, Loos’s choice of furnishing controls the formation of clusters. Seating within the inglenook is gathered as two groups around the hearth, each defined by identically upholstered, built-in benches facing each other. In the dining niche, around three sides of a square table sit six equal chairs, grouped into pairs, while the table’s fourth side has a built-in bench positioned beneath a high-level oblong window. It means that any views of the outside are impossible while one is eating, and equally that the people dining there cannot be seen from the outside by anyone approaching the house.

Figure 9 

Interior view of the main hall, showing the lower areas and the gallery above [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

If anything, the Landhaus Khuner seems obsessed with points of observation and presentation: this is vouched for by the multiple balconies and terraces, the glazed exterior wall of the main hall, the picture window in the male client’s study/office, as well as by the rooftop terrace (Figure 10) – a type of ‘widow’s walk’ that was common in nineteenth century homes along the North American coastlines, yet unusual to say the least in a rural Austrian setting. Yet in the 1931 publication by Heinrich Kulka, who had been Loos’s student before becoming his assistant, and which Loos clearly controlled, these features of observation and presentation were concealed, manipulated or else understated [7: p.42–43, ill.244–256]. The roof terrace was simply not mentioned at all in Kulka’s description of the Landhaus Khuner. No photograph of the eastern facade was provided, making it hard for readers to understand the winter access route to the house that also doubles as a servants’ entrance. An even stranger facet of Kulka’s book is its deliberate understatement of the stunning vista one gets through the main hall’s glazed wall. Rather than asking the appointed photographer, Martin Gerlach, to take a straight on shot out towards the mountains, the diagonal view of the hall that Kulka included instead – presumably at Loos’s direction – simply shows the seating assembly with a foreshortened view onto some surrounding woods. There is no Rax, no Schneeberg, only a typical group of fir trees.

Figure 10 

Southwest aspect of building showing its roof terrace [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

But perhaps most deceptive of all in Kulka’s book was the photographic image of the view out of the study/office to the west (Figure 11). The image that he uses is in fact a fictitious photomontage combining a shot of the pathway and sloping hillside with birch trees with the north-facing panoramic view of the Alps, pasted fictitiously into the picture window [1: p.272]. Furthermore, for some reason the photographic negative was also reversed, making it seem like the terrain slopes downward in that direction whereas in reality it rises up. The caption accompanying this photomontage is likewise deceptive: ‘Ill. 250. Man’s Study: The large window in the gentleman’s study was made at the request of the client because of the magnificent view’ [7: p.43]. However, Gerlach’s original photograph – now held in the Adolf Loos Archive at the Albertina Museum in Vienna – reveals a completely different vista from the study/office (Figures 5 and 12). If one tries to look out of the study/office’s picture window to the west, the Rax and Schneeberg can only be seen in the far periphery. Thus, Kulka’s claim that the large window in the study/office was placed there to contemplate the glorious Alps is a total fiction, and it consciously detracts from the window’s real purpose, which was actually to monitor those coming and going from the house. Indeed, the view of the Alpine scenery used for Kulka’s (mirrored) photomontage must have been taken either from the wife’s bedroom in the north-western corner of the first floor, or else in the adjacent guest room that protrudes slightly forward from the northern façade and has a window facing onto the terrace area and the view beyond (Figure 13): this realisation is supported by a similar photograph used in the 1964 monograph on Loos by Münz and Künstler, which also relied upon Gerlach’s shots of the Landhaus Khuner soon after its completion [8: p.59, ill.39].

Figure 11 

Male client’s office/study with altered view through its picture window [Courtesy of Heinrich Kulka].

Figure 12 

Male client’s office/study with unaltered view through its picture window [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 13 

View from protruding guest room on upper floor [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

And there is still further evidence that observation was a motivational component in Loos’s agenda for the Landhaus Khuner, meaning that it was not only made possible but also actively encouraged by his design. The original plans, sections and elevations held now in the Albertina’s Adolf Loos Archive show several divergences from the executed building, plus also some pencilled-in changes. What is now a guest room in the northeast corner of the first floor was originally intended as an upstairs porch or loggia that could be accessed from the gallery above the hall, with suitably impressive panoramic views: why the room’s function was altered is unknown. In addition, a balcony was added to one of the daughters’ first-floor bedroom, directly above the eastern doorway, replacing what had previously been proposed as a window. Perhaps even more strikingly, the balcony (and glazed door) for the wife’s bedroom is completely missing from the initial first-floor plan – nor is it shown on the north elevation. Thus, these drawings show traces of an active design process, with the changes being largely concerned with how to create various observation points on the upper floor. Tellingly, it was Kulka that was responsible for tweaking the plans to suit the commands either of Loos, the architect, or Paul Khuner, the client.

In dialectic opposition to Loos’s exposure of views and glances, there are also many points for private withdrawal in the Landhaus Khuner. On the first-floor gallery, above the inglenook fireplace, is a breakfast area sheltering within an arched recess (Figure 9). Most of the adjacent bedrooms have almost womb-like enclosures around their bed alcoves. The built-in shelves, cupboards and lights in these rooms – and in one case even the inclusion of a sink – seem to emphasize all-encompassing environments. Likewise, the colours used for the bedrooms surround and envelop, meaning that they feel like spaces from which nothing can be added or subtracted for the sake of comfort (Figure 14). And with their sizeable windows and generous ceiling heights – ranging up to 2.60 metres – these are decidedly not the dark and dusty, even if lush and expensive, bourgeois rooms typical of fin-de-siècle Vienna, and show none of the sense of Dekadenz (decadence) parodied in the writing of Loos’s good friend, Peter Altenberg. These are spaces of modern urban comfort transported into a rural idyll.

Figure 14 

Daughter’s bedroom with its alcove and sink located above the staircase rising beneath [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Here I wish to return to what I described as the rooftop ‘widow’s walk’. Pushed to the rear of the building and therefore invisible from the road below, the inclusion of this curious feature remains enigmatic. The Müller House in Prague also famously has a secluded rooftop terrace: embraced on both sides by full-height walls that drop down to a lower parapet level, this terrace is removed from its urban context except for a cut-out slot that frames a view back to the city’s Gothic cathedral – thereby providing an exquisitely privileged experience that captures this view for the private enjoyment of those sitting in this rooftop enclave. In contrast, in his description of the ‘widow’s walk’ at the Landhaus Khuner, Michael Falser notes that it has a shower cubicle, revealing that the feature was there for secluded sunbathing, an activity that was becoming increasingly popular as part of modern life and recreation [9: p.6]. Hence, while serving on the one hand as the most scenographic observation point within this country retreat, this rooftop terrace had no protective walls (being only enclosed by a metal frame) and so it was also simultaneously a place to withdraw completely from the view of others. The outcome was a subversive tension of extremes: a titillating example of revelation at the top of the world being the concealed exposure of an inverted domestic spectacle.

Interpretations of the Landhaus Khuner

The aforementioned failure to properly integrate the Landhaus Khuner into Adolf Loos’s architecture is particularly interesting in contrast to its representation by contemporaries in the period from its completion up till Loos’s death in 1933, and after that in the decades after the Second World War. In the traveling show organized in 1930 by the publishing house Das neue Frankfurt, which was organised in honour of Adolf Loos’s sixtieth birthday, it is notable that the Müller House and the Landhaus Khuner shared the centre of attention. And in Kulka’s 1931 text, Adolf Loos: Das Werk des Architekten, the first attempt to collect together Loos’s designs, again these two buildings from 1930 are almost equally represented in terms of pictorial documentation. The Prague residence is given nine photographs spread over five pages, along with a further page showing five plans and sections; the Austrian mountain retreat is illustrated by ten photographs spread over four pages, plus a page with three plans and sections. In Kulka’s commentary on these images, descriptions of the Landhaus Khuner outweigh those of the Müller House by four to one [7: p.42–43, ill.244–270].

However, a growing post-war discrepancy in how to handle the Landhaus Khuner within Adolf Loos’s oeuvre became evident in two subsequent special issues: one published in Italy by Casabella in 1959, and the other in Germany by Bauwelt in 1981. In the Italian periodical the Landhaus Khuner is represented by a single photographic illustration and is no longer listed among the architect’s most significant works (that honour is given to the Müller House in Prague and the Moller House in Vienna). Furthermore, none of the articles written for this special issue of Casabella were by Loos’s peers [10: p.32, 53]. The subsequent German periodical, on the other hand, titled their issue as ‘Spurensicherung’ (‘Securing of Evidence’). Its contributions were to a large extent still those written by Loos’s colleagues, students, friends and clients. In an account by another former assistant, Hans Blumenfeld, who had been working for Loos in the early-1930s, the Landhaus Khuner figured prominently. Blumenfeld recalled:

‘After the completion of the terraced housing project I also worked on two quite large country homes. The first was a wooden house in log construction, and I admired the way in which Loos could express himself completely in this, for him unfamiliar, language.’ [11: p.1881]

Heinrich Kulka’s 1931 book had been produced in collaboration with Franz Glück and Ludwig Münz, and these two writers both went on to produce their own publications about Loos’s architecture. Glück’s small booklet of photographs appeared in a French edition, as part of ‘Les Artistes Nouveaux’ series, also in the same year as the Kulka book [12]. The considerably longer book by Ludwig Münz was written together with Gustav Künstler long after the Second World War, indeed not being published until 1964 [8]. In both these books, however, the photographs were again the closely supervised shots from 1930 by Martin Gerlach that Loos himself had commissioned to be used in the Das neue Frankfurt travelling exhibition and in Kulka’s book. Thus, the three publications were closely related to each other, with Münz and Künstler in the mid-1960s even quoting Kulka verbatim in their description of the Landhaus Khuner.

Even more tellingly, all three books relied heavily upon Loos’s own texts, mostly from a series of essays he wrote just before the First World War: ‘Architektur’ (‘Architecture’) in 1910, ‘Heimatkunst’ (’Regional Arts and Crafts’) in 1912, and ‘Regeln für den, der in den Bergen baut’ (’Rules for those that Build in the Mountains’) in 1913 [13, 14, 15]. However, the seeming diversity of these essay titles was deceptive, for the same theme runs through them all. Indeed, the second essay echoes many paragraphs from the first, and the third essay was effectively a synthesis of the second. Through them we can therefore follow the progressive evolution of Loos’s ideas about designing for semi-rural, mountainous settings. And what they show is that from 1910 onwards he was clearly thinking about a knowing, self-conscious architecture that could stand aside local vernacular farmhouses and there are indeed some early built and unbuilt projects that attest to this as design manifestations (Figures 15 and 16). Kulka, most likely under Loos’s direct instruction, even quoted from the ‘Heimatkunst’ essay as if on a mission to prove a point about the contextual, regionalist conception of the design for the Landhaus Khuner.

Figure 15 

The construction site hut for the Schwarzwaldschule I project (1912–13) was built of wood with a shallow roof to accommodate for the regional alpine conditions of the Semmering [Drawings of these projects by Adolf Loos held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 16 

Unrealized proposal for a vacation house in Gastein (1922). Here the fusion of the urban-rural disparity is articulated in the design and the building uncannily pre-empts both the cubic form of the Villa Müller and the regional materials of the Landhaus Khuner [Courtesy of Heinrich Kulka].

Yet by the time of the Münz and Künstler’s 1964 book we can begin to detect scepticism about the Landhaus Khuner’s supposedly self-sufficient ‘regionalism’. In their account, the building is for the first time not only described as contemporary with, but also in sharp contrast to, the Müller House in Prague. ‘Their strong differentiation can be seen to generally result from their respective urban or rural settings’, note the authors. Two statements following on from that seem on the face of things to contradict each other. After mentioning the log-and-stone construction of the Landhaus Khuner, Münz and Künstler observe that its technical execution ‘corresponds with the traditional building practice of the wood- and stone-rich area’. However, the authors hasten to add that ‘still, we cannot speak of an imitation of local building’, and in support they mention the larger than typical windows, the exaggeratedly stepped roof-supports, the recessed terrace at ground-floor level, and the rooftop walkway – none of which are traditional local forms. Furthermore, Münz and Künstler accompany their evaluation with a comment stressing their view that the house’s interior design was actually of greater importance [8: p.57–61].

After the scepticism shown in this mid-1960s account, the regionalist claims of the Landhaus Khuner’s exterior were treated with even more difficulty. In a 1982 book by Benedetto Gravagnuolo, he explains:

‘Contemporary to the whitewashed masterpieces of his last phase (Moller House in Vienna, 1928, and Müller House in Prague, 1930), this country house that is so vernacular, so anachronistically alpine, so rustic, raises a theoretical question. It has to be asked if, or to what extent, this manifest contradiction of languages reveals a poetic dissociation, a sort of architectural schizophrenia. How can the same architect, over the same period, carry out works that arrive at the extremes of formal and conceptual abstraction and others that make use of the most obvious and traditional processes of rural building?’ [16: p.204–205]

Gravagnuolo followed this up with a Loos quotation, taken from Kulka’s book, which describes the economies that can be achieved by using local building materials, and once again he chose to emphasise the relative importance of the Landhaus Khuner’s interiors.

By the 1990s, we find Panayotis Tournikiotis assuring us that the Landhaus Khuner was ‘the most beautiful of Loos’s vacation homes’, with a description relying heavily on two of Loos’s aforementioned essays, ’Heimatkunst’ and ’Regeln für den, der in den Bergen baut’. Yet after arguing that the large windows with their sliding shutters, the stepped roof-support beams above the recessed terrace, and the presence of the rooftop terrace, were ‘all elements that contradict the style of the region’, Tournikiotis ended his passage with a somewhat apologetic declaration: ‘Though traditional, the Khuner House was still the product of modern rationalism’ [17: p.105–115].

A similar verdict can be seen in the 1996 monograph assembled by Roberto Schezen, which – although innovative in the photographer’s own vividly textured prints, both in colour and black-and-white – was equally baffled by the Landhaus Khuner. Joseph Rosa, who wrote the text for this book, stated bluntly: ‘The Khuner House’s exterior articulation is an anomaly in Loos’s built oeuvre’. Rosa sought instead to placate the reader by mentioning various other projects by Loos, mostly unbuilt, which had displayed a similar rustic sensibility – but again his contrite argument was that the elements of the Landhaus Khuner were by no means traditional [18: p.156–161].

Yet perhaps the most dismissive account of all was in Kurt Lustenberger’s 1994 book [19: p.166–169]. His description of the Landhaus Khuner does not disappoint for severity, yet equally it adds nothing new. ‘In a number of ways this house is exceptional in Loos’s work’, begins Lustenberger. He then gives a description peppered with quotations from Loos’s essays and references to the same unbuilt rural designs as Rosa had used two years later. It is also worth noting that the entry in Lustenberger’s book was only a synopsis of a much longer article he had written in 1989 about the Landhaus Khuner, as published in Daidalos [20: p.52–59]. This 1989 article, with parallel texts in German and English, is to my knowledge the only critical discussion to date accessible to an English-speaking readership that is solely dedicated to the Landhaus Khuner. Michael Falser’s more recent article in 2005 was published in German only, and while rigorous in its description, it was a straightforward building history as opposed to a culturally embedded analysis [9]. Janet Steward has discussed Loos’s interest in regional practice and folk arts and crafts, but only in terms of his views about clothing, in a chapter titled ‘The display and disguise of difference’ [21: p.108–112]; while Joseph Masheck’s book Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture, published in 2013, refers to the building in his chapter on ‘Loosian Vernacular’ with a single sentence only [22: p.53].

Returning to Lustenberger’s article for Daidalos, it is worth mentioning that he attempts to come to terms with Loos’s position as an outlier within Modernist architectural historiography. Lustenberger even hints at a Post-Modernist reading of the Landhaus Khuner in his perception of an apparent inconsistency between the house’s interior and exterior [20]. Yet given the date of Loos’s design in the late-1920s, with the building being completed in 1930, such an interpretation seems untenable. Thus, this essay will now look at the conception of the Landhaus Khuner to re-establish the links between time, location and society in understanding it. Criticism and literary excerpts from Loos’s own time will be introduced as points of intersection with this building, thus helping to overcome the silence about its architecture within recent discourse. By giving a voice back to the Landhaus Khuner, we too can better speak of its actual context and of its place within Loos’s wider oeuvre.

Influences, Sources and Development

Tentative sources for the Landhaus Khuner’s design may be found in Loos’s admiration of what he conceived as English and American values, infused also with a preoccupation with farm-life, each of which he repeatedly cited in explaining his own ideas and his criticisms of Austro-Hungarian domestic culture. In tracing the lineage of Adolf Loos’s concept of the ‘Raumplan’ interior, whereby the main living spaces flow intestine-like into each other using the space as a three-dimensional thing, Julius Posener refers back to the ‘Great Hall’ in the English rural manor house, with its inglenook fireplace and exposed beams (Figure 17). Posener notes that the ‘Great Hall’ upheld the medieval convention of not integrating the stairway into its main space, even though the stair was an essential connection up to hall’s gallery level. It was precisely these medieval features that English Arts and Crafts architects had promoted in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Posener then went on to cite Arthur Little’s Shingleside in Swampscott, Massachusetts as a good example of cross-cultural influences between English and American country homes in that period – even if Posener pointedly rejected Vincent Scully’s proposed connection between Shingleside, via Loos’s trip to the USA in the 1890s, through to Le Corbusier’s Citrohan houses [23: p.53, 55, 56]. More usefully, Scully had pointed out that Shingleside was among the first American designs published in a British periodical, in this case The Building News in 1882 [24]. The similarities between it and the Landhaus Khuner are striking, as can be seen from Scully’s description of Shingleside:

Figure 17 

Interior perspective of a hall with inglenook of an undated project by Adolf Loos. Colour, texture and materials were very important for him yet are often lost in black-and-white photographs [Drawings of these projects by Adolf Loos held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

‘Except for a projecting bay … the main mass of the house is severely rectilinear, like a gigantic colonial farmhouse of the salt-box type. Within that rectangle the space of the living hall is hollowed out to form a great two-storied volume … From the gallery an open stair descends to the floor of the two-storied living hall. From the parlor a balcony overlooks this hall, as does a small bay window from the upper staircase. Under the stairs a low, deep inglenook with built-in seats surrounds a tremendous fireplace. The whole seaside of the hall opens by a two-storied and slightly bayed window, set far enough back in plan to be crisply contained within the rectangle of the house.’ [25: p.104]

Thus an image of an oversized, cubic, gentrified, hillside farmhouse, sheltering under a pitched roof, with a hall facing onto a view through a glazed wall, plus a sheltering inglenook – and even multiple interior/exterior observation points from porches, balconies and windows – were all present in Shingleside, nearly four decades prior to the Landhaus Khuner. From the plans and sketches for the latter, we can find evidence that for an earlier version of Loos’s design, the end part of the northern façade that is now not recessed, and which contains guestrooms at both ground and first floor level, was initially positioned to stick out beyond the rectangular plan, thereby resembling a projecting bay (albeit without Shingleside’s chopped-off corners). While Shingleside did not possess a rooftop ‘widow’s walk’, as mentioned before it was a common enough feature in American seaside architecture that had nothing to do with Alpine tradition. A further Anglo-Saxon characteristic with no Austrian links is the inglenook fireplace, often included in Arts and Crafts houses, and a feature that Loos repeatedly favoured over the customary tiled stove, the Kachelofen, from his earliest designs onwards.

Yet also within Loos’s own oeuvre we can discover formal precedents for the Landhaus Khuner. There was a project for a country house for Leo Prinz Sapieha in 1918, with a steeply pitched roof, double-height hall with a sheltered dining area to the side, plus an inglenook fireplace adjacent to a building façade looking out over a terrace via multiple windows (Figures 18, 19 and 20). The Sapieha house was also to have an entrance door positioned inconspicuously towards the rear of the building, again reminiscent of the Landhaus Khuner [26: p.526–528].

Figure 18 

The elevation of a vacation home for Leo Prinz Sapieha shows a pitched roofed structure (1918). The location for this unrealized project is unknown [Drawings of these projects by Adolf Loos held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 19 

The section shows a dining area within a galleried hall [Drawings of these projects by Adolf Loos held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 20 

The plan shows a strikingly similar interior arrangement to the later Landhaus Khuner [Drawings of these projects by Adolf Loos held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

The transition in Loos’s work from the creation of inwardly sheltering interior spaces, as described vividly by Beatriz Colomina, to bright rooms with views to an outside can be traced through four specific projects [1]. Already in 1907 Loos was asked to redesign Paul Khuner’s apartment in Vienna, simultaneously while working on a flat for Willy Hirsch in Pilsen (Figures 21 and 22). Curiously, these same two clients were to commission Loos again some twenty-two years later. In Kulka’s photographic images of the two 1907 residences, which sit next to each other in his book, we can see only dark, sumptuous interiors with curtains drawn to cut out the outside world. Yet Kulka’s photographs of the garden room for the remodelled Hirsch apartment, as completed in 1929, and thus contemporary with the Landhaus Khuner, depict a bright interior space with un-curtained windows. The accompanying text describes the renovation process for the garden room as involving the removal of superfluous interior piers and replacing the cladding with travertine (7: p.29, ill.24–27, p.42, ill.240–241). Also apposite to the Landhaus Khuner is the glazed wall with a wide balcony onto the garden. Although the new room in this reshaped Hirsch apartment is only a single storey high, the subdivisions of its exterior glazing are very similar to those in the Landhaus Khuner. In both designs there is a transom dividing the lower portion, with its vertically aligned glazed doors, from the smaller horizontal windowpanes above. In a photograph not used by Kulka, yet held in the Albertina’s archive, the glass doors for the Hirsch apartment are shown open, permitting the exterior to flow and merge into the interior space inside, as it did in the Landhaus Khuner (Figure 23).

Figure 21 

Dining room of the Khuner apartment in Vienna (1907) [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 22 

Living room of the Hirsch apartment, Pilsen, now in the Czech Republic (1907) [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Figure 23 

Garden room of the remodelled Hirsch apartment, Pilsen (1929) [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

This use of un-curtained glazed walls in Loos’s late-1920s designs appears to contradict his famous statement about windows serving solely as sources of daylight and not for views to the outside. Colomina notes for instance the remark by Le Corbusier in his celebrated 1929 book, Urbanisme: ‘Loos told me one day: “A cultivated man does not look out of the window; his window is a ground glass; it is there only to let the light in, not to let the gaze pass through”’ [1: p.234]. Kurt Unger mentions a similar stance when recalling the renovation works to his own uncle’s home in Pilsen, the Leopold Eisner apartment, on which he assisted Loos in 1930. Unger writes: ‘When these [double-hung windows] were glazed with non-transparent cathedral glass, my uncle asked, very much concerned: “But I have a view of the beautiful public gardens!” “Oscar Wilde said that a gentleman does not look out of the window”, was the answer [from Loos]’ [27: p.1882]. So, what is strange is that the Hirsch apartment’s garden room and the Landhaus Khuner’s hall openly welcome their respective views, with no curtains or obscuring glass. The furniture in both rooms are of round tables, encircled by chairs, which sit in the middle of their respective spaces with plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outside scenery. Loos, who as a city-dweller was concerned with ensuring privacy within the home, was now seemingly succumbing to the temptations of observing and contemplating exterior landscapes. Yet in both cases the views were treated as if a private commodity, since the sheltered rear garden and the distant mountain range clearly cannot return one’s gaze.

Modernism, Critical Regionalism, Heimatstil and the City

Despite these obvious influences and precedents, the Landhaus Khuner remains difficult to pin down, primarily because it evades a clear categorization within what is commonly understood as Modernist architecture. The choice of vernacular building methods and materials – the log construction on top of a base of local stone, the application of dark brown stains, the green-painted shutters, the shallow pitched roof – enable the scheme to be more easily identified with regional farmhouses. Indeed, how can this be said to be a ‘modern’ building at all? Yet as a newspaper article reported at the time of the 1931 exhibition of Loos’s work in Stuttgart:

‘Anyone lucky enough to have heard him [Loos] speak spontaneously at his exhibition last Tuesday will have been able to come closer to comprehending his sometimes difficult-to-grasp personality. He lectured despite his heart ailment for a full hour with bubbling intellectuality on a number of highly important cultural questions. He is almost completely deaf and hears no question and no answer, but nature performs in him a wonderful compensation: she has bestowed onto him his keenness for listening to his own mind. The pictures of his most recent house in Prague (the Haus Müller, next to the Haus Khuner in Semmering, one of his most complete domains) gave him the opportunity, to discuss among other things the faulty understanding of the term “modern”. [As Loos explained:] “How superior the modern architects will feel, when they see these chairs (Chippendale models) or this table or this leather sofa! But for all the details they fail to see the rooms. They count steel chairs as modern. But there is nothing less modern than steel chairs … The rooms are conceived spatially … The most important thing for the architect is to be able to think spatially. Here you see a wooden ceiling. The modern architects only regard concrete as an up-to-date material. Though there is none less modern, one has to blast it with Ekrasit, when the needs have changed. Dynamic architecture in concrete: humbug! Wood is a modern material also, because it is cheap.” … Perhaps this is the mission of Adolf Loos: a last warning to return to an authentic culture of living.’ [28]

In other words, Adolf Loos was keen to redefine the term ‘modern’, and consciously sought to juxtapose the Landhaus Khuner with the Müller House to illustrate his point. This newspaper article, plus others, vouched for the importance of the villa outside Payerbach: in their eyes the Landhaus Khuner is not an oddity. It could stand next to a white cubic building like the Müller House and yet still speak the language of modernity, with these two houses therefore of equal value in conveying this message (Figure 24).

Figure 24 

As an icon of architectural Modernism the mute cubic form of the Villa Müller (1930) bestows very little of the interior and is situated on a sloping suburban site overlooking Prague [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

Today there is an increasing awareness that the architecture of Modernism cannot be reduced to what became known as the ‘International Style’, and that instead there were architectures during Modernism’s highpoint in the interwar years that were culturally, geographically and climatically contextual. The Landhaus Khuner and the Haus Müller are perhaps the most blatant examples of a simultaneity that was steadily written out of architectural historiography by the likes of Nikolaus Pevsner and Sigfried Giedion. The concept of Modernism as a style needs to be seen therefore as an artificially constructed mechanism, one that links architecture to ideology. The role of mass media through photographs, exhibitions, publications and educational methods were clearly also vital. Thus, a reassessment of the Landhaus Kuhner that shows how it fails to fit into the dominant ‘International Style’ narrative can act as an important example of how one can redress the reductive view.

Might then the Landhaus Khuner be understood instead as early instance of what Liane Lefaivre and Alexander Tzonis in the early-1980s (and later Kenneth Frampton) came to term ‘Critical Regionalism’? [29, 30, 31, 32]. The call for ‘authenticity’ voiced at the end of the 1931 newspaper review of Loos’s exhibition would appear to support that proposition. The preoccupation of Adolf Loos with rejecting the growing homogeneity of inter-war Modernism, with its technological and material bias, is evident in his negative evaluation of metric measures and modular norms, and his barbed attack on tubular steel chairs. Loos was trying to reinsert an intensely human notion of individuality into contemporary discourse about architecture and domestic interiors: to understand this point, we only need to remember the different chairs grouped around the table in the Landhaus Khuner, as if somehow those chairs stood in for different psychological personalities.

Tzonis and Lefaivre conceived Critical Regionalism as expressing the singularity of a given building’s location in time and space. While they were deeply critical of 1980s Post-Modernism for being too formalistic, they likewise rejected ‘International Style’ Modernism’s belief in universal applicability and its tabula rasa approach. Instead, Critical Regionalism urges a stringent self-examination and an acknowledgment of the problems and shortcomings of contemporary life. In applying the concept of ‘defamiliarization’ by isolating certain aspects of traditional regionalist architecture (surrounding environments, mentalities, rituals, philosophies, building practices, etc), and then reinserting these in a way that removes them from their former sense of familiarity, new designs in the Critical Regionalist mould are rendered strange. Identification becomes difficult, yet this is only intended to heighten the objectivity of one’s interaction with that building. It is not meant to evoke feelings of sentimentality or distraction, and so the effects of surprise in the design are deliberate. There is instead an unusual mutuality in the relationship between sameness and difference, with the building thereby maintaining a degree of self-consciousness. This idea of architectural ‘defamiliarization’ has been linked to the Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) that Bertolt Brecht utilized in his epic plays to stimulate the audience’s critical comprehension of the theatrical performance they were watching [33: p.63–67].

Verfremdungseffekt can hence be understood as the literary correlation to the sense of ‘defamiliarization’ pursued by Critical Regionalist architecture [30: p.127, 142–146]. With this in mind, Critical Regionalism is therefore not concerned with an overfamiliarizing and romantically charged quest against Modernism’s production of sameness, or with the affirmation of individual cultures pursuing a nostalgic clamour for ethnic expression. It wishes to have nothing to do with what is in German-speaking countries termed as Heimatstil – a word that due to its political exploitation in the first part of the twentieth century is most often closely associated with Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism.

Taking this careful line as set out by Lefaivre and Tzonis, and using it to examine the Landhaus Khuner in relation to Austrian history after the First World War, we can detect an urgency after the 1918 dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for some kind of national redefinition. During the 1920s there was an intense feeling that what was left from that vast empire was not viable to create a country, Austria, which was now independent from its provinces. After all, what for a short time was even called German-Austria, only contained 27% of the former imperial territory and only 24% of its former inhabitants. Austria was additionally split by the fact that almost half of the new state’s population lived in the capital, Vienna, while primarily rural German-speaking peoples made up the other half. Adolf Loos’s friend Karl Kraus spoke notably of the ‘Two Austrias’, revealing that there was no feeling of unity between the two parts: instead there was a vast urban-rural divide [34: p.54, 62–64, 84].

The search for a new national identity, for understanding Austria bereft of its empire, became increasingly difficult in the light of food shortages during the early-1920s. Vienna had hitherto relied upon Hungary and Bohemia for its foodstuffs, but shipments had practically come to a standstill with the outbreak of the First World War. In feeding Austria’s soldiers during the war, livestock supplies had become depleted, and the Alpine regions of Lower Austria could no longer even produce enough nourishment for themselves: instead those regions became dependent on the food supplies that were stored by Upper Austria. Yet the latter were unfairly distributed in favour of Vienna – where starvation was even spreading to the upper-middle classes – at the expense of the mountainous areas, again intensifying the feeling of divergence between city and countryside. Vienna was regarded by starving farmers as a gigantic parasite, incapable of even partially supporting itself. To expect Austria’s Alpine provinces to establish an allegiance with the capital at this point, under these troublesome circumstances, was asking far too much of the newly formed state [34: p.84–85, 87].

This is why throughout its duration from 1919–34, Austria’s First Republic saw itself as incapable of self-sustenance, which is also the reason that all of its political parties were discussing various federations with neighbouring countries. The nomenclature of German-Austria was used polemically in the early-1920s to envisage a union with the Weimar Republic in Germany, as a kind of Anschluss (joining together). But as a condition of the Versailles Peace Treaty, the victorious Allied Forces made clear that any such federation would not be allowed, insisting instead upon Austria’s independence. There was thus an element of punishment and shame in the formation of small democratic Austria after the First World War, with the country being effectively left to sort itself out in isolation [34: p.54, 62].

Within this troubling situation, and keenly aware of the long cultural links with Germany, there emerged in Austria a reaffirmation of the old concept of Heimat – a term that had indeed been of much interest to various groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. Significantly, the gendering of the word is feminine, in that it is die Heimat. It thereby merges subconscious memories with a precise sense of maternal location and is associated with a return to a form of sentimental recognition. The emotionally loaded connotations of the word evoke Geborgenheit, meaning a sentimental locus of security and nurturing. It alludes to a homecoming to a familiar, reminiscent landscape of views, buildings, clothes, sounds, smells and tastes, which between them create a recognizable formal and sensual language of codes [4: p.249].

Friedrich Achleitner describes the development of the Heimat movement as an escapist alternative to modern life in cities like Vienna. Preoccupied with the sense of loss for a rural utopia, discussions centred around a set of binary polarities: national versus international, irrational versus rational, craft versus industry, countryside versus city, nature versus decadence, health versus sickness, tradition versus progress, and social identity/belonging versus anonymous mass culture. And out of such definitions a sense of anti-urban criticism becomes evident. Architecturally, it meant that Heimatstil became an invention of (paradoxically) urban architects who were wishing now to colonise the countryside. In this they were catering to widespread disenchantment among city-dwellers. Heimatstil designs offered an alternative from urban tension and pace, albeit always at a price. The ornamentation of these rural vestiges of urban expansion – train stations, spas, hotels and villas – attempted to console users by applying often fantastical rustic features. The supposedly ‘traditional’ architecture of new insertions in the Semmering Pass and Bad Ischl, among other Austrian resorts, was typical of this cultural phenomenon [35: p.7, 8, 9].

Heimatstil thus seemed to respond directly to the ‘problem’ of Modernism, above all to the latter’s efforts to delete existing cultural codes in favour of new designs that were location-less and ignored orientation. Perhaps that is why the rejection of Modernism by most of its bourgeoisie was felt to be particularly relevant in 1920s Austria. The loss of the old empire – with its military security, plentiful foodstuffs and international identity – made the cultural redefinition of Austria crucial to its very survival as a country. An assimilation of the ‘urban’ with the perceived ‘rural’ thus became synonymous with good health and the ability to feed oneself. The carved decorations in Heimatstil buildings catered to this desire, even if only superficially. The artificial linguistic unity of the German language – which had never actually prevailed in the notably multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire – now stood in for that lost empire as a cultural construct, merging rural values into an urban desire.

In his aforementioned 1912 essay on ‘Heimatkunst’ – often deceptively translated as ‘Vernacular Art’ – Loos had in his typical manner criticised Heimatstil architecture as offering yet another example in the long promenade of historicist ornamental extravagance, and yet he simultaneously conceded the legitimacy of the idea of creating a regionalist architecture. He wrote:

‘Architects have been shipwrecked with the reproduction of old styles, and now, having failed to find the style of our times, they are once again running around. The catchphrase “Heimatkunst” is now coming in very handy as a last lifeline. I hope that this is the last we hear of it. I hope that the arsenal of evil has at last been exhausted … The word “Heimat” has a nice sound. And the cultivation of the vernacular manner of building is a legitimate demand.’ [36: p.110]

Loos’s harshest criticism was however reserved for whenever Heimatstil was adopted within Vienna, portraying this act as disgracing the grandeur of the capital in a quest for the quaint and picturesque. But neither did he feel that it really had a place in the countryside, where he described it as a shameful mockery of the unconscious authenticity of Austria’s farmers:

‘How, then, has the master of the metropolis to build when he is called to the countryside? The Heimat artists say: “Like a farmer!” So let us observe the farmer at his work. He marks out the ground on which the house is to rise and excavates the foundations. The mason lays brick upon brick and meanwhile the carpenter has opened his adjacent workshop. He makes the roof. Is it a beautiful or an ugly roof? He does not know. It is a roof! And the carpenter comes and takes the dimensions for windows and doors, and then all the other craftsmen come and take dimensions and return to their workshops. And when everything is in its place, the farmer takes a brush and paints his house a beautiful white. The architect, however, cannot work in this way. He works according to a fixed plan. And if he wanted to copy the naiveté of the farmer, he would get on the nerves of cultivated people as much as the young girls of Ischl or the stockbroker do when putting on an Upper Austrian dialect.’ [36: p.112]

Loos thus rejected the Heimatstil performance as a decadent hoax. He points toward the steep pitched roofs commonly used by Heimatstil architects in their attempt at being rustic, proclaiming that they will ‘constitute a danger for the inhabitants after every snowfall’. The choice of the wrong roof for Alpine weather conditions is symptomatic of the misappropriation of regional styles. It is opposed to Loos’s ideas of progress by disguising something as developmentally inferior and failing even at doing that. But he did allude to a self-critical, cross-referential process of learning – a synthesis, so to speak – between the progressive and the authentic, albeit in patronising terms:

‘Instead of following deceitful catchphrases such as “Heimatkunst”, if one could in the end return to the one truth – which I have always proclaimed as tradition – then one should become accustomed to building like our fathers, and should not be afraid of being un-modern. We are superior to the peasant. Not only should he partake of our threshing machines, but also of our knowledge and of our experience on the subject of building. We should be his leaders, not his apes. [36: p.113]

With this quote in mind, the Landhaus Khuner can be seen as an attempt to exemplify this synthesis. Its wooden exterior is not merely an applied surface treatment; instead it is developed from the traditional construction method of building with solid logs. In his design, Loos rejects any kind of ornamental fretwork or sentimental craftwork details. The hall’s glazed wall is covered by what resembles two folding screens with hinged panels covering the doors. Likewise, the treatment of the large picture windows avoids nostalgia, with their external steel shutters being placed on tracks such that they can slide open or shut simply by using a crank-handle inside. For the smaller windows facing onto the hillside, mostly in the servants’ quarters, as for the attic window, Loos appears to show sensitivity towards the less ‘modern’ lives of the staff. These windows are smaller in size and the shutters are hung on customary hinges, yet again nothing about their smooth green surfaces is intended as picturesque. This house is conceived as the family’s recreational retreat from Vienna, and so the choice of sheet metal for the shutters rather than wood testifies to their functional purpose. When the house is uninhabited, and the owners back in the metropolis, the shutters of the orifices including the back door are securely locked against potential break-ins.

In catering to city dwellers’ need for a rural refuge, Loos was establishing an urban enclave made possible initially by the railway line and then also the motor car, and indeed the recreational possibilities of this Alpine area are acknowledged by the ski closet adjacent to the rear entrance. By turning the Alps into a commodity to meet the Viennese desire for another experiential ‘high’, Loos was collaborating with what Georg Simmel had overtly criticized in his essay on ‘Alpenreisen’ from 1895 [37]. The Landhaus Khuner is unambiguously intended for an over-stimulated urban audience that was seeking an intense natural euphoria as a release from the city’s pressures. Yet in its sensitivity to tradition, the house stands as counterpoint against the aggressive seizure of the Alps as described by Le Corbusier just a few years earlier in Urbanisme. Corbusier began his analysis with the building of a dam: its completely automated procedures being depicted in a most romantic tone as a harmonious, quasi-musical endeavour. The act of conquering the forces of nature, rough and isolated, untamed and remote, is presented as a heroic feat of technology. For Corbusier, this was the multinational undertaking par excellence, with the individual components of the machinery coming from all different parts of the globe. The Alps themselves are rendered passive, an audience to this emerging spectacle, with the native inhabitants having been completely banished. Corbusier’s site is overlooked singly by a hiker’s hut: tourism has arrived [38: p.144–148].

In interpreting Adolf Loos’s statements about the Landhaus Khuner, and his fundamental theoretical position, he was particularly keen to criticize Austria’s accepted cultural values, calling instead for a thorough re-evaluation of Austrian identity. Yet precisely this critical stance towards what it means to be Austrian was to eventually become Loos’s Achilles heel. For it was the population’s desperate search for a strong, positive identity – whether nationalistic, socialist or whatever – that made them reject Loos’s vision. The general public did not want someone pointing out to them what was wrong with their country, or telling them that other nations such as Britain and the USA were more advanced and doing things better; instead, they themselves wanted to feel important and powerful.

Loos’s continual use of British and American examples to illustrate his ideals was thus regarded as too ‘foreign’. He failed in his role as Chief Architect for the Department of Municipal Housing of the City of Vienna from 1920–24, in which he tried to promote the low-rise English terraced house as the design model. When it became evident that the Socialist municipality instead favoured the mass accommodation afforded by ‘People’s Palaces’ such as the Karl Marx Hof, he abruptly resigned his position, moving instead to Paris. In having argued for small self-sufficient units, based upon the single-family house and a vegetable garden, Loos completely underestimated the Viennese proletariat’s desire for an impressive proclamation of collective identity and their strong sense of civic pride. Likewise, in 1926, he was excluded from the Deutsche Werkbund’s famous Weissenhof exhibition in Stuttgart for being insufficiently ‘deutschnational’. His critical, forward-looking ideas were clearly devoid of the popular nationalistic vision required both in Germany as well as in Austria [26: p.290–293, 318].

By 1927 Adolf Loos was being openly labelled as an ‘unpatriotic’ Austrian, with his ceaseless criticism of the Wiener Werkstätte and Austrian culture generally, his claiming of Czechoslovakian citizenship after the war (he had been born in Brno), and his period of Parisian domicile from 1924–28, all being portrayed as a repudiation of his home country. In a newspaper interview for Neues Wiener Journal that was titled ‘I – the better Austrian’, his self-justification took on a tone of desperation:

‘Oh, that I should be harming my fatherland, and in particular Vienna, with my lectures, essays, and not only here, but naturally also in my accusations voiced or at least perceived abroad! Undertakings such as mine are considered apt to adversely affecting the Austrian export business as well as its tourist industry. In a word, with my “ranting” I endanger the acquired and accredited reputation that Austria enjoys abroad.’

‘“I am not a patriot…” To which I reply that every line, whether written in agreement or disagreement with my person or argumentations, should be entitled “The Patriot” – providing, however, that the writer is honest. For this is something that all people taking sides for or against me should know very well by now, that my years of opposition try to diminish the viability of those persons, institutions and conditions to which we owe a decline – not an increase – in Austria’s worldwide reputation and the regard for Austrian work within the global marketplace!’ [39]

So there we have it: while the Viennese public were accusing him of harming the nation’s reputation and economic interests, Loos vehemently proclaimed his patriotic duty to disclose the shortcomings of Austria’s applied arts and crafts then being marketed abroad. He wanted to convince the public that his stance was positive as a constructive re-evaluation, an act of national loyalty. But although the Neues Wiener Journal published the article, its editorial introduction was lanced with snide remarks about Loos, ensuring that the latter’s attempt to rehabilitate himself was going to founder. For when Loos went on to criticise Austrian cuisine, in particular the Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings), a national favourite, the verdict was already sealed. The confrontation spread throughout the public realm, with a court case and numerous damning newspaper articles on the subject. Loos had now gone too far [40].

Learning to Speak Again: Building, People, Time and Space

The Landhaus Khuner is clearly not an easily accessible building, but neither was its architect an easily accessible individual. Right up to his death in August 1933, Adolf Loos evaded any clear political alignment for himself and his cultural critique; likewise, his Alpine house remains silent when it is disassociated from its context. Socio-economic conditions, and personal circumstances, as well as issues of time and space, must be considered when evaluating it. When paying closer attention to the various statements made in newspaper articles, in Loos’s essays, or in monographs contemporary with the Landhaus Khuner, the need to understand the design within its precise regional context becomes ever more evident.

Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who worked for Adolf Loos on some Viennese municipal housing projects from 1920 onward (before going on to design the celebrated ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’), observed that Loos became more and more doubtful about the effectiveness of the spoken or written word to influence human opinions and behaviours [41: p.1873–1874]. For Loos, therefore, the act of building offered a stronger means of expression: through his designs, he could communicate (Figure 25). In his concept for the Landhaus Khuner, Loos was for one last time attempting to convey his message about representing an Austrian, and particularly Viennese, cultural identity. The deep tensions that existed between countryside and city, and his hopes for a rural-urban compromise, were critically evaluated in his writings before being juxtaposed along with his concept of authenticity through building. Yet this time he had not only spoken but also built into a void. The dearth of subsequent discourse about the Landhaus Khuner, especially when contrasted with that about his Müller House, is nothing less than stifling.

Figure 25 

Adolf Loos inspecting logs, wearing his city clothes and standing in the snow [Photographs by Martin Gerlach held in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna].

To redress this problem, the essay has attempted to retrace the process of thought and design that preceded and then fed into the Landhaus Khuner, clearly establishing the design as sitting firmly within Loos’s oeuvre. The house does not stand isolated, but instead is supported by – and itself reinforces – his wider theoretical and material outputs. Loos’s colleagues, and even his critics at the time, never mentioned it as an oddity. What this observation also reveals is that any investigation of the Landhaus Khuner is unimaginable without careful consideration of its temporal, social and locational contexts. It likewise adds to the realisation that after the Second World War, with the emergence of ‘International Style’ Modernist hegemony, the ideological process that was led by Pevsner, Giedion and others of streamlining the various histories that had fed into the ‘triumph’ was hugely problematic.

Identifying the Landhaus Khuner as a prototypical example of Critical Regionalism certainly helps to some degree in breaking the deadlock of deciding whether it was in fact Modernist in its representational values, or not, thus opening up a renewed possibility for how one might reintegrate this building into architectural discourse, precisely by listening once more to its ‘voice’. Yet as a tool to rethink the impulses behind Loos’s Landhaus Khuner the Critical Regionalist interpretation can only get us so far because the building – as Loos declared again and again – so avidly supports and accepts the Modernist desire to embrace the experience of people having to live in the contemporary capitalist city. Modernity as an experience is thus shown to be a very different thing than the idea that anything can be reduced to architectural style, including as it did in the case of the Landhaus Khuner the cultural complexity of having to live within a split inter-war Austrian identity with its troubling urban-rural divide that somehow needed to be embraced and broadened through a new kind of Modernist architecture. Loos may have not found the perfect answer to that conundrum, yet in the Landhaus Khuner – built within a entirely different cultural condition to that of its ‘sister’ building, the Müller House in proudly independent Czechoslovakia – he went further than anyone else at the time in developing an alternative cultural expression for Modernism.