Andrea Palladio and Adolf Loos

By coincidence, the birthdays of the authors of two of architecture’s most revolutionary texts are within about a week and a half of each other. These are those of Andrea Palladio, author of I quattro libri dell’architettura (born November 30, 1508) and Adolf Loos, author of Ornament and Crime (born December 10, 1870). Other than the proximity of their birthdays and their fame for writing about architecture, the two men have very little in common, especially when it comes to design philosophy.

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Andrea Palladio and Adolf Loos

Andrea Palladio, born Andrea della Gondola, was a Venetian stonemason who began designing buildings at age 30 for the wealthy individuals of the Veneto. His most famous projects include Vincenza’s Basilica Palladiana and Villa Capra and Moser’s Villa Barbaro. Within a hundred years his style was being copied across Europe- so extensively that some of his designs (but not all) now seem mundane. Palladio is therefore often cited as the most influential architect in history, but ironically his entire style revolved around Greek and especially Roman influences. The quattro libri were viewed as a fundamental handbook by a multitude of architects from the 16th century onwards- Thomas Jefferson, the American polymath whose architectural career peaked in the early 1800s, called them his “Bible”.

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The Basilica Palladiana in Vincenza

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The Palazzo Chiericati, also in Vincenza (both photos by author)

In the four books, Palladio advocates looking back to the beauty of classical architecture. He was not the first to do so, as Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti had designed and built Classically inspired structures fifty years before. However, Palladio researched and used more genuine classical orders (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, etc.) and proportions (the famed golden ratio), and also suggested ways to apply these to more practical structures than churches, which were the most common projects of previous classicists. Palladio was able to publicize and spread this philosophy through his books in a way that Brunelleschi and Alberti never did. Therefore, it was only Palladio’s interpretation of Classical architecture- one that involved lots of symmetry and perspective- that spread across Europe. This “Palladianism” influenced architects over the next centuries including Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, Thomas Jefferson, and Karl Schinkel.

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Jefferson’s Monticello, a more recent Palladian design (photo by author)

The lesser-known Adolf Loos was the son of an Austrian stonemason and was initially a member of the Vienna Secession, an artistic think tank whose work foreshadows the art deco of the 1920s and 30s. Loos left the group because he did not agree with its decorative designs, for reasons which he made clear in his famous essay Ornament and Crime. As the title suggests, Loos viewed ornament and decoration as crime- and the Roman orders revitalized by Palladio were repeat offenders. He expressed his admiration for structural honesty akin to that of simple vernacular structures, as opposed to the false facade of ornament. He compared decorated buildings to tattooed prisoners- criminal and degenerate.

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Loos’s Villa Muller in Vienna

Loos’s radical idea of stripping all unnecessary elements from architecture was radical both then and now. Even Ludwig “less is more” Mies van der Rohe designed buildings with a beautiful simplicity rather than a practical simplicity. However, Mies van der Rohe was heavily influenced by Loos, as were other early 20th century architects like le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, so Loos was instrumental in the advent of Modernism, the first truly original architectural style in centuries. Even today, there are many architects who indulge in the minimalism proposed by Loos.

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INSERT studio’s omHOUSE, a recent design with Loosian characteristics

Palladio and Loos both had hugely influential but contradicting ideas, and it is tempting to ask whose were correct. However, there is certainly no clear cut answer. Both have their pros and cons: Loos’s minimalism is utilitarian at the cost of beauty, while Palladianism is beautiful but less practical and more expensive. One thing that is clear is that Palladio has had a far-reaching influence for centuries; only time will tell if Loos’s ideas will have the same longevity.

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