Arts ‘Adolf Loos – A Private Portrait’ offers readers a unique glimpse into the life of the modernist architect
In today’s Arts I talk to artist and editor Carrie Paterson about the first English-language edition of a rare and fascinating book originally published in 1936. Written by the third wife of modernist architect Adolf Loos, Claire Beck Loos (Klára Becková-Loosová of Plzeň) it was previously available only in German; the new edition, published by Doppelhouse Press, is called Adolf Loos – A Private Portrait.
The book is a rare glimpse of Mr Loos at the height and fall of his career, his unusual marriage to Claire (she was 34 years his junior) and is revealing of Claire Beck herself as an aspiring artist. For Carrie Paterson, Claire Beck’s grandniece, this was also an intensely personal project. When we spoke on a line to her home in California this week, the first thing Carrie discussed was the book’s history:
“It was published first in 1936 and it has seen two reprints there: in 1985 and in 2007.”
Is it fair to say that, at least in the German language, it was part of the canon on Adolf Loos as an architect?
“That’s an interesting question because it was not in the canon: it was an obscure book by a Jewish author. A lot of the books disappeared; at this point in our research into her past and tragic death in the Holocaust, we understand that she tried to send a number of books out of Prague to the US in 1941 but they never made it. We believe that a lot of her books were destroyed. What this means is that while the book had been collected to a certain degree by the Viennese and probably in the Czech lands as well, very few copies can be found today.”
When you got involved in this project it was like unravelling a thread to a degree, including a lot of study of archived material, correct?
“Yes. Our family had a number of things in our archives and we have been involved in a sort of treasure hunt over the last five years looking into her letters, photographs that we now understand were taken by her (as she was a professional photographer) and trying to understand what happened between 1938 to 1941, when she was deported to Terezín and to a concentration camp in later on in Riga, Latvia.
“So we have letters of hers and we learned a lot along the way, having those translated. We had a number of those things that laid quiet in our archives that had not been disturbed for emotional and personal reasons by my father. So we did do a lot of research and from that this extraordinary book emerged. I am so happy to have ‘met’ Claire and gotten to know her. She was an extraordinary person and a wonderful artist and writer.”
If we focus on Claire and Adolf Loos, how did the two actually meet?
“Claire met Adolf Loos when she was a young woman in her own apartment which had been designed by Loos in 1909! She was the daughter of an industrialist family and her father, Otto Beck, was well-known in Plzeň. He was part of the Beck & Hirsch steel and wire manufacture company and early in his career Otto had learned about Loos and was enamoured of his architecture. As soon as he could he contracted Loos to do the interior remodel of his apartment. So, with the Becks being clients, Loos was over at the house a lot and that is when he first met Claire.
“They met again sometime when she was in her 20s, what is believed to be when she was in Paris doing artistic experimentation in Bohemian circles there – at least according to research done by Adolf Opel, the editor of the 1985 edition. They met again and one can imagine that Loos was cavorting around with other clients like Tristan Tzara and may have run into her... he also went to a performance of Josephine Baker’s with the Beck family and that was probably where their courtship began.”
Was this a ‘likely’ courtship or marriage given their age difference, for example?
“The age difference was significant of course: they were 34 years apart. But their characters seemed to be part of a pattern I think that is known in history, where you have an older man who becomes a kind of mentor to a younger artist and in this case it seemed very much that Claire was willing to go through what she did with him – he wasn’t an easy person to live with – in part because of what he offered her about the world. She was totally struck by his genius, by his way of seeing things and learned quite a lot in the couple short years they were married. So likely and unlikely.”
Certainly you get a sense of the awe that she was him with at the beginning through some of the vignettes; what was her own relationship to his architecture?
“Anyone growing up in a certain kind of architecture – and I can attest to this having grown up in a house designed by an architect (my father studied under Frank Lloyd Wright) – one absorbs a certain aesthetic and forms happy memories there. As a result, you have a sense of home that you can feel in similar spaces. In that sense she ‘knew’ Loos far before they ever began courting.”
‘Open space’ was, I expect, a key concept in his work...
“Yes, the Beck apartment – like the many he did in Plzeň for what were, by and large, wealthy Jewish industrialists, you can stand at one end and look all the way through to the other. The spaces and the areas of living kind of fold into one another and there is a sense of continuity in the space. Not only is it very modern but Loos opened up spaces that didn’t exist before in the apartments and I just learned this through a lecture that was given by Dr. Irena Murray – the director of the British Architectural Library at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London: Loos would go into these apartments and open up interfacial spaces. In between one room and another there might have been a ‘dead’ space that just got closed in by the framing. By taking out the interior walls Loos found spaces that weren’t used and hadn’t existed before.”
“This is a great story that takes place in the Villa Muller in Prague that some readers will be familiar with. He goes into the house that is not finished at all. And he already has a complete vision of what the space will be like and how people will live there. And as he describes it out loud in front of people – his workmen and the client are all there – but they can not make that jump with him.
“Loos loses himself in the description and what Claire was able to record is something essential that we know about Loos now, which is that he envisioned these spaces. He didn’t develop them sitting at a drafting table: he had them entirely in his mind and then drew them on the backs on napkins in coffee houses and then worked out the engineering details with other professionals. “In that episode Loos walks into the house and he can see fish tanks and he can see where František Muller will come home after a long day and sit by the fireplace and relax and be surrounding by these shimmering fish, in an atmosphere of almost ‘otherworldly existence’.”
If we turn to the book, it’s fascinating not only because of the content but also because of the form, isn’t it?
“It is. Claire chose to write her book as a personal narrative of her life with Loos and although she does arrange it somewhat chronologically what she is able to do is create a series of really what are ‘snapshots’ of his life towards the end of his most productive period into his grave illness, towards the end of his life. She is able to track his personality, his architectural intentions, his environment or milieu, the people who supported him, his critiques. All of these things are woven together and she does this so beautifully and in a simple manner in clear, imagistic language. You can see that she is using her photographer’s eye every time she looks at him in one of these texts.”
At the same time, how revealing is the book of her as a person and as an artist?
“I am not sure how much of this was intentional but I think the book is clearly also an autobiography. I mean, it had to have been somewhat intentional because she includes her reactions to some of the things that were happening around her. And one of the things that stuck me was how awkward she felt in certain circumstances that Loos himself felt absolutely at home in. How much he walked into the world, open and willing to face whatever was there.
“For her as a younger woman she could really sense the barriers that were there for her – both internal and external limitations. She functioned as his secretary, his emissary in several situations when he was too ill to go places and meet people. She found herself in situations where she would meet dignitaries and artists she would otherwise never have come into contact with. So she really had to rise to those occasions. And you see her, throughout the book, developing into a very confident person who is a very good representative of Loos and everything that he stands for. I think in that sense it is a very interesting portrayal of what happens to a young woman through the course of this kind of mentorship/erotic connection to an older man.”
Some of these episodes are quite humorous as well...
“They are and they are filled with a sense of Loos’s character. One of my favourite stories is when Claire goes to visit Matisse in the south of France and she is there specifically to get him to sign a petition to start a ‘Loosian’ school of architecture. And she enters Matisse’s space and although it is short it describes the environment that Matisse lived in a wonderful way. Those clear, white spaces and the sense of the light in Matisse’s studio. And he turns her down. But what you get a sense of is how that relationship and famous people in his environment had to be channelled through her and maybe that that was a ‘risk’ for him but he was nevertheless willing to do that.”
Their marriage was a very brief one – on what terms did the marriage end?
“It isn’t entirely clear in the book but we have this sense that there was a big fight, that Loos was almost out of his mind with jealousy and rage towards one of his students, who turns out to be Bořivoj Kreigerbeck. He flies into a rage and Claire bears some of this and is accused of betraying him and she walks out. She leaves him. The result of this is that he is devastated and so is she.
“When she tries to go back and repair it, because she really did love him very much, he refuses to take her back. He is of that mind that once he has been shamed in that sense that he would never go through that again. Up until the end of his life, though, she retains an extraordinary affection for him and saw him closely up to the time when he died in 1933. It seems very clear in the book that it was mutual, this kind of eternal love.”
Anyone interested in learning more, the address to visit is doppelhousepress.com