In 1900 the Viennese architect Adolf Loos related his story “The Poor Little Rich Man”, about a wealthy man who commissioned an architect to redesign his home. The architect discarded all his client’s furniture, redecorated every surface and acquired expensive artworks and fittings. The rich man “was overjoyed”, Loos wrote. “Wherever he looked there was art. Art in anything and art in everything.”

When the patron’s birthday came round he was given delightful presents, and displayed them. The architect, though, was outraged. “Have I not designed everything for you?” he thundered. It dawned on the patron that his life of joyful consumption was over. He had been given the complete environment and it had become his prison.

Loos’s parable was a swipe at the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the house as a “total work of art”, and at his Viennese contemporaries’ desire to design everything from doorknobs and fish knives to furniture and carpet slippers. It was a stab at the so-called Wiener Werkstätte, the artisans’ co-operative that embodied the excess of design, and at architect Josef Hoffmann, one of its founders.

It is a little ironic then that Vienna’s MAK museum is staging a new show on Loos’s houses — though temporarily closed — just as a planned exhibition on Hoffmann has been postponed to December.

The architectural legacy of Loos (1870-1933) has continued to influence design, particularly domestic, throughout Modernism, postmodernism and right up to today. The complexity of his interiors, their interlocking, three-dimensional, puzzle-like nature and his fondness for contrasting extreme austerity with luxurious materials and generous spaces have made him an enigma, an enduring paradox.

That legacy, powerful as it is, is strongly contested. In 1928, Loos was arrested by the Viennese police on charges of sexually assaulting three girls aged between 8 and 10. It became a cause célèbre (documented by Christopher Long in his 2017 book Adolf Loos on Trial) and pitted Loos’s supporters and the artistic avant garde against the conservative and anti-Semitic right — Loos was not Jewish but most of his clients were.

He was accused of having hired the girls as drawing models and bathed and abused them. The details were sketchy but enough to convict him. More information about the case has been released in recent years from the official archives to an audience less willing today to separate the personal from the professional than it once might have been.

Reprehensible as his personal life appears, Loos’s work has continued to feed the culture of architecture and the imaginations of designers.

His two finest houses are critical to understanding 20th-century architecture and culture, yet sit oddly outside its mainstream history. The Moller House (1927-28) and the Müller House (1929-30) were built in Vienna and Prague, respectively, two landmarks of modern domestic space, cool on the outside, cosy on the inside.

While other architects including Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were radically simplifying architecture, creating interiors of lightness, clarity and transparency, using white plaster, steel and glass, Loos was making spaces of intimacy, darkness and mystery.

The others were stripping layers of material, decoration and history away to reveal the function of the structure. Loos was adding layers of dark, richly grained wood, marble, silk, woven hangings and copper.

Most importantly, he was working not only with a plan but with a section cut through the building, the rooms interlocking and interpenetrating. The front room of the Müller House is a complex construction in three dimensions, with a dining nook at a mezzanine level (to introduce a lower, more intimate ceiling, but also to allow it to overlook the main space).

It is given privacy and added status through being elevated but is also like a box in the theatre, which gives the whole ensemble a sense of voyeurism and human drama.

The stairs are a sculptural tour de force that impinges on the living space and suggests further complexity. Whereas most houses of the era featured discrete rooms for designated activities, Loos blurs the boundaries.

Like many of his continental contemporaries, Loos was seduced by the domestic architecture of the English Arts & Crafts. It might not have shown on the austere, inexpressive exteriors of his architecture but the inglenooks, copper-hooded fireplaces and galleries display its origins.

Loos rhapsodised the English suit as the high point of contemporary culture. Unflashy, well-tailored and suited to all situations from home to work, it was the mark, for him, of the modern man. That garment fetish is in his design for gentlemen’s outfitter Knize in Vienna (1909), an intense but practical interior exuding fine workmanship, material and unfussiness.

Then there is the American Bar (1908), still on Vienna’s Kärntner Strasse. It is almost the perfect space; intimate, intense, close, clad in dark veneer and with a complex geometrical ceiling and mirror that make it seem expansive. Tricksy and theatrical, it has become one of the most admired and emulated spaces of early Modernism.

Villa Karma (1906) is a remodelling of a Swiss house in a cocktail of Greek classicism and Italian luxury. Its oval entrance hall is lined in meatily veined marble, with a radiating check floor. Its interior is encased in dark wood and leather book spines, near-oppressively sumptuous, more gentlemen’s club than modern villa.

In 1925, Loos met the dancer and civil-rights activist Josephine Baker in Paris. He designed a house for her and, although unbuilt, it is one of the most enigmatic Modernist dreams. With a black-and-white striped facade and cylindrical corner tower, at its heart was a swimming pool with a glass wall through which the swimmers could be seen, a dark space of infinite reflection, surely an erotic voyeuristic fantasy.

Other memorable designs included that for his own tomb, a simple stone cube. His entry for the Chicago Tribune Tower competition in 1922 was a simple, black Doric column. Insanely postmodern, it was, perhaps, a message about how the US had taken over from classical Greece as the driver of modern civilisation, as well as a bad joke reference to the black ink of a newspaper “column”.’Adolf Loos: Private Houses’ runs until March 14

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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