Mies van der Rohe villa added to UNESCO World Heritage listopad

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One of the most influential works of twentieth century architecture in Europe has been added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Although it is beloved of architects the world over, the Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic's second city of Brno is not well known to the general public. It contrasts dramatically with the other ten sites in the country already on the UNESCO list, such as the medieval heart of Prague or the ancient towns of Telc or Cesky Krumlov. The steel-and-glass Villa Tugendhat is a mere seventy years old. Designed in 1928, it is the finest surviving European masterpiece of the great modernist architect, Mies van der Rohe, who later became famous for his towering Chicago skyscrapers. David Vaughan reports.

Mies van der Rohe was the last head of the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany and was one of the pioneers of the modern architecture of steel, glass and concrete - the noble ancestor of the grim prefabricated housing estates built in Czechoslovakia in the 70s and 80s. But the Villa Tugendhat has little in common with these suburban jungles. Standing on a hillside in the smart Cernopolni Street overlooking Brno, the villa epitomizes style, quality and elegance. It is all glass, polished marble, hardwood and chromium-plated steel, and it embodies van der Rohe's revolutionary philosophy of the "freely flowing space".

The villa has had a difficult history. The Tugendhat family, who commissioned it, fled in 1938 with the growing threat of Nazi Germany. During the war it was used by the Gestapo, it was then damaged by an allied bomb, and in April 1945 Red Army troops moved in, complete with their horses. At this time most of the chrome-plated furniture, also designed by Mies van der Rohe, disappeared. But the greatest damage of all was done in the mid 1980s with a grossly insensitive renovation of the building by the then Communist authorities.

Not surprisingly, the mayor of Brno, Petr Duchon, has said that he'll only start celebrating the inclusion of the villa on the UNESCO list once it has been properly restored. And that's going to prove no easy task. One thing that being on the UNESCO list doesn't bring is money. The cost of renovation work is estimated at over three million US dollars. Given that the Tugendhat Villa belongs to the town hall of Brno, the lion's share of that money is going to have to come from the taxpayer's pocket.