Villa Tugendhat – a masterpiece of modernism
"Less is more" is an aphorism often associated with the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He might be better known as the last director of the Bauhaus, the famous school of modern architecture in Germany in the interwar period. But before emigrating to the United States, Mies left an indelible mark in the heart of Moravia: the Villa Tugendhat in Brno.
Imagine it´s 1929. Makin´ Whoopie by Eddie Cantor is played by radio stations all over America and becomes arguably the biggest hit of the year. In Atlanta, Georgia, the United States, a Martin Luther King Jr. is born, writer Erich Maria Remarque publishes All Quiet on the Western Front and the book becomes an instant bestseller. The German airship LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin circumnavigates the world in 21 days and flies for the first time non-stop over the Pacific from Tokyo to Los Angeles. However, dark clouds begin to gather over the world economy.
Black Tuesday at the end of October, the Stock Market Crash marks the beginning of the Great Depression that will gradually affect all industrialized nations. But in Brno, Czechoslovakia, the roaring twenties still go on. And a wealthy Jewish German-speaking couple Fritz and Greta Tugendhat start construction of a new family home that will become one of the most celebrated and admired masterpieces of modernism – Villa Tugendhat. Petr Dvořák, the villa’s curator, explains why it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001:
"It is a building with a special place in modern architecture, known and admired by students of architecture. This is because of its unique concept of interiors, space, because of the materials that were used for the house. And then there are those unique technical gadgets: windows that you can lower under the floor. The whole story of the building is very special and, of course, the name itself of the architect Mies van der Rohe, one of the three top architects of the 20th century.”
The interwar period was a time when Brno literally blossomed, the economic depression of the 1930´s notwithstanding. The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was given a very generous commission to build a villa paid for by the father of Greta Tugendhat. And he used it to the very limit. The construction cost 5 million Czechoslovak crowns which was then a real fortune. At first sight, you might not notice how significant and luxurious the villa is inside. That was the architect´s intention, says Petr Dvořák:
"Seen from the outside it does not look very special or conspicuous. That is typical for Mies van der Rohe and all his projects. For him, what mattered, was the interior, so that you could feel well and open-minded. He preferred open and fluid space, "open plan", as it is called by architects. For example, the main living area is wonderfully connected with the garden. There are glass walls or windows and there are no visual barriers for people inside the house. So that you can feel that you are in the interior but at the same time connected with the outside, with the garden."
The Tugendhats could enjoy their home for only eight years. Being Jewish, they emigrated to Switzerland and later South America fleeing just before the German occupation. Their villa was taken over by the Gestapo – the infamous secret police for a few years. And things did not improve much even after the war.
"After the Germans left, the Soviet Red Army came to Brno and they used Villa Tugendhat in part as horse stables. Then there was a ballet school here from 1945 to 1950 and afterwards a sort of rehabilitation center of the Brno Children´s Hospital until 1979. Of course, it was not ideal for the preservation of the building, nevertheless, a lot of the original substance of the Villa survived in its original condition, walls, doors, windows etc."
With furniture that was in large part designed by Ludwig Mies van den Rohe for the house, it was a different story. Many items were lost, some later returned to the family descendants. After the fall of communism, they did not ask the state to return the whole house in the restitution of property confiscated illegally by the Nazis and later Czechoslovak state. They nevertheless retained some preserved furniture items to the regret of curator Petr Dvořák.
"The pieces that you will see in the building on the first and second floor are mostly replicas. You can still find, however, some originals here. Mainly in special display cases because they need a very precise temperature and humidity for protection."
Perhaps the best way to enjoy Villa Tugendhat is to just wander around the rooms and not to worry too much about the complicated and even sad history of the place. They are beautiful examples of the highest quality modernist interiors that you can find in Europe and probably the whole world. You can see the simple yet beautiful bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen and dining rooms and sort of soak in the atmosphere of late 1920´s and early 1930´s. A must for every visitor is the main living area.
"It is the part of the house that is most famous and popular among the visitors, especially architects. One of the highlights is the onyx wall which is of stone mined in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It is kind of magically translucent. So, when the sun is low in the late afternoon or on winter days, the wall glows in kind of reddish or rose color of the stone. It was unintentional, the architect did not plan this, but now it is one of the highlights of the villa."
Finally, Petr Dvořák has one piece of advice: if you plan to see Villa Tugendhat for yourself, book the tickets online as soon as possible. The number visitors is limited and the tickets are reserved usually 3 to 4 months in advance. And if you find yourself in Brno unexpectedly and want to see the villa only from outside, you can at least visit the garden for a small fee. No reservation is required.