Some months back we took a short trip to Prague. Being in sort-of-close proximity, we could not miss a visit to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s master stroke of modernism, Villa Tugendhat. I had read about the house as it is a very important part of Mies’ oeuvre, and an outstanding example of both functionalism and International Style architecture. I have seen many photos of the villa, but even the most beautiful photos could not prepare me for this experience. I could only imagine it must have felt like living in art.
Set back from the street with a rather extensive terrace of Italian travertine tiles, the building looks long and low. There is no entry door in sight. A semicircular wall of milky colored glass extends down the façade to the left. From this vantage point, beyond the covered area of the terrace, you can see the city of Brno. It is perfectly framed.
Villa Tugendhat was commissioned by newlyweds Grete and Fritz Tugendhat in 1928. Both came from wealthy families of Brno textile industrialists, who had a significant influence on the industrialization of Czechoslovakia between the wars. Grete’s father Alfred Löw-Beer purchased a villa along with a large plot of land in 1913. In 1929 he gifted his daughter that exclusive plot of land. The hillside terrain with an awe-inspiring panoramic view of the historic skyline of Brno would be only part of his gift. He would also finance the construction of a house. The Löw-Beers ranked among the wealthiest families in Czechoslovakia at that time, which meant as far as construction and materials, there would be no financial constraint. You will quickly see why this was essential for Mies to carry out his vision for the Tugendhat’s residence.
We arrived a bit early and were told we could have a walk around the garden while we waited. It was here, that we were able to really understand how unique this house was in terms of architectural vision wholly supported by modernist clients. This is much more than a home built into a hillside. It is perfection in terms of structure, construction and placement into the natural landscape. Standing here we were able to see that the façade from the street is actually the third floor of the villa, very closed and private to outsiders. The hillside has quite a slope and consequently, the other two floors are completely hidden from street view. As you may have imagined, the almost entirely glass floor is the main living space. From here we took one of the garden paths for a closer look through the glass wall into the winter garden. I remember seeing photos of the conservatory from the interior, but never from the outside. Nose against glass you still cannot see past the green leaves of the potted plants that make up this indoor garden along the living space. Wonderfully private. This glass box is hidden below street level on one side and in the green of the winter garden from the paths outside.
In 1969 Grete Tugendhat spoke at a lecture given as part of as part of an exhibition dedicated to the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I think her words best describe why they chose him to be their architect. “From the first moment of our discussions it was decided that he would build the house, his personality had such a great impact on us. He had a calm self-confident sense of certainty which was instantly persuasive. From the manner in which he spoke about his projects, we realized that we were dealing with a genuine artist.”
The Tugendhats met with Mies in his studio on New Year’s Eve 1928, where they received the completed plan for the project. Grete applied and was granted permission to build on October 26th, 1929. The couple moved in to their dream home December 1st, 1930. This seems like an incredibly short period of time given how structurally, spatially, and technologically advanced this house would be. It is indeed an architectural wonder.
Tucked neatly behind the curve of the milk glass wall on the street level is the main entrance. The Italian travertine continues inside the entryway from the outdoor terrace. This creates a feeling of a freely flowing open space. As soon as we step inside Villa Tugendhat we have fallen for it. We have only gotten as far as the entrance hall, but our eyes are literally stuck on some warm wood goodness. We are greeted by a gorgeous rosewood veneer wall and some iconic furniture pieces which may be familiar to you if you are a fan of Bauhaus design. A round MR 140 table with a black polished glass top and two tubular steel cantilever armchairs of the Stuttgart type, now the MR 20. Though much of the furniture was made specifically for Villa Tugendhat, Mies used his MR series of furniture throughout the villa. It represents some of his earliest steel furniture designs. That blue color of the rattan was ace and I was assured that this was, in fact, the original color used in the house. The door that so seamlessly blends into the rosewood wall is the entry to Grete and Fritz Tugendhat’s private rooms.
The milk glazed wall, with its glossy exterior and frosted interior provides both privacy from the outside and allows for bright, soft light within. The staircase down to the main living space is enclosed inside the curve of the glass. The stairs continue with travertine tiles. The cross shaped column, here clad in chrome, repeats throughout the house and is part of the support structure that both Mies and the house is famous for. To the right a small corridor leading to the family’s private quarters.
The interiors of Villa Tugendhat were trusted to Mies’ then working and personal partner, Lilly Reich. This was not her first project with Mies. Incidentally, they were working together on the Barcelona Pavilion simultaneously. I mention that project in particular as you may notice some similarities between the two. Here she focused on the interior design and was the co-creator of a range of Mies’ furniture pieces. Another extraordinary woman of the time, Lilly Reich was already a well-established modern designer. She had a long standing and successful career not only in interiors, but exhibition, furniture, textile, and fashion design as well. She opened her own studio in 1914 and by 1920 she became the first woman member of the board of the Deutscher Werkbund. Some years after that she met Mies and became an important part of his life and practice until he left for America in 1938. Ms. Reich deserves a story all her own, so I will leave it here for now and we will have a look at the interior and more private parts of the villa.
Grete’s private area functioned both as a bedroom and dressing room. For the love of rosewood! The rosewood built-in closets are a dream and were found in good original condition during the extensive two stage restoration that took place here. Every detail has been either restored or replicated exactly as Mies originally made it. From furniture; built-ins and otherwise, to lighting, switches and fittings - exact specs. Opposite the bed, her sitting area next to the window overlooks the city of Brno. The daybed and Brno chair, here in cherry red leather, were made specifically for the house. If you look closely, to the right of the mirror you can see the lady’s floating vanity. Oh, and I almost forgot to point out one of the best features. That door to the left of the daybed. Why would that door be more than ordinary? Because that door allows private balcony access directly from the bedroom. That’s why. Who wouldn't want that?
Fritz’s private room served as his bedroom and study. Though there are noted differences between the private rooms, there are many similarities. The floating wall dresser, seemingly weightless, can be found in three of the bedrooms. The built-in closets are in all of the private rooms, though materials vary. The lightweight tubular furniture and industrial light fixtures, switches and fittings are not only found in the private areas, but throughout the entire house. Truly inspiring that even here in the smaller rooms he chose bold, beautiful materials; albeit in typical Mies fashion. Never in excess and always tempered to perfection with contrasting ivory plaster walls, ceilings and light linoleum floors. This is functionalism at its finest. These pieces were designed to be used. Rectilinear forms with flat plane surfaces. No ornamentation other than the brilliance of the material itself. Masterful.
Considering I am me, Fritz’s room would be my choice of the two bedrooms. All of his sleeping and dressing needs are addressed on one side, with a beautiful rosewood built-in closet and floating wall dresser. The bed faces the window. An excellent wake up. Situated neatly on the other side, a beautiful Makassar ebony wood desk with two of the MR 20 cantilever chairs I admired so much in the entry. Behind the desk is a bookshelf. I mentioned before that interior designer and partner to Mies, Lilly Reich, was responsible for the interiors of Villa Tugendhat. The bookshelf is her own design and this corner set up is not unusual in her interiors. Everything is perfectly placed.
The first photo, Grete’s eldest daughter Hanna’s room. All of the furniture in her room was designed by Mies and Lilly out of zebrawood veneer. Sitting parallel to her bed, along the wall on the opposite side, is another exactly like it. This extra bed was used by the nanny when the Tugendhat’s needed a guest room. I think this was brilliantly thought through. Why have an entire room sit in wait for the occasional overnight guest when you can simply change the assignment? This was not done for lack of money or design as this house uses both of those things to the maximum. It was about the family’s priorities and needs, and Mies’ thoughts on functionalism in design.
The children’s room was for Ernst and Herbert, the couple’s two young sons. Their room was furnished with lacquered children’s furniture, you could find just about anywhere. I think the guide’s words were bought off the shelf. There is, of course, something of interest about this room. The paint surface of the door and built-in closet with the sink match the surface treatment of the lacquered furniture exactly. The duo may not have designed the furniture, but they certainly had a very thoughtful, very specific way of putting this room together. I’m fairly certain this is the first time I’ve seen such an idea. It’s a good one. On the other side of the room, a simple matching lacquered night table and a cot. This was for the children’s caretaker to keep a watchful eye on the boys until she retired to her own room.
The last of the three is the nanny’s room. Here again the zebrawood is used for furniture and built-ins. I quite liked this room and wanted to point out a couple of fantastic design elements. The hidden sink/vanity situation – I’m completely obsessed. When you close the door, it disappears into the built-in wall and you would never even guess it was there. Not your average bed either. Mies and Lilly designed it to have storage space for extra linens. No, not with bulky, knobby drawers near the floor or at the foot of the bed, but right underneath the mattress. A smooth, rectangular, hollow top which simply looks like… well, the bed. Absolutely indiscernible when the bed is made, and when it isn’t. Unless maybe, you caught on to that handle there on the mattress, which I did not.
One of my goals in life is to be able to have all of the “things” stored behind walls, doors, built-ins; just completely out of view when not in use. Coming from living in the smaller footprints of New York City apartments, we have had some success with that. Everything had to have a place to live so you could live in your place. This house, of course, goes well beyond stellar example. It’s pure magic. Now I would like a hidden vanity.
Do you remember the entry hall? In a similar fashion to Le Corbusier’s Maison la Roche, the architect pulls your eyes away from the stairways or corridors that lead to private rooms. In Maison la Roche it was the three-story cut out façade and second floor balcony that attracted your eye. Here it is that beautiful rosewood wall. It keeps the nonpublic entries discreet.
From the entrance hall we are lead down a partially winding staircase enclosed inside the curve of that milk glass wall. We come to a small entry room or waiting area. There are glazed doors here. They are closed.
Earlier I said that photos could not prepare me for this experience, and that is especially true of this most essential floor of the house. There is a unique atmosphere here that can only be understood by moving through the space. This is where the family spent their time, entertained friends and were able to live a most beautiful and inspired life through architecture.
Through the doors, the soul of the house opens up in front of you. This gives new meaning to open plan. This is not that. This is flowing space full of light and lines. This is peaceful and unobstructed. Glass walls open up to the gardens outside. This is paradise. Rich materials are used to guide, but never get in the way. Not of you, and more astonishingly, not of each other. If you look beyond the piano, you will see the door from which we entered the space. Many of Mies’ interiors were defined with a sense of permanency. You can see it very clearly in Villa Tugendhat. Here he had the opportunity to make use of his interest in rare and exclusive, often very expensive materials. The order in which he organized the components of the building; proportions, dimensions, units and details were based on the very precise placement of furniture both freestanding and built-in. This simultaneously guides you through the space and creates separate “areas” within the expanse of the room. Two of the major elements in the room, the onyx wall and the Makassar ebony semi-circular wall are free standing. Neither has any structural function. That is taken care of by the cruciform columns, part of the supporting structure of the house. In the main living area, the columns are clad in chrome finished with a bright luster. Mies’ juxtaposition of materials from extravagant to industrial is unparalleled. Seamlessly complimenting and even playing off each other while still retaining their own unique characteristics.
“First we saw the plan of an enormous room with a curved and a rectangular free-standing wall. Then we noticed little crosses at a distance of about five metres of each other and asked what they were. As if it were the most natural thing in the world, Mies replied: ‘Those are the iron supports, which will carry the whole building.' At the time there was no private house which had yet been built with a steel construction, so no wonder we were very surprised.” - Grete Tugendhat
For the first time in the history of architecture a residential house was built with a steel support structure of 29 cruciform columns on a cross shaped floor plan. Mies executed his new functionalist concept, doing away with load bearing interior walls and allowing him the advantages he was acutely occupied with at the time. Here he would have a free plan that could change from floor to floor, connection with the outside garden without obstruction – but most importantly, successful use of glass “walls”. This minimal but stable design would become a hallmark in Mies’ residential achievements.
There is something both beautiful and reassuring about the repetition of the shiny, chrome clad cruciform columns in the living area. The dark, organic shape of the Makassar ebony wall encircles the round dining table, creating a separate area inside the expanse. Its curve stands out in this house of taut plane surfaces and rectilinear forms.
The white chairs around the table were made for the villa, and consequently named the Brno chair. They were made of tubular steel and upholstered with white sheepskin. If you look past the chairs you see just a bit of the beautiful green marble shelf against the Makassar ebony wall. Another rich material introduced with a nod rather than a shout.
Mies designed the round dining room table with the ability to accommodate up to 24 people as per request of the client. The table’s surface, made of black pear tree wood, is supported by one metal leg in the exact cross shape of the steel columns. It can be retracted into the floor to transform the space entirely. A convertible room? Literally the stuff of dreams, at least mine anyway..
A machine for living in.
“He consequently explained the importance of utilizing noble materials in Modernist structures, in particular, which do not contain decorations or ornamentation, this having been neglected up until then…” - Grete Tugendhat
Aside from Mies’ personality and his forward thinking for this original construction, the Tugendhat’s were particularly impressed by his feeling for materials. In 1932, George Nelson wrote a series of articles with the idea of introducing the general public in America to the most modern buildings and architects in Europe. He referred, without hesitation, to Villa Tugendhat as a masterpiece. “Perhaps the best Modern house ever built." He mentions the onyx wall as one of the things that Mies was most proud of.
The onyx wall. This is the most exquisite example of that rich rare material Mies was so enamored with. It is spectacular, and in my mind, the showstopper of the house. It is captivating and unexpected. I was immediately drawn to its shimmering surface, and how it captured the light – no surprise there, light chaser that I am. We did not get to see the sun set during our visit. I have read that when the evening sun shines through the glass wall the onyx becomes an almost fierce red. We were told that it surprised even Mies when he first witnessed it.
An ever-changing space due to these raw and unadulterated materials used in a very particular way. Behind the wall; an office, library and the adjoining winter garden. But in front of this onyx stunner, with the furniture meticulously selected and placed, any thought of work melts away. This is where Mies and Lilly laid out what they called the “relax area”. You will see as we go further, but one can infer by the reflection on the wall that this is where the house becomes one with the garden through the glass walls. The Barcelona chairs and stool in this emerald green color way were chosen for the villa. Though originally for the Barcelona Pavilion, Mies and Lilly also had the villa front of mind when designing these pieces. Opposite one of the most recognized chair designs and icon of the modern movement, sits another set. The Tungendhat armchairs. This design was made specifically for the villa, originally with silver grey upholstery and rubber straps. It is said that other than for the villa, this chair was only produced for the most demanding clientele. It is repeated in the house with different fabrications.
Many consider both the onyx wall and the curved ebony wall minimalist works of art in the house, which is easy to understand. In reality the only true piece of art was by German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, the statue of a female torso, 1913. It was chosen by the Tugendhats and was discussed with Mies who gave the go ahead. The sculpture shown here is a stand in for the 1913 Lehmbruck.
I am going to share a little secret with you. It was precisely at this moment, standing in front of the onyx wall, that we both realized something. And for the first time since we bought the Wood House, we allowed ourselves to dream a little dream.
Oh yes, this would do nicely.
Anyone familiar with Mies van der Rohe understands that glass was one of the most important materials in his work and his International Style of architecture. It was in this commission that he had perfected his use of glass to such an extent, that the east and south sides of the living space should be considered “walls” and not windows. Here he successfully resolved previous technical problems in achieving the thinnest possible frames. The very thing necessary to complete his idea of the continual “glass wall." It was not until Villa Tugendhat that he achieved the ultimate use of glass for a most unbelievable reward. He installed two enormous panels of floor to ceiling glass that with a flip of a switch could be retracted down into the floor. Down one level, the retractable glass engine room has been made operable again with the same mechanism as the original. This literally opened up the room and connected the interior with the garden outside. One of the most impressive technological advances of this house.
In Villa Tugendhat Mies’ use of light, both natural and artificial go far beyond lighting fixtures. But, we are dealing with me here, and there is nothing I love more than a good light/lamp/fixture and the proper repetition of such a thing. Every example above with one exception occurs regularly throughout the house. Mies designed every light, all stamped with his studio mark we were told by our guide. All except for one.
Mies designed the lamps made from milk glass in the shape of a low cylinder for soft diffused light. He used similar lamps in previous commissions but perfected the design here by recessing them into the ceiling. The screw holding the glass lampshade is chrome plated and cruciform. Cruciform, just like the support columns and table base. “God is in the details." The idiom may not have originated with him, but he certainly lived by it. They are found in almost every room. The tubular shaped wall fixture of the same milk glass and chrome could be found in all of the private areas. Mies used these to perfection in many different settings. Over beds, vanities, mirrors and in bathrooms. The hanging lamp, with a more typical lamp shade in parchment, seems to be a one off. It is hanging in Grete’s eldest daughter’s room and has more of a craft than industrial feel to it. Last but not least, and something you may have already noticed; Mies’ regular use of the PH Lamp by Poul Henningsen throughout the entirety of the living space. The only light used throughout that was not of his own design. Mies believed this lamp to be revolutionary in design for creating pleasant glare free light. Mies and Lilly often used the PH Lamp in their interiors for this reason.
After feeling completely overwhelmed by the onyx wall; the perfect seating area where the windows could disappear into the house and let the inside join the outside, we came to what could very well be the warmest spot in the house. Extraordinarily, the library has the feel of a speakeasy while not interrupting the continuity of this light and airy space. The wall of Makassar ebony shelves along with the special brown leather Tugendhat armchair could not be more inviting. Still bathed in sunlight from the glass wall, it seems to be a room all its own. I wonder if you can see the doors to the right of the chair? These doors lead to the hidden “safe room.” We were told it is where the liquor cabinet and things of importance that should be hidden away were kept. It could be the setting of a Bond film. On another note, I would really like to add that chair to my collection.
“A dwelling should only serve for housing. The location of the structure, its location in relation to the sun, the layout of the spaces and the construction materials are the essential factors for creating a dwelling house. A building organism must be created out of these conditions." - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Mies was quoted as saying this in 1924, and it came to mind as soon as I understood how expertly he created “rooms” without the use of walls inside this free-flowing space. He used the placement of furniture, fabrics, rugs and other materials to distinguish one area from another with such precision that no physical wall was needed. Each of these vignettes have such an intimate and unreduced feeling that it is hard to imagine these areas part of a continuous whole. They stand on their own, in this perfect continuum. Another method he and Lilly employed was the use of curtains. Beautiful black and silver-grey shantung along with both black and white velvet on a track that could be used to enclose an area for more privacy or pulled back to open the entire room. A genius idea for converting the space as the family needed.
The bridge table shown here is located at the opposite end of the library. The dark wood veneer and built-in seating create a snug corner for game play or a chat, and the white Brno chairs are a great contrast in this particular arrangement. An impressive interior moment, at least for me, was the home office. Not your typical to say the very least. The desk is made of Makassar ebony veneer with an MR 20 cantilever chair on either side, sat upon a Persian rug to carve out its place. I’m not sure if you noticed that view, but I’d get zero work done, particularly if the glass wall were retracted. Easy fix though, I’d just have to make good use of the curtains! The last of the three seating areas shown here demonstrates yet another way Mies used ambient light. He called it the “Lit-up wall”. To remedy the dark area tucked behind the curved wall, Mies used a piece of glazed glass etched from the inside and designed a grid of 156 light bulbs to light behind it. During the restoration, the grid of bulbs was replaced with reflectors directed to catch light which had the same lighting effect.
The winter garden faces south-east. We were told that Fritz established a proper greenhouse with flowering plants. The pool for water plants you see here originally contained fish. It must have been lovely against a back drop of white snow in the winter months. I believe I read that the family preferred to sit in the library when they were on their own, in view of the winter garden. Guests, of course, spent their evenings in front of the onyx wall.
This house had so many unique fixtures and fittings that it was virtually impossible to record every one. Trust me on this, we tried. Funnily enough, the three documented above were among our favourites. All three designed by Walter Gropius. While the captions speak for themselves I will say that the door stops, which lock the doors in place rather than just preventing them from opening too wide, was immediately something I saw as a must have. I mean, how are we even managing without them?
“At the time we probably did not fully realize the enormous amount of work Mies had put into the construction, since he designed every detail himself down to the door knobs. Many things widely employed today were created here for the first time, and one is unaware of their origin.”
- Grete Tugendhat’s words as she addressed the International Conference on the Reconstruction of the Tugendgat House in 1969.
Discreetly located, the kitchen is situated between the public living area and the private staff quarters. I liked the almost clinical feel of this kitchen. I said almost. I am acutely aware of that bank of windows along the north-west wall showing off a glimpse of the garden. The kitchen walls are covered all the way up to the ceiling with white glazed interior wall tiles, white ceramic was used on the floor. Opposite, the wooden cupboard has working surfaces that could be tucked away when not in use.
I can honestly say that I have never witnessed such attention to detail and order the way it was carried out here at Villa Tugendhat. This place will constantly remind you of Mies’ sheer brilliance in defining materials and calming repetition. The cruciform columns of the house’s steel structure are all exposed but covered in different material depending on location. This he knew would be the case from the outset, as only flat rivets were used to leave sufficient space for cladding. Bronze was used on the exterior, shiny chrome classing for the public living areas and white paint for the private and work rooms.
Out of public view, on the private side of the curved dining area wall, white railings raise out of a semi-circular opening in the floor. Down here a small seventeen step winding steel staircase brings you to the basement of the house. As far as staircases go, this one is quite compact and almost looks like it belongs in a ship rather than a home. Purposely made with a “nothing to see here” attitude, it calls little to no attention to itself as it leads to the utility and technical spaces.
The Tugendhat House’s technology was sophisticated even by today’s standards. The house was fitted with an air system which combined heating, cooling, humidification and scent. Yes, you read that correctly. Scent. Air was forced through filters filled with cedar wood shavings before being delivered throughout the house. Unbelievably the entire system, we were told, has been preserved in its original state and is fully functional today.
After the air technology engine rooms come the utility rooms. The washing room was not preserved and is now furnished with period pieces.
Fritz Tugendhat was an amateur photographer and film maker. It is because of Fritz’s interest in photography that there is so much documentation of the early years of the villa. His darkroom is actually cut into the terrain of the sloping hillside. It is ventilated by an innovative system of vertical vents that pull air from circular openings on the entrance terrace above. It is said that Fritz secretly filmed visitors baffled reactions to the unique Modernist home and then quickly processed the film to show it to them at the end of the evening. Maybe just a tale, but a bit telling of a playful personality.
Grete’s fur storage room was preserved in its original state. The authentic glazed interior wall tiles also cover the ceiling while the floor has ceramic paving tiles. The constant flow and movement of natural air through the vent system served to protect the furs from moths.
The last space we saw was used by the family to store garden furniture in the cold months. Today it houses some pieces of furniture original to Villa Tugendhat. There are precious few left and remain either with family members or were given to museums. Fritz and Grete’s son Herbert gave MoMa the only two remaining Tugendhat chairs.
A note on the furniture. Precise replicas of the house’s famous furniture, with Mies’ exact specifications are now on display at Villa Tugendhat. Current production of these pieces can be purchased today. From the beginning of the design work for the villa, Mies and Lilly decided on the chairs they recently designed for the Barcelona Pavilion along with earlier models accompanied by some special pieces you see exampled above.
For the most part the chairs in the villa were airy and transparent. They were metal, which was still very new for a home interior in the late 20’s. This tells a lot about the Tugendhats and their willingness to embrace a new aesthetic sensibility. The bent chrome profiles with exposed frames had a similar principle of construction as the frame of the house and seemed to be in complete harmony with the architecture. The flexible bent metal chairs were inexpensive, light and comfortable. This was a shift away from traditional residential furniture to what Le Corbusier called “residential equipment.” Corbusier thought this was an essential part of modern architecture and the logical next step of industrialization of the home.
The first designs for seating furniture with chrome plated metal profiles designated for mass production came about in Mies’ studio while designing for the Weissenhof Estate with Reich. The cantilever armchairs MR 10 and MR 20 in Mies’ furniture line owe a great deal to fellow Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam, who also collaborated on the project. The question of who deserves credit for the invention would later be the subject of many legal disputes. We know now that there is current production of the Stuttgart cantilever chair under both the Breuer and Stam name using different manufacturers.
In 1932 Thonet Co. began to manufacture the chairs we know today as the MR 10 and MR 20 that were used in Villa Tugendgat. Lilly Reich designed rattan strapping to use instead of the original plywood example. Several of the original pieces of furniture for the interior of the villa were in fact prototypes. As a result, the details on these individual pieces differed from actual production.
From the dining room terrace, we walked down the short travertine staircase to the stepped stone garden. The stone garden is made up of loosely placed stones covered with vegetation, which incidentally was being worked on while we were there. This, together with the climbing greenery on the façade, was meant to evoke the optical disappearance of the expanse of the building in plant life. It is easy to visualize the almost complete marriage of indoor and outdoor with the use of technology and proper placement of plants and trees. Windows retracted, green vines climbing the façade almost into the living area and trees in full bloom. How wonderful that must have been! The closest tree to the house is a weeping willow tree, that has now been replaced on more than one occasion. On the original plan, this was an important tree to keep in the garden. Mies designed a half circular terrace around it, which was counterpart to the half circular wall in the dining room. In the summer months the family would sometimes have meals here.
The landscape that is so important to the architecture of the villa, is the expanse between Villa Tugendhat and Villa Löw-Beer, Grete’s family home. It was originally an orchard sloping down towards Grete’s parent’s house from the street. Mies designed the garden for the new villa in cooperation with Brno landscape architect Markéta Roderova-Müllerová. They used the idea of “emphasized emptiness” for the layout; large expanses of grass spaces with isolated vegetation. Mostly a meadow, the most prominent feature is the large grassed field. The paths make up a circular trail that eventually link both villas.
The Villa Tugendhat is not only a crowning achievement for new functionalism and the International Style by a world-renowned architect. I have read not only about this house, but quite a bit about this period of time. Now I have experienced the house. I am of the mind that nothing like it exists. There are quite a few reasons for this, which I will try to articulate as best as I can. It is about people, time and place. It is about history. It is about the atmosphere and feeling of optimism that enveloped Brno after the emergence of an independent Czechoslovakia. It’s about all of these things culminating into something wonderfully inexplicable.
During the time between wars, Brno was established as the regional capital. Consequently, it became an important economic and administrative center. Grete’s family, the Löw-Beers, contributed a great deal to the development of industry in Czechoslovakia in the interwar period. Headquarters for central administrative offices as well as political, scientific, cultural and educational institutions began to be built. Natural growth with the arrival of new residents resulted in the need for new housing developments. An act for supporting the building business provided significant advantages in the form of state grants. This attracted a remarkable number of exceptional architects and some very prominent construction companies. In the mid 1920's European pioneers of Modernist architecture were giving lectures in Brno. Masters of the movement, Le Corbusier, Amédée Ozenfant, Adolf Loos, J.J.P. Oud, Walter Gropius... The list is not exhaustive and must give you an idea of the excitement and feeling of sheer possibility in the air at this time. The construction of the Brno exhibition grounds at the time of the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in 1928 celebrated the ten-year anniversary of the independent country. It was called a triumph of Functionalism, displaying the remarkable construction abilities of its architects as well as the construction and craft talents of the builders. And before my history lesson bores you, we must not forget another important event that took place in 1927. The first post-war exhibition of modern housing Die Wohnung in Stuttgart, organized by the Deutscher Werkbund and headed by Mies van der Rohe. The Weissenhof Estate represented a new trend in housing with rational modern interiors, which Grete Tugendhat had seen and been greatly impressed by.
At what other time, in what other place would one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century be introduced to clients that had longed for a “modern spacious house with clear and simple shapes” ? Clients of industrial families that supported his work not only financially, but intellectually? A client in Grete who had seen his work before and could not get that one element out of her mind – the house had a trio of glazed doors that opened up right into the garden.
It can be a very romantic story to begin, but I would be remiss to leave out certain parts of this house, this family’s history. The Tugendhat’s were able to live in their Modernist dream house for a short eight years. Before the onset of WWII and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Tugendhats left Brno and their beloved home in 1938. Fritz prepared their personal belongings and certain pieces of furniture for transport and the family made their way to Switzerland. It’s quite certain that none of the original pieces of furniture would exist today had Fritz not taken that initiative.
I’m afraid there was no escape for Villa Tugendhat. Though it is quite heartbreaking, I will give you the short version as it was told to me. In October 1939 the house was confiscated by the Gestapo and became property of the German Reich in 1942. The cavalry unit of the Red army took the house over in 1945. Horses were housed in the main living area and on the technical floor. Whatever remained of the furniture was used as firewood. You can imagine the devastation the house faced not only being used as stables, but also being confronted with war. The glazed walls were broken due to pressure caused by bombs. After the war, the structure was repaired a bit and housed a private dance school. In 1950 it came under the ownership of the Czech state and was made into a rehabilitation center for children.
After all of this, it was not the end for Villa Tugendhat. In 1969 an exhibition on the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was held at the Brno House of Arts. Grete returned from Switzerland to contribute to the exhibition with her famous speech, delivered in Czech, on the construction of her beloved Tungendhat House. The villa was declared a National Cultural Monument in 1995 and was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2001. There were two periods of restoration, the final taking place between 2010-2012. In this last painstaking restoration period, every single element of the house had been restored to its original design. To be able to see this house as Mies’ original design was an incredible experience. Every now and then I catch myself closing my eyes and pretending I am sitting in front of that onyx wall..
Less is more, with the very most.