Ravaged by Gestapo, Czech Home Opens as Modernist Jewel
The Tugendhat villa is a family home to dream of, spacious and harmonious. Panorama windows and a wide terrace overlook a sloping garden and beyond, the castle and spires of the Czech city of Brno.
Its history reflects the tumult of the 20th century. The Jewish family who commissioned it from the pioneering architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was forced to flee Brno before World War II. The house was occupied by the Gestapo and then ravaged by Soviet troops. It became a dance school, a hospital for children with spine deformities, then a state guesthouse, hosting negotiations over the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1992.
Mies van der Rohe completed the house in 1930, the year he became the last director of the Bauhaus school of design. It had mod cons well in advance of its time: Electric windows whose panes glide silently into place; a coal heating system and air- conditioning; even a light-sensitive security system.
After decades of neglect, the Unesco world heritage site has been restored to its original state at a cost of 176.3 million Czech crowns ($9.2 million), funded by the Czech government. It opens to the public from today, accessible by a pre-booked tour.
Money No Object
Money was no object for the young couple who commissioned the house, Greta and Fritz Tugendhat. Greta came from a family of textile entrepreneurs who were among Brno’s wealthiest residents, and her parents gave her the plot of land behind their own home and paid for the villa’s construction.
“I truly longed for a modern spacious house with clear and simple shapes,” Greta Tugendhat said later. “My husband was horrified by the idea of having a house full of objects and cloths as he had known since childhood.”
A lover of art and philosophy, Greta had lived in Germany and was familiar with the work of Mies van der Rohe. Her daughter Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, a professor of art history in Vienna, described in an interview at the opening how the cooperation with the architect came about.
“My parents went to Berlin and met Mies and were so enthusiastic about him personally,” she said. “He showed them five sketches, now very famous, that were far more avant-garde than anything he had built so far. They gave him the contract and said ‘we want a small house with five rooms.’”
Small it isn’t. On three floors, the living space, without including kitchens, is 360 square meters (3,875 square feet). It ended up costing as much as 30 average family houses.
Described by Unesco as a “masterpiece of the Modern Movement,” the villa incorporates a wall of onyx from the Atlas Mountains that shines orange in the sunset, an Italian travertine spiral staircase and Makassar ebony panels from Indonesia. The panels disappeared in World War II, and were salvaged decades later from a building that had served as the Gestapo’s Brno headquarters.
The young Tugendhats’ avant-garde taste gave Mies van der Rohe an opportunity to test his ideas. The house is supported by steel columns whose shiny plating makes them look less solidly load-bearing than they are. The rooms connect fluidly, with curving lines as well as right angles, creating an airy harmony.
Exterior and interior merge, thanks to a winter garden filled with plants and the vast windows. When it snowed, the Tugendhat children would sled down the incline to their grandparents’ villa.
Mies van der Rohe devoted attention to detail, designing the door handles, curtains, lighting and some of the furniture. The chrome tubular “Brno” and “Tugendhat” chairs look modern for good reason: They were manufactured for decades after the house was built, well into the late 20th century.
The architect put ivory linoleum on the floors through the corridors and some rooms, something only a man who doesn’t have to worry about the practicalities of washing floors would do.
“It was particularly susceptible to dirt and required a great deal of care,” Greta said later. No kidding. These days, visitors are given plastic bags to wear over their shoes.
The Tugendhats fled Brno in 1938, before the outbreak of World War II and the Nazi occupation. The family’s pleas for restoration went unanswered for decades, Hammer-Tugendhat said.
“We were here again and again in the 1980s, talking to different mayors with different groups, and nothing ever came of it,” Hammer-Tugendhat said. “We were despairing. Every time we came to see it, you could see how the house was deteriorating.
“So it’s a kind of miracle that it has now happened and looks so good,” she said. “If only my mother were here to see it.”
For more information and to book tours, go to http://www.tugendhat.eu/en/villa-tugendhat.html
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)
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