Brno’s Modernist Crown Jewel
One does not need to be in Brno for very long or to have a particularly deep interest in architecture in order to take note of the city’s varied array of building styles. Everything from medieval Gothic to examples of contemporary Deconstructivism and Eco-architectural styles can be found within the city limits.
Particularly notable in Brno’s architectural landscape are the numerous examples of early 20th century Modernism that have survived to the present. From family homes to offices and the city’s sprawling exhibition centre, Modernist structures dot the city. Such prominence of that specific movement is quite fitting as Brno played a major role in the development of it; many practitioners of Modernist design spent some time working in Brno in the early 20th century.
The best known Modernist structure in Brno is the UNESCO listed Villa Tugendhat in the city’s Černá Pole district. Designed by the legendary Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), it is considered to be an outstanding example of the priciples of Modernist style at the international level.
The Minds Behind the Monument
While the villa’s commission and start of construction took place in 1928, the seed for it was planted in the early 1920s.
Greta Tugendhat (1903-1970) was still married to her first husband in the early 1920s and spend much of that time living in Germany. It was during her time in Germany that she became particularly taken with the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Modernist style in general. It was Greta’s wish to have a modern, uncluttered house to call her home.
After her first marriage fell apart, she married Fritz Tugendhat (1895-1958) and they settled in Brno. The Tugendhats were prominent members of Brno’s Jewish community and Greta’s family, who had been in Moravia since the 17th century, had built a fortune over generations in the textile and sugar industries. The land on which Villa Tugendhat stands was a gift to Greta from her father upon her marriage to Fritz.
With land to build on, Greta was able to make contact with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe through mutual acquaintences and invite him to Brno and commission him to design the modern home she had dreamed of.
Mies was impressed with the plot of land to build on as well as the quality of workmanship in Brno’s existing buildings and had no qualms in hiring a local construction company, Mořic and Artur Eisler, to carry out the construction.
With wide freedom of design given to him by Greta and her father financing the construction, Mies was set to create a structure that would at once embody Greta’s dream home and his own “Less is more” design philosophy to the fullest.
From Vision to Reality
The basic philosophy of Modernism is that the aesthetic and appeal of a building should come from the structures and materials used in making it rather than any extra decoration. Additionally, spaces should flow into each other and work seamlessly with the human activity inside as well as the natural world outside.
Staying faithful to such ideals, Mies and his partners in the project exercised a great deal of care in both structural design and selection of materials when creating the villa, associated fixtures and furniture to ensure that everything worked together perfectly including how the villa was designed to work harmoniously with the slope of the land it was built upon. The construction of the villa lasted from 1928 to 1930.
Part of the villa’s uniqueness lies in the use of a structural steel framework, it was the first detached residential building in the world to be built as such. Sections of the steel framework are on full view throughout the villa and those sections which run through living areas are covered in chromed cladding.
Another notable aspect of the villa interior includes a translucent onyx wall which separates the livng room from the study and gives a warm glow to the rooms when the sun is low in the sky.
The living room, which overlooks the villa garden, includes a large window which can be completely lowered into the floor by electric motors to create an uninterupted flow of exterior and interior space and give a panoramic view towards the city centre.
Changing Fortunes and Decline
The Tugendhats moved into the completed villa in December of 1930 and stayed there until the impending German occupation forced the family to leave the country for Switzerland in May of 1938. By early 1941, they had relocated to Caracas, Venezuela.
1938 also saw the villa’s architect leave Europe for America. He settled in Chicago, worked as a university professor, set up his own architecural firm and eventually achieved American citizenship over the years.
Under German occupation, the villa was used by the Gestapo as well as an aircraft engine manufacturer among others. It was in this period that much of the furniture was removed and extensive rebuilding of the interiors was carried out. During the period of German occupation, the onyx wall was bricked in and concealed, an action which most certainly led to it’s survival.
Spring of 1945 saw the arrival of the Soviet army to “liberate” the city. The villa suffered particularly under Soviet use. They used the living areas as stables for their horses and used much of the wood that remained in the structure for fuel.
For a period of five years, starting in August of 1945, the villa was used as a dancing school. The state took possession of the villa in October of 1950 and it was used by the city’s nearby children’s hospital as a rehabilitation facility until the late 1960s.
The late 1960s and the 1970s were a true low for the villa. Toward the end of the 1960s, local Brno architect, František Kalivoda, contacted Greta Tugendhat and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to discuss the possible restoration of the villa; both Greta and Mies were quite supportive of the idea. However, fortune would not be on their side.
1969 marked the begining of “Normalization” in the former Czechoslovakia; it was a very oppressive backlash by the Socialist government in the wake of the quashed Prague Spring demonstrations of 1968. Under this movement, any attempts at reconstruction of the villa were blockaded by the state.
Greta Tugendhat, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and František Kalivoda all died between 1969 and 1971. Their deaths marked the end of any sort of work on the villa for approximately a decade.
Reconstructions and Restoration
The ownership of the villa shifted from the state to the city of Brno in 1980.
Between 1981 and 1985, the villa received and extensive renovation and a basic restoration of functional equipment. While this did ensure that the building was kept structurally sound and accumulated structural damage was repaired, no regard was given to historical accuracy. The city saw it as a place to host important guests and political functions; they made little allowance for the research required to return the villa to it’s former glory.
In 1994, the villa came under the jurisdiction of Brno’s city museum and remains so today. In 2001, the villa was inscribed on the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site and research to restore it to historical accuracy began in earnest in the same time period.
While most of the research for restoration was carried out in the early 2000s, several delays pushed back the start of the work until 2010.
The villa reopened to the public in 2012, after two years of restorations, and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.
Visiting Villa Tugendhat and Learning More
Villa Tugendhat is not difficult to access by Brno public transport and a small bit of walking.
As it is a very popular attraction and the number of visitors is limited, booking well ahead is required if you wish to see the interiors. Availability of tours, tour languages and admission prices can be found on the villa website. Tour reservations and ticket purchases can also be made at the website.
The following two websites will give you a good background of the villa’s history as well as what makes it architecturally unique.
This is the villa’s own website:
This is the villa’s entry at the website of the Brno Architectural Manual: