Villa Tugendhat – Mastery of Modernism

Brno’s Modernist Crown Jewel 

The villa, as seen from the gardens.

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 

The villa’s living room, featuring the famous onyx wall and furniture designed specifically for the building.

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 

Another angle on the living room. This view shows the large main window partially lowered.

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 

Looking into the study.

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 villa’s conservatory.

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 

The view to the villa garden from the living room.

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:

Visiting the Neighbors – Krakow, Poland

The Cultural Heart of Poland 

Cloth Hall, a Renaissance era market which sits on the main square of Krakow’s preserved Old Town.

Located in the south of Poland on the Vistula river, Krakow is the country’s second largest city and of great importance to the country in both historical and modern contexts.

While Krakow was established as a city in the 7th century, there has been human habitation on the ground it stands on since the Stone Age.

In Poland’s imperial past, the city served as the seat of royalty and the capital of the country. It held the role of capital until the royal court was moved to Warsaw in 1596.

Krakow’s history is steeped in academia and the arts, despite many forceful attempts by foreign regimes to change it, the city has remained faithful to those cultural roots into the present day and is home to several higher education institutions, theatres, galleries and museums. The city is recognised internationally as one of the most beautiful cities in the world and it’s Old Town district holds the distinction of being one of the original UNESCO world heritage sites, inscribed onto the inaugural list in 1978 along with the nearby Wieliczka salt mine.

Perhaps Krakow’s greatest claim to fame, and what makes it one of Poland’s most visited places, is the level of preservation in the city. It was left relatively unscathed by the bombs that levelled so many other European cities in the Second World War and, as such, can claim a large percentage of original architecture to still be standing while other cities needed to be rebuilt almost entirely.

In late December of 2016, we took a few days in Krakow and enjoyed it very much. Here’s but a small sampling of what one can do and see in a short period in and around the city:

The Old Town 

The morning light hits the Barbican and the Florian gate, remnants of the city’s medieval defenses.

The logical place to start talking about Krakow is with it’s primary attraction, the preserved Old Town district. Our hotel was an easy ten minute walk from the area.

Entering the area from the north, the first structures you’ll see are the Barbican defensive rampart and Florian gate that date to the 15th century. Florian gate forms part of a preserved section of the old city walls. The Barbican is a heavily fortified building with seven watchtowers and 130 openings through which the city protectors could do battle with potential invaders. The Barbican is the largest structure of it’s sort in Poland and the best preserved of it’s kind in Europe.

Further in, Old Town is filled with numerous buildings representing a wide variety of architechural styles. Architectural highlights of the district include the Slowacki theatre, Main Market Square and buildings connected to Jagiellonian University.

St. Mary’s basilica as seen from the top of the Town Hall Tower.

With an area of 400 square metres, the Main Market Square is the largest medieval square in Europe. It dates to the 1250s and contains four architectural highlights: the Renaissance style Cloth Hall, the Gothic St. Mary’s basilica, the 70 metre high Town Hall Tower and the Romanesque Church of St. Adalbert.

The Town Hall Tower is the last remnant of the city’s old town hall. The rest of the town hall was demolished in the early 19th century due to damage.

It is possible to go to the top of the tower, but it bears mentioning that it is certainly not an attraction for claustrophobic people or those with poor physical health or mobility issues of any sort. While there are one or two places to rest on the way up, the individual steps are unusually high and narrow and the staircase takes some unexpected turns along the way. Additionally, the staircase is only about one person wide and poorly illuminated. The views are rewarding if you choose to make the climb up, but it is definitely for the more intrepid and fit visitor.

The Neo-Gothic main building of Jagiellonian University.

Along the western edge of Old Town, you can find buildings connected to Jagiellonian University. This institution, established in 1364, is one of the world’s oldest still functioning universities. It counts Nicolaus Copernicus and Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II, among notable alumni.

At the southern tip of Old Town is the imposing Wawel castle complex. The castle and adjoining buildings represent a mix of architectural styles that include elements of Baroque, Gothic, Renaissance and Romanesque among others.

The castle is a very popular spot to visit and offers a range of tours. However, it should be noted that the number of tickets available per day for some of the tours are quite limited in order to protect the exhibits. It is best to visit the castle website to select a tour and reserve tickets on line if possible.

Going off Centre 

The Old Synagogue in the Kazimierz district, Krakow’s old Jewish Quarter.

A short distance to the south of Old Town is the Kazimierz district. This area has a notably different feel to Old Town. This is largely due to the fact that it has been the home of the city’s Jewish quarter since the 13th century.

The area fell into decline and disrepair under Socialist rule after the Second World War, but a change of fortune after the fall of that regime marked the start of a renewed interest in the area and a great deal of restoration work has been done since then. As a result, the district is popular with tourists.

A structure of particular note in the area is the Old Synagogue. The building dates to the 1400s and is the oldest synagogue in Poland. It is also a very rare example of a fortified synagogue; it was not only built for worship, but also built strongly enough to act as a community shelter against siege.

A guide at the Stained Glass Museum describes how finer details are applied to glass.

A short walk to the west of Old Town took us to the Stained Glass Museum and a very informative tour, from start to finish, of what goes into creating a work of art in this medium.

As well as a museum, this facility is also an active producer of stained glass windows and has been since 1902. They have done work for clients around the world and many of the stained glass windows you see in Krakow are their work.

If you were ever left wondering how some of the stained glass windows you’ve seen were created, this museum should definitely go on your itinerary if you visit Krakow. English language tours run Tuesday to Saturday on the hour and there is a small cafe on the premises.

Further Afield 

The Wieliczka salt mine, an easily reachable attraction from Krakow.

If you wanted to venture outside of Krakow, there are attractions for you within reach of the city. Most notable among those attractions are the Wieliczka salt mines and the preserved Auschwitz concentration camp complex. While you can join organized group tours from Krakow to both places, neither is particularly difficult to reach from the city on your own if you prefer to save some money.

If you like to theme your holidays around UNESCO world heritage sites, Krakow and vicinity will reward you. Beyond Old Town, both the salt mines and Auschwitz are UNESCO listed. For the more devout visitor, the Calvary sanctuary and pilgrimage in Kalwaria Zebrzydowska to the south of the city is also UNESCO territory.

Paying a Visit and Learning More  

The view across the main courtyard of Wawel castle.

Being a city of both national and international importance, Krakow is well connected and accessible by air, rail and road.

As a university town and cultural centre, linguistic flexibility in the city is not difficult to find. English is widely spoken and the city is prepared for and welcoming to visitors.

To see a wider range of what Krakow and it’s surroundings offer to visitors, any of the three following links will give you a good start to planning your own trip there: