18 March 2010

Villa Tugendhat: the Bauhaus in Czechoslovakia

A friend gave me the very fine novel The Glass Room by Simon Mawer to read, a book that is set primarily in a house inspired by Villa Tugendhat. Wise choice, since my favourite architects in all the world were Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In fact I have talked about Le Corbusier, Mies and the Bauhaus in this blog before.

German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe joined the Bauhaus design school as the director of architecture during the middle 1920s, using their functionalist use of simple geometric forms in design. Villa Tugendhat was one of his important projects. Started in 1928, the villa was built in Brno in the Czech Republic for Greta and Fritz Tugendhat and was completed by 1930.

Villa Tugendhat, Brno, 1930

Like all good Bauhaus modernists, Mies privileged rationality and functionality over form. In allowing the inside space to be flooded with light, Mies had to find some sort of iron framework that enabled him to limit the role of supporting walls. And since the hill-top location was stunning, Mies wanted nothing to take away from people inside the home being able to enjoy the views, as you will see from Rory Wilmer’s excellent photos.

Just as well the Tugendhats had made money in the textile industry. The cost of building this large villa was very high due to the unusual construction method, the exotic materials that Mies surprisingly chose and the modern technologies of heating and ventilation. Christopher's Expat Adventure reminds us that one of Mies’ huge windows is motorised and retracts.

I say surprisingly because Bauhaus architects tended to add very few decorative elements for their own sake. Yet Mies used naturally patterned materials such an onyx and rare tropical woods on some of the interior walls. Perhaps he compromised his architectural principles to keep his clients happy.

Light and airy interior, with stunning views

Family money didn’t protect this Jewish family however. They were lucky to survive the Holocaust, and of course they had to leave all their assets behind. The once-beautiful house was used by soldiers, horses, athletes and other people who didn't care about its history at all.

It was only in 1963 that Villa Tugendhat was declared a cultural monument. A plan was set into motion to begin reconstruction of the house, but the damage must have been considerable. In the meantime the house  maintained its historic significance, such that in 1992, the treaty to divide Czechoslovakia was signed at the Villa Tugendhat!

To mark the importance of Bauhaus modernism, the villa has been open to the public as a state museum for the last 15 years. Fortunately Villa Tugendhat was designated a World Heritage Site in 2001. Since then, restoration of the villa has started, carefully retaining the integrity of Mies’ original design.


J Bar said...

Very interesting.
Sydney - City and Suburbs

Philip Wilkinson said...

This is a fascinating building, which I've not yet seen. The use of exotic materials is interesting. For all his modernist minimalism, Mies seems to have liked rich materials. The Barcelona Pavilion uses marble and onyx, and I think some of the finishes in the Seagram Building in New York are quite high-spec too - although the Seagram was much later.

There has also been a dispute about the ownership of this house, with the heirs of the Tugendhats applying for restitution. I think the main motivation for this was the fact that the building had fallen into disrepair. Now it's a World Heritage Site and work is progressing, all this may have been resolved.

P. M. Doolan said...

You have inspired me to visit this villa - but alas, I 've just discovered it is about to close for renovations for four years.

Hels said...

J Bar and PM Doolan

The villa has been fully restored, after decades of misuse and neglect, and now looks fabulous. You must visit.

Hels said...


I have added a reference to the blog called Objects Not Paintings which updates us on the tragic events and impressive restorations that occurred between 1945 and 2012.