Mies Van der Rohe and the Villa Tugendhat in Brno
The Villa Tugendhat, together with the German Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition and the urban plans for the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart, remains one of the main benchmarks of residential building design in Mies Van der Rohe's vast portfolio and professional career. His later American experience contributed further ideas and milestones to the theme of housing, but it all started with his European work. The Villa was commissioned in 1928 by Grete and Fritz Tugendhat and was to be designed on the Brno hillside as part of a wedding gift. Work on the residence began the following year and coincided with the construction of the German pavilion in Barcelona. Both buildings, therefore, have remarkable similarities: fine onyx-clad walls and a steel structural system that featured vertical cruciform pillar elements. In the German pavilion in Barcelona, the latter were plated with chrome-plated steel foil, while in the Tugendhat house they were covered by a rounded copper profile.
Within the international debate of the period, the building on the Brno hillside was intended to present Mies Van der Rohe’s compositional ideas as a response to the Villa Stein that Le Corbusier built in Garches in 1928. Many elements contributed to establishing a direct dialogue and comparison between the two projects: the free plan organisation of the interiors; the large sliding windows; the use of curved walls and a comparable pilotis system.
The substantial funds the wealthy Tugendhat family made available to Mies Van der Rohe for the building’s construction meant that, unlike in the case of Le Corbusier's design in France, top-quality and rare building materials and furnishings could be used. Furthermore, the use of technological solutions, which were both unconventional and cutting-edge for the time, also contributed to making this dwelling unique. Mies Van der Rohe recommended an air conditioning system inside the rooms, an automatic control and closing system for the windows and doors, and the fitting of a photocell sensor at the entrance. All these features contributed to the creation of a unique and one-of-a-kind solution, in compliance with the Gesamtkunstwerk’s compositional concept of uniqueness, which ranged from the central structural idea to the home’s door handles and interior fabrics.
The Tugendhats only resided in their house for eight years because, owing to their Jewish ancestry, after the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1938 they were forced to abandon their business and country. They first fled to Switzerland and then to Latin America.
Intellectuals like Mies Van der Rohe also moved to the United States with the rise of Nazi political power. Modern Movement architecture was banned in Germany and territories under Hitler's rule. After the Austrian Anschluss in 1938, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established on March 15, 1939, with the aim of protecting the Sudeten German population. Brno became the second city of the Protectorate and, consequently, what had already occurred in Germany and Nazi Austria also happened there. Political parties were dissolved, and the Nuremberg laws were enforced. The Jewish population suffered discrimination and persecution and assets were confiscated.
The elegant residence, which had been designed following a unique style and concept, was adopted as a dwelling for German families that were loyal to the regime. The original composition was partly altered to suit their needs, with the addition of new rooms and the subdivision of the large hall that was considered unnecessarily large and bright. The period of the German occupation led to the dispersal of the original furnishings and some of the valuable panelling. During the war years, the building was used as the Gestapo’s headquarters in Brno. In the post-war years, the building was again redeveloped and transformed into a gymnasium and dance school. In 1950, the communist state of Czechoslovakia declared the building a national heritage site and turned it into an institution for children with scoliosis. Between 1980 and 1989, amidst alternating circumstances and periods of discontinuity in the institution's activities, the residence was the subject of an initial restoration project with questionable results. Additionally, the building underwent several other restoration and maintenance interventions during the 1990s.
The Villa Tugendhat officially earning its place in history when, on 1 January 1993, it hosted the signing of an agreement between Prime Ministers Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar for the political and administrative separation of the Czech and Slovak Republics.
The historical events that took place within its walls, together with the compositional importance and excellence commonly recognised for this project by Mies Van der Rohe, contributed to its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001. As a result of its new status as a national cultural landmark, a new series of restoration projects was inaugurated in 2010 and completed in 2012. They restored the rooms to their original state, as designed by Mies Van der Rohe and inhabited by the family of Grete and Fritz Tugendhat.
It is therefore once again open to the public, distributed on three levels arranged along the slope of the hill, with a scenic view of the town of Brno. The building covers an overall surface of about 2,600 square metres and its functional appearance conceals an extensive use of exotic and refined materials like the Moroccan onyx walls, the Chinese silk curtains in addition to a range of interior design collections. These were specially designed for these spaces by Mies Van der Rohe and his collaborator Lilly Reich and have become internationally renowned and valuable furnishing items. They include the Barcelona armchair, which had already been presented at the previous year's Spanish International Exhibition, the Tugendhat armchair and the Brno chair, which were specially designed for the home’s living and dining room.
The entrance to the house, the owners' bedrooms and the nursemaid's bedroom are on the upper level, while the driver's quarters and the garage are located in an annexe.
Perhaps the most interesting level is the intermediate one, with its large living room, kitchen, winter garden and access to the terrace area and the garden.
The building's lower level contains all the service areas and technical facilities.
The entire body of the building cannot be seen from the outside, except from the western side from which the geometry of the three superimposed levels can be observed without however grasping how they are organised internally. The large glass window of the intermediate level living room can be seen from the lower garden area below, while the volumes on the upper level are not visible because they lie behind the façade. The lower level solid body is not visible either since it lies behind the large terrace that faces it.
On the upper level, the entrance to the building from Černopolní Street is concealed by a sweeping opal glass surface that requires visitors to backtrack before entering the interior space where one discovers that the semi-opaque glazing hides and shelters the staircase that leads to the lower living area and separates the access route to the bedroom areas.
The large and bright living room takes up the most significant space on the intermediate level and overlooks the park and the city below through its continuous full-height windows. The transparent surface is divided into several windows and doors, which, according to need and by using an electrical device, can open up and disappear into a recess in the floor. Today this technology is widespread, but at the time it was seen as highly innovative.
The composition of the interior space of the living room is marked by two clearly defined geometries: the linear wall covered with onyx stone from the Atlas Mountains, which defines the living room area, and the semi-circular curved wall covered with Macassar ebony veneer, which marks the dining room area furnished with a large circular table and the Brno chairs that were specially designed for this room.
The original Macassar ebony wood veneer disappeared from the house during the German occupation and was only rediscovered in 2012, during the latest restoration, when an art historian realised that it had been transferred to the coffee room of the Gestapo officers' club, which was located in the premises of the Law Faculty of Masarykova Univerzita and is now a university dining hall.
The large, middle-level living room and the upper-level bedrooms share the same orientation and overlook the hillside and the city. The rooms are entered through full-height, wooden doors, which Mies Van der Rohe first experimented here and then frequently employed in the reception rooms of his American skyscrapers.