Monday, 26 January 2015

Villa Tugendhat, Brno

A visit to this modernist masterpiece is always a highlight of any tour I run that goes to Brno. I first went there with my husband, who is a lover of buildings and all things architectural, so we took the longer technical tour. A large grin never left his face during the 90 minute visit.

The Villa was commissioned by Grete Loew Beer and her new husband Fritz Tugendhat in 1928. Both came from Jewish families that had become rich as a result of the huge expansion of textiles and other industries in Moravia that had in turn paid for the architectural transformation of Brno. Grete had been impressed by the work of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe when she had visited a house designed by him in Berlin and so commissioned to design the couple's dream home. He was told that money was no object. Tell that to any architect and you will make his day, tell it to a genius like Mies and you will get a masterpiece.

The villa is set on a hillside overlooking Brno. From the street it does not look as impressive or as large as it is, because you enter at the top floor. The two lower floors open on to the garden. When you enter the building you start to see why the building is so special and why it cost so much. Mies's famous motto of “Less is More” is exemplified by the lack of ornament and the emphasis on the materials used (steel, glass, marble) and the flow of walls and spaces. This extends to the fixtures and fittings, even the beautiful line of the door and window handles.

It is hard to imagine the impact this villa would have made in its day. We are used to white geometrical modernist buildings, but this was a time when most people were still thinking in terms of art deco. However, unlike in the UK where modernism took a long time getting going, the Czechs rapidly took modernism to their hearts. There are many more modernist gems to be found in Brno and elsewhere in the Czech Republic, but they deserve a separate post (or maybe more).

The story of the villa was not a happy one. The Tugendhats were able to enjoy their new home for only eight years, before they fled to Switzerland ahead of the German invasion. The villa became the property of the Nazis, used by the Gestapo, who removed the villa's fine semi-circular ebony wall which defines the dining room. And then the liberating Soviet troops treated the villa with such contempt that they used some of its living spaces as stabling for their horses. It wasn't until the 1980s that any attempt was made to restore the building. Now, thanks mostly to funds from the EU, the building is fully restored and open to visitors.

NB Entrance to the villa is restricted to groups of a maximum of 15 people and not all tours are in English. As a result it is advisable to book weeks if not months in advance. I recommend the shorter tour unless you have a particular interest. 

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