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1993 April: Mies' miraculous survivor, Villa Tugendhat

Like all great works of architecture, Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, at Brno, has endured the test of time. The building’s survival is quite miraculous, given its full exposure to the turmoil of central European history over the past 50 years. Recognised as one of the twentieth century’s quintessential essays in the use of order and abstract reinterpretation of classical values, the building still exudes a profound sense of repose and discipline. The degree of national pride in and respect for the building was recently acknowledged by its selection as the setting for high level talks on the peaceful and democratic separation of the Czech and Slovak republics.

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The main floor sits on an almost imperforate podium containing cellars

Between the two world wars Czechoslovakia was one of the few prosperous industrial societies in the world. The spiritual and economic strength of the country was reflected in its highly developed and distinctive modern architecture. The powerful heavy manufacturing industries of Czechoslovakia made that country one of the first targets of Hitler’s invasion of Europe.

Vladimir Slapeta has illustrated the tragic effects that German, and later Soviet occupation had on his country’s architectural tradition. He made the point that between the wars it was Brno, the capital of Moravia, and not Prague that led the development of modern architecture in Czechoslovakia.

The pioneering group of architects in Brno at that time, Wiesner, Kumpost, Visek, and in particular Bohuslav Fuchs, produced some of the best Czech avant-garde architecture of that period.

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Early sketch from south west: charcoal on tracing

The design
The Villa Tugendhat was the last major residence designed by Mies to be built in Europe. Christian Norberg-Schultz comments, in Meaning in Western Architecture, that ‘What the Villa Savoye represents in the oeuvre of Le Corbusier, the Tugendhat House in Brno represents for Mies van der Rohe’. Before the First World War Mies had spent some time working under Peter Behrens, as had Gropius and Le Corbusier.

Behrens and Berlage were to have a great influence in forming Mies’s direct approach to materials and his use of rationalist forms in his search for an appropriate vocabulary for the new industrialised age. Particularly relevant to the spatial principles of the Villa Tugendhat was the influence of paintings by Mondrian and Van Doesberg, and the house designs of Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work was published in Germany in 1910.

In 1923, the year before Rietveld’s Schroeder house was built, Mies designed a brick villa incorporating loadbearing walls laid out as overlapping planes, creating a dynamic outward thrusting spatial movement. In 1929 the principles of De Stijl composition and Le Corbusier’s framed Domino house were eloquently crystallised by Mies in the classical purity of the Barcelona Pavilion.

The spatial freedom and structural rigour of the Barcelona Pavilion was achieved by Mies’ employing, for the first time, a repetitive order of free-standing steel columns. The pavilion was an aesthetic exercise that had limited practical functions. For the Villa Tugendhat, designed over the same period, Mies had to address the diverse and complex requirements of a dwelling.

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Layers of approach to nature

The essentials of Classicism to be found in Mies’ work come principally from the influence of the great Prussian master, Karl Friedrich Schinkel. His Villa Charlottenhof, Potsdam 1826, is widely regarded to have had a significant influence on the design of the Villa Tugendhat. Schinkel placed the residents’ main living area on an elevated plane, giving it a strong visual relationship with the garden. The building was entered from a level below that of the garden on the opposite side of the house. As with Villa Charlottenhof, the main garden steps to Villa Tugendhat are placed parallel to its long axis, requiring a 180 degree turn to the right at the top of the flight.

The site in Brno lies on the edge of a plateau and slopes steeply down from the street frontage, giving panoramic views across the historical centre of the city lying in the valley below. To step down the slope, the Villa Tugendhat is single-storey to the street and two-storey facing the garden. Street-level accommodation includes family bedrooms, the main entrance hall and a chauffeur’s flat and garage. A travertine forecourt extends between the main dwelling and the chauffeur’s quarters linking through to the south-facing roof terrace beyond.

The parents and children’s bedrooms are spatially separated, which with the chauffeur’s quarters creates three distinct volumes. These are in turn linked by the flat roof which, rather than projecting as a strong horizontal plane, is used to accentuate the massiveness of the volumes. The reticence of the street elevation is relieved only by the curved white glass wall that wraps 180 degrees around the main internal stair. Drawn towards the view framed by the residential and service wings; the approaching visitor slowly becomes aware of the front door which is not visible from the street. Only two other curved forms break the strict orthogonal organisation of the building, each giving emphasis to a particular function. The idea of the huge tented semi-circular garden seat at Villa Charlottenhof reappears at a smaller scale with the roof terrace seat at Brno, and is abstracted furth er into the curved Macassar ebony screen of the dining area.

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Podium level plan

The main floor or podium level consists of a single open living space with an east-facing conservatory and a more enclosed kitchen and service area. The openness of the main living room is enhanced when you enter it from the closeness of the internal stair. The south and east facades are totally glazed with mullions at the same centres as the 5m column spacing.

The influence of the spectacular views over the green garden and Luzankv Park, and the spatial continuity of the interior are fundamental to Mies’s approach. Every alternate glass panel on the garden side can he lowered at the touch of a button into the floor. In summer the living area effectively becomes an outdoor terrace protected from midday sunlight by retractable roller blinds or full-length curtains.

Low angle sun, however, can illuminate elements such as the fiery amber onyx screen. Used as a symbolic hearth, the onyx separates the south-facing conversation area from the more private study and library areas. The Schinkelesque use of rich natural materials is also manifest in the black and brown colours of the curved Macassar ebony screen that defines the dining area. The seamless white linoleum floor, white ceiling and walls are otherwise only interrupted by steel columns.

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Living space: low angle sun illuminates onyx screen, the symbolic hearth

The cruciform cross section and mirror chrome finish of the columns create reflections that effectively dematerialise them. The chromium-plated column covering is a development of the more angular cruciform columns used at Barcelona. The elegant curved form at Brno is supposed to have been influenced by the profiles of the Gothic columns in St James Church, Brno. Full-height curtains that were originally of beige raw silk can be used to create further sub spaces when required.

When the villa was first built, the design and location of furniture reinforced its spatial composition. Franz Schulze, in his excellent biography of Mies, pointed out that Mies designed more furniture for the Villa Tugendhat than any other project. This included the Tugendhat chair, not as geometrically elegant as its predecessor in Barcelona but probably more comfortable; the Brno chair, designed to be used at a desk height table, 24 of which could be placed around the circular dining table also designed by Mies; the ‘X’ table which was used in the conversation area. In all, 40 different pieces of furniture were specially designed for the house.

While the raison d’etre ofLe Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1929-31) is its promenade architecturale, at Brno Mies created a building of exceptionally beautiful spatial proportions with a figural emphasis on the ritualistic nature of a private dwelling.

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Plan and section of Brno chair designed for dining area

After completion
When finished in 1930 the building was strongly criticised in the press for being frivolous. Grete and Fritz Tugendhat, both wealthy Jewish human rights activists who had been closely involved in the project, vehemently supported the design of the house and its architect. Driven by the rise of fascism in Europe the Tugendhats fled to Venezuela in 1938. From 1939-42 the Villa was occupied
by the Gestapo. From 1942-44 it was used as a residence and head office for Herr Messerschmitt. The Nazis did the most damage to the house, including bricking up the curved glass wall at the entrance. Towards the end of the war the building was used as a barracks for the Russian army. From 1945 to 1955 the house was used as a dance school and then was taken over to form part of a children’s hospital.

The renovation
Although restoring the Villa had been contemplated since 1945, it was not until 1962, on the initiative of architect Frantisek Kalivoda, that progress was made. In 1963 the Villa was listed as a cultural monument. In 1967 Grete Tugendhat returned to see the Villa for the first time since fleeing the Naxis 29 years earlier. She, with a senior architect from Mies’s Chicago studio, gave detailed advice on the original design. With the backing of the Czech authorities and the local mayor, a group ofleading Czech architects, including Bohuslav Fuchs assembled to organise the restoration.

The Soviet invasion of August 1968 meant that the project was not even commenced before the deaths of Mies in 1969 and of Grete Tugendhat and Fuchs in 1972. The children’s hospital moved out in 1980 and in 1983, under the direction of Kamil Fuchs (son of Bohuslav Fuchs), the State Institute of Reconstruction for Historic Buildings and Monuments began repair work. The considerable damage and alterations resulting from the Nazi and Red Army occupation have been rectified. Yet though the first stage of renovation ended in 1985, the building is still not totally restored.

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Window wall in which alternate panes can be lowered, opening the whole living room to the garden. Retractable external blinds protect interior from summer sun

Some of the most interesting aspects of the renovation reflect the robustness and enduring nature of the original design and construction. Most of the internal and external metalwork elements are original. Even the window frames to the large glass walls and the chromium plated sheathing to the cruciform steel columns did not require replacing. The onyx screen is also original and in astonishingly good condition. The Macassar ebony curved screen, timber fittings and doors, which had been totally removed, have been faithfully reinstated with the exception of fittings to the bedrooms.

The bathrooms and kitchen have been modernised using up-to-date fittings. The planting and landscaping in the garden which had been particularly badly damaged has been restored to its former glory. Insulation has been added to the roof and the old coal-fired heating system replaced by connection to the district heating main and addition of some new radiators. The original mechanical ventilation system and humidifier have been retained providing air supply to the living space through floor grilles.

Travertine from the original quarry has been used to replace the treads to the main garden staircase. Mies’ pattern of staggered joints to the steps could not be achieved as stone sizes are now more limited. Light fittings similar to the originals have recently been installed and the retractable glass walls recommissioned. The only real disappointment with the renovation is the clear silicone joints between each set of two float glass sheets, used as a substitute for the original single sheets which spanned the 5m wide frames of the huge glass wall. Local glass manufacturers could no longer supply the large sheets, which prior to German occupation were only available in Czechoslovakia and four other countries in Europe.

Given the financial constraints, available technology and new clients’ brief, the renovation has been a great success. At present the Villa is used solely as a residence and meeting place for visiting dignitaries, and is closed to architectural students, even local ones. All that remains is for the Villa to be permanently furnished as it was by the Tugendhats, with furniture designed by Mies, and for it to be turned into an open museum, perhaps hosting occasional exhibitions and talks.

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Dining area. Semicircular curve is echoed in seat on upper terrace

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