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Reborn: Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Czech Republic

Director Iveta Černá uncovers eighty year of history while restoring the Villa Tugendhat to its initial splendour

Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, a residential masterpiece located on a hillside overlooking the Czech city of Brno, has been restored to its original state and reopened to the public. In common with Le Corbusier’s contemporary Villa Savoye, it has survived seven decades of destruction, neglect, and fumbled attempts to make it whole. Iveta Černá, the enlightened director of the house, supervised the intensive research that preceded the two-year restoration, coordinating the efforts of 35 specialist firms. ‘Every beautiful house has its secrets, but even I was surprised by the discoveries we made as work progressed,’ she says.

Like so many iconic modern houses, from Rietveld’s tiny gem for Truss Schröder to Mies’s ill-starred commission from Edith Farnsworth, the Brno villa was initiated by a strong-willed woman. Grete and Fritz Tugendhat were German-speaking heirs to a textile fortune, and she had admired Mies’s houses in Stuttgart’s Weissenhofsiedlung and Berlin. ‘I truly longed for a modern spacious house with clear and simple shapes,’ she recalled years later. For the architect, who was working on the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona exposition, it was an opportunity to realise a total work of art on a large scale and generous budget. He and his associate, Lilly Reich, designed every detail, from the innovative mechanical systems to the steel-framed furniture that has become a familiar classic.

For the Tugendhats and their three children, the idyll was brief. As Jews, they were fortunate to escape to Switzerland in May 1938. During the Nazi occupation, the aircraft designer Walter Messerschmidt lived here while directing work on the first jet engines in a local factory. Soviet troops subsequently smashed everything and used the house as a stable.  Patched together, it became a dance school and later a rehab centre for handicapped children, but it continued to deteriorate. Restoration was undertaken in the early 1980s, but the communist authorities lacked the funds to import authentic materials. Brno City Museum took charge in 1994, and resolved an ownership dispute with surviving members of the family. Černá was put in charge of the city’s rich legacy of Modernism, and launched a programme of research to restore the house soon after she was appointed its director in 2003.

A committee of international experts assembled a treasury of vintage photographs, including family snapshots, along with oral testimony from people who had lived or worked in the house. The Mies Archives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York supplied copies of 250 plans and working drawings. Traces of original colours and materials were found concealed in vents, and
a fragment of the window glass that was blown out during an Allied air raid in 1944 was discovered on the terrace. A study and documentation centre was established in 2005 and over the past three years it has been creating a digitised database, and preserving vintage fragments for exhibition.

The quest for authenticity vied with an urgent need for structural repairs. Cracks were appearing in the white stucco walls as the foundations were eroded by water from blocked drains. When restoration began in 2010, the first task was to support the steel-framed house on a platform while caissons were driven to a depth of eight metres to provide secure support. Plaster, tiles, glass, metal, linoleum, terrace pavers and every other element were refurbished or fabricated −sometimes by the same company that made the original. Funds from the European Union covered most of the £5 million project.

From the street, visitors see only a low range of bedrooms and a concealed entry − a deceptively modest prelude to the lofty living areas that open up to the garden and a view over the city as you descend a spiral stair. Two of the huge plate glass windows are motorised and recede into
the ground, opening the living room to a terrace. Cruciform chromed steel columns support the upper floor. An onyx screen wall divides the sitting area from the library, and a curved wood screen veneered in ebony encloses the dining area. This is the original, looted by the Gestapo
in 1943, and rediscovered in a nearby canteen in 2011.

The Tugendhats helped to make the new republic of Czechoslovakia a beacon of prosperity and progress in the years between the two world wars, and their house is the brightest star in a constellation of modern buildings. In Brno, you should check out Hall A of the busy Trade Fair, as well as the newly restored Masaryk School and Era Café. A local map will guide you to these and other landmarks, and you should travel on to see the model town of Zlín, founded by the shoe manufacturer Tomáš Bat’a (AR March 2008). Like the Czech people, these visions of a brave new world survived the darkest days of the past century and flourish anew.

Villa Tugendhat

Registered on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Opening hours: Tuesday - Sunday 10 am – 6 pm

Information and tour reservations

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