Sunday, 22 May 2016

Villa Tugendhat, Brno

 Villa Tugendhat

A family visit to Vienna gave us the long-awaited opportunity to hop over the border into the Czech Republic to visit Villa Tugendhat, a Modernist masterpiece designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1928-29. In 2009 we read Simon Mawer's wonderful novel The glass room which fictionalises not only the original owners of the house, but it's life story over many years. More recently, we learned that house had been refurbished and was now open for viewing. (I should add that the Tugendhat family disapprove of Mawer's novel, presumably because the behaviour of the fictional characters could be assumed to have been that of the real ones.)

The house sits on a wonderful hillside site and was designed by Mies to make the most of its position. It is on three storeys: the top floor has the entrance and bedrooms, the middle floor is a single vast living space (Mawer's glass room) and the bottom floor contains service areas. Here is the entrance with the front door tucked away behind the curving milky glass corridor. The sleek horizontal lines and complete lack of ornament are immediately apparent.

You enter a square, sparse lobby and see the bedrooms of the people who commissioned the house, Greta and Fritz Tugendhat. This is Greta's room: cool white predominates, with original built-in furniture in rich rosewood, a mirror and just one picture.

You return along the corridor with its beautiful diffused light and then descend to the main floor.

You now emerge at the back of the glass room, to use Simon Mawer's name for it. It is a surprisingly large rectangle with curtains hanging from tracks in the ceiling which can be used to divide the space and with a fixed screen - the onyx wall - partially separating the front and back. At the side of the house is a conservatory/green house which blurs the boundary between inside and outside - some of what you see is in the conservatory, some is trees in the garden. Out of view, over to the left, is a library/study area.

Behind you as you look at the view above is an informal seating area with a sort of oriental feeling.

The front part of the room has easy chairs and the vast window to the right drops down into the wall to partially eliminate, in a different way, the separation between inside and outside.

Here is the onyx wall, quite pale in shade but apparently taking on more fiery colours when touched by the setting sun.

This is the view across the back of the glass room, illustrating the most pioneering feature of the house: its structural strength comes from a network of steel columns, chromed in the upper parts of the house but unadorned in the bottom floor. This had been used for offices and shops for many years, but it was the first time it had been used in a private house.

The final area is the dining room, partially separated by a curving wooden wall.

And this is the view of Brno from the terrace on the top floor: the castle can be seen on its hill on the right, while the cathedral occupies a promontory on the left.


We had seen drawings and pictures of Villa Tugendhat, but we were still surprised by how big it was. It was wonderful how spaces just flowed into each other in the glass room and how the whole main floor has no doors (apart from to the conservatory). The uniform pale colour scheme, with only wood and chrome to provide contrast, still seems remarkably beautiful and modern. And there is an almost complete absence of ornament - a few vases of flowers, but almost no paintings or photographs. Overall, I would have to say it is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. 


You can visit the garden at any time the villa is open (Tuesday to Sunday, 1000 - 1800) but you can only see the interior by booking up to joining a guided tour. These can be booked online on the Villa Tugendhat website, which recommends booking at least two months in advance. We left it a bit late, but by emailing managed to have ourselves added on to a tour in German.

While you are there

We discovered this too late to profit from our knowledge, but the nearby house owned by Greta Tugendhat's father, Villa Löw-Beer, has recently been restored and is now open to the public as a museum. It dates from the art nouveau period, but it is not too clear what original features remain. A visit would surely enrich any visit to Villa Tugendhat however.

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