Villa Tugendhat in Brno Modernist Masterpiece

Villa Tugendhat in Brno is a textbook example of modernist architecture. The design dates from 1929 and the architect is German-American Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building sits on a slope and has a sweeping view over the centre of Brno. The villa broke all trends and was far ahead of its time due to the futuristic design and technical gadgets. Fritz Tugendhat and his family lived in this villa which was a wedding gift from his family who owned a textile factory in Brno.

Villa Tugendhat

Villa Tugendhat Brno, Modernist Masterpiece

Villa Tugendhat is hardly visible from the street and does not look inviting. The plain outer wall of frosted glass with rounded corners does not attract the attention. Built on a grassy slope, Villa Tugendhat has three levels that can only be seen from the garden.

The middle floor is the living area and does not have a traditional room layout. It is one open space which serves as living room, garden room, library, dining room, reception room and music room. Drapes, a semicircular wall and an onyx wall divide the space when and where needed. The onyx wall changes colour depending on the angle of the sun rays shining on it.

Mies van der Rohe denied the existence of fixed walls. His vision was that walls are sliding screens to be placed where needed. On the top floor of the villa is the master bedroom with an adjoining bathroom, two children’s bedrooms and a room for the nanny. Next to the villa is a garage for two cars and the technician’s quarters. Maintaining the technical equipment was a full-time job.

Villa Tugendhat

Technical Gadgets in Villa Tugendhat

The open interior plan, the materials used and the technical gadgets make the villa unique: onyx from Northern Morocco, travertine from Italy and rosewood and ebony veneer. The technology is state of the art: hot-air heating and electrically operated windows that retract like car windows. When the glass wall on the second level is lowered, it sinks into the basement. When the windows are down, the room is even more spacious and becomes one with the garden.

The villa has a flat roof and faces south-west. It is constructed of reinforced-concrete and supported by 29 steel columns anchored in the concrete, some clearly visible in the living area. The back façade is a floor-to-ceiling window. When open, it dissolves the boundary between inside and outside.

Austere structures and the use of steel characterize the architectural style of Mies van der Rohe. He was the spiritual father of the skyscraper; a block consisting of a steel skeleton filled with glass.

Villa Tugendhat

Furniture Designer

Mies van der Rohe also designed furniture. Famous is his Barcelona chair which was made for the German Pavilion at the 1929 World Fair held in Barcelona. The entire frame is in one piece and is made of steel, often chrome-plated. The chair is upholstered with two separate cushions one for the backrest the other for the seat. They are made of foam rubber, leather-covered and quilted. The Tugendhat villa was the first place where these chairs were used after the fair.

The Tugendhat Family

Grete and Fritz Tugendhat were part of the large German-speaking Jewish community in Brno, Brünn in those days. The family with their three children lived in the villa only for 8 years. In 1938, a year before the Nazis took power, they fled Czechoslovakia first to Switzerland and later to Venezuela. Fritz died in 1958 and Grete in 1967. After the collapse of Communism, the family tried to reclaim their property, but all efforts failed.

Villa Tugendhat

Damage to Villa Tugendhat

During the Second World War, Villa Tugendhat was badly damaged. Bombardments smashed the windows. The Gestapo confiscated the house and used it as an army barracks. After the liberation, the Red Army used the living space as stables for officers’ horses and the ebony bookcase became firewood. Until the 1960s, the villa served as a rehabilitation centre for children with spinal problems. n 1963, it was given the status of a public monument. The villa was dilapidated and in poor condition and in the 1980s the Communists renovated it, but did more harm than good. They removed the original bathroom furniture and equipment because it did not fit in their plan. Finally, the city of Brno had municipal offices there.

Villa Tugendhat

Visit of Villa Tugendhat

The villa was ready for a second makeover as the house was in danger of slipping down the slope. From 2010 to 2012 it underwent a general restoration. The house and adjacent garden were restored to their original state. Replicas of the furniture and a number of preserved original furniture were again in the interior. A bathtub that went missing in the 1940s was found in a nearby house. An ebony curved wall was discovered in the dining hall of Brno university. Nazi officers wanted to make their bar more attractive and had used it as decoration.

In the basement, visitors can see the technology needed to run this modern home: hot air heating, boiler room, retractable window system, laundry room, darkroom and a special room designed to store fur coats. The permanent exhibition tells about the life of the Tugendhat family until 1938, about the architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the construction of the villa. Short-term exhibitions can be seen in the basement.

Villa Tugendhat

Mies van de Rohe, Modernist Architect

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) whose dictum was ‘less is more’ did not meet Hitler’s taste for monumental architecture. He fled Germany and settled in Chicago to work for the Illinois Institute of Technology. His catalogue of works is almost endless. His first design was Riehl House in Potsdam, Germany (1907) and followed by many more. In 1929 he designed the Barcelona Pavilion for the World Fair and Villa Tugendhat in the same year. His American buildings include Seagram building in New York and Martin Luther King Jr Memorial Library in Washington.

Villa Tugendhat

How to get there

Villa Tugendhat is in the city of Brno, about 200 km southeast of Prague. The villa is located at a twenty minute walk from Namesti Svobody (Freedom Square) in the centre of Brno.

Guided tours only to be booked in advance at the tourist office at the train station and in the Old Town Hall, Radnicka 8 in Brno or online.

Tour 1: duration 60 minutes, includes:
Third floor with the bedrooms, second floor with the living room with kitchen and the garden.
Tour 2: duration 90 minutes, includes:
All of tour 1 and an extra visit to the lower floor with the technical gadgets: the engine room for air technology, boiler room, control room for electric retraction of the windows, laundry room, dark room and, fur coat storage

Address: Cernopolni 45, Brno
Public transport: Take tram 9 from the train station to the Tomanova stop, and walk into Tomanova street.
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday 10 am-6pm, closed on Mondays

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Photos: Marianne Crone, Prague Vitrivius and Wiki Commons

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