Among the most significant private houses of the 20th century, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House represents a material unity of steel, stone, and glass. Situated on a slope to provide ample views, the Tugendhat House echoed Mies’ use of continuous space first realized in the German Pavilion in Barcelona (1929).
The owners, Grete Weiss Löw-Beer and Fritz Tugendhat, met Mies in Berlin in 1927 before their marriage. They shared a preference for a modern style and an aversion to traditional interiors. After viewing several of Mies’ buildings, including the Wolff house in Guben, they commissioned the Berlin architect to design their new house.
In September 1928 Mies went to Brno to view the lot on which the house was to be built, and on the evening of 31 December 1928, the first sketches were discussed. The final design of the house was decided on around July 1929, when work on the foundations was begun. Several changes were made during construction.
The house is built on an incline, with the living area on the southern side with a view of the garden and the Brno cityscape. On the street, or northern side, the house looks unremarkable, presenting a low and closed facade with a wide, covered entry area. The garage and chauffeur’s quarters are on the right. On the left are the bedrooms and bathrooms and a terrace with a view of the garden. These private rooms are separated from the entryway by a vestibule that also contains the stairway to the lower floor. The lower floor contains the servants’ quarters, kitchen, and pantry on the eastern side, but most of the space is taken up with the living room. That living space, which is not visible from the street, forms the center of the house and functions as dining room, workroom, library, and sitting room. The living area gives access to another terrace on the same level, from which a staircase leads into the garden. The cellars, which can be reached from the kitchen by means of a circular staircase, contains spaces for the furnace, machines to operate the windows, a laundry room, and so on. Originally it also contained a darkroom because Fritz Tugendhat was an amateur filmmaker.
The most remarkable section of the house is the living area, spreading over an area of 223 square meters (about 2400 square feet). Instead of designing a series of closed spaces, Mies chose to build a single continuous space. This freedom in spatial division was made possible by the use of a steel frame, which dispensed with the need for internal supporting walls. Mies had already experimented with this principle in his houses for the Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart of 1927. In Brno his use of steel permitted a different layout for each level, thus providing an exceptional openness of the living space. This openness was reinforced by floor-to-ceiling windows on the southern and western sides. The windows open up the interior space to the outside, much like the German Pavilion.
In the living area, the separate functions are structured and suggested by spatial means and beautiful, pristine materials. A freestanding onyx wall separates the living room from the workroom. A semicircular wooden wall with a Macassar veneer defines the dining area. The arrangement of the furniture also structures the space, marking places for various living functions. Moving it would undermine the “zoning” of the space. In the living space, most of the furniture was metal, including Mies’ tube chair from Stuttgart (1927) and his Barcelona armchair (1929). He also designed the sheet-metal “Brno armchair” and the “Brno dining room chair.”
The technical facilities of the house were exceptional for the time. Central heating was supplemented in the living area with a forced-hot-air system in the winter that also served as airconditioning in the summer. In addition the house had built-in humidifiers and air purifiers, a hydraulic system that lowered the living-area windows into the ground, and a light sensor that automatically locked the front door at night.
The house’s high cost and the luxurious interior gave rise to criticism. Modernist architects of Brno and Prague objected to the project on the basis of their social convictions. Mies’ German origins and the fact that he had succeeded Hannes Meyer at the Bauhaus also played a role in the disapproval from his Czech colleagues. As a consequence Czech architectural circles ignored the house. A different controversy arose in Germany, where Die Form asked whether the architectural ideas of Mies determined the lifestyle of the inhabitants to too great a degree. Fritz and Grete Tugendhat denied this in their response, also published in Die Form, but admitted that it was not possible to change anything in the interior without disturbing the architect’s design.
The inhabitants did not have much time to try out Mies’ living concepts. In 1938 the family decided to emigrate to Venezuela as a result of the threatened expansion of the Nazi regime in Germany. The house stood empty for a year before being appropriated by the German occupier. After 1945 the house first became a ballet school and then, in 1950, part of the Brno children’s hospital, which used the space for physical therapy. In 1970 the City of Brno took over the house, but renovation on the house did not start until the period 1983–86. The building was freed of additions and adaptations, but the original furniture and equipment were largely lost. In 1995 the restoration of the interior was undertaken, with remakes of the original furnishings. Since 1996 the house has been open to visitors as part of the Brno City Museum.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3 (P-Z). Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.
Drexler, Arthur (editor), The Mies van der Rohe Archive, New York vol. 4 and London: Garland, 1986–; see especially part 1, 1910–1937,
Hammer-Tugendhat, Danniela, and Wolf Tegethoff (editors), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: Das Haus Tugendhat, Vienna: Springer, 1998; as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: The Tugendhat House, New York: Springer, 2000
Kudelková, Lenka, and Otakar Mácel, “The Villa Tugendhat in Brno,” in Mies van der Rohe: Architecture and Design in Stuttgart, Barcelona, Brno, edited by Alexander von Vegesack and Matthias Kries, Milan: Skira Editore, and Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, 1998
Schulze, Franz, Mies van der Rohe: A Critical Biography, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985
Stiller, Adolph (editor), Das Haus Tugendhat: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Brünn, 1930, Salzburg: Pustet, 1999
In 1928, as preparations for the Barcelona exhibition began, another important commission came into Mies’s office. A wealthy industrialist couple, Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, wanted a family villa on a plot of land received as a wedding gift from the bride’s parents, in the Moravian provincial capital of Brno. Brno was a centre for modern architecture in Czechoslovakia at the time. The choice of Mies may have been due to the Tugendhats’s bonds, as German-Bohemian Jews, to German culture, living in a town with a large German population. Grete Tugendhat had lived for some years in Berlin, where she was a regular visitor at Perls House, realised by Mies in 1911-1912. Since then she has kept a close eye on the artistic development of the architect.
Mies designed the building through 1928 and 1929, and construction began in 1929. Money was not an issue for the Tugendhats and they were prepared to give Mies a free hand even with the interior design of the house. For Mies, therefore , the commission offered a unique opportunity to realise in close detail his own ideas about architecture an furniture design without any restrictions from his client. Extending some of the ideas of the Barcelona Pavilion, Mies nevertheless designed the house around the dramatically different needs of a family. Instead of a circuitous ceremonial route though the building’s spaces, the Tugendhat House provided a combination of both freer and more restricted spaces to accommodate domestic use.
The villa is situated on a steeply falling hillside, making a very modest impression form the street side. The entry approach leads directly to a framed aperture that offers a spectacular panorama over the old city of Brno. This view is flanked by the garage on the right, and a building mass laid out parallel to the street on the left. Entering the hose via its main entrance, concealed behind a curving milk-glass wall, the visitor finds himself on the top floor, where a square foyer offers access to a private area with conventionally enclosed bedrooms and a roof terrace. A flight of stairs, following the curve of the milk-glass wall, descends to the main floor where the open living area extends over a surface of 3000 square feet. This space freely merges entrance hall, living room, dining area , work area with library ,and lounge corner into a single space. In addition, a projection booth for showing films and a long winter garden flank this room on north and east sides respectively. The living area is clearly separated by fixed room dividers from more restricted spaces for domestic use, such as the kitchen pantry, and servant’s quarters.
Mies used the same design principle of the free plan and fluid space that he used at Barcelona. Conceptually, however, the dualistic play of columns and planes was replaced by an investigation of space as simultaneously integrated and subdivided. Here, a greater array of elements joined the cruciform columns : a single slab of onyx, running from floor to ceiling, parallel to the length of the house and dividing the front living area from the working space, and half-cylinder covered with Makassar ebony, which screened the dining area from the rest of the space. Other elements structuring the main living area were a series of silk curtains in muted shades and the furniture, all of it designed by Mies in co-operation with Lily Reich. For the villa in particular he designed the “Brno-chair”, the “Tugendhat-armchair” and the glass table. And like in the Barcelona Pavilion there was also a sculpture at Villa Tugendhat: a female torso by Mies van der Rohe’s friend, Wilhelm Lehmbruck. This was another version of the same piece that graced Mies’s 1927 Glass Room interior.
In Brno , Mies also followed the idea of visual connection between interior and exterior. The living area opens out on the sloping side, with gigantic floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows creating an interior room that was also a terrace, suspended , as if in the branches of an enormous weeping willow that stood just outside the dining area. This effect was enhanced by two sinking windows that, powered by electricity, could be retracted fully into the floor. By this means Mies combined interior and landscape, an impression that is sustained throughout this remarkably generous yet intimate space. Access to the garden was through a second single door past the length of the dining niche, where stairs led down into the garden. Mies’s constructed addition to the Henke House in Essen, which was completed in the very same year, took the aspect of transition between inside and out to the next step: its glass garden front included a single glass sheet 30 foot long that retracted in one single plane into the floor of the addition, allowing the Henke’s free access to the sculpture garden outside, and turning their dining room into a terrace.
If the Barcelona Pavilion found nearly unanimous approval in the press, The Tugendhat House generated considerable uncertainty about the premises on which modern architecture was based. “It is like the Parthenon. Photos don’t say anything about this building!” rejoiced Philip Johnson after a visit at Brno. Anything but enthusiastic, however, was the judgement of Marxist advocated of modern architecture. They saw the Tugendhat House as betraying basic principles of radical modernism, with their emphasis on economies of budget and scale. Indeed, the villa Tugendhat was hardly to by seen as contributing to the solution of social problems. The building’s size, materials, appointments, and most of all budget unambiguously declared its status as a work of art and private palace. The building is reported to have cost ten times the budget of Le Corbusier’s contemporaneous (and already expensive) Villa Savoye; the cost of the onyx wall alone was equivalent to that of a family home. The Czech avant-garde author and photographer Karel Teige therefore declared the building an example of the wrong direction in modern architecture and called it “the peak of modern snobbism.”
The Tugendhat House was occupied by the family for little more than seven years. The family emigrated in 1938, in the run-up to the Nazi-German invasion. As “unappropriated Jewish property” the house was confiscated by the National Socialists and registered in 1942 in the estate register as a property of the Reich; during the war it housed occasionally s design office of the aircraft engine company “Ostmark,” but by then the ebony wall and the Lehmbruck sculpture had already vanished. In 1945 the Red Army took quarters in the villa. In 1950 the house became property of the Czechoslovakian state and used as an institute for physiotherapy. In 1963 the Villa was declared cultural monument, restored in 1985, and in 2001 listed in the UNESCO International Cultural and Natural Heritage List.
The Architectural Review
1993 April: Mies' miraculous survivor, Villa Tugendhat; 20 JUNE, 2012
The house that Mies van der Rohe built for Grete and Fritz Tugendhat in Brno, Czechoslovakia, has endured the attentions of the worst regimes of the twentieth century. The restored villa reflects the robust, enduring nature of the original design and construction
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.