A Staged Icon of Modernism

architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
project Villa Tugendhat, Brno Czech Republic
written by Henrieta Moravčíková

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When the Brno villa for the Tugendhat family was completed in 1930, the Czech architectural avant-garde maintained a considerable distance from this luxurious dwelling for the wealthy. Such personalities as Karel Teige and Jiŕí Kroha were far more concerned, in the onset of the Great Depression, with finding an answer to the question of a minimal housing standard for all, not expensive bourgeois residences. The leading practitioner in Prague avant-garde circles, Jaromír Krejcar, went so far as to term the villa a bibelot of modern architecture.[1] With the exception of the German architectural journal Die Form, appreciative reactions to the villa only appeared in the Brno-based society magazine Měsíc.[2]


Understandably, the stance of the left-wing avant-garde was more of a polemical pose than a realistic evaluation. Yet at the same time, it is no less true that the villa’s owners, Greta and Fritz Tugendhat, themselves had no great desire for wide popularity. They built their villa as a family seat, not as an architectural manifesto. Also contributing to the distance between the villa and the Brno cultural scene was no doubt the fact that its German architect initially insisted strongly on ensuring that construction used as few of the local materials or technologies as it could, as he doubted they would be sufficient for his aim. Even though later Mies van der Rohe had to acknowledge the then very high level of construction in Czechoslovakia, the villa was conceived from the beginning as an import of German Modernism, which the Tugendhats had come to admire from their own stays in Germany. On the other hand, it is necessary to recall that Brno in this era was one of the most important centres of Modernist architecture in central Europe, the residence of such exceptional modern architects as Ernst Wiesner, Bohuslav Fuchs or Jiří Kroha. At the same time as Mies van der Rohe was at work on the design for the villa, at the opposite end of the city, in the suburb of Žabovřesky, work was underway on the Nový dům (New House) exposition of contemporary housing (1928), inspired by the German Weissenhof Werkbundsiedlung. At the same time, local construction was highly advanced, attested by the fact that the main contractor for the villa was chosen as a Brno firm and the North Bohemian glassworks in Teplice produced one of the villa’s most attractive elements – the gigantic glass windows for the main living area.


Restoring a heritage site to its original form or leaving it to grow old peacefully is one of the greatest dilemmas for heritage protection, and particularly vital in the case of modern architecture, where the difference between new and old concrete, or new and old linoleum, is far more pronounced than between old and new wood or brick. A no less vital question is posed by the heritage building’s use. Should it be a preserved museum exhibit, a perfect return to the original state, or a living and functional house where time has left varying layers of differing eras? It would appear that past of this dilemma in the case of the Villa Tugendhat was already solved by the building’s fate. The original function, i.e. as a residence, was only served for a fraction of the building’s existence, from 1930 to 1938.[3] Somewhat more complex was making a decision on the method for its restoration. In the end, the winning idea was of a restoration project, in which the original elements and materials would be cleaned and repaired, and whatever was lacking would be replaced with replicas manufactured from the original blueprints and methods. However, the restoration project for the villa allowed for its inscription to the unesco World Heritage Register in 2001, and subsequently the right to financial support from European Union funds. Restoration of the villa started in 2010 and finished in 2012.


The villa is a perfect instance of the current approach to restoration of architectural monuments of early 20th-century Modernism. Conceptually, it takes up the principles set down in the Czech context with the restoration of the Müller Villa by Adolf Loos and Karel Lhota in Prague (1930). It was in the restoration of the Müller Villa, directed by architect Václav Girsa, that for the first time Czech restorers applied the principles of reconstruction used until then only on much older buildings. For Villa Tugendhat, architectural-historic research and on-site investigations lasted for over ten years, involving not only the thorough study of all documentation, primarily preserved in the Museum of the City of Brno or New York’s Moma, as well as the detailed inspection and inventorying of every single element of the villa itself. At the same time, there was hardly a lack of apprehensions in the project. Indeed, the finding of the current location of the original macassar-wood panelling from the dining area in the main hall is almost a detective story: on the basis of a recollection by a former German soldier who visited the villa during the Nazi occupation, it was possible to learn that the rare wood was removed and used for panelling in the bar of the Gestapo headquarters in Brno.[4] Architectonic-historic and restoration investigations of the villa were led by art historian Karel Ksandr, but assistance was also supplied by architect Iveta Černá and art historian Dagmar Černoušková from the Museum of the City of Brno, or art historian and restorer Ivo Hammer, in fact the husband of the youngest daughter of the Tugendhats, Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat. The restoration project was prepared through the cooperation of three Brno ateliers, Omnia projekt, Archteam and raw, while the work was carried out by the construction firm Unistav. Opinions on the villa’s restoration were refined in discussion on the highest European level. In fact, the process was supervised by the Tugendhat House International Committee, composed of several experts on Modernist heritage sites, among them Wessel de Jonge, who in 2010 received the Modernism Prize for his restoration of the Zonnnestraal Sanatorium in Hilversum or Ana Tostoes, the chair of docomomo International, an international organisation for the documentation and restoration of Modernist architecture.


Complete restoration was addressed to all structural elements of the building, including utility lines and all surfaces. In all instances, restorers followed the strategy of giving priority whenever possible to restoration of the original substances in place of their replacement by copies. Several problematic aspects of the building, such as the roof insulation or the structural reinforcement of the terrace, nonetheless required contemporary interventions. Among the wide range of problems that had to be faced during restoration, it is necessary to mention at least the restoration of the steel frames, large surfaces of glass and unique lifting mechanism for the windows in the main residential area of the villa. Also worth noting is the restoration of the exterior stucco, which has largely been retained in its original composition and colours. One further complication in restoring the villa was Mies’s preference for German building materials, causing problems even in terms of their identification; nonetheless, the team did have notable successes, for example in installing in the villa new (but made from the original formula) linoleum from the Deutsche Linoleum Werke. The only part of the villa that diverges from the idea of a museum-installation of a Modernist monument is the cellar room reserved for the Study and Documentation Centre with a small exhibit describing the restoration process.


Architecturally and technically, the restoration of the villa is one of the best examples within recent years, next to the German restoration of the Bauhaus or the Dutch project for Sanatorium Zonnestraal. In addition, it is undoubtedly one of the candidates for the previously noted Modernism Prize from the World Monuments Fund. In comparison with the sanatorium or the Bauhaus, however, there is one significant difference. The villa is a staged monument to modern architecture, while the sanatorium is used now for a medical centre and the Bauhaus still hosts classes as it always did. And the precision of the restoration has meant that the resulting work has lost all indications of its age. The villa is an icon unmarked by time, a flawless illusion of the highest achievements of the European avant-garde – yet at the same time, it is something of an empty house: a museum where all traces of previous inhabitants have vanished. On the other hand, it is necessary to recall that nowhere else is it possible to find in so concentrated form everything that architectural history has linked to the name of Mies van der Rohe, from the unique spatial conception and connection of interior and exterior, through the exposure of the delicate steel framing, the artistic use of rare stones and woods, the famed furniture designs up to the clever technical and structural details, than here in the restored Villa Tugendhat. As a result, the villa’s restoration has entirely confirmed its position as an iconic architectural work, ascribed to it ever since 1932 when Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock included it in the exhibition The International Style in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.


[1] Krejcar, Jaromír: Hygiena bytu. Žijeme 1932, p. 132 – 134.

[2] Bisome, Wilhelm: Villa arch. Mies van der Rohe. Měsíc I, June 1932, p. 2 – 7.

[3] The Tugendhat family left Brno in 1938. In 1939, the villa was seized by the Gestapo; after 1945 the villa housed a dance school and then a rehabilitation centre. Since 1980, it has been the property of the city of Brno, which used it for ceremonial events. Hence it never again served as a private residence. See Černoušková, Dagmar: Brno’s Villa Tugendhat: Eight Decades of a Modern Residence. Architektúra & Urbanizmus 46, 2012, No. 1–2, p. 25 – 51.

[4] This fact was uncovered by art historian Miroslav Ambroz. Further detail about the overall restoration process can be found in the recent monograph Mies in Brno: Villa Tugendhat. Eds. Iveta Černá, Dagmar Černoušková, Brno, Muzeum města Brna 2012.