• Design: Villa Tugendhat
  • Ralf Würth
Design: Villa Tugendhat

LONDON — What would you do if the very grand, rather imperious architect who had designed your house invited himself for a visit? Doubtless, you would want the house to look its best, especially if its design was so radical that it had caused a critical storm.

Even so, Fritz and Grete Tugendhat’s response to the news that Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was coming to Villa Tugendhat, the house he had built for them and their three children in the Czech city of Brno during the late 1920s, was rather extreme. They were so worried that he would object to the presence of Grete’s shabby old piano in the room he had furnished for the children’s nanny that they decided to hide it in the basement. Thankfully there was no need, because the visit was canceled.

Luckily for Mies, his detractors knew nothing of the piano saga. The gist of their criticism was that his design was undeniably beautiful, but too imposing to live in, at least, not comfortably. “Can one live in Villa Tugendhat?” was the title of a 1931 essay in Die Form magazine. The Tugendhats argued that one could, but they were wonderfully accommodating clients who had told Mies precisely what they needed from their home, then given him carte blanche and a seemingly limitless budget to build it.

The result is among Mies’s finest works and was hailed as a new model of 20th-century living, at least for those who were as sophisticated and privileged as the Tugendhats, both of whom came from wealthy Jewish industrial families. They moved into the house in 1930, but abandoned it eight years later to flee Czechoslovakia before the threatened Nazi invasion. Villa Tugendhat has now been restored, and is to open to the public on March 6, when visitors will discover that, innovative though it is in style and structure, the house is deeply traditional in other respects.

“Mies took radical decisions about how to design a new kind of living space, and the house is incredibly spacious, incredibly luxurious and incredibly sensual,” said Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “But the Tugendhats had very specific notions about how they wanted to live. If you look at the program, it is almost like a 19th-century description of an English country house with a room for the butler to iron the morning newspaper. The space seems open and flowing, but there are large zones of privacy for the behind-the-scenes world of the servants.”

Villa Tugendhat is a product of what Mr. Bergdoll calls “the miracle period” of Mies’s prewar career in late 1920s Germany when it was one of a series of commissions he undertook, together with the Barcelona Pavilion or, as it was officially called, the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona. Grete Tugendhat had visited one of his houses when living in Germany with her first husband. After her divorce, she married Fritz Tugendhat, and they invited Mies, then in his early 40s, to design their home on a site with magnificent views of medieval Brno.

The result was a steel-framed structure in which Mies addressed his clients’ desire for privacy by locating their bedrooms on the upper floor, and most of the services, including Fritz’s photographic studio, on the lower floor. Between those floors is the public space, a sumptuous open-plan room looking out over the garden and across the fields to Brno through an immense glass wall. It is divided into different areas by velvet curtains and an onyx-clad screen, whose colors change with the light throughout the day.

Working with the interior designer Lilly Reich, Mies specified all of the furniture and furnishings in opulent woods, stones, velvets, silks and leathers. A new chair, the Brno, was designed especially for the house, with white sheepskin upholstery and a flat steel base. Mies insisted that there should only be one work of art in the living space, a 1913 sculpture of a woman’s torso by the German artist Wilhelm Lehmbruck.

The contrast of the glass-and-steel structure with its opulent interior and the natural beauty of its surroundings became a template for modern luxury. The Tugendhats loved living there. Grete Tugendhat said that she had “longed for a modern and spacious house with clear, simple shapes,” and insisted that they found Mies’s design “liberating” and the vast glass room to have “a very particular tranquillity.”

The family left the house intact when they fled Brno in 1938, a year after Mies’s departure for the United States, where he designed such postwar architectural landmarks as the Seagram Building in New York and the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois.

Villa Tugendhat was ransacked during World War II, first by the German Army and then by a Soviet cavalry regiment, which stabled its horses there. Mies and Reich’s exquisite rooms were in ruins, and their furniture burned as firewood. After the war, the house was used as a dance school and a rehabilitation center for a nearby children’s hospital, before being renovated, albeit clumsily, in the 1980s.

Even so, Villa Tugendhat still had a special status. The declaration for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the creation of the Czech Republic was signed there in 1992. The British novelist Simon Mawer was so intrigued by the house that he chose it as the setting for his 2009 novel “The Glass Room.”

“It seemed so emblematic of the Czechoslovakia of the interwar period — a place of progressive ideas, of culture, of light and openness — and the dreadful double disaster of Nazism followed by Soviet Communism,” he said. “The appeal for a novelist was obvious. I’m surprised no one else had had the idea before.”

When Unesco designated Villa Tugendhat as a World Heritage site in 2001, the plans for the latest restoration began. And Grete Tugendhat’s “modern and spacious house with clear, simple shapes” is now very much as Mies envisaged it.

  • Ralf Würth