Mies masterpiece is reborn

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's refurbished Modernist masterpiece in Brno, Czech Republic, opens to the public in March. About 80 percent of the villa's original features have been preserved.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's refurbished Modernist masterpiece in Brno, Czech Republic, opens to the public in March. About 80 percent of the villa's original features have been preserved. (PETR DAVID JOSEK / Associated Press)

A Czech villa that he designed, whose early history was turbulent, has been renovated.

Posted: February 05, 2012

BRNO, Czech Republic - It was completed in 1930, a Modernist masterpiece by legendary German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

But Villa Tugendhat's early history was rocked by the turbulence of the 20th century: The Nazis seized it, then came World War II bombardments that smashed its windows. When the Soviet troops liberated Czechoslovakia, living space became a large stable. It has languished in disrepair ever since.

Now, a two-year, $9 million renovation is almost complete. In March, the glass-fronted building that houses a thick, honey-colored onyx wall, floor-to-ceiling windows, winter garden, and clean white lines throughout will open to the public. Czech officials are confident it will become one of the most popular tourism venues in the region.

"It's been a huge challenge," said Michal Malasek, whose construction company was tasked with refurbishing the villa while staying faithful to its design. "I have never worked on anything of such prestige."

'Most authentic'

About 80 percent of the villa's original features have been preserved, making it "the most authentic Mies van der Rohe building on the European continent," said Iveta Cerna, an architect from Brno's municipal museum who has looked after the villa since 2002.

Good fortune played its part: An original bathtub, missing since the 1940s, was found in a nearby house; and a curved wall of Macassar ebony was discovered at a dining hall inside Brno's Law School, where it had been taken to spruce up a bar built for Nazi officers.

Brno experienced a building boom in the late 1920s that reflected the growing confidence of the city in the independent Czechoslovakia, created in 1918. Grete and Fritz Tugendhats, co-owners of wool factories and part of a large German-speaking Jewish community in the city, were able to commission the home of their dreams from Mies van der Rohe.

"I truly longed for a modern spacious house with clear, simple shapes," Grete Tugendhat said in a 1969 lecture in Brno. Her husband died in 1958 and never saw it again after the family fled Czechoslovakia in 1938, a year before the Nazis took power.

Grete Tugendhat returned from her home in Switzerland to visit the house several times, first in 1967. She died in 1970. Efforts by the family to claim their former property back after the collapse of communism in 1989 failed.

After the war, the building hosted a private dance school before the communist Czechoslovakia took it over in 1950; it served as a rehabilitation center for children with spinal defects until the end of the 1960s. The city of Brno has owned it since 1980.

On a recent sunny day, workers were polishing the staircase of Italian white travertine that leads from the terrace to the garden. In the living space, the curved ebony wall was wrapped in cloth to prevent any damage. In winter, when the sun is low and its beams are penetrating the onyx wall at the right angle, its color changes in some parts to shine in orange and dark-red hues.

"We know from Grete that Mies himself was surprised by this unique effect," said Cerna, the Brno architect. The house's charm "is in the changes. It changes with weather; it looks different each season of the year."

Combining a design of pure geometric forms with advanced technologies and exotic materials, Mies van der Rohe satisfied the owners' wish for innovation and originality.

Some replica parts had to be obtained in the last two years: Huge glass panes, one centimeter (0.39 inch) thick, were made in Belgium, while the white linoleum that originally covered the floor was provided by the same German company that made it more than 80 years ago.

Love at first sight

Fritz and Grete Tugendhat lived in the villa with their three children for eight years in the 1930s. Grete said she fell in love with it "from the first moment."

In 1938, the Tugendhats had to leave Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis, heading first for Switzerland and later for Venezuela. Mies van der Rohe, whose work did not meet Hitler's taste for monumental architecture, also fled the Nazis. He settled in Chicago and designed a number of significant buildings in his new land. He died in 1969.

The Gestapo seized the building after invading Czechoslovakia and - insensitive to the original design - made changes, including erecting several extra walls inside and outside. All but one of the large windows was smashed by Allied bombings.

World Heritage Site

During liberation by the Red Army in 1945, the living space was used as a stable for the officers' horses. And the Communists, who took power here in 1948, tried renovating the villa in the 1980s - but did more harm than good.

The deal that split Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992 was signed in the villa, adding to its historical significance.

The idea to restore the villa dates to 2001, when UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. City officials now are trying to buy the original pieces of furniture from the families that own them. Said Brno Mayor Roman Onderka, "It would be something extraordinary to get them all."

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