‘They say that Prague is a baroque city, and Brno is a modernist one,’ says Czech architect Iveta Äerná. Indeed the evidence is everywhere in the Moravian capital. In the first decades of the 20th century, culture, commerce and industry were in harmony in the city. This helped create its remarkable collection of early modernist buildings, which includes work by local functionalists Bohuslav Fuchs and Ernst Wiesner. Without a doubt, though, the city’s star architectural attraction is the Mies van der Rohe-designed Villa Tugendhat, which has been newly renovated by a team directed by Äerná.
Sat on a slope offering sweeping city views, the villa is the epitome of modernity, a composition of low white volumes with a modest street façade featuring narrow openings and discreet milk glass. The three-level structure hosts a swathe of bedrooms at street-level, with the main living areas and lush indoor garden above. The airy open-plan interior features an iconic strip-glass façade that overlooks a leafy, landscaped back garden.
Built in the wealthy neighbourhood of Äerná Pole at the dénouement of Brno’s prosperous 1920s, Tugendhat was the ideal, no-expense-spared modern house, commissioned by Jewish factory-owner Fritz Tugendhat on land he received as a wedding present from his in-laws. The clean, functional look belies the luxurious materials appointed by Tugendhat and Mies van der Rohe. Zebrano wood and Makassar ebony appear throughout, as well as onyx - a nod perhaps to the architect’s stone-carving heritage.
Classic furnishings by Lilly Reich complemented the architect’s own pieces, like iconic Brno, Barcelona and Tugendhat chairs, the latter custom-designed for the villa. On the lower-ground floor, put to use as a service area, was an ultra-modern (for the time) air-conditioning system and a glass façade that opens completely, thanks to a mechanism built into the wall.
Sadly, the ideal home did not have the ideal future. The family enjoyed just eight years in Tugendhat before fleeing the Nazis in 1938. ‘After that, the villa had many uses, including as a nursery and even a stable,' says Äerná.
When it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Tugendhat had deteriorated far beyond its original glory, despite having become a prime destination for architecture pilgrims. ‘Now it is the most authentic work of Mies van der Rohe in Europe,’ says Äerná, who directed the renovation, ‘but back then the wear and tear was enormous.’ Entire sections of the interior were missing. Later, parts of the original wood panelling were accidentally found at Masaryk University, a building used by the Gestapo as their Brno HQ.
The recent restoration took as long as the initial, two-year-long construction. It improved upon an earlier 1980s restoration and resurrected the original colour scheme. ‘The first renovation was done in monochrome,’ recalls Irena Murray, the Czech-born director of the RIBA British Architectural Library. ‘I heard [Fritz’s wife] Greta Tugendhat speak about the villa in New York and she had been talking about its ruby reds and emerald greens. And I remember thinking, “What ruby reds and emerald greens?”’
To celebrate the villa’s return to form, RIBA will launch an exhibition in London giving a visual history of the building and a record of the recent renovation. ‘Villa Tugendhat in Context’, which opens on 19 June, follows the dramatic history of the villa through the testimony of three generations of photographers. It includes archived articles from the 1930s, together with a wealth of historical material never before seen in London.
If you cannot make the trip to Brno, the exhibition is a must-see. ‘Apart from the great architectural merit, the villa is a particularly successful expression of Mies’s ingenious ideas of creating clean, airy and flexible spaces designed to aid everyday life,’ says Murray. ‘The house adapted to all its functions with remarkable ease, itself proof of excellent design. Tugendhat might have been the gold standard for another era but there is absolutely nothing in it that couldn’t and shouldn’t serve as an example of the principles of a well-tempered dwelling today.’