A project arising from a dream and a challenge. The dream of a couple who wanted to rebuild their lives and the challenge of an architect, Mies van der Rohe, who in the name of that rationalism of which he was the principal exponent, aimed at creating a residential villa based on an exhibition space designed for the city of Barcelona
Grete belonged to an ancient family of Moravian industrialists, studied economics in Vienna, however she dropped out to marry the German industrialist Hans Weiss in 1922. The marriage soon fell apart. Once back home, she married Fritz Tugendhat, a childhood friend and also a man from an interrupted life. He had wanted to study medicine, but was forced to take care of family businesses.
They decide to build a new home. They don’t want a replica of the houses where they lived up to that time, claustrophobic environments buried by trinkets and decorations. Grete wants a place to “breathe”, so they contacted an exponent of the new rationalist architecture, Mies van der Rohe.
In 1929, the architect carried out an initial inspection and was enthusiastic about the project. The land was on a hill overlooking the city of Brno. Mies built an essential structure made of rectangular blocks offset by white surfaces alternated with large full-height windows. The project was a development of the newly designed pavilion for the Barcelona Exhibition. Many doubted that it was possible to adapt the pavilion to the needs of private life. However, the house was built in 14 months and the Tugendhats began living there in 1930.
The main façade, on the street, is a low structure almost a fence wall that contrasts with the elaborate liberty facades of the neighbourhood. The interior is made up of three levels, in the centre there is the living room. A huge environment of 370 square meters. made possible by the structural innovations of the time. Thin steel pillars support reinforced concrete floors while the external walls, freed from the load-bearing function on three sides, are made of glass, leaving the view of the city free. Aside from shantung curtains on ceiling rails, the living room divides an enormous onyx slab that isolates the study and a semi-cylindrical Makassar ebony wall that screens the dining area. The curved ebony wall recalls the opaque glass tower that encloses the staircase leading from the entrance to the floors.
There were also interesting technological solutions, such as the two of the glass panes of the living room, each weighing 600 Kg, which are driven by an electric mechanism and lowered to the floor, transforming the environment into a porch. Another are the radiators a few inches high that run along the windows to avoid condensation – a system similar to the anti-condensation system of car windows.
The furnishings, made by Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, are quite modern and created with minimal lines. Some were designed specifically for this villa, like the Brno chair, and the Tugendhat chair, which with their steel structures recall the supporting pillars.
There is also an attentive search for materials, such as the spectacular onyx, glass or ebony walls, the steel of the pillars and furniture, or the floors where the travertine alternates with white linoleum. Mies created a truly emotional space.
In the meanwhile, Moravia was swallowed up by Nazi Germany and architecture went in another direction. Steel, glass, clean and essential lines, openness to the landscape were elements that clash with the architecture of the regime, defined by closed and imposing brick and granite structures. Mies would emigrate to the USA.
The final curtain fell on the house in the hill, the Tugendhat were Jewish and in 1938 they fled abroad. The villa was requisitioned and entrusted to a German industrialist who created havoc on the ample bright spaces. Those small bourgeois parlours that had the Tugendhat so hated were created through partitions. Later, under the communist regime, the villa became a dance school and later a paediatric sanatorium. Grete would return there in 1967 trying to regain possession of her home and bring it back to its bygone glories. She had also contacted Mies in America. This was a time of political openness, Grete hopes. Unfortunately, in 1968 Mies passed away and the Soviets invaded Prague. The villa fell into oblivion. In the 80s the disintegration of the Soviet regime began and this villa saw the signing of the separation agreement of Czechoslovakia, an important piece of the collapse of Soviet hegemony. At this time, Grete was dead.
The villa was later restored, however it became a museum, as life had long since passed on.
Anna Maria Calabretta