“The purpose of the structure provides it with its actual sense. (…) A dwelling should only serve for housing. The location of the structure, its location in relation to the sun, the layout of the spaces and the construction materials are the essential factors for creating a dwelling house. A building organism must be created out of these conditions.”
These thoughts were expressed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the year 1924 and fully employed on the Brno Villa. Villa Tugendhat
Alas, my photos will not do this magnificent house justice, so close your eyes (maybe between paragraphs; it's hard to read with your eyes closed) and try to imagine you are in Brno ... I am also going to link to a virtual tour of the house at the end of this post. If you are the patient sort, and are genuinely interested, it's worth it.
We'll start with the back of the house again, because that's where the house is really happening. The "front" is just the street view and a place to park the car.
The views are to the back, and the garden area. The top floor of the house, the street entrance level are the large windows at the very top; those are the bedrooms. There is a terrace that wraps around the outside of the back and each of the bedrooms opens out onto it. The terrace is completely separate from the "public" areas of the house, giving the family an intimate view of the city from the privacy of their sleeping quarters.
The middle level in the back-of-house photo, is the "living" level. These are the three enormous windows that look out to the back garden. There is a lower level, but it's primarily functional, with storage and furnace, that sort of thing (Mies was a genius on all levels, so the HVAC system he built into the house was way ahead of its time, unfortunately, I'm not the best person to talk about it).
The tour starts at the formal entrance, where you put on your booties to protect the Italian Marble floors. Amazing that they survived the hooves of the Russian horses stabled in the house, but your Italian stilettos will do a number on them.
Check out the massive exotic wood doors. They are twelve feet high and flush with the ceiling. Here is Greta Tugendhat, speaking on Mies and her husband, Fritz Tugendhat: “When my husband objected to the idea of having all of the doors reach from the floor all the way to the ceiling, because all the so-called specialists had told him that these kinds of doors would warp, Mies answered, then I will not build. This would have affected the main principle of the structure and he would not allow this to be a matter of discussion.”
Not the sort of architect I would want to be working with. That said, neither would I want to actually live in Villa Tugendhat, despite my now oft repeated love for the place. It's more of a theoretical love, than a practical love. Imagine it as though one found, say George Clooney the sort who made you a bit swoony. Now, would you really want to end up married to a dude like that? No, of course not. Fun to look at from afar, but seriously not practical.
Villa Tugendhat is austere to the extreme. This is the nursery. The photos Fritz Tugendhat took while he and Greta were living there with their children indicated that there were some allowances made, and small framed artworks hung on the wall, but the entire interior was white.
Very clinical, and one would not think terribly practical for children, although if you had a staff cleaning up after your children, maybe that sort of thing doesn't come into play at all? And at the end of the day, the Tugendhat's just loved it; their house, their style. Or their house, their architect, his style, as it were.
So, the living quarters are nice enough. The first time I toured the Villa I was pretty "meh" as we circulated through the bedrooms. While the views from the bedrooms are spectacular, and these windows do make mighty fine "artwork," I did find it all a bit too sterile.
But then, you walk down the stairs, and Sister Mercy, the views of the city ... the views that are pretty spectacular up in the bedroom area ... are suddenly in your lap.
The photo does not do justice to the size of the room: it is massive. And the feeling of the room: it is open planning taken to an extreme where the "open" encompasses not only the inside of the house, but the outside too.
I recognize that this sort of feeling is not for everyone. Some people really love traditional "rooms" in a house, but I have a deep love for open planning where families can gather to eat, talk, play games, and just be together in one big space. Having it be an inside out space makes it all the more fabulous. Nothing would make me happier than being able to live in a space that makes me feel this way, feel as though I am living outside in my house surrounded by the people I enjoy being with most.
Although, Jeff would be the first to point out that I require far more pillows than Mies would ever have allowed.
Right here I'm going to give up on my own photos. Really it's hopeless. If you are interested in seeing how gorgeous this house is in real life and can't manage to drop everything and run to Brno right now, please check out the Virtual Tour.
No photograph of this house can convey the right impression. One has to move around in this house, its rhythm is like music.
Ludwig Hilberseimer, 1931
Virtual Tour (believe me, totally worth the time): click
But just so I don't come across as a completley lazy slug, here are a few of my last favorite bits. The Onxy Wall:
The so-called onyx wall is a truly remarkable decorative and at the same time functional stone element in the interior of the Villa. The honey-coloured, yellow rock with white veins was mined from the Atlas Mountains in former French Morocco in North Africa and is actually aragonite sediment (calcium carbonate). “I do not know which stonemason company Mies obtained the stone from. Mr. Lohan told me he found it in Hamburg where it was supposed to be used for the production of two large vases for a luxury steamer. It had been committed to be sold, consequently they did not want to oblige Mies. He was so impressed by it, however, that he refused to give in and finally obtained it in the end (…) Mies personally supervised the exact cutting and placing of the slab so as to allow the lines of the stone to stand out properly.” The special characteristics of the onyx are intensified during the winter sunny days. “When it was sufficiently demonstrated that the stone was transparent and that certain veins on the back side shone red when lit up from the front by the sunset, it was a joyous surprise for even him (Mies).” Villa Tugendhat
Rumor has it the wall alone cost the modern day equivalent of $2 million.
The dining room table. Expandable to fit something like 20 people, but it also skinnied down (you can see the "leaf lines" in the photo) for a smaller "more intimate" meal. The exotic woods of the table and the wall were both imported from south east Asia. The wall wood was actually sold by the Nazis and had been used in a local pub until it was noticed in the 1990s and restored to the Villa. Amazing, really.
And the windows? The windows that let all the light in all the time? They drop out so you really can reach out and touch the out of doors. There are massive engines in the basement that lower and raise the one-ton windows at the touch of a button. Built, 100 years ago. The awnings are also part of the original design, to keep the house from getting too hot during the blaze of summer.
The safety bar, to keep small children from fall out the window? Not part of the original design, despite the household ultimately including three small children. One hopes Mies did not argue too much with Greta when she requested that small change.
And then we all sat on the lawn talking about our marvelous day. Between the castle and Villa Tugendhat, it was as though a millenium had passed by in the blink of an eye.
We talked about how and why people built "houses on a hill," from the inital desire to stay safe and defend from enemies, to our modern aesthetic of enjoying a fabulous sunset. And we talked about what it would have been like to live in the castle, as a servant or as a lord, and what it would have been like to live in Villa Tugendhat, as household staff, or as the family, who eventually had to flee and leave all of it behind.
Fascinating, and well worth every miserable driving kilometer.
Next: Prague! One! Last! Time!