The rescue of Villa Tugendhat
The story of the most famous villa in the Czech Republic has it all: a world-renowned architect, a UNESCO designation, incalculable artistic value, a rollercoaster fate that tells the story of the totalitarian regimes of twentieth-century Europe, and a complicated return to the building’s original character. Because Nanovo supports the careful restoration of furniture and design, we have decided to take a closer look at the reconstruction of Villa Tugendhat that took place in 2010–2012, returning the structure to its original 1930 form. It is one of the most skilful reconstructions in the field of modern architecture.
In 2001 Villa Tugendhat was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Source: https://www.tugendhat.eu
It began with a wedding
Greta and Fritz Tugendhat were a young Jewish couple. When they married in 1928, Greta’s father, Alfred Löw-Beer, gave them a plot of land in Brno’s Černá Pole district as a wedding gift. It was time for them to build a house for their future family, the construction of which would also be financed by Greta’s father, who was willing to give the architect an unlimited budget.
Vila Alfreda Löw-Beera
The first person the couple commissioned to design the house was the Brno architect Ernst Wiesner, and so the iconic functionalist building that we know today very nearly never came to be. However, the Tugendhats soon changed their minds and chose a rising star of the German architectural community – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Villa Tugendhat as a symbol of modern living
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), influenced by the style of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, was already a desirable and established name at the time the Tugendhats approached him. This was mainly due to an exhibition of modern housing in Stuttgart which had made the German architect famous all over the world and after which many developments were built based on his designs for apartment buildings and entire housing estates (in the Czech Republic, for example, the Baba neighbourhood in Prague).
German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, source: https://www.nnmagazine.cz/
After his success in Stuttgart, Mies was commissioned by the German government (at that time the Weimar Republic) to design a pavilion for the World’s Fair in Barcelona, where the Spanish king was to meet with government representatives. The pavilion, with its horizontal character, became a symbol of the modern approach to architecture. It was created around the same time as Villa Tugendhat, in which these same principles were applied to a house designed for everyday life.
The pavilion built in Barcelona for the 1929 World’s Fair was disassembled after eight months. In its place today stands an exact replica.
What made Villa Tugendhat special – the famed onyx wall and fur vaults
In addition to the aforementioned unlimited budget, the Tugendhats also gave Mies an unusual amount of space to express himself and often heeded his opinion in discussions. The result was that in the years 1929–30 the construction company of Moritz and Artur Eisler built a villa that contained a replica of the iconic onyx wall from the Barcelona pavilion, doors that reached from floor to ceiling, and an entire basement full of advanced technology. It was even possible to extend the villa’s free-flowing main living space on the first floor out into the garden by lowering the windows.
Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Villa Tugendhat. Source: https://www.tugendhat.eu/o-dome/architekt/ (Photo: Fritz Tugendhat, courtesy of Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat)
The onyx wall in the main living area with the setting sun shining through it, source: https://www.archiweb.cz/b/vila-tugendhat
Villa Tugendhat is also exceptional in the way it is set in the landscape. While from the street one would hardly notice the low, unobtrusive façade, the side visible from the garden connects seamlessly with the cascading rock garden and fascinates to this day with its horizontal elegance.
Makassar ebony, lost and then found
The use of noble materials in the villa doesn’t end with the onyx wall in the living room. Both the library and the semicircular wall in the dining room were clad in Makassar ebony, which went missing from the villa during the Second World War. It was found many years later in the canteen of the law school at Masaryk University in Brno, where the Nazis had set up a bar during their occupation. It wasn’t until 2012 that historian Miroslav Ambroz discovered it by chance. The wall in the canteen looked familiar to him, so Ambroz tracked down some period photos and ascertained that it was indeed the missing ebony from Villa Tugendhat.
The Makassar ebony wall. Source: https://denikn.cz/
Another reason why Villa Tugendhat is still the only modern building in the Czech Republic to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List is its exceptional technical equipment, including rarities such as its so-called anti-moth rooms (or fur vaults) and retractable electric floor-to-ceiling windows that lower into the floor, akin to electric windows in a car.
The cost of building Villa Tugendhat
It makes little sense to translate the cost of the villa to its equivalent in today’s currency. To get an idea of how expensive the construction truly was, it’s better to compare it with the normal price of a residential house at that time. While budgets were usually around fifty thousand Czechoslovak crowns, and in the case of luxury buildings it was up to three times that, the construction of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat cost 8 million crowns.
Totalitarian regimes vs. timeless architecture
If you give a brilliant architect an unlimited budget, you are essentially commissioning something world-class and one of a kind. It must be said, however, that Villa Tugendhat has had a number of close shaves over the course of its turbulent history, and so we can be glad that this unique structure is still standing in Brno today. Even before the outbreak of World War II, the Tugendhat family clearly saw the writing on the wall, and so in 1938, after living in the villa for a mere eight years, they were forced to abandon it. The villa had some difficult years ahead of it, as did the whole of Czechoslovakia.
The war and postwar years – barracks, gymnasium, hospital
After the Tugendhats left and the German army occupied Czechoslovakia, the Gestapo commandeered the villa, and the aforementioned Makassar ebony was removed sometime during the next two years. Later in the war and slightly after it, when the villa was being used as a barracks for Soviet soldiers, much of the furnishings were destroyed, including the original windows. The onyx wall was also in danger of being destroyed, but luckily someone had bricked it up. It’s not certain whether it was the Tugendhats themselves who did it, but after the war, when the villa began serving as a dance school, Professor Karla Hladká decided to remove the wall in the middle of the living room, only to discover that there was an onyx treasure hidden behind the bricks.
Children's Rehabilitation Centre, February 1959, Photo: Miloš Budík, source: https://www.tugendhat.eu
In 1950 Villa Tugendhat became the home of the State Institute for Curative Physiotherapy and served as a treatment centre for children with spinal defects. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a discussion about the villa’s importance was opened and the first steps towards its restoration were taken. The main initiator of change was the architect František Kalivoda, who, among other things, got in touch with Greta Tugendhat, who was living in Switzerland at the time.
The 1960s – a promise of better times
Thanks to Kalivoda, an exhibition of the work of architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was held at the Brno House of Arts from 20 December 1968 to 26 January 1969. As part of the exhibition, Greta Tugendhat appeared at the January conference and gave a speech in Czech in which she gave a detailed account of the construction process and her collaboration with the famous architect. Mies’s grandson, architect Dirk Lohan, also attended the event.
Greta Tugendhat at a conference in Brno in 1969. Source: https://www.tugendhat.eu
The wheels were turning. Mies’s studio in Chicago was ready to participate in the house’s restoration, and a collaboration on the garden with its original co-author Markéta Roderová-Müller was also in the works. However, the onset of the normalisation period stymied the struggle for reconstruction, and eventually all efforts came to a halt after the main instigators of the project passed away. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe died in August 1969, Greta Tugendhat died in December 1970, and František Kalivoda died in May 1971. Villa Tugendhat thus had to wait until the 1980s for its first reconstruction.
The reconstruction of Villa Tugendhat in 1981–1985
After the villa was transferred from the property of the state to the property of the city of Brno in 1980, a design team was created under the direction of Kamil Fuchs (son of Bohuslav Fuchs). The investor was the Department of Internal Affairs of the National Committee of the City of Brno, and the aim of the reconstruction was to represent the city, to occasionally accommodate guests, and to return the villa to a sustainable technical condition. No major research was carried out, and only the archival plans and photographs from the collections of the Brno City Museum were used.
Tampering with original elements and using makeshift materials
During the reconstruction, some original elements were destroyed, and a few inappropriate interventions were made in relation to the original concept. Smaller windowpanes were used, bonded with silicone sealant, and PVC linoleum was laid on the floor. Many of the radiators and surviving sanitary fixtures in the bathrooms were removed. In contrast, the machinery room for the ventilation system remained almost completely intact, with only the elements that were needed to make the system functional being added.
The original coke-fired boiler room was converted into a heat exchanger station connected to the district heating network. The upper living terrace was retiled precisely according to the original plans. Part of the fencing from the 1930s remained, but the rest was added. The exterior and interior plaster were carefully repaired and painted white.
Looking back at the quality of the reconstruction
The first historical building survey of Villa Tugendhat was carried out in 2001 under the direction of Karel Ksandr. Restoration surveys followed in 2003–2005, led by Prof. Ivo Hammer, husband of Prof. Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, the youngest daughter of the original owners. Based on these surveys, the project and the realisation of the renovation in the 1980s were described as highly professional and in line with the possibilities of the time.
The main living area of the villa after the reconstruction in 1981–1985. Photo: Brno City Archive, source: https://www.tugendhat.eu
The main living area of the villa after the reconstruction in 1981–1985. Photo: Brno City Archive, source: https://www.tugendhat.eu
The terrace, 20 October 1980. Photo: Brno City Archive, source: https://www.tugendhat.eu
The street façade, 20 October 1980. Photo: Brno City Archive, source: https://www.tugendhat.eu
2010–2012: Returning Villa Tugendhat to its original condition
In 1994 Villa Tugendhat opened to the public as a monument of modern architecture. Ten years later, plans for further renovation began, this time with the ambitious aim of returning the structure to the form it had when it was first completed. The renovations were carried out almost flawlessly, and in 2021 it was named by Docomomo International as one of the most successful reconstructions of modern architecture of the last 12 years.
Meticulous research, perfect replicas
All non-original structural interventions were removed, and any missing elements were returned to the interior so that everything was as close as possible to the original design and materials – including furniture, textiles, and plants. As we have already mentioned, it was by chance that a segment of the semicircular wall made of rare Makassar ebony, the harvesting of which is now forbidden, was discovered and returned to the house. The remaining missing pieces were replaced with copies. The same goes for the Makassar furniture.
Suitable linoleum and windows with the correct dimensions were returned to the building. The garden also underwent reconstruction, and the terrace and staircase had to be structurally repaired. The electrical and plumbing facilities were renovated, and authentic items were used for all visible elements such as switches, sockets, and radiators.
A happy ending for the famous villa
Thanks to the precise work of the architects, restorers, and craftsmen, everyone who visits Villa Tugendhat after the latest reconstruction will feel like they are back in the 1930s, or rather, in the middle of the best that has ever been born in the field of modern architecture and design. We highly recommend taking the time to go for a tour there.
The reconstruction demonstrates the value of quality restoration work, but it also highlights the important art of period replicas that allow us to bring lost gems back to life. At Nanovo we also want to do our part to preserve the past, which is why we collaborate with some of the best craftsmen in the Czech Republic, such as Jiří Jiroutek and Viliam Chlebo, to prevent their iconic designs from disappearing.
Villa Tugendhat in Brno
Villa Tugendhat has become not only one of the most famous buildings by German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe but also one of the most famous residential buildings of the twenty-first century.
Architect: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969)
Address: Černopolní 45, 613 00 Brno
Construction budget: 8 million Czechoslovak crowns (330 000 Eur) (at that time a normal family home was built for 50,000 crowns (2000 EUR))
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List on 16 December 2001 (still the only modern building in the Czech Republic to receive this honour)
Latest reconstruction: 2010–2012
Budget for the reconstruction in 2010–2012: 174 million CZK (7,1 million EUR)