The renovation of Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat is a triumph, but it was long unacknowledged in Czechoslovakia, says Vladimir Slapeta.
While the Villa Tugendhat – long regarded as the most important residential project from the first part of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s career – was built in Brno in 1928-30, his influence on Czechoslovak architectural discourse was significantly less than that of Adolf Loos, Le Corbusier and both Mies’ predecessors as director of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer. This rather surprising situation arose because of a number of intriguing historical and political factors.
Brno-born Loos lived in Vienna and New York, but following the second world war quickly renewed his contacts with the architectural communities in Brno and Prague. His theoretical discourse Ornament and Crime and the modest yet sophisticated white cubic forms of his architecture strongly influenced the transformation of Czech modern movement from Czech Cubism and so-called Rondo Cubism. Like Le Corbusier, Gropius and JJP Oud, he lectured in Prague and Brno in 1924-25, while his manifesto ‘For the New Architecture’, published in the journal Stavba in 1925, galvanised leading members of the Klub Architektu.
Le Corbusier came to attention in Czechoslovakia in 1921 when the journal L’Esprit Nouveau was critically reviewed by the Cubist architect Pavel Janák. After Jaromír Krejcar published two of Le Corbusier’s manifestos in the yearbook Život II in January 1923, he became a leading light of the new architecture in francophile Czechoslovakia, inspiring the poetic functionalism of the avant-garde around theorist Karel Teige. By 1928 Teige was criticising Le Corbusier’s ‘academism’ and ‘formalism’, but for architects in practise he remained the most important influence for the next quarter of a century.
Gropius, well-known in Czechoslovakia as founder of the Bauhaus, was praised both for pedagogic importance and his rational approach to architecture. His Bauhaus building and associated houses were undoubtedly an inspiration for Jaromír Krejcar’s Gibiana villa in Prague (1928).
After Teige came across Hannes Meyer’s projects for the United Nations and the ADGB school in Bernau and his scientific
analytical teaching methods, he proclaimed that ‘architecture is a science’ and that ‘we have to build not monuments but instruments’. Teige clashed with Le Corbusier, who responded in an open letter entitled La defense de l’architecture, published in the Czech review Musaion in 1931 and in L’architecture d’aujourd’hui in 1933.
In 1929-30 Teige was appointed as a visiting lecturer at the Bauhaus, where he was drawn to Marxist ideology. In exchange, Meyer lectured in Prague and, after his return from the Soviet Union in 1936, toured 22 cities in Czechoslovakia. In summer 1930, when Meyer was pressurised to step down as Bauhaus director, Teige organised a petition in protest and wrote several strongly supportive articles. This did little to enhance the appreciation of his replacement, Mies van der Rohe, who was appointed just when the Villa Tugendhat was being completed for prominent Jewish clients on a beautiful site in Brno.
Mies was neither Marxist nor communist. He defended Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky against attacks by the communist student faction Kostufra, but his attempts to find a compromise between the demands of leftist students and pressure from the Nazis was criticised in Czech cultural journals. Although Mies’ projects had been published in Czechoslovakia from 1923, he never lectured there and his work, with the exception of the Stuttgart Weissenhofsiedlung (1927), was much less appreciated than that of his peers. The paucity of newspaper and journal coverage devoted to the Villa Tugendhat, for example, contrasts strikingly with that for Loos’ Villa Mueller, which was also completed in 1930.
Nonetheless, the Villa Tugendhat immediately attracted international attention. Mies’ abstract, universal concept of interior space defined by a steel skeleton structure, fully openable to nature, and equipped with exquisite wood and marble, immediately initiated a widespread debate. The editors of the Werkbund journal Die Form published, under the title ‘How can we live in the Tugendhat villa?’, a survey of contributions by Grete and Fritz Tugendhat, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Walter Riezler and others. Justus Bier suggested that the approach was better suited to types other then dwellings, while the Marxist critic Roger Ginsburger condemned the ‘immoral luxury’ of the villa. To my mind, Mies sought with the Villa Tugendhat a generously enlarged version of a minimal house – a platonic metamorphosis of the existenz-minimum to existenz-maximum.
The villa remained largely unpublished in Czechoslovak architectural journals until 1963, although it appeared often in illustrated lifestyle magazines. However, in 1932 the prominent avant-garde architect Jaromír Krejcar wrote in the Czechoslovak Werkbund journal Žijeme that: ‘The villa is in every aspect an absolutely perfect product. The hygienic comfort is unprecedented… it is the epitome of modern technology.’
So the Villa Tugendhat was a brilliant but relatively isolated phenomenon in Brno, where it was surrounded by fine examples of domestic architecture by the likes of Ernst Wiesner and Jan Víšek (influenced by Loos), Josef Polášek (Gropius and May), Bohuslav Fuchs (Le Corbusier, Gropius and Oud), and Josef Kranz (Mondrian and De Stijl) that represented the culmination of a decade of economic prosperity. At the same time, in villas by Prague architects Ladislav Žák, Havlícek & Honzík, Adolf Benš, Evžen Linhart, Jaroslav Fragner and others, we can recognise a debt to Le Corbusier and Gropius more than Mies’ aristocratic celebration. However, it was thanks to the Villa Tugendhat, which Philip Johnson visited in August 1930, that other examples of Brno and Prague functionalism were shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art exhibition in 1932 on the International Style, intoducing the Czechoslovak avant-garde to an American audience.
The year after the Villa Tugendhat was completed, Le Corbusier unveiled his manifesto of forms with the Villa Savoye at Poissy, and two years later Hans Scharoun’s organic functionalism was first revealed at the Haus Schminke. Modern architecture was no longer to be judged solely by functional criteria but also as a work of art. Over the following decade younger architects came to extend the vocabulary further. Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea, for example, draws equally on the Villa Tugendhat, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Champs d’Elysées penthouse, and Scharoun’s empathy with nature.
The abstract transparent and universal concept of architecture was developed further in the second half of the twentieth century, not only by Mies but also by architects such as Eero Saarinen, Kaija and Heikki Sirén, and Alison and Peter Smithson. The unfortunate political situation in Czechoslovakia meant its architects remained excluded from this process for more than half a century.
Vladimir Slapeta is an architect, historian and professor at the University of Technology in Brno. His books include Czech Functionalism, Bata Architecture and monographs on Jan Kotera and Adolf Loos. He is a member of Thicom, which advised on the renovation of the Villa Tugendhat. The Villa Tugendhat is the subject of an exhibition at the RIBA Library in London until 24 August.
First published in AT230, July/ August 2012