The Tugendhat House vs. the Brutality of Abstraction

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the great modernist architect, designed Villa Tugendhat in 1930 as a home for Fritz and Greta Tugendhat in the city of Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic. It has since been recognized as one of the treasures of world architecture, and an elegant example of modernist design. I recently learned of this house through my informal study of architecture, but what moved me – as much as its beauty and the many innovations in its design and construction – is the history of its journey through World War II and the years that followed. The story of how the Jewish Tugendhat family lost their home when they fled the Nazi occupation, of the house’s abuse by German and later Russian occupiers, as well as the story of its restoration by the people of Brno have led me to reconsider old, possibly unanswerable questions about the recurring insanities that punctuate human history.

Villa Tugendhat, front view. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Villa Tugendhat – view from the street. Photo by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.

From one perspective, it is superficial to worry about the damage done to a single house by the twin horrors of Nazism and Stalinism, when those horrors killed tens of millions of innocent people. Indeed, I have tried and failed to understand how people with an embodiment, culture, and education not unlike my own could have participated in such brutality. The scale of that cruelty is so great as to confound both reason and the emotional intelligence we normally rely upon to understand the tragedies of life. It is precisely because the story of Villa Tugendhat shifts our focus from the full scope of global tragedy to something more accessible to ordinary empathy that it may help us to find the understanding we need.

I also believe that this story may provide a deeper appreciation of the ways that great architecture and the simple, universal experience of creating a home can enlighten our minds and heal our souls.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the Tugendhat House

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Fritz and Greta Tugendhat commissioned Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to build a distinctive, modern home on land that Greta’s family had given them as a wedding present. The home Mies designed for the Tugendhat family was much more than they had expected. It was a comprehensive statement of the modernist aesthetic, and fortunately, the Tugendhats had both the funds and the patience to support van der Rohe’s vision. Mies designed every aspect of the home, from the layout, to the light fixtures, to the smallest piece of hardware on the doors. He designed all the furniture, and specified its placement in the house. The result was as elegant in its design and enduring in its beauty as any house the world has seen.

The house’s three floors terraced down the sloping property in a logical arrangement: The bedrooms, nanny’s quarters, and other private spaces were on the top level. The kitchen and large open living areas were in the middle, opening onto the garden. The utilities, including the boilers, rainwater collection, and air circulation were on the lowest level.

Villa Tugendhat, rear view. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
View from the garden. Photo by David Židlický, © Vila Tugendhat.

A few notable features of the house included its steel and concrete construction, the milk-glass walls in the entry way, the use of metal columns rather than exterior walls to support the structure, and the onyx wall that Mies personally selected from the quarry.

Villa Tugendha living area, Mies van der Rohe
Living area, showing onyx wall, steel support columns, and curved ebony wall of the dining area. Photo by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.
Entry way, Villa Tugendhat. Mies van der Rohe.
Entry way showing travertine floors, milk glass walls, and stairs to main living area. Photo by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.

The floor-to-ceiling windows on the main floor were fully retractable into the floor, allowing the living area to be opened completely to the garden.

Living area, with the onyx wall, steel supporting columns, and retractable windows facing the garden terrace, by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.
Living area, showing onyx wall and retractable windows onto garden terrace. Photo by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.

The bathrooms were spacious, even by contemporary standards.

Master Bathroom, Villa Tugendhat. Mies van der Rohe.
Master bathroom. Photo by David Židlický. © Vila Tugendhat.

Although architectural writers recognized the importance of the house, at least one critic argued that the design lacked the comfort and warmth required of a home. The writer argued that the family would soon tire of feeling like they were living in a museum. It is worth noting that the Tugendhats disagreed with this appraisal, and embraced the house as a beloved home for themselves and their children. Although very much an expression of the modernist aesthetic, Mies’ design elegantly supported the daily activities of the family, as well as the needs for comfort and beauty a home must satisfy.

For more on the Tugendhat house, as well as the sources of the photos and history summarized in this posting, visit the Vila Tugendhat web site, as well as this posting in the Houzz blog.

1938, World War II, and the Soviet Era

The Tugendhats occupied their dream home for only eight years. In an effort to pacify Hitler, the Munich accords of 1938 ceded to Germany the part of Czechoslovakia that included Brno. The Jewish Tugendhat family fled the country, first to Switzerland and eventually settling in Venezuela. They never again occupied the home they loved.

The Gestapo confiscated the house in 1939. The Nazis removed the ebony walls from the main living area, including the semi-circular dining area. They considered removing the onyx wall and cutting it up for gravestones, but the wall ultimately survived. In 1942, they rented the house to Walter Messerschmitt for use as a flat and engineering office; he partitioned the open living area into smaller offices, installed a chimney, and bricked up the milk-glass walls of the entry way.

The house was further devastated in the war, and was eventually occupied by a Soviet cavalry division who used it as both living quarters and a stable for their horses. They destroyed the furniture Mies had designed, and used it for firewood. Horse manure soiled the floors throughout the house.

Greta Tugendhat visiting Villa Tugendhat in 1967
Greta Tugendhat visiting Villa Tugendhat in 1967. ©Vila Tugendhat.

After Germany surrendered in 1945, the house was repaired (but not fully restored), and served as a private dancing school. In 1950,  Czechoslovakia’s Communist government confiscated the house and adapted it to public use as a rehabilitation center for a children’s hospital.

In the early 1960s, Villa Tugendhat was added to the state list of cultural monuments, and the Brno architect František Kalivoda began work on restoring it to its original design. In 1967, at the personal invitation of Kalivoda, Greta Tugendhat visited her house for the first time since leaving in 1938.

The next round of restorations took place from 1981-1985, and the house became a ceremonial facility for the city government. In 2001, it was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, and in February of 2010, the city of Brno began its final restoration at a cost of 146 million CZK (nearly $8,000,000 US).

This UNESCO video provides a more detailed history of the house’s creation, near destruction, and restoration:


The Brutality of Abstraction

The story of Villa Tugendhat’s creation, near destruction, and ultimate restoration mirrors the larger struggles of the Czech people to survive the Nazi and Soviet occupations and to restore their sovereignty and culture.  I believe the house’s story may provide an example that will help us better to understand the causes of these larger tragedies, and the elements of human nature that ultimately overcame them.

I would like to start with lines from a poem by another great modernist, Wallace Stevens. In Esthétique du Mal, published in 1945, Stevens describes the revolutionary as a “logical lunatic” who becomes:

the lunatic of one idea
In a world of ideas, who would have all the people
Live, work, suffer, and die in that idea
In a world of ideas.

Wallace Stevens
Esthétique du Mal, XIV

I can only believe that Villa Tugendhat’s Nazi and Soviet occupiers were blinded to the house’s beauty and value by their obsessive dedication to a single, overarching ideology. Or, what is more likely, those individuals who did understand the importance of the house could not prevail against the “lunatics of a single idea” who believed that everything must be subjugated to their goals and the expediencies they require. Although this observation has been made so often that it borders on cliche, I believe that placing it in the context of the Villa Tugendhat story enriches it with a deeper, more human understanding.

A defining feature of totalitarianism is its devotion to an abstract ideology, whether it is the good of the state, the revolution, “the people,” the arc of history, the “one true religion,” or the motherland. The deeper, human meanings resident in the particular acts, objects, and choices of daily life are lost in these abstractions.  The answer to the brutality of abstraction cannot be found in a better set of abstract ideas, even cherished ideas like freedom and democracy. It arises from all the small particulars of life as it is lived, the small encounters, activities, objects, and feelings that give a deep meaning to ordinary life. It endures in simple compassion for people’s struggles to face the challenges of living, and to appreciate the joy and beauty to be found in those lives.

Successful architecture must integrate the beauty of design with the countless intersecting patterns of living the house must support. Even though Mies made a powerful statement of modernism in the design of Villa Tugendhat, he made it in a way that supports life as it is lived. He designed the house as a space for meeting friends, for cooking and eating, for raising children, for playing with a pet, for making love, for grieving losses and celebrating success, for cleaning and caring for our bodies, for working, for pausing to reflect, or simply for sitting and experiencing an autumn day. Although a house is ultimately just an inanimate object, it is an object that embodies these deeply human activities.

This is the reason that architecture is important. It provides an intellectual framework for transforming these particulars of life as it is lived into something that is coherent, enduring, and meaningful. Any home that has been lovingly created, whether it is a masterpiece like Villa Tugendhat or a simple trailer home decorated with family snapshots, celebrates the enduring importance of the countless particulars that define individual lives. This celebration defies the blind abstraction of totalitarianism.

Architects certainly have ideas – often ambitious ideas, as Villa Tugendhat exemplifies – but they know that these ideas must honor the day to day realities of the lives we live. Perhaps this is the final lesson of the story of Fritz and Greta Tugendhat, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the Tugendhat house, a lesson that is no less relevant to the current political battles in Washington than it is to the tragedy of WW II. In pursuing our ideals, we must always remember to honor the diverse, often conflicting, enduring patterns of life as it is actually lived.

“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.”

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1924

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