Must-Know Modern Homes: Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat

Twenty years prior to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe realized his renowned Farnsworth House, and seven years prior to emigrating to the United States, he made Villa Tugendhat in 1930 for its wealthy couple Fritz and Grete Tugendhat.

As a wedding present, Grete (born Grete Weiss Löw-Beer) obtained approximately a half acre of her family’s land, a portion on a hill immediately adjacent to Černopolní Street in Brno, today in the Czech Republic. On the home Mies developed a split-level home with 3 floors: The entrance, bedrooms, nanny quarters, a patio and play area, and a garage with chauffeur quarters are located on the upper level; the dwelling spaces, kitchen, winter garden and another patio are on the middle level; along with the utilities are located on the lowest level.

The home can be seen as a domestic variant of Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion from only 1 year before, with its flowing, open plan and structural columns different from walls. It is also a precursor to Mies’ afterwards “universal distance,” found primarily in the office towers that he designed in the United States in the 1950s. However, the layout is sensitive to the specifics of place and also the family who occupied it for just a short time — the Tugendhats, Jewish in origin, returned in 1938, first to Switzerland then to South America.

Maybe due to Mies’ open plan, the building was able to function later as a school and hospital (housing a child psychology section) prior to the municipality took ownership and restored the villa in the 1980s. In 2001 the home was named a Unesco World Heritage site, and 10 decades after it underwent more recovery job, opening to the general public in March 2012. The photos in this particular tour follow the most recent restoration.

Villa Tugendhat at a Glance
Year built: 1930
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
Location: Brno, Czech Republic
Size: 2,600 square feet
Visiting info: Guided tours with advance tickets available

John Hill

The west side is where we find all three levels, but the massing doesn’t make it look so. The horizontal glass of the middle floor overlooks, while the upper floor is set back, nearly out of sight, and also the lowest floor is short and mostly solid.

In the road side on the west, the home looks as one horizontal level. With its planar surfaces, glass expanses and garage front and centre, the home must have made a stir in 1930. Even today it poses a very un-house-like face to the road.

Between the garage to the right and also the glass expanse in the middle is a gap which frames the landscape outside and pulls one toward the entrance.

The milk-white glass curves to subtly hide the front door in the road but also to promote movement toward it someone is beyond the gate. The cover is ample, but the step up to the door is subtle. Nevertheless the latter is important, particularly in the change from 1 stone to another.

Indoors, on the travertine floor (a favorite of Mies’), the reason behind the curved glass becomes more apparent. The bedrooms are located to the left and right supporting us in this picture, while the staircase provide access to the main living room downstairs.

Here is a plan of the major level, where we find the living area, kitchen, winter garden and patio. The stair from above is located in the middle. The spiral below it on the drawing provides access to the lower (utility) degree.

Following the 180-degree turn from above, one enters a large, open area with the principal view to the right (bottom on the drawing). But two partitions — just one straight and one curved — break up this distance, as does a grid of little columns. What looks open is actually composed of smaller areas characterized in unconventional manners.

Coming down the stair and walking straight, one comes to a seating area adjacent to the winter garden and supporting one of the walls — the straight wall is made from onyx, as in the Barcelona Pavilion.

Note the velvet curtain and paths on the ceiling for closing off spaces from one another and providing colour. Another factor worth pointing out is the way the wall and column are different from one another, something uncommon at the time.

Turning 90 degrees clockwise, toward the west we all can observe how open the perimeter glazing is and how the semienclosed winter extends along the south facade.

The onyx wall is well worth highlighting for the absolute scale of it five full-height slabs next to one another — and also for the impressive veining of the material. A couple of the panels are book matched (mirrored) to provide the wall a slight asymmetry, or off-center balance.

Though small relative to the remainder of the home, this wall is so important that Mies visited the quarry in the Atlas Mountains to choose the stone, then supervised the cutting and building of it.

Mies furnished the home with built-in pieces (which we’ll see later) along with his own pieces, such as the Barcelona Chair (named after the pavilion in the year earlier) and the Tugendhat Chair he made for the home.

A retractable awning helps to cut back on the direct sunlight entering through the large western expanse of glass. What’s more, the large glass panes slide down into a pocket in the cellar, foreshadowing the sliding glass walls which are currently common.

The electric mechanism for the glass, the then cutting edge heating and cooling system, along with the overall high quality construction and finishes made for a pricey house — it was reportedly 30 times the price of a little house at the time.

It’s well worth revealing the view which Mies celebrates with the large glass wall and the terraces on the upper and main levels.

Turning 180 degrees from the prior inside shot, we can observe the curved timber wall which also defines an area inside the open plan.

The curved ebony wall perfectly cups the dining room table and concentrates attention toward the perspective beyond the expanse of glass.

Here we find the next bit of Mies’ furniture, the most aptly named Brno Chair.

Back upstairs we see among those bedrooms (for Fritz) and something we didn’t encounter downstairs: a door.

A mutual factor for Mies, famous for saying “God is in the details,” is the full-height door. He used it residences, office towers and other buildings. The wood door spans to the ceiling; the Tugendhats didn’t initially need it, but Mies held powerful and got his way.

This perspective of Grete’s bedroom indicates the immediate entry to the upper terrace and also the way the bedrooms are oriented to the same distant perspective as the living room downstairs.

A couple of the children’s rooms are connected, such as adjoining suites in a hotel. They feature built-in closets and bookcases, which can also be found in the library on the main level. Like the onyx wall, the panels are produced with book-matched timber, giving the closets in particular a strong rhythm.

The master bathroom (rather ample, even by today’s standards) advantages from clerestory windows.

Last we’ll have a look at a couple of details in the home, all managed by Mies. First is that this undulating metallic pillar cover, reminiscent of the Barcelona Pavilion. The beautiful and extremely complex detail makes the columns look thinner and smaller than square or round ones, while providing interesting shadow lines.

The door handle is fine both for its simple shape and the way the plate is set to the glass door. Circles occur in the plate, the handle and the keyhole, supplying a consistent layout characteristic.

More circles are found on the light fittings from the major level, now concentric circles which both spread and concentrate the light.

With details such as these, it is no wonder the house was so expensive. Additionally, it is no wonder the home is so cherished and value the restoration attempt; today everyone can stop by this modern masterpiece.

Visiting info: Guided tours with advance tickets available

More: Must-See Modern Homes

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