Monday, November 21, 2005

The Villa Tugendhat (mostly)

As an art historian, albeit not one who knows all that much about architecture, I felt that it behooved me to visit the Villa Tugendhat on one of my Brno excursions. Jesse had already seen it, but since he finds functionalist architecture interesting, I knew I would not lack for company, especially since he and Alex had recently tried to go but were turned away (presumably for not having made reservations).
The Villa Tugendhat is an extremely well-known house by Mies van der Rohe, built in one of Brno’s pleasant hillside neighborhoods for a wealthy Jewish couple 1928-30. (There is also a functionalist hospital, down the street, in case one just can’t get enough functionalism.)
We went there by tram after a nice walk through the woods and past a folkloric house not far from where Jesse lives; as it is on a different hill from where we started, the tram ride was educational in itself and cost 13Kč rather than the 8Kč that I have become used to spending in Brno. I did not take any pictures from the tram, but upon disembarking, I felt compelled to record the view of a large cooling tower.
(I don’t think it is visible from Villa Tugendhat, as the house faces another direction.)
Like many modernist houses, the Villa Tugendhat is set into the hillside and one could easily walk by it without especially noticing that there was anything of interest there. When Jesse drew my attention to the fact that we had arrived in front of it, I am afraid I pointed out that it reminded me forcibly of an abandoned bus station or some other disagreeable industrial ruin. Well, it did look like the sort of place that would attract winos if there weren’t a fence around it. I mean, if I were a wino I would be more attracted to someplace cozier, but cozy is not usually an option for the down-and-out. (I realize that all the architectural historians I know, as well as many who don’t, will now want to flay me.)
About ten of us gathered for the one o’clock tour, which was given in rapid Czech by a guide whose mode of delivery is in the monotone-with-end-of-sentence-drop-of-pitch style (as opposed to the more melodic version of the language that I hear is more typical of Prague). Initially, we milled around on the terrace, which struck me as strangely dreary despite the nice view. Jesse kept assuring me that the interior would be really great. We could see in through some large windows, so he informed me that the rooms were LARGE! And had CLOSETS! And there was WOOD! Well, I’ve seen lots of houses with large rooms and closets, so this didn’t impress me particularly. Jesse next resorted to telling me that the house had POTENTIAL. I refrained from telling him it looked like a fixer-up-er to me if I had ever seen one. After all, we weren’t in a position to buy it out of our stipend money.
The guide finally took us inside, which was an improvement. I was still unpleasantly reminded of all too many dreadful modernist houses that my parents had considered buying at various points in my childhood. Besides, the upstairs flooring was made from a type of stone often used on the outsides of communist-era Czech buildings, which always looks horribly insanitary to me. It has lots of blackish holes and must be hellish to wash. Jesse found the door handles very exciting, but I’m not sure why, since they looked like normal Czech door handles to me. (One can never share all one’s friends’ enthusiasms fully.) Fortunately, a large plant made the upstairs a little less stark. (I gather that nearly all the furniture disappeared after Fritz and Greta Tugendhat were obliged to flee Czechoslovakia.)
The downstairs featured a display of photos of the house with a certain amount of furniture, which did seem like a great necessity. And, at last, we were taken into the only area with any furnishings whatsoever. I viewed these with great relief. There is a library area with built-in shelving made from a striped Indonesian wood, which is separated from a living-room area by a wall of onyx. The weather was gloomy, so it merely looked like an unexpected choice of divider, but according to Jesse, the guide, and a photo, when the light is right the onyx is translucent and turns all sorts of dramatic shades of red. This must be quite astonishing, and I am willing to believe it is beautiful.
The living room faces a wall of glass, and therefore has a view over Brno (and the garden). With the right accoutrements, it would probably be quite stunning. Currently it has a selection of Barcelona chairs, which are at least authentic in style even if they do remind me of airport lounges and dentists’ waiting rooms. The specimens in question looked like much better quality Barcelona chairs than I have ever run into; it’s never good to see derivatives first. You could definitely see how, decked out properly, the house was once an impressive place to entertain.
Unfortunately, it’s obvious that (to use real-estate terminology) the Villa Tugendhat suffers from deferred maintenance. It gives the impression that no one has fixed anything since about 1938, although this is not strictly true. There are alarming structural-looking cracks in the exterior, the plaster is peeling away, and so forth. One can only hope that new funding succeeds in paying for repairs and restored furniture. It’s unquestionably an interesting building (even if in a style that often grates on me) and deserves to be seen at its best.
See the links below for attractive photos of the house.
Its website
World Monuments Fund

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Anonymous Jesse said...

Really, the doors and the handles are nice. I mean, they have a lot of heft that you just don't find in some modern fixtures. Of course, as Sarah would reveal (with much laughter I imagine) about traveling through the Ukraine with me is that I was quite fascinated by many light fixtures and other architectural elements throughout our travels. But it never hurts to appreciate craftsmanship.

Of course, there was also the time that we wanted to leave the socialist realist hotel and were pursued by the cleaning lady who did not want my old shoes to become part of the permanent decor. I can't say they would've been all that horrible, they were certainly newer than anything else in the building (even the breakfast).

November 22, 2005 8:16 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Well, I agree that well-made fixtures deserve appreciation. Next time I see Sarah I'll have to inquire about these Ukrainian items. Or you can point them out to me when we go on our Ukrainian tour. (Every e-mail I have ever sent her has bounced. Which reminds me, did I ever show you the Staropramen photos of her?)

November 22, 2005 10:42 PM  

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