‘Modernist’ marvel reopens its doors

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iol travel march 8 Tugendhat villa AFP The restored Tugendhat villa in Brno.

The Tugendhat villa, a Unesco World Heritage Site and a Bauhaus gem which suffered Nazi occupation and even a stint as a stable, has reopened its doors in the southern Czech city of Brno after a meticulous renovation.

Leading the early 20th-century “Modernist” revolution which ushered in simple clean lines in European architecture, the three-storey, flat-roofed villa is the work of legendary German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969).

A guru of the celebrated Bauhaus school, Mies like his famous contemporaries in the United States or France, sought above all to accentuate architecture as an art.

“Tugendhat ranks among iconic residences, along with Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago and Le Corbusier's Savoy villa in Poissy (France),” said Iveta Cerna, director of the Unesco-listed monument.

The doors of Tugendhat, built in 1929-30, opened to visitors last week after a two-year, $9.2 million revamp supervised by an international commission of 17 experts from six countries.

“The renovation was carried out by a Czech company but under the supervision of the whole world,” said Brno mayor Roman Onderka.

Using materials like glass, steel and concrete, Mies eschewed the traditional concept of separate rooms for an airy, open-plan design which replaced walls with floor-to-ceiling windows, offering breathtaking views of the sprawling sloping garden and Brno's historical monuments.

Rohe's design principle of “less is more” saw him use the revolutionary iron framework allowing him to dispense with supporting walls.

He also designed all the furniture, including two types of armchairs crafted specially for the house: the Tugendhat and Brno chairs which are still in production, as well as switches, washbasins, bathtubs and taps.

The villa was shorn of paintings and decorations but was by no means austere due to the extensive use of exotic materials like a captivating honey-coloured onyx wall which is partly translucent and changes colour at dusk, and rare tropical woods.

“My parents absolutely identified themselves with this type of architecture, they loved the house,” said Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, the daughter of the villa's original owners.

“My father was convinced that the beauty and transparency of the architecture could shape the ethics of its residents, including the children raised here,” she added.

Fritz Tugendhat was a Jewish industrialist who owned several factories in Brno, about 200 kilometres southeast of Prague.

The city, known as the “Moravian Manchester” owing to its numerous textile plants prior to World War II, also boasted a large Jewish community at the time.

But Tugendhat and his wife Grete only enjoyed living in the villa for a brief period before being forced to flee Nazi German occupation in 1938. They moved first to Switzerland and then to Venezuela, where Hammer-Tugendhat was born.

“My parents lost not only their house, but also the closest family members murdered by the Nazis,” Hammer-Tugendhat told AFP.

As the war broke out, the villa's fate was sealed. The Nazis confiscated it, converting it into a studio for the Messerschmitt aviation factory, while the Soviet Army later used it as a stable during the liberation of Czechoslovalia in 1948.

Under communism in 1955, the villa became the property of the Czechoslovak state, and it was converted into a rehabilitation centre for children, before another revamp in the 1980s.

The villa was the setting for key talks between the Czech and Slovak prime ministers, Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar, in 1992 in the run-up to the peaceful split of the former Czechoslovakia into two countries a year later.

Unesco put the villa on its world heritage list in December 2001.

“The villa is also famous for exotic materials such as Moroccan onyx, Italian travertine, or palisander and Macassar ebony from the island of Celebes,” said Petr Dvorak, a guide at the villa.

Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat does not like the fact that the villa's original furniture has been replaced with replicas, with original items owned by the family being put in storage.

“Time left marks on the original furniture. After everything that happened here, it's strange for visitors to feel like nothing did,” she said.

But some of the original features were found nearby by chance like a curved wall fashioned out of Macassar ebony which was discovered in the dining hall of Brno's law school, where it had been taken by the Nazis. - AFP

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