Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Tugendhat City

Rome, January 11, 2015

Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno is undoubtedly one of the canonical masterpieces of Modern Architecture. A casual view from the street however, surprises the visitor with a rather unassuming, almost underwhelming one-story blank volume. To reach the main areas of the house one has to climb down to the level below, where the most extraordinary sequence of spaces unfolds, with its grid of cross-shaped chrome columns, honey-colored Moroccan onyx partition, semicircular Makassar ebony enclosure and floor-to-ceiling plate glass envelope.

Mies’s project not only took advantage of the slope of the building plot in a brilliant and unconventional way--placing the bedrooms at street level and the living areas below--but also managed to align the house in relation to the city at large. Before one turns left to enter the house, there is a break in the volume facing the street, leaving a covered gap that frames a layered view Brno, as if painting a picture of the city’s history: the tree canopy of the Luzanky Park (1786) in the foreground, the buildings of Brno’s Ringstrasse (1860s) beyond, the skyline of the historic urban core further back, culminating with Spilberk Castle (began in the 13th century) on top of the hill in the background.

Both Greta (née Löw-Beers) and Fritz Tugendhat came from German-speaking Jewish families of wealthy industrialists in Brno. For centuries a provincial capital of the Habsburg Empire, Brno became into a city of the newly formed (and short lived) democratic republic of Czechoslovakia after WWI. It may not be too much of a stretch to argue that in their house, Mies gave the Tugendhats a way to look a their social and historic place in the fluid culture of their city and their time.