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Less is More to Restore at Mies’ Tugendhat Villa

September 27, 2007

by Russell Fortmeyer

After three years of contentious negotiations, the Czech Republic city of Brno has agreed to restore the Tugendhat Villa, a landmark of early Modernism designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1930. The house, which currently operates as a museum, will close October 31.

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Photos: © Russell Fortmeyer
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Historians and critics widely regard the Tugendhat Villa as Mies’ finest residence in Europe. It features several elements that became hallmarks of early Modernism including an open plan; flat roof; embrace of new technology, such as electronically actuated pocket windows; and a restrained, white stucco exterior. The extent of surviving documentation of the house’s construction and furnishing also sets it apart from other examples of the architect’s work.

This latest restoration follows several previous conservation efforts, many of dubious quality and historical accuracy. Although it was announced in 2004, the project was delayed after Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, a daughter of the villa’s original clients, demanded that the house be returned to her family as war reparations.

The Tugendhats, who were Jewish, were forced to flee Czechoslovakia in 1938. Their residence was occupied first by the Nazis and then the Russians, who used it as a dance academy and later a hospitality facility. The city took charge of the villa in 1989 and, earlier this year, announced plans to return it to the Tugendhat heirs. It soon reversed this decision, though, after the family sold at auction a sculpture that the city had returned to it as a goodwill gesture. That move effectively left ownership of the villa to the Museum of the City of Brno, which has administered its maintenance and operation since 1994.

“It’s a difficult story,” observes Ivan Walha, an architect in Brno who has been involved in earlier conservation efforts at the house. “I think this process is finally successful, but it’s not entirely clear how well the reconstruction project will go.”

A team of local architects calling itself the Association for the Reconstruction of the Tugendhat Villa won the restoration job in 2004 from a pool of less than a dozen architects. The start of construction was delayed until now after a runner-up filed a lawsuit to protest the competition. Work is scheduled to take two to four years at an estimated cost of $10 million in city funds.

Many local observers are skeptical about whether or not this latest effort will prove definitive, particularly given that it must correct a careless and haphazard Russian restoration during the 1980s. They also wonder if the new preservation team can remain sensitive to Mies’ original intentions while also honoring the age of the house. Basing the restoration on Mies’ original drawings is tricky, for example, since he made many changes in the field.

Osamu Okamura, an architect and the editor of Brno’s architecture magazine, era 21, believes that the State’s preservation agencies will provide necessary oversight. But he also has doubts about the project. “They have decided to put the house back to the state of the 1930s, but is this a good decision? The house is aging and you want to show the process of aging, which also has its own value. This is a shift in thinking,” he says.

That view was shared by many participants in an April 2006 conference in Brno about the restoration of European Modernist buildings, according to published papers. “The house certainly doesn’t lack for attention,” Okamura notes, somewhat dryly, “but the general public in Brno knows very little about contemporary architecture, let alone the 1930s.” That may change once the Tugendhat’s restoration is complete and the villa re-opens as a public museum.

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