Legal battles keep an architectural gem from repairs
By Kristina Alda and Jacy Meyer
The City of Brno, which owns Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Vila Tugendhat, spends 2 million Kc a year to maintain the building.
Peeling paint and cracks wider than a golf ball mar the facade of Vila Tugendhat, a building many consider one of the five most important examples of modern architecture. Inconspicuously perched on a slope overlooking Brno, the villa, designed by German-born American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1928, has suffered through years of neglect.
Inch by inch, the building is also slowly sliding downhill, creating tears in the travertine-tiled terrace and widening the cracks in the walls. Starting this year, the villa was to undergo its first full-scale reconstruction, estimated at more than 150 million Kc ($7.1 million), since its completion in 1930.
But court disputes over how the project’s designers were selected, as well as looming rifts over the villa’s ownership, have halted the reconstruction. Now the Modernist gem faces another winter without repairs.
“The villa is really starting to suffer,” says Pavel Liška, founder of the Vila Tugendhat Foundation. “For a long time, it wasn’t much of a priority for the City of Brno.”
Architect Jan Sapák, whose bid to restore Vila Tungendhat was rejected, says the selected tender will change the historical building too much.
As the villa’s current owner, Brno spends some 2 million Kc annually to keep the building functional.
Mies realized projects including the Seagram Building in New York and the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago. He is, along with Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern architecture — and must be spinning in his grave.
Disputes and delays
The villa, which was seized from its Jewish owners, Fritz and Greta Tugendhat by invading Germans in 1939, was never returned to the family.
Troubled by the repeated delays in starting reconstruction, the original owners’ children, who live in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, are looking at ways to get the villa back.
It was Liška who initially recommended that the Tugendhat family try to regain the villa. “City representatives were dragging their feet, claiming there wasn’t money for reconstruction,” says Liška, who’s based in Germany. “I told the family it would probably be easier to get funding if the villa is privately owned. I also kind of hoped that if they express an interest to get the villa back, it would motivate the city to suddenly start doing something to prove that the villa is being well cared for.”
The family’s lawyer, Marc Richter, met with Brno City Hall representatives Dec. 15 to see whether they would be willing to return the villa. City Hall spokesman Pavel Žára said the talks are only informal so far, and the city has yet to receive a written request.
According to restitution lawyers, the Tugendhat family doesn’t stand much of a chance in a court battle because restitution deadlines to regain Nazi-seized property have passed. Brno city representatives aren’t willing to say yet whether they might agree to bypass the courts and return the villa to the family based on ownership rights.
The building’s reconstruction, meanwhile, has ground to a complete halt. The Brno Regional Court ruled Sept. 27 that the tender for the project was improper. On Dec. 14, the city put on hold the public competition for a firm to carry out the repairs while courts investigate the tender for the reconstruction project design.
Jan Sapák, an architect whose bid was rejected, says Omnia, one of the companies selected to design the reconstruction, shouldn’t even have qualified because it lacked the most basic documents, including a proper business license.
He also claims that the reconstruction project led by Omnia’s executive head Marek Tichý is too invasive. “It’s basically a remake, on par with invasive procedures like the plastic surgery of Michael Jackson,” says Sapák. “The villa must be restored in such a way as to preserve its history and its patina.”
Tichý, of course, disagrees. “Sapák is repeating the same thing over and over,” he says. “But really it’s about the competition. Some people just don’t like the fact that we won the tender.”
Back in the late 1920s Fritz and Greta Tugendhat, the children of wealthy local industrialists, fell in love with Mies’ work after having visited the Perls House that he created in Berlin. Money being no object, the couple commissioned him to design them a villa on the sloping property overlooking Brno that Greta’s father gave the young couple as a wedding present.
“They were very modern and forward-thinking,” said Iveta Cerná, director of the villa, which is currently administrated by the Brno City Museum. “And they gave Mies almost complete freedom with the project.”
Like any true visionary, Mies had a clear idea of what the villa should look like and wasn’t about to let trifling details like the concerns of his clients get in the way.
The Tugendhats initially wanted a smaller dwelling, but Mies felt differently. The open slope with marvelous views of the city called for something bigger, he told them, and went ahead with plans for a sprawling 1,211-square-meter (13,000-square-foot) villa. It’s hard to estimate just how expensive the upkeep was, but Cerná says just the cost of keeping the interiors heated, what with their huge glass panels, must have been astronomical.
The villa’s main living space, encased in an iron skeleton with slim steel pillars running through it, is only divided by free-standing partition furniture — all now copies of the originals.
Mies also forbade paintings in the house, save for a portrait of Fritz Tugendhat’s father-in-law, with the belief that the only art necessary was the view from a building’s window.
Architecture critics pronounced the villa “unlivable” when it was completed in 1930, criticizing its austere facade and stark, open interiors.
The Tugendhats did everything they could to convince the critics and public otherwise, but in the end had only eight years to enjoy living in an architectural masterpiece. Well-informed about what was happening in Germany, the family fled to Switzerland just before Hitler’s army occupied Czechoslovakia.
Nazis confiscated the villa soon thereafter and refurbished it to house the technological offices of an aircraft company. The state took the building over after the war, and it has since housed a dance school, a kindergarten and a sanatorium.
It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the storied home underwent some repairs. Placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001, the villa has been open to public since 1994.
Reactions tend to be mixed. “At first some people tend to be disappointed because it looks so modern,” Cerná says. “But that’s the amazing thing: It looked modern over 70 years ago and it still seems modern today.”