When the Tugendhat family from Brno in Czechoslovakia decided to commission architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design their new home in 1928, they had no idea that his creation would come to reflect their country’s turbulent history and politics, being passed from their own hands, to those of the Nazis, the Russians and eventually the Czech authorities – until one day being deemed a vital part of Czech and world heritage.
The Tugendhats wanted something daring, modern and original, and when work was completed in 1930, that’s what they were presented with. Floor to ceiling windows, some of which slid to the floor, and an onyx wall which changed colour depending on the light, were just some of the features of the innovative Modernist design which became their family home. But not for long. Eight years after they moved in, the Tugendhats were forced to flee. World War Two was on their doorstep and this Jewish industrialist family decided to get out while they could. What happened next to the house is like a microcosm of Czech history, and so fascinated writer Simon Mawer, he decided to tell the story in a novel.
The Glass Room was published in 2009 to much critical acclaim, and a shortlisting for the Man Booker Prize. The name of the city, family and architect were changed and the lives of most of the characters fictionalised, but Mawer took the actual house as his subject, bringing it alive, even for people like me who up until reading the book had no interest in Modernist architecture whatsoever.
“Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was though they stood inside a crystal of salt.” – The Glass Room p64
Having finished the book, I wanted nothing more than to get myself over to Brno to visit the house itself, but on investigating, I discovered it was closed to the public while undergoing a program of refurbishment. Two years and nine million dollars later the house is once again ready for visitors, and we’re told that around 80 percent of its original features have been restored.
“Just the space, the light, the white. Just the gleaming chrome pillars. Just the onyx wall and the curved partition of the Macassar wood. The cool, calm rationality of the place, undisturbed by any of the irrationality that human beings would impose on it. They pause for a moment and look.” – The Glass Room p183
After the Tugendhat’s left the house, it was seized by the Nazis, damaged by soldiers and then bombarded by the Allies – the famous windows smashed. When the Soviets arrived it was in turn a horse stable, a dance school and a rehabilitation centre for children with spine defects, before being left to fall into a state of disrepair. Much of this, with some adaption, is told in the novel.
“Zdenka pushes open the glass door and leads the way through into the gymnasium. The curtains have been pulled back and they walk across a lighted stage with the whole city as their audience. Behind her the visitor gives a small sigh, maybe a sign of longing maybe a mere exhalation of regret. ‘I’d forgotten how marvellous the place is,’ she says. ‘But what happened to the windows? It used to be all plate glass.’” – The Glass Room p348
In the 1980s the Brno authorities took ownership of the house and there was a half-hearted attempt to restore it, but many believed they did more harm than good in their efforts to make it fit their own plan. In 1992, Czechoslovakia divided into two – the Czech Republic and Slovakia – and the deal was signed by the new countries’ prime ministers in the house itself. Villa Tugendhat was opened to the public in the mid 90s after being declared part of Czech cultural heritage and in 2001 it became a World Heritage Site.
Now it has finally been returned to its former glory and from March 6, 2012 will be open once again to visitors – and I cannot wait for an opportunity to visit.
Mawer’s novel is not just a great read with an engaging narrative, it makes you fall in love with this house. He has taken much of the detail of the building and incorporated it into his story in a way that binds you to it.
“In the Glass Room they mounted the onyx wall. The slabs had veins of amber and honey, like the contours of some distant, prehistoric landscape. They were polished to a mirror-like gloss, and once in place, the stone seemed to take hold of the light, blocking it, reflecting it, warming it with a soft, feminine hand and then, when the sun set over the Špilas fortress and shone straight in at the stone, glowing fiery red.” – The Glass Rom p72
The Glass Room helps us to understand how much a country like the Czech Republic has been through over the last 80 years, how its people have been forced to live under several extreme regimes, and how even as it re-invents itself time and time again, the impact of that history remains – in its people, its character and its buildings.
“And all around them is the past, frozen into a construct of glass and concrete and chrome, the Glass Room with its onyx wall and its partition of tropical hardwood and the milky petals of its ceiling lights, a space, a Raum so modern when Rainer von Abt designed it, yet now, as Hana Hanakova sits and weeps, so imbued with the past.” – The Glass Room p372
And while I know very little of the Tugendhat family themselves, Mawer’s characters – Liesel, Viktor, Hana and Zdenka – are my friends, and when I finally get the opportunity to visit “their” home, I will feel I know all of its secrets and stories in a way I never could if I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading The Glass Room.
If you’d like to explore the story of Villa Tugendhat a little further, you may want to have a listen to an interview with Mawer, see old pictures of the house in this two-minute video, or visit the website.