“God is in the details.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s statement never impressed me as much as it did during a recent visit to the newly restored Tugendhat House in Brno in the Czech Republic. The fetishistic detail to every door knob, light switch, lever to open, and close shutters or clerestory windows—and even the hinges—now shine through in a restoration that makes the house, for better or worse, look as clean and new as when the owners first occupied it in 1930.
It would be easy to get lost in those details, and in the sensuality of the materials that Lilly Reich and van der Rohe chose. But then you might miss the point of the house, or rather its space—especially the famous sweep of the living room opening up to a panorama of Brno. The living room opening is actually part of a spiral that starts from the nook at the near corner of the library or music room, moves across that wood-paneled space, through the greenhouse, along the length where the immense sheets of glass can once again sink completely into the floor with the flip of switch, and into the dining room, where it curls up again around the round table surrounded for most of its circumference by a mahogany arc. Space, after all, is what van der Rohe is famous for. It is what we associate with his achievements, along with the exposition of structure and the gridding of spaces.
Certainly the march of the cruciform columns offers the perfect counterpoint to the spiral, marking and measuring the rooms with clarity. But, what I kept noticing was the way that these columns changed material, from chrome plating all the way to painted wood in the kitchen. And, what impressed me more than anything was the manner in which the gadgets and gizmos that made this house work as a place to live pervaded and accented structure and space. As amazing as the sweep of the living room and its opening to the outside is the air purifier hidden in the basement, there to help the asthmatic Mrs. Tugendhat breathe.
More than anything else, what impressed me was the house’s interiority. It made me remember how bored I am by the outside of most of van der Rohe’s exteriors. They are elegant, perfectly proportioned, and, at least in the pre–World War II work, recessive. They are, unfortunately, all that most architects seem to know how to learn from this particular master. At the Tugendhat, all you get is a nice set of white walls and translucent glass. The famous view, of the garden façade, is almost impossible to see, and from the garden the lower service floor dominates.
Van der Rohe was a great interior designer. Of course, he was that through his collaboration with Lilly Reich and many others. He was that also because he was not a decorator (though heaven knows he loved his patterns, preferably in stone veins and wood burls, and he certainly knew how to festoon a wall with accents that just happened to switch lights on and off), and because he used current technologies and artificial materials as the essential elements of his designs. He also accepted Persian carpets and other natural or crafted objects. It was his design’s ability to accept those pre-existing forms and, together with the human beings posing themselves in space, that made the work as actual places of habitation.
For all that, the Tugendhat House today feels like a cold place. It is that partially because van der Rohe was, in the end, a disciplinarian and an old-fashioned architect, who believed that he could and should impose his will, vision, and forms on people’s lives. It is also that because of the very meticulousness of the renovation, which makes everything unused—including the replica furniture that takes the place of the blue, red, and green pieces that were part of the original décor. Some of my Czech friends felt that perhaps they should not have created this Disney version of the house, instead either leaving it as a near-ruin, or occupying it in a completely different manner. But I am grateful for the restoration, because of the way it made me aware that architecture that really works does so not by making monuments, but by articulating and framing our daily lives, and that when it becomes a monument that imposes its order on us, it becomes empty. Van der Rohe’s architecture is almost nothing, but it is that almost that gives life and that permeates the Tugendhat House today.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.