Mies, Modernism, and the Accent Wall

Brno: Above and Beyond

The famous house built in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1930 (now the Czech Republic) for textile manufacturer Fritz Tugendhat and his wife Grete and designed by architect Mies van der Rohe, opens for tours in March after restoration (photo courtesy Great Buildings.com).

The Tugendhats fled the Nazis in 1938 and after a complex history it is now owned by the city of Brno. I want to visit someday! Until then, let’s look at how this icon of modernism treated house design not as a box but as a series of

interpenetrating and overlapping spaces and planes. What a departure it was

and is! Here’s a view of the neighborhood. In the upper aerial photo see how the floors appear carved out of a large rectangular volume; sections even seem to  float. The street level entry with bedrooms is at the top; living, dining, study, kitchen occupy the middle; utility spaces are at ground level. Roof decks, window walls, even the terrace stair read as voids in, or extensions of, the elemental geometry. Views of the living room from the 1930s show how Mies treated walls,

whether sold or transparent, not as fixed boundaries but as shifting planes (though they are in fact fixed) that give shape and character to what is essentially an infinite extension of space from inside to outside.  The living room window wall takes the idea of uniting interior and exterior a step further: an electric motor allows it to disappear into the floor. (These elegant panels are the precursors to the sliding partitions of countless modern homes and, less nobly, convention hotels.) Here ornament is no longer something applied but must be inherent in the luxurious materials used — onyx, Macassar ebony, rosewood,

polished metal — as shown in a recent photograph of part of the living area and the curving dining room wall (courtesy Great Buildings.com). According to the villa’s website the Tugendhats were decidedly forward-thinking and must have been perfect clients for Mies. Grete recalled: “I truly longed for a modern spacious house with clear and simple shapes. My husband was horrified by the idea of having rooms full of objects and cloths as he had known from childhood.” The Mies-designed Brno chairs, seen in the dining room above, and armchairs,

like the one above, added to the spacious uncluttered effect. These chairs remain popular today and even spark further inventiveness, as in the recent art piece by

Fernanda Fragateiro, which cleverly comments on the creative relationship between Mies and his interior designer collaborator and erstwhile mistress Lilly Reich: sort of a love seat with stretch marks! (photo courtesy Frieze magazine.) For more on the house and its restoration see Architectural Record.

Today many architects and designers continue to interpret and expand upon aspects of a Misian esthetic, as Braxton Werner and Paul Field do in Plan 491-6,

with the stone wall that extends through glass to shape a patio, and in Plan 491-5

where the headboard becomes the storage wall. Here the element that defines the room is what one might call a multi-functional accent wall.

The Tugendhat house remains a remarkable symbol of the 20th century. Bravo to Brno for bringing it back to life. In a recent novel — The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer (Other Press, 2009), which uses the Tugendhat house and its glass living room as the key setting, architect-protagonist Rainer von Abt says: “Architects are people who build walls and floors and roofs. I capture and enclose space within.” I’ll let you know how everything turns out.


One response to “Mies, Modernism, and the Accent Wall

  1. Greetings from Barbados. This is one of my favourite posts from this blog, which I’ve been following from round about the time I discovered your fabulous site. I am a big fan of modernism so I especially love that portion of the post.

    All in all, a perfect mix of history, design, facts and trivia. Well done.

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