Tag Archives: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

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.


Frank McGahon, Irish Modern Architect

Compound Interest

One of the great pleasures of my job is meeting and working with talented architects from around the world who are interested in making high quality home design available to everyone. And so I am especially excited to present house plans by Irish architect Frank McGahon who is the newest member of our Exclusive Studio.

His work is both regionally expressive in the use of traditional  features like stone walls and courtyard compounds, and very contemporary in the manipulation of open plans and strong indoor-outdoor connections, as you can see in a view of the living room window wall opening to the patio in Plan 520-6, above. Here’s a another view.

Each of the three key functional spaces — kitchen/dining area, living room/entry, bedroom wing –  is expressed as an independent gable.

One wing angles slightly away from the next to frame different views and allow a measure of privacy for each. The wide entrance hall binds them while bending them into a curve, like a bow-string pulled taut. Open the front door and you are effectively releasing the arrow and launching your gaze into the vistas ahead. Ingenious!

Frank (here he is) knows something about tradition. He has followed his great grandfather, grandfather, and father into practicing architecture in the town of Dundalk, equidistant between Dublin and Belfast. After graduating from the School of Architecture, University College Dublin in 1989 he worked in London and Dublin before returning to work for his father in Dundalk in 1992, eventually taking over the practice and establishing McGahon Architects in 2001. But he’s also a modernist as you can tell by the elegant abstraction of Plan 520-4, below.


 It’s an elemental nature-viewing pavilion; the ultimate getaway.

See how the living/dining area and master bedroom flank the flame-red kitchen/storage/plumbing core. It’s a modernist reduction to essentials and draws inspiration from great twentieth century architectural icons like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and more recently the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura (winner of the 2011 Pritzker Prize) such as his house in Cascais, Portugal, shown below.

(This image courtesy the Pritzker Prize website.) I like how Souto de Moura’s house and pool are essentially “the same only different:” one a rectangular solid, suspended; the other a rectangular liquid, grounded. The firm of Shift architecture urbanism in Rotterdam has designed a faculty club for Tilburg University that uses the same shape but with different solids and voids, as shown below.

(image courtesy Dezeen Design Magazine). Indeed, there’s a fine essay waiting to be written about how modern architects have adapted the simple flat box in a thousand different ways, proving yet again that limitation breeds invention…

But Frank McGahon has additional arrows in his architectural quiver. One that’s particularly compelling is his use of courtyards and patios to make the house and lot extensions of each other while forming a compound, as he does in Plan 520-9, below.

The entire lot is divided into a series of rooms, some roofed and some not, with a home office in a separate structure at one end. In effect, the house is surrounded by courtyards. In Plan 520-7, it’s the other way around.

Here the courtyard is at the center and the house is a square doughnut in plan — like an atrium house in Pompeii. Again a major space like the kitchen/dining area connects to the outdoors in a dramatic way,

in this case via one of Frank McGahon’s signature glass gables. Compounds aren’t the only way to go however. His L-shaped house in Blackrock, Plan 520-8, is really an L-inside a rectangle.

Conceptually, then, whether surrounded by outdoor rooms or surrounding them, house = lot. This is the architectural imagination at work. Welcome to the neighborhood, Frank!