the Interpretation of Architecture
Vol. 13, No. 1, May 2009
Tugendhat by Mies van der Rohe –
Canon and Autobiography
This paper will compare two different accounts of Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat: on the one hand, the villa as a defined canon of modernism, and on the other hand as a lived autobiography.
The first part concentrates on the establishment of a canon. How is the villa represented in drawings, photographs and texts, and on what elements of the villa do the early publications focus. I will differentiate the European, mainly German discourse, and the American representation of the villa. Whereas the German discourse positions the Villa Tugendhat within the broader context of modern architecture, with the debate about the habitability of the villa raising fundamental questions about the architecture of modern residential housing, by contrast, the American perception of the Villa Tugendhat is mainly determined by the selective focus on a range of formal issues of the villa within the exhibition and publication International Style at the MOMA in 1932.
The second part is based on the autobiographical account of Grete and Fritz Tugendhat and their children. Their answers to the question of the habitability of the villa and furthermore the private photographs of Fritz Tugendhat reveal, that the life-style manifested in the canon does only partially capture and express the range of experiences and important determinants of the lives actually lived in the villa.
The last part describes the villa’s turbulent history between 1938, when the Tugendhats moved out of the villa, and 1994, when the villa was transformed into a museum, and looks at the effects of these years on the canon by focusing on the way the villa’s changes and transformations were perceived.
The aim of this paper is thus threefold: Firstly, by investigating into the establishment of the Villa Tugendhat’s canon in both the European and the American contexts, I want to elucidate the process of canon-formation and give an overview of the aspects, mentioned and most frequently repeated with regard to the Villa Tugendhat. Secondly, based on this analysis, I will show that the canon was mainly established by the visual records of the villa, notably the photographic representations of the house, and not by the house itself. In contrast, the Tugendhats’ perception of the house and their lives, and the villa’s history after 1938 did almost not influence the canon. Finally, I will elucidate the role of the architectural critic with regard to the parallel existing accounts of the same building.
Part 1 Defining a Canon
The Formation of a Canon in the European (German) Context
The first article on the Villa Tugendhat was published in the German journal Die Form in September 1931, one year after construction was finished and the Tugendhats had moved in. In the following issues of Die Form, the villa’s role within the modern movement and the issue of its habitability were discussed.
In the first article, Walter Riezler positions the Villa Tugendhat in the context of the modern movement in the 1930s in Europe. For answering the reiterating question of whether there exists something which might be called ‘Baukunst’ in modern residential housing, he traces the impacts of two different approaches towards the ‘formation of a style’, which were both – to his mind – initiated by Le Corbusier. The first approach – captured in the phrase ‘the house as a machine to live in’ – forms a style by responding to the functional, rational and social necessities to create living space for as many people as possible with minor economic and physical means. Opposed to that purely purpose orientated approach is the second approach, the search for ‘freedom and joy’ in architecture which corresponds rather to the spiritual needs and the crucial detachment of the personal life from the mechanised world. Riezler sees the Villa Tugendhat as the pure embodiment of that second approach:
“Probably here for the first time a ‘modernist’ architect faced a task, which purest solution was not opposed by any constraints, neither by the clients taste or will nor by the limits of economic means.”
According to Riezler, the
encompassing main feature of the villa is its luxury, incorporating all
technical and hygienic achievements of that time in order to establish
a new life style. Luxury is not defined by abundance of elements but by
the unity and the perfection of design of every part of the villa, its
built-ins, and its furniture, and by the use of precious building materials
and fabrics. Riezler points out that the formal appearance of this second
approach is similar to that established for rational and functional reasons,
but differs in the perfection of the details and the use of precious materials.
The client’s will to manifest a new way of thinking, a new way of life might also be seen by their choice of architect.
The photographic account
and the floor plans of the villa stand apart from that presentation. The
fifteen photographs – published in the first article – constitute the
photographic presentation of the Villa Tugendhat which will be published
from then onwards nearly unaltered. These photographs constitute just
a selection out of 80 photographs taken by Rudolf de Sandalo, a Brno photographer,
on two occasions in winter 1930-31 and spring/summer 1931. In later publications,
this selection or parts of it are published. While de Sandalo kept the
negatives, Mies van der Rohe retained control over the distribution of
the pictures. The photographs are joined by little descriptions which
are the only textual accounts translated into French and English.
“The canonical interpretation is a cumulative result of many previous responses, distilled by repetition and reduced to the bare essentials. Canon formation can thus be described not as a process of growth, but as a process of filtering. From this perspective, what needs to be explained is not how some pre-canonical responses became included in the canonical interpretation, but rather how it is that some of them were abandoned.”
“... whenever I take a look at the leaves and flowers singly standing out against a suitable background, whenever I let these rooms and all they contain take their effect, I am overcome by the feeling that this is beauty, this is truth. ... This we owe to Mr Mies van der Rohe.”
my mind, these accounts do not fully catch, even do not try to fully express
the life in this canonical house. Missing a personal voice, they rather
uninvolved describe the commission of a building and furniture. Moreover
these accounts of Grete and Fritz Tugendhat are likely to be biased since
the Tugendhats already knew in 1931, respectively 1969, about Mies van
der Rohe’s reputation.
“After lunch the family often listened to music, and my parents would dance with their children.”
This rather unrepresentative use of the living space by rather ‘unrepresentative’ members of the Tugendhat family is not anticipated in any of the official accounts. Another quotation expresses the actual spatial delimitation of different functions – originally thought to simultaneously take place in the living space – and the feeling of unease in the ‘large’ living space from a child’s perspective:
“In the evenings my parents were alone in the large room; the children had dinner with the nursemaid in Hanna’s room.”
Finally, in Herbert’s remembrance,
the house was not very comfortable and his parents were not to be taken
too seriously since they were rather bizarre people.
“... Should one conclude, merely because of the different fate of their physical structures, that the Schröder House [the Schröder House in Utrecht by Rietfeld escaped damage during the war and was inhabited by Mrs. Schräder-Schröder over the years, note by the author] enjoys a place in architectural culture that is more real ... than the Tugendhat house? Or that the Tugendhat House would regain its place in history only after it has been restored? Most emphatically not. The survival of a work of art or architecture and its cultural effects do not depend on the conservation of the physical fabric.”
“There are no published photographs of the Pavilion with people. The fact that this was not noticed before would indicate … that an entire generation of architects sought to abstract the art content form the life content of architecture.”
art content of the Villa Tugendhat is thoroughly captured in the set of
photographs which can be described as rather neutral representations of
a building – whereas the life content of the villa was just captured in
the family photo-album and the memories of the inhabitants.
“Architects may declare, if they so wish, that what matters for them is the effect of their buildings over the real environment, not their published photographs – but this is an ideological option that need not be shared by everyone. The effect of the Barcelona Pavilion over the physical or social environment in the hills of Montjuich was negligible; its effect as an idea spread over the entire world by means of photographs and descriptions was enormous.”
the first interpretations and representations may play a major role as
a catalyst of a certain architectural idea, while they found a building’s
impact on architectural history and dominate the perception as a canonical
interpretation, there exist various other layers of interpretation and
also other layers of reality. Thus architecture can be understood as a
series of realities which exist in parallel trajectories – the same architecture
existing as a real building, as a home for a family, as an idea of an
architect, as an image transmitted. The architectural critic may assume
the role of linking these separated spheres into a system of overlapping
realities which engrave themselves onto the perception of that one building.
The autobiographic account can be understood as yet another layer of the
villa’s reality which by re-interpretation and repetition will also engrave
itself onto the perception of the Villa Tugendhat.
[anonymous]: Die ‘neue Linie’ im alleinstehenden Einfamilienhaus, in: Der Baumeister, vol. 29 (1931), p. 422-431.
Bier, Justus: Kann man im Haus Tugendhat wohnen?, in: Die Form, vol. 10 (1931), p. 392-393.
Bonta, Juan Pablo: Architecture and its interpretation. A study of expressive systems in architecture. London: Lund Humphries, 1979.
Drexler, Arthur: Mies van der Rohe. London: Mayflower, 1960.
Ginsburger, Roger and Riezler, Walter: Zweckhaftigkeit und geistige Haltung, in: Die Form, vol. 11 (1931), p. 431-437.
Hammer-Tugendhat, Daniela and Tegethoff, Wolf (eds.): Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – The Tugendhat House. Wien: Springer Verlag, 2000.
Hilberseimer, Ludwig: Epilogue to the debate on the Tugendhat House, in: Die Form, vol. 11 (1931), p. 438-439.
Hilberseimer, Ludwig: Mies van der Rohe. Chicago: Paul Theobald and Company, 1956.
Hitchcock, Henry-Russel, and Johnson, Philip: The International Style. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995. (First publication: 1932)
Johnson, Philip C: Mies van der Rohe. London: Secker & Warburg, 1978. (First publication: 1947)
Kalivoda, František: Haus Tugendhat: gestern – heute – morgen, in: Bauwelt, vol. 69 (1969), p. 1248-1249.
Lizon, Peter: Mies Imperative: A Total Design. Villa Tugendhat in Brno is Open to Public, in: A & U, vol. 319 (1997), p. 3-13.
Posener, Julius: Eine Reise nach Brünn, in: Bauwelt, vol. 60 (1969), p. 1244-1245.
Riezler, Walter: Das Haus Tugendhat in Brünn, in: Die Form, vol. 9 (1931), p. 321-332.
Riezler, Walter: Kommentar zum Artikel von Justus Bier, in: Die Form, vol. 10 (1931), p. 393-394.
Sapák, Jan: Das Alltagsleben in der Villa Tugendhat, in: Werk, Bauen + Wohnen, vol. 12 (1988), p. 15-23.
Sapák, Jan: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Villa Tugendhat. Brno (1928-1930, in: domus, vol. 678 (1986), p. 25-37.
Speyer, James: Mies van der Rohe. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1968.
Tegethoff, Wolf: Mies van der Rohe. The Villas and Country Houses. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1985.
Tugendhat, Grete and Fritz: Die Bewohner des Hauses Tugendhat äußern sich (Letter to the editor), in: Die Form, vol. 11 (1931), p. 437-438.
Tugendhat, Grete: Zum Bau des Hauses Tugendhat (slightly abridged version of the Brno talk on January 1969), in: Bauwelt, vol. 60 (1969), p. 1246-1247.
Vitra Design Museum: Mies
van der Rohe. Architektur & Design in Stuttgart,
Barcelona, Brno. Catalogue, 1998.
 The following part of the paper is based on the following first published interpretations: Riezler 1931, vol. 9, 321-332. Bier 1931, 392-393. Ginsburger and Riezler 1931, 431-437. Tugendhat 1931, 437-438. Hilberseimer 1931, 438-439. anonymous 1931, 422-431.
 Walter Riezler states that “the father of the phrase ‘a machine for living’, Le Corbusier, several years after retracted this term by asking and answering the question ‘Where does architecture begin? It starts where the machine ceases.’ ... he [Le Corbusier, remark by the author] wants to serve the human’s need for freedom and joy.” Riezler 1931, vol 9, 321-322. The quotations of hitherto not translated German sources have been translated by me to maintain the flux of the argument; the original quotation in German is attached in the respective endnotes. German version: „Nun hat aber der Vater jenes Wortes von der ‚Wohnmaschine’, Le Corbusier, einige Jahre später dieses Wort selber widerrufen [vgl. Die Form 1929, S.180]: ‚Wo beginnt die Architektur? Sie beginnt dort, wo die Maschine aufhört.’ ... er [Le Corbusier, Anmerkung der Autorin] will dem Bedürfnis des Menschen nach Freiheit und Freude dienen.“
 Riezler 1931, vol. 9, 324. „Wahrscheinlich ist hier überhaupt zum erstenmal einem im wahrsten und radikalsten Sinne ‚modernen’ Architekten eine Aufgabe zugefallen, deren reiner Lösung keinerlei Hemmung, sei es durch den Geschmack und Willen des Auftraggebers, sei es durch die Begrenztheit der Mittel, entgegenstand.“
 Riezler 1931, vol. 9, 328. „Der Raum ist ... ‚atonal’ oder ‚polytonal’ im Sinne der modernen Musik wie auch der Malerei, und daher Ausdruck eines allgemeinsten Weltgefühls, in dem sich ... ein völlig neues Weltbild ankündigt.“
 Riezler 1931, vol. 10, 393. „Allerdings ist es auch als Auftrag so etwas wie ein Manifest, - auch der Bauherr wollte, indem er gerade diesem Architekten bei dem Auftrag freie Hand ließ, offenbar für die neue Wohnform manifestieren. Hierbei versteht sich von selbst, daß die Idee ganz rein und ohne Kompromisse verwirklicht wird.“
 Bier 1931, 392-393.
 The Barcelona Pavilion was realised in 1928 and 1929, during the design process of Villa Tugendhat.
 Bier 1931, 393. ‘Ausstellungswohnen’.
 Ginsburger and Riezler 1931, 431-437. According to investigations in 1980, the cost of the villa was equivalent to no fewer than thirty small family homes. For discussion on the villa’s luxury compare: Sapák 1988, 19-20 and Vitra Design Museum 1998, 189.
 Hitchcock and Johnson (1932) 1995.
 ibid. 29.
 The catalogue was supplemented by photographs of the entrance area, the living room and the library.
 Hitchcock and Johnson (1995, 1932), 60-61. “Contemporary buildings often have entire walls of transparent glass constituting one enormous window. The frames of the panes in such walls must be light enough to be distinguished from true supports.”
 ibid. 68. “Glass bricks and translucent glass plates are types of surfacing materials which may occasionally take the place of true windows.”
 ibid. 76. “Curved and oblique interior partitions, ..., often make possible the more complete adjustment of available space to function, without interfering with the regular spacing of the isolated supports.”
 ibid. 97-98. “Today there are three types of interiors: first, the inside of the volume of the building, consisting of the entire content of the building or of a considerable part of it; second, interiors which open up into one another without definite circumscribing partitions; and finally, the ordinary enclosed room. ... The second sort of interiors is the particular invention of the international style. In contrast to the completely enclosed rooms of the past they stress the unity and continuity of the whole volume inside a building. The independence of the dividing screens and their variation in size and placing contrast with the regularity of the isolated supports. The flow of function and the relation of one function to another can be clearly expressed.”
 Hitchcock and Johnson (1932) 1995, 36. “The idea of style as the frame of potential growth, rather than as a fixed and crushing mould, has developed with the recognition of underlying principles... .“
 Johnson, Philip C (1947) 1978, 60.
 Bonta 1979, 145.
 Tugendhat 1931, 437-438. For the English translation see: Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000, 35-39.
 In 1969 a conference took place in Brno to decide on the future of Villa Tugendhat. The third part of this paper will elucidate the conference’s impact. Compare: Tugendhat 1969, 1246-1247.
 Tugendhat 1931. For the English translation see: Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000, 35-39.
 Translation for the German word: ‘Befreiung’.
 Compare: Tugendhat 1969, 1246. For the English translation see: Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000, 6.
 Compare: Fritz Tugendhat, in: Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000, 37.
 For these photographs see Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000.
 Compare: ibid.
 At 1938, three of the Tugendhat children lived in house. Hanna, Grete’s eldest daughter from her first marriage, was thirteen, Ernst was eight, and Herbert was six years old.
 Hammer-Tugendhat in: Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000, 20.
 ibid. 20.
 Sapák 1986, 31.
 Like many of their fellow Jewish citizens, the Tugendhats actively took side with the numerous politically and racially persecuted refugees in Brno. For more details see Ivo Hammer’s and Wolf Tegethoff’s articles in: Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000 and Sapák 1986, 25-37.
 Although there are written accounts on these periods, no photographs provide a visual representation. Tegethoff in his article refers to the account of a young German soldier, Louis Schoberth, who visits Villa Tugendhat several times in November 1940. In the report, Schoberth talks about photographs taken by him during that time. The remain of them is – according to this article – unsolved.
 Compare: Posener 1969, 1244-1245. Kalivoda 1969, 1248-1249. Tugendhat 1969, 1246-1247.
 Compare: Grete Tugendhat, in: Hammer-Tugendhat and Tegethoff 2000, 97.
 Mies van der Rohe just accepted to advise his grandson Dirk Lohan with regard to the restoration without actively participating into it.
 For further details see: Lizon 1997, 3-13.
 Compare: Hilberseimer 1956, Drexler 1960, Speyer 1968.
 Compare: Johnson 1947, 1978.
 Bonta 1979, p. 25.
 Bonta 1979, p. 204.
 Bonta 1979,