Gimme Shelter: Modern Architecture Addresses Health and Quality of Life
Last month we initiated a new series of commentary on the nexus between modern architecture and health and quality of life. As most of us work from and very much remain at home, our residential environment exerts an even greater impact on our physical and mental state. We want to present examples of how modern and contemporary architecture have worked to meet the challenge of improving life through design.
We looked at the mid-century model of the Lovell Health House in Los Angeles, California in our last posting. Now we are turning to the period of early modernism in Europe, specifically to the last major house designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe on the Continent, the Tugendhat House of 1928-30 in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic).
Greta and Fritz Tugendhat were sophisticated patrons interested in commissioning not only an artwork, but also a work of modernity that would allow its occupants to experience clean surfaces, fresh air and open space that was a far cry from homes designed a generation earlier. The Tugendhats incorporated new furniture designs from Mies, from the now iconic Brno chair to the eponymous Tugendhat chairs — all contemporary designs from Mies’s studio.
To put the chronology in context, note that the seminal Barcelona Pavilion of 1929 was designed by Mies at exactly this time and this featured the chair (and other items of furniture) named for the city where this national pavilion represented Germany at the World’s Fair of that year.
But while the Barcelona Pavilion was constructed to be a temporary public space, the Tugendhat House was built to be a private home for a family of wealth and taste who wanted to accommodate their family, staff and belongings in an innovative manner. The substantial window panes that gave out on to the ample grounds below operated mechanically. In an instant, the window could slip into the wall allowing for bountiful fresh air. Advanced ventilation systems created an environment that was not only aesthetically clean, but refreshingly wholesome.
While so many are now confined to home and in need of maintaining our households in an especially sanitary manner, we are now even more keenly aware of how much easier it is to sweep a simple hard floor, dust planar furniture or wash a minimalist environment as opposed to managing one filled with intricate fabrics, ornate surfaces and a jumble of objects. Minimalism is not only an aesthetic of restraint, it is a strategy of healthful space.
The Tugendhat family would only get to enjoy their modernist masterpiece until 1938. With the rise of the Nazis, this Jewish family fled first to Switzerland and then went on to Venezuela. In their absence, the house was taken over by the Nazis, who did not treat the interiors and furnishings with care nor respect. After WWII the communist government of Czechoslovakia took hold; the property was managed by the State and for a time the house was converted to a healthcare facility.
The Czech Republic and the local Brno government worked to restore the house substantially and replace much of the missing furniture, completing restoration efforts in 2012. Since then, this extraordinary symphony of light, space and luxurious surfaces of stone, plaster and wood, has been open to visitors, giving us all an opportunity to revisit Mies’s innovative design and the Tugendhat’s approach to living in a truly modern way. However, like The Glass House, the property is closed during the current Coronavirus pandemic.
We all look forward to when a visit is again possible.
Chief Curator & Creative Director
The Glass House
April 7, 2020