Modernist architecture only worked for the wealthy

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

4 August 2018

9:00 AM

It was Le Corbusier who famously wrote that ‘A house is a machine for living in’ (‘Une maison est une machine à habiter’). But it was a visit to a masterpiece of his great rival among modernist architects — Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — that brought home to me how literally accurate that celebrated aphorism was. His Villa Tugendhat at Brno is one of the great monuments of early modernism. To run smoothly, however, this luxurious dwelling required almost as much machinery as a small ocean-liner.

The building has been restored with rigorous scholarship to look exactly as it did when its first owners, Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, moved in 88 years ago. And as one quickly discovers from the guided tour, their accommodation — though as beautiful as a painting by Mondrian — was similarly bare.

The bedrooms, for example, were constructed from materials of the finest quality, and each chair, handle and light switch refined by Mies to an essence of formal and functional perfection. But the overall effect verged on spartan, even more so in the nursery provided for the Tugendhat children, whose games, one sensed, could involve only sharp-edged, geometric toys.

Mies’s famous remark ‘less is more’ was more than just a piece of design advice; it was a moral code. ‘Nothing,’ he informed a possibly startled audience at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1938, ‘can express the aim and meaning of our work better than the profound words of St Augustine: “Beauty is the splendour of truth”.’ Furthermore, in his view, truth was logical and simple.

Downstairs, the main living space is one huge room, divided by discreetly sumptuous partitions. A slab of onyx, soft gold and semi-translucent, divided an area for relaxation, with bookshelves and a piano, from another — presumably for conversation — in which two rows of chairs are spaced with absolute regularity.

The onyx, veined and rippling with subtly varied colours, is as beautiful as an abstract painting — and a cunning evasion by the architect of his own principles. Like the older modernist Adolf Loos — whose own masterpiece, the Villa Müller in Prague, I also visited — Mies believed that ornament was a crime, or at least something to be avoided fastidiously. But, like Loos, he smuggled in decoration by the use of jazzily patterned — and precious — materials.

The dining area at Villa Tugendhat is screened by a half cylinder of macassar ebony, tiger-striped like a Jackson Pollock, within which nestles a round table. This was, by the way, a spot in which history was made. On that table in 1992 the agreement was signed that divided what was then still Czechoslovakia into two states.

The poor Tugendhats only enjoyed life in their villa for a brief period — and for all the rigours of living up to Mies’s architecture, by all accounts they did like living there. But they were German-speaking Jewish industrialists, and had to flee to Switzerland in 1938 ahead of the Nazi invasion, and did not return in the postwar Communist era.

Subsequently the building was used for various purposes, including as a physio-therapy centre for children. However it was really only suited to occupation by a few people, tidy in their habits — and with plenty of money.

The main room at the Villa Tugendhat is a glass box, with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. In fine weather these can be opened by an electric device which lowers them smoothly and completely into a slot beneath. It is only when you are taken downstairs to the floor devoted to practical utilities that you discover how it was possible to reside like this in a Central European climate of freezing winters and sweltering summers.

The boiler for heating all that elegantly exposed space is much like the engine room of a ship, but that is only the beginning. Next door is an elaborate pumping system which adjusted the internal climate for temperature, air purity and humidity, all of course of Mies’s devising.

In addition there were state-of-the-art areas for washing, ironing, drying, storage of fruit, vegetables and coke, plus an anti-moth chamber for preserving clothes. I asked our guide if all this actually worked? Oh yes, he replied, it functioned extremely well — at a price.

There’s the rub. High modernism, for all its austere purity, was an extremely lavish style. It worked best when used to create something to be used by the wealthy. Mrs Farnsworth, another of Mies’s clients, who had a legal battle with the architect over the galloping costs of a house he designed for her in the 1950s, complained that it was not true that less was more. Less, she insisted, was just less. But perhaps it might be more accurate to say that sometimes less is much more expensive.

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