Sharon McHugh visits Mies van der Rohe's exquisitely restored Villa Tugendhat
Working in the Shadow of Mies
It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to work in the shadow of Mies van der Rohe. But Miroslav and Vladimir Ambroz know that situation well. For years now, the Brno natives have worked long and hard to restore Villa Tugendhat to its original splendor, tracking down many of the house’s key elements, including the original furniture and built-ins, that were lost or stolen when the house was abandoned by the Tugenhadt family in 1938 following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Ambroz brothers' research led to the ‘authentic’ reproduction of some of the house’s original furniture and the restoration of the famous macassar wall, which was lost and ‘accidentally’ discovered by Mirosalv in the course of his research. This is their story.
Piecing together the Villa Tugenhadt
The restoration of Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, which opened to the public in March, was a labour of love that resulted from years of research and hard work on the part of many including Czech natives Miroslav Ambroz, an art historian, and his brother Vladimir, an architect, who took on the monumental task of restoring many of the Villa’s key features, most notably its original furnishings. Monumental because the restoration was complicated by several factors most notably the abandonment of the house in 1938 by the Tugendhat family who fled Czechoslovakia to escape the Nazis, which resulted in the loss of all the furniture and several post-war alterations that were insensitive to the original spirit of the house. Three years ago, Villa Tugendhat was immortalised in The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, a gripping novel loosely based on van der Rohe's masterpiece and a text that has inspired hordes of avid readers to congregate at the sacred site.
On a recent visit the house, which is considered a residentially scaled version of Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, it appeared to be restored to its original vision. Tucked into a hillside setting, the strong form of the house was in contrast with its natural setting and yet it was also at one with it. Spread over three levels the 2,600 sq m house incorporates a range of exotic expensive materials from Moroccan onyx to Chinese silk and features pieces of specially designed furniture that are now icons of 20th-century design. It is these pieces, or the lack thereof, that most interested Miroslav Ambroz, who at the time of the house’s restoration was conducting his own private research on the house, which ultimately proved invaluable to its authentic restoration.
An Accidental Discovery
A scholar with a PhD in Fine Arts, Ambroz had long been researching Villa Tugendhat. He published his first papers on its furniture in 1996. In 2010, his brother’s company (AMOS DESIGN) was hired to restore the villa’s original doors and built-in library and also to execute replicas of the lost furnishings. Naturally he called on Miroslav to help prepare documentation for the production of the replicas. Miroslav traveled the world, visiting museums and private collectors known to own Mies originals, and to conduct archival research that was necessary to prepare full-scale drawings of the original tables and chairs in advance of their restoration and reproduction.
In the process he located two green Barcelona chairs that were original to Villa Tugendhat. He also discovered one of the villa’s key elements, the original macassar wood wall that served as a circular dining area partition. Design drawings held by MoMA, illustrating the wall’s original location and framing were valuable for its re-installation. But this work, too, was complicated by the fact that the newly discovered wall was not intact but rather had been parted out in pieces, used as wall paneling and base moulding in the cafeteria of a local law school that the Gestapo occupied in 1940. (In 1981 a new partition of a different wood and different dimensions was installed in the house and removed after the discovery of the original one). The discovery of the macassar wall, while a significant event in the house’s restoration, was just the beginning of what proved to be a long and arduous uphill effort to restore the Tugendhat house to Mies’ original intentions.
The Knoll Factor
One of the biggest hurdles standing in the way of this that the brothers would have to overcome was ‘the Knoll factor’. “As for the Barcelona and the other chairs designed by Mies, the problem was that for the majority of people, chairs by Mies made by Knoll are the only ‘authorized’ originals”, said Miroslav. As the Ambroz brothers discovered, the Knoll chairs produced today are not the same as the ones produced in the 1930s. Naturally they wanted to replicate the original 1930 furniture pieces that Mies designed for the house and they faced a wall of resistance in doing so.
They produced a set of 192 full-scale drawings for he production of the wooden furniture, which were completed in 2011. Drawings for the flat steel pieces (3 Barcelona chairs, 5 Tugendhat chairs, 1 Brno chair and 2 Barcelona ottomans) and the tubular furniture (Brno chairs, MR 10 and 20 tables) were completed also in 2011. The original surviving pieces that Miroslav found in his travels were x-rayed to discover how they were assembled. Despite having a mountain of evidence to support their position that the original furnishings were different than the contemporary Knoll pieces, months went by before they finally got permission to reproduce the pieces to the original design specifications.
Vladimir wrote to MoMA to get permission to reproduce the chairs but learned that the museum could not grant authorization or permission for a small-scale production of the pieces. (Since 2003, there has been pending litigation over the ownership of the copyright of the furniture with the heirs of Mies.) In 2011, the Ambroz brothers asked Mies’ heirs for special permission to produce a limited production of the metal furniture for the house, which they kindly granted. The replica pieces, which are now installed in the house, were produced from October 2011 to early 2012 by five different metal workshops in four different countries.
God is in the Details
As a result of the Ambroz brothers’ doggedness to track down the original furniture pieces and replicate the missing ones to the 1930s design standards, Villa Tugendhat has undergone an authentic restoration. Like Mies, they understood from the get go that God was in the details.