van der Rohe’s Seagram Building might be an exemplar of International style
architecture, but its glass and steel basically are what they are. That is
often the case with his American work, but the Villa Tugendhat in Brno is
something else entirely. While it still reflects his modernist aesthetic, it
also happens to a house that breathes and welcomes occupants. It is a
surprisingly livable space, which is why it has been consistently repurposed by
subsequent appropriating regimes. Dieter Reifarth chronicles the history of the
home and its original [rightful] owners in The
Tugendhat House (trailer
screens during this year’s New York Jewish Film Festival.
opens the documentary by opening up Tugendhat House, slowly panning through its
restored rooms and open flowing spaces, as disembodied voices read the
polarized reviews it originally garnered in the architectural press. The
Tugendhats no longer reside here, thanks to the National Socialists and the
Communists who followed them, but philosopher Ernst Tugendhat fondly remembers
the years he lived there as a small boy. So does one Tugendhat sister, but the
youngest was born while the family was in exile. However, the entire
Tugendhat-Guggenhein-Hammer family takes an active interest in the restoration
campaign, including one who happens to
be a refurbishment expert.
they lost many extended family members to the Holocaust, the Tugendhat nucleus
managed to get out while the getting was good, resettling in Switzerland and later
Venezuela. Given their sensibilities, it is rather remarkable the Tugendhat
House survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations. While the Germans simply used
it as another piece of prime real estate to dole out as they deemed fit, the
Communist authorities fashioned it into a long-term children’s spinal clinic.
Frankly, the Tugendhat form seems completely ill-suited to such a function, but
former patients found the natural light quite cheerful. Decades later, the
final divorce decree between the Czech and Slovak Republics was ironed out
there, permanently fixing the building in the Czech collective memory.
T House is an unusually
balanced fusion of architectural appreciation and sweeping history. If you don’t
know Ludwig Mies van der Rohe from Ludwig von Mises you might find many
passages of the film rather archi-geeky. Nevertheless, Reifarth really gives
you a vivid sense of the villa as a distinctive space and place. He also doggedly
follows the twists of the Tugendhat family story, as well as the wider cultural
context of their increasingly iconic home.
After watching T House, the Villa Tugendhat will almost assuredly become viewers’
favorite Mies van der Rohe building, which may or may not be thunderous
bragging rights given their respective interest in the art and practice of architecture,
but that still means it is rather smart and effective as a work of documentary
filmmaking. Of course, for those who are well versed in Mies van der Rohe and
the International School, it is like catnip. Yet everyone should find some
meaning in the tragedies and resiliency of the Tugendhats’ exile experience. Highly
recommended for those fascinated by the art and history under discussion, The Tugendhat House screens this coming
Wednesday (1/28) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the 2015 NYJFF.
Labels: Documentary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, NYJFF '15