It’s the moment we had all been waiting for. Descending the curved, marble staircase to the main floor below and into the light-filled space, the group collectively lets out a breath no one realized we were holding. Almost a century after its conception, the so-called “glass room” — nicknamed for its massive floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vast grounds and the skyline of the Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city — is just as mesmerizing on this tour as it must have been in its heyday in the 1930s.
Seeing inside the UNESCO-listed Villa Tugendhat, a stunning chrome-and-concrete modernist masterpiece, it’s no wonder that it inspired British author Simon Mawer’s 2009 novel The Glass Room (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) with its illuminated, sensual interior and dark, harrowing past. And now the 1930s villa, which has managed to survive some of the worst of the 20th century, is “starring” in a film adaptation of the book.
But whether you visit the Villa Tugendhat because of the upcoming film by award-winning Czech director Julius Sevcik, or you’re a fan of functionalist architecture or modern history, you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse into a beautiful building resurrected.
The Villa Tugendhat — commissioned with a limitless budget for German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to play with, and built between 1928-1930 — reflects the tumultuous waves of history that washed over the Czech lands in the past century. The Glass Room offers a fictionalized retelling of its story, following the lives of the Landauer family (stand-ins for the original owners Fritz and Grete Tugendhat) as they build their dream home and hold illustrious parties, only to face the impending nightmare of World War II. But the villa is more than just a backdrop — even after the family flees Czechoslovakia, the tale follows its takeover first by the Nazis, and then by the Communists.
Talking about the role the villa plays in the story of The Glass Room, Sevcik says he thought a lot about the influence buildings have over the lives and relationships within them. Nazi architecture, he says, emanates megalomania and oppression, but “when you enter a modernist villa you get the sense you are part of nature, a feeling of intimacy, light and freedom.”
Dutch actor Carice van Houten (Melisandre in Game of Thrones), who plays Hana in The Glass Room, was immediately drawn to the film because the house has such a central role. “Its glass room [is] a metaphor for transparency, both in history as in emotion,” she says. “In the villa, there is nowhere to hide.” The film, which also stars Swedish actor Hanna Alstrom, Danish actor Claes Bang and Czech actor Karel Roden, opens this month.
The interiors were ransacked by the Nazis, who built a bonfire of the bookshelves and ripped out the Makassar ebony wall from the dining area. (It has since been replaced.)
Reopened in 2012 after an extensive and sensitive renovation, the Villa Tugendhat offers guided walkthrough tours. Stepping inside what was groundbreaking functionalism design at the time, all eyes are immediately drawn to the sweeping views over the grounds. The windows let the changing seasons set the mood of the room, which has movable partitions to allow for various configurations — from an intimate soiree to concert hall (the acoustics are amazing). Décor is minimal: This was Mies’s credo as he believed the “noble” materials should speak for themselves.
Nearly everything in the villa today is a replica — the interiors were ransacked by the Nazis, who built a bonfire of the bookshelves and ripped out the Makassar ebony wall from the dining area. (The original made it back to the villa in the 1980s.) Each room features black-and-white photographs of what the villa originally looked like as a family home; these were used for painstaking reference during the renovation. One stunning feature that survived: the amber-colored onyx wall, made from a single Moroccan slab, which remained hidden behind a false wall until the 1970s. Exposed in all its glory now, a sunny day can send whorls of rose-tinted light through the stone.
It’s details such as this that give touring the Villa Tugendhat an almost cinematic feel and make the 90 minutes practically fly by. And the tours are popular, often selling out months in advance. In the introduction to The Glass Room, Mawer recounts being turned away himself in the 1990s for showing up without a ticket. Nowadays, though, they can be easily booked online or at the information desk next door to the villa.
The Glass Room opens in theaters on March 14.
Go There: Villa Tugendhat
- Directions: Brno is a two-hour train ride southeast of Prague — doable for a day trip from the capital.
- Hours: Tours are conducted Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 6 pm. Last entrance is at 5:30 pm.
- Cost: Villa tours cost 350 CZK (about $15) for 90 minutes. A shorter, 60-minute option is also available.
- Pro tip: While tours often sell out months in advance, it’s possible to still get a spot. Show up before a tour to see if there are any cancellations.
- After the tour: Considering the buzz the Moravian capital has received recently for its off-the-wall bars and notable eateries, there’s lots to see and do while in town.