In Simon Mawer’s novel The Glass Room a famous 1930 International Modern house in Brno, Czechoslovakia is rendered as both a piece of architecture and the main character in the narrative. The idea of the house is conceived – by the Landauer family, and an architect – Rainer von Abt is commissioned for the work. The house is built, inhabited by the family for eight years before fleeing incipient Nazism in 1938 leaving the house in a caretaker’s hands. During the war the building is occupied by a German racial research centre before it is abandoned in the face of the Russian advance in 1945. The Russians use it for as a horse stable and then, in the post-war period, it is used for a dance school. The novel continues to follow the fortunes of the house until it is recognized as worthy of restoration and members of the Landauer family return for a project launch.
”]The Tugendhat House the family home of industrialist Fritz and his wife Greta was built in 1928-30 by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). The Tugendhat family occupied the house from 1930 to 1938 before immigrating to Switzerland and from there to Venezuela in 1941 and later to the USA.
Of courses Mawer’s beautifully written novel refers to the Tugendhat House – it even includes architectural drawings of it at chapter heads. Mawer is knowledgeable about architecture and occasionally writes about it learnedly – his review of the Tate Gallery’s Theo van Doesburg and the International Avant Garde exhibition for the Guardian in 2010 is an example. Here he writes about visiting the Tugendhat House immediately after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. He has just descended from the street level to the main living level:
Coming into that room was like walking towards a work of art and surprisingly feeling yourself part of it, a work of art yourself, capable of all kinds of beauty. The thrill was palpable – a shiver down the spine, the hairs standing up on the back of the neck. Perhaps architecture is the antithesis of sculpture. The one deals in substance, material, the hard facts of stone and metal; the other deals in space. In the living room of the Tugendhat House this space is luminous, shot through with light that pours in from the glass wall and ricochets off chrome and white plaster and ivory linoleum. You stand within that light, bathed in it, almost drowned in it.
In the novel the room of glass is a metaphor for something. It illuminates those who live there and their circle making them as transparent as the room itself. The house is a presence that connects all of these people in some way. Even though they don’t all come in contact with one another, they are all “known” to the house.Not all of them remember it nostalgically. The philosopher Ernst Tugendhat (b 1930) spent the first eight years of his life with his family in the house. He now keeps a house in Tubingen, Germany and another in Latin America, but the famous house doesn’t mean much to him:
One other coincidence concerning this much romanticized house: in 1993 it was the location for the ceremony to split the state of Czechoslovakia – which was created after WWI – into the two nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
That house never played a role in my life, or if it did, then it was a negative one. It’s a matter of complete indifference to me where I live. Perhaps that’s a reaction to our family’s glorifying the house so much.