An intriguing dialogue between the architect of Villa Tugendhat and his old friend Aleksej.
It was a cold November night in 1930, when Aleksej stepped for the first time in a foreign country. Seeking inspiration for his new book, he had jumped on a train hoping it would lead him into the unpredictable.
Many of his colleagues preached about adventures as if it was part of their routine, yet close to none had ever looked beyond their nose. "A writer’s glory lays in the mind", they said as they sipped cheap red wine. So Aleksej left, hoping to taste something better than what they served at the pub beneath his house. He would go to visit Ludwig, a childhood friend who now was an architect, renowned for the insolent nature of his work.
With a heavy coat on his shoulders and a black hat on his head, Aleksej slammed the door to his stagnant life and stepped into a train. The wooden floor of the wagon creaked beneath his foot soles. Most of the coupés he passed were occupied by sleepy business man, who were chasing success from city to city. At last, he opened the door of an empty compartment and sat. He rubbed his hands, then warmed them with the heat of his breath. As the scenery from his window changed swiftly and his coupé got warmer, he started noticing details of the present moment. The worn out leather of the seats with its wrinkles reminded Aleksej of old wise men who experienced a broad horizon of events in life. Was it truly different for a train seat? The stories of people who sat there, their most intimate thoughts and feelings, must have sunk in somewhere between the lines of the brown leather they were sitting on. Tangled in the complexity of his thoughts he gently drifted into sleep.
“Tac, tac, tac!” the abrupt knocking of the conductor’s knuckles on the glass door of his compartment woke Aleksej. He rose his hat and nodded to the conductor in sign of thankfulness.
As he stepped out of the wagon and the cold crisp air splashed in his face, the world went quiet for a moment. Quiet enough for Aleksej to feel the screeching of the rails of the departing train beneath his skin, deep down in his bones. That feeling would already have been enough for him to write hundreds of pages. Lost in his thoughts, he walked out of Brno’s railway station, his coat dancing with the wind on his back.
A dark figure waved towards Aleksej from the other side of the street. It was Ludwig’s driver, a short chubby man with a large, curved nose. He greeted Aleksej, opened the car door for him, slammed it close, opened his door, sat and fired the engine. His movements seemed so mechanical and his mind so distant from the present moment. Ludwig’s employees always had a particular nature; whether in character or aesthetics. People tended to justify that with the fact that he was an artist looking for extravagance in every aspect of his life, Aleksej disagreed.
Looking out of the car’s tiny window Aleksej couldn’t conclude much about the city of Brno, the darkness of the night embraced everything and blurred all shapes. It was all shadows, until his eyes caught an exception. High up on a hill, there stood a castle, enlightened by torches at its feet. It seemed so lonely. It appeared the castle was looking over the city; despite the numerous turns the road took, the watchful eye of the castle was always present.
The car stopped and the driver’s mechanical routine of open and closed doors followed. The final act of the driver was a smooth movement of the hand, reaching up to his hat and tapping onto its edge: it was a goodbye. Still ravished by the predictable yet fascinating nature of that little man, Aleksej turned around only to be stunned one more time. His eyes were sliding along the perfectly straight and simple lineaments of the building in front of him yet his brain had difficulties conceiving what it was. In the unsureness of that moment, a door of the building opened. Ludwig was standing at the entrance, tall and lean as always. His posture was in perfect symbiosis with the simple geometry surrounding him.
“Aleksej, my friend! Come in, please! We have so much to talk about.” Said Ludwig with a wide smile on his face. The two men patted each other’s shoulder, their eyes traveling along the curves and edges of the other’s body, searching for familiarities and changes at the same time. Ludwig’s face was marked by time, lines like dry river banks were now marking the edges of his mouth and the corners of his eyes. Yet there was nothing different in the way he looked at Aleksej, from the day they first met in a meadow when they were simply two boys chasing frogs, the space between his eyelids always radiated with a sincere light.
Aleksej stepped into a vast room, it looked so empty yet it was furnished with every main item of a living space.
“My friend, would you care for a drink?” Ludwig asked, wrecking Aleksej out of his thoughts.
“What is this place?” asked Aleksej, completely ignoring his friend’s question.
Ludwig poured dark red wine in two tall crystal glasses and holding them in his hands, he walked towards a strangely flat sofa.
“Please, sit down”, he said in a calm voice, stretching his arm towards his friend. Aleksej took the wine, its sent tickled his nostrils, he sipped on it and sat.
“This, my friend, is my newest creation. I was asked to design a villa for a notorious family, the Tugendthats, and well…this is what it turned out to be.”
“People will live here?” asked Aleksej with disbelief.
Ludwig laughed, “Yes, some will indeed. I completed my work here a few days ago, now I am simply enjoying my creation before handing it over to unfamiliar hands. It’s something I always do, I feel an obligation towards the spaces I design. My clients don’t know about this, but I consider it an essential part of my work to live within the walls I create, even if only briefly.”
“Pardon my surprised tone, my dear Ludwig. But I am struggling with accepting what my eyes perceive. It feels as if my mind cannot decide whether the openness and simplicity of this room make me feel safe or threatened.” Aleksej sipped on the wine, his eyes wondering through the vastness of the space surrounding him, sliding along the smooth curves and singular edges of the furniture. “How did your mind create something so different and provocative?” he finally asked.
Ludwig smiled confidently, “I take that as a compliment! You see, my friend, this was my precise intention: to provoke. As the years went by and I travelled through various countries, I realized that the role of architecture had changed abruptly. It is no longer viewed as a form of art, but rather a static and dull design of spaces. People are more and more opting for the conventional and the familiar, instead of daring to step out of their comfort zone. The spaces most people live in no longer represent uniqueness of character but rather practicality. Realizing this awoke a well-defined feeling in me…a desire for unapologetic change!” Ludwig leaned towards Aleksej, as if he was trying to immerge him physically in his words. His eyes were shining with life and desire to make Aleksej understand his world. He then placed his glass of wine on a disturbingly low, circular onyx table and continued: “I noticed how typical homes are crowded with objects, furniture, sculptures even plants! It’s as if people were creating homes for their objects rather than for themselves.” Noticing Aleksej’s confused expression, Ludwig stopped for a moment, leaned back and considered: “Oh look at me, I get so easily transported into a realm of consuming emotions when justifying my work… Forgive me for this, Aleksej. Tell me about you, I’m sure your curiosity has led you through many adventures!”
“No, please don’t stop, Ludwig! Your thoughts are so engaging I wouldn’t want a habitual and mundane conversation to lessen the impact of your ideas.” Aleksej reassured him.
Hearing this, the corners of Ludwig’s lips curled upward slightly and he gladly continued: “As I was saying, I noticed how common the unnecessary had become. This made me think: why not design a house that gives more room to experiences rather than things? Remove all the superfluous objects and decors, and let the people be the central elements of the house. I designed this villa with the aim of creating a space for momentary experiences rather than stationary objects. I want the people who live here to get lost in themselves, their conversations and games, rather than in the shapes of their surroundings. That is why the lines of this room are straight, neat and few. I want to rest the eyes by simplifying the space and stimulate other senses instead. Come with me, I need to show you something.” He stood up promptly and walked towards the glass wall that extended thought the entire width of the room they were in. Aleksej blindly followed, guided by the curiosity of his mind rather than his steps.
The fresh, crisp air flooded Aleksej’s senses as he followed Ludwig on the terrace. And there it was, one more time: that lonely, mighty castle, rising proudly in the far distance.
Ludwig pointed at the castle, “Look, right there: the Špilberk castle. The location of this house is not casual. I chose this particular spot specifically to allow these two buildings to eternally look at each other. Isn’t it poetic? The past and the future staring at each other in a straight line. It’s as if they were challenging each other, battling for what people define beautiful. ”
“Battling? Aren’t you concerned about of the opinion of classic architects that might view this provocation as a mockery of their work?”
Ludwig laughed loudly, “Mockery, my friend, is the ultimate pleasure.”
Aleksej left Villa Tugendhat the following morning. Prolonging a stay so intense would have meant transforming it into the ordinary. Truly, the superfluous had the power to render everything dull.