Mies Van Der Rohe’s use of glass In the tugendhat house
Throughout his career, architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used glass meaningfully, employing it not simply as material for windows but as a means of creating flexible, free spaces and rendering boundaries between indoors and outdoors more mutable. In the Tugendhat house, completed in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1930, Mies used glass to great effect in the house’s main living space, adding retractable full-height windows that blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors, allowing the house’s residents to enjoy contact with the natural surroundings with comfort and protection from extremes.
Throughout his career, Mies placed great emphasis on structure and especially materials, generally preferring rich, sumptuous ones over the simply cheap or utilitarian. In buildings like the Tugendhat house, for example, he used thick, sturdy glass, a partial wall of honey-colored onyx, and a curved screen of ebony in the dining area. According to architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, “the sublime for Mies resided in the quality of the material itself and in the revelation of its essence through construction.” He respected how glass admitted and reflected light, giving color to buildings often unfairly criticized as lifeless and sterile, as well as how it formed transparent boundaries and defined spaces without making one feel confined. In addition, glass let Mies lower barriers between indoors and outdoors, and between the residents and their surrounding environment.
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Architectural historian Fritz Neumeyer traces Mies’ philosophy on glass to Space as Membrane, a 1926 tract by Bauhaus associate Siegfried Ebeling. In this obscure modernist manifesto, Ebeling promoted not a specific style or form so much as a notion of buildings (especially houses) as organisms and called for an architecture that would encourage what Neumeyer calls “a new naturalness” that encouraged physical health, exercise, and contact with the outdoors. In his view, houses would not look “natural” but would have nature-friendly functions, encouraging ample contact with fresh air, natural light, and outdoor leisure. He continues, “Liberated from the historical dress style, the buildings assembled themselves as naked volumes under the light, because, as Le Corbusier said, ‘We have acquired a taste for fresh air and clear daylight.’” Ebeling, Neumeyer claims, “longed for an architectonic space that would do justice to one’s relationship with one’s body, one’s being, and the eternity of the cosmos.”
Mies concurred strongly with this philosophy, considering the needs Ebeling articulated when designing domestic buildings. In a 1933 speech to an association of German glass manufacturers, Mies said, “Only now [with steel, concrete, and glass construction] can we articulate space, open it up and connect it to the landscape, thereby filling the spatial needs of modern man.” Clearly, he considered contact with nature beneficial for people (especially modern urbanites who did not work the land or perform physical labor), so he designed homes like the Tugendhat house for that purpose, making permeable barriers between interior and exterior without isolating the inhabitants.
Mies used glass in accordance with these ideas, creating houses that promoted this view of physical well-being and demonstrating his grasp of Ebeling’s ideas, as well as his own thoughts on the subject. Though his earlier works used abundant amounts of brick, especially for its load-bearing capabilities, by the late 1920s he found in glass “greater freedom without immediate obligation to narrow functionality.” With steel skeletons, he could use walls flexibly, even sparingly, virtually eliminating them in some cases (like the Tugendhat house). He gained experience working with glass during the 1920s, first in his 1927 Stuttgart Werkbund exhibit, where about which scholar Jose Quetglas asks, “Could it be that the pavilion has no interior, or that its interior is an exterior?” This is exactly the condition one sees in the Tugendhat house’s main room – only a flexible boundary separates outdoors and indoors, and even when raised it does not completely shut out nature, which is always at least visible. It and 1929’s German Pavilion at the Barcelona International Exhibition (commonly called the “Barcelona Pavilion”) were both key influences on the Tugendhat house, built for an affluent German-speaking Jewish family who fled the Nazi threat in 1938. Glass, in his view, served as a skin rather than a solid, immutable boundary that art scholar Peter Smithson characterizes as “sky-involving” and “structure-dissolving,” reducing the boundaries between building and physical environment.
Completed shortly after the Barcelona Pavilion was dismantled, the Tugendhat house used a steel skeleton that relieved the walls of their load-bearing duties, allowing Mies to use walls as “screens,” even making entire walls out of glass. A two-level structure built along a sloping hillside, the house has a smooth white stucco skin and very few windows along the front, which faces a city street. The house’s upper level consists of a garage and, to the viewer’s left, two pavilions, each containing the bedrooms and joined by a curved wall of translucent frosted glass that partly conceals the house’s entry and staircase, which leads down into the main living/dining room. Here, the glass maintains the smooth white continuity of the house’s exterior, acting as a part of the skin rather than as a window. From the street, the Tugendhat home resembles some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie houses, which were similarly horizontal and had long bands of windows as well as partly concealed entrances, for the dwellers’ privacy.
Figure 1: The Tugendhat house, front. From www.aneris.cz.
Figure 2: The Tugendhat house, rear. From www.aneris.cz.
On the lower level, glass plays a much more vital role. The large main room features large floor-to-ceiling glass windows that retract into the floor and offer a wide view of both the city of Brno and especially the large, lushly landscaped backyard. At first glance, it resembles Neutra’s Lovell house in southern California, a masterwork of the International Style. However, the windows allow the main room to open itself to the outdoors, thus making an already-transparent boundary even more permeable and letting this large indoor space flow freely into the outdoors. In the words of scholar Wolf Tegethoff, this is less a room than “a loose succession of spaces opening into one another.”
The Tugendhat family responded well to the glass-walled main room, particularly enjoying how the retractable glass walls helped open the interior spaces to the lush, expansive backyard. Grete Tugendhat, who along with her husband commissioned Mies, wrote that “though the connection between inside and outside is indeed important, the space is nonetheless actually enclosed and self-sufficient; in this sense, the glass wall functions completely as a boundary.” Similarly, her husband adds that, with glass walls, “it is quite possible . . . to completely shut oneself off from the outside space if one so desires – though I myself prefer the distant horizon to the restricting pressure of close walls when I am concentrating.” Clearly, the inhabitants enjoyed the sense of freedom and flexibility glass walls gave them, and understood Mies’ intention of creating spaces without confinement.
With the Tugendhat house, Mies could create with glass a unique modern kind of space, “not enclosed but nevertheless limited,” in the words of modernist painter Piet Mondrian. Mies wanted to create a mutable, free-flowing space, not rigidly defined by opaque walls but by glass, which he often covered with colored fabrics to make the interiors livelier. While glass walls and partitions formed boundaries, they would admit light and make rooms feel less confining by allowing a wider visual field, with interior spaces feeling larger and freer. More importantly, he dispensed with conventional windows when convenient, telling the initially-skeptical Tugendhats that windows “should no longer be holes in a wall, but fill the space between floor and ceiling, thereby becoming elements of the structure.”
Most importantly, glass also opened up the house to the natural surroundings, which, within a few years of its completion, included a lush green garden created by landscape architect Grete Roder, with whom Mies worked closely. According to art historian Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, the original owners’ daughter, the setting “offered an ideal opportunity to realize the concept of opening up the interior space of the house to its natural surroundings. The intended continuum between interior and exterior spaces, the dialogue between architecture and nature essentially determines the structure of the house.” This dialogue closely connected the building to its site, making the immediate landscape and the cityscape in the distance much more an integral part of the inhabitants’ experience. When the main room’s windows were retracted, she claims, “Not only did the house open up out towards the green space outside, nature was also brought, as it were, inside: on the eastern façade a lushly green conservatory mediated between interior and natural exterior space.”
According to architect-scholar Peter Blake, the Tugendhat house’s use of glass reveals Mies’ aesthetic sensibilities, especially his sensitivity to color. Given that the house itself was decorated in neutrals (white, off-white, brown, and black) and that Mies’ later works seldom embraced color, the notion that Mies even cared about color seems odd at face value, but he designed the Tugendhat house to let the residents enjoy the colors around them. The expansive glass lets the home’s dwellers enjoy the outdoors’ many colors throughout the year. Blake maintains that “the ever-changing colours in nature are a major part of the spatial experience indoors.” Mies himself said the house’s neutral tones offset the vivid colors outside, and Blake adds that “Mies made the landscape his ‘wallpaper;’ indeed, one of the glass walls was really a glass case, filled with planting that lent touches of colour to the interior in every season.”
While the Tugendhats understood Mies’ intentions and uses of glass, architectural scholar Jose Quetglas sees Mies’ use of glass ambivalently at best. In “Fear of Glass,” his analysis of the Barcelona Pavilion, Quetglas concedes that Mies uses space imaginatively and blurs the distinctions between indoors and outdoors but does not examine Mies’ use of glass very broadly beyond the Barcelona Pavilion and the glass-curtained skyscrapers he produced later in life. Though at times he offers praise, Quetglas maintains that this “myth of glass” amounts a sort of emptiness, apparently failing to see how Mies came to use glass very shrewdly in his domestic designs. In the Tugendhat home, the glass constantly directs attention to the exterior landscape and does not really segregate one from the exterior.
In addition, Quetglas claims that the glass in Mies’ houses turns the exterior landscape into an abstraction: “The exterior is negated as a distant landscape and becomes a plate stuck to the window . . . a representation of itself.” This point is perhaps valid, since the outdoors becomes a sort of abstract art with the windows closed; however, he seems unaware that the Tugendhat family often opened the windows in clement weather, letting the landscape in and making it very tangible indeed. The glass does not necessarily neutralize the landscape, but protects those indoors from its extremes; one does not forget that it is there. Quetglas even contradicts himself by adding that Mies’ glass “refers one to that which is on the other side – and that . . . is always a visual spectacle, not an abstract relation.” In that phrase, one sees Mies’ use of glass in his houses properly; it constantly refers one to the outdoors, making it a spectacle when one chooses and eliminating the boundaries between indoors and outdoors at will, letting nature become not simply a nice visual element but a key part of one’s domestic life.
Though critics often assailed Mies’ later works (especially his commercial structures, like his glass-clad skyscrapers) for seeming cold and lifeless, his domestic works used glass rather shrewdly and for the inhabitants’ benefit. In particular, the Tugendhat house is far from a glass prison; it relies on glass to give the structure life and to grant the inhabitants easy access to the outdoors, whether they choose to simply look at it or enjoy it without having to leave the home’s main room. Though houses from this period (like Mies’ and Le Corbusier’s) had a machine-like appearance, they drew their warmth from the natural surroundings and did not shut out nature, but make it much easier for the residents to appreciate it and even allow it into their homes. Glass was thus an instrument of flexibility, serving as a means of making physical space more flexible, transparent, and suitable for modern humanity’s benefit.
Anonymous. “BRNO.” 3 November 2005. <http://www.aneris.cz/brno_14.html>.
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