The functionalist landmark has yet to wait for repairs. (ČTK)The functionalist landmark has yet to wait for repairs. (ČTK)

There are some wounds that even time cannot heal. Brno’s villa Tugendhat, an admired work by the star of modern architecture Mies van der Rohe, which is visited by thousands of people from all over the world annually, is slowly falling apart. The only “new” Czech house on the UNESCO list has been waiting for reconstruction for years. According to the promises of the Brno mayor, cement mixers were to start spinning this year, but repairs were postponed again. It is not only the fans of this interesting house who are annoyed, but also the descendants of the original owners, who gave up their rights to restitution some time ago because of the promise of the town to reconstruct the villa immaculately. Now, all of them are asking with uncertainty, if Brno will manage to reconstruct the villa. A look behind the scenes indicates that the town hall’s crew still does not quite understand that an exceptional house needs exceptional care.

“It’s like a boulder that we keep rolling in front of us,” said Deputy Mayor Ladislav Macek, who is responsible for the villa’s reconstruction, uttering a sigh in his office. A smiling politician, whose office is decorated with replicas of weapons from the Wild West, admits that he would be happy to shake off the reconstruction of the famous house as quickly as possible. “But it’s constantly being delayed,” he shrugs his shoulders. In his opinion, the source of all problems lies in the tender for the project, according to which the villa was to have been repaired. The tender was called by the previous town hall four years ago. Omnia, a Brno construction company, won the tender, but its victory was immediately attacked by Brno architect Jan Sapák, who placed second. At first, he filed two unsuccessful complaints with the Office for the protection of Competition. Only when he filed a lawsuit did he win. The court decided this year that Omnia did not have documentation for the reconstruction of monuments required by the rules of the tender.

And it’s rolling; while the legal disputes were dragging on, the town bought a project worth CZK 9 million from Omnia. The court has said, however, that the town must not use the project and the company must return money to the town hall. The firm has objected to the ruling, saying that it has been “working for two years” on the project.

“We’ve been proceeding based on the decision of the office for economic competition, who has said twice that the tender was all right,” Deputy Mayor Macek said, defending the town’s procedure. Town councillors are now launching a plan how to keep Omnia’s project in the game as the firm has acquired all thenecessary authorisation and the reconstruction can be launched soon, he says. “We will call a new tender in January. Applicants interested in the reconstruction will have to submit a complete project,” Macek says. The town council says that it does not “at all [intend] to make Omnia’s position more favourable”, but the reality is harsh. The only owner of complete plans – the preparation of which has cost millions and taken long months – is the above-mentioned company. “We will make all the effort to implement our project,” Omnia’s executive Vítek Tichý says clearly. “We’ve had a lot of work with the project, and we handed it in in good faith that the competition had been running according to rules.”

Try foundation

In Brno he is considered an architecture expert, but the people from the city hall can barely stand him. The officials believe he is behind the reconstruction delays. “Omnia wants to restore the building to its original condition, exactly as it looked when the architect handed it over to the owners,” architect Jan Sapák said. “I consider this a nonsense. There is a story behind the house and it’s not necessary to renew every broken piece of furniture,” he said, adding he would leave some flaws intact and make the reconstruction cheaper (Omnia estimates the cost to reach CZK 150 million, while Sapák says he would need CZK 40 million less). The rebellious architect doesn’t give up his fight, intending to file a suit against the city hall’s plan to call a new tender.

The future of the Tugendhat Villa therefore remains uncertain. The councillors want to launch the reconstruction before the next regional elections to have something to boast about.

“We rely upon our lawyers who recommended to call a new tender,” said Deputy Mayor Macek.

It is the price that will now apparently decide the tender. Brno City Hall is not planning to implement the western approach, in which an international board of judges decides about restorations of acclaimed landmarks. “It would take a long time to put together an international panel of judges,” said deputy mayor Oliver Pospíšil. “We’re not going to make a special case out of it,” Macek said. “The villa is after all a house like any other and its reconstruction is purely a technical thing. It is not an issue.”

Luckily such an approach is not universal. “It’s an international disgrace,” said architecture historian Zdeněk Lukeš. “I don’t know any other UNESCO landmark destroyed like this.” He thinks the current dispute has no solution. “The situation requires a new approach,” said Lukeš. He thinks the city should go with a plan suggested last year by daughter of former villa owners, art historian Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat.

She suggested establishing a foundation comprised of Tugendhat descendants, city representatives and renowned world architects. “This is a system used abroad on a regular basis,” said Lukeš. Daniela Tugendhat believes the foundation would collect money for restoration without having to initiate complicated tenders such as the city hall which operates with public funds. “My nephew owns a large consulting firm in Washington. He is good at collecting money. The foundation could collect more money than anyone else,” Daniela Tugendhat said. She is angry that the city hall has refused cooperation. “I visited the Brno mayor with my nephew. But he refused our plan,” said the daughter of former owners.

“Establishing a foundation would take a long time and we’re in a hurry,” said Macek, a deputy from the city hall, which has been blocking the reconstruction for years. “The city hall councillors still hope they can scamp the reconstruction somehow. But this is a world-renowned landmark,” said Brno-based art historian Miroslav Ambroz, who recommends an international panel discussion to be held regarding the Tugendhat reconstruction, as well as establishing an international board of judges. “They’re still opposing it, though. Maybe one day they will get the point.”

Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.