Discovering Brno’s Architecture

Discovering Brno’s Architecture

In Brno, the Czech Republic's Second City, Modernist architecture took root early and then promptly dropped from sight behind the Iron Curtain.

On my first night in the Czech Republic, a Dixie­land band outside my hotel window is playing "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" to an audience of Brno's female entrepreneurs. I crashed the party and stayed long enough to catch a fashion show by a local designer and dine on barbecued chicken-liver kebabs. After accidentally gobbling a mouthful of horseradish, mistaking it for sauerkraut, I retreated to my room.

I'm staying at the Vila na Hroznové, in a leafy outlying neighborhood of Brno, in pursuit of the city's legacy as an undiscovered hotbed of Modernism. Brno is the Czech Republic's second-largest city, a modest Chicago to Prague's increasingly flashy New York. On the outside, this villa turned hotel exemplifies an architectural style known as Brno Functionalism. Designed by local architect Arnošt Wiesner, who was influenced by native son Adolph Loos, it is a solid hunk of modernity, circa 1927, squarish and simple, with big glass sliding doors that open onto a spacious patio. Inside, however, the décor seems right out of the Hapsburg Empire. In my humongous three-room suite, there is gold-on-gold brocade wallpaper and a double-sized sleigh bed with claw feet so articulated that they even have toenails—gold toenails.

All this gilded opulence is not exactly what I'm after. This is the town that between the wars embodied the design ideals the Bauhaus school made famous—clean-lined simplicity and, as the name of the style's local incarnation makes clear, functionality. What I love about this city, even on my first disorienting night, is that it has only barely begun to figure out that the 1,000-plus Modernist buildings around town might be as big a tourist draw as the outdoor cafés in its medieval square or the mummified monks on view in the crypt of the Capuchin church. Modernism has not yet become a fetish here, so there is a chance that you can see the movement for what it once was: the symbol of a wonderfully optimistic, visionary period in a country that was otherwise held hostage to the troubled ambitions of its neighbors—the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, the Soviets.

Brno does get its share of architecture tourists. The one thing people know about this city—besides the fact that it's a perennial crossword-puzzle answer—is that it's the home of the Vila Tugendhat, one of German architect Ludwig Mies van der ­Rohe's first important works. The villa, commissioned in 1928 by a young couple, Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, both offspring of wealthy textile manufacturers, is built into the side of a hill overlooking the town. Designed at the same time as Mies's legendary Barcelona Pavilion (which was demolished), the building's main floor has a similar open plan, with massive windows (including two that work like power windows in a car), curving walls, and a stunning, iridescent onyx room-divider.

The Tugendhats lived in the house for only eight years, until 1938, when they fled the Nazis. The building was subsequently appropriated by the Gestapo, and after the war housed a gymnastics school. It was only recently, in 1994, that the partially restored villa was taken over by the Brno City Museum and opened to the public.

Driving in my little blue rented Peugeot, I follow my "Modern Architecture in Brno" map to Černopolní Street. This isn't easy because it is somehow un-Czech to put up street signs in the expected places—such as intersections—but once I find the right street, the villa is obvious. It's marked by little clusters of unusually serious-looking tourists acting as if they've arrived at Lourdes. The pilgrims pace the front walk, searching for a spot that will yield a good photo of the house. At street level, however, the villa works like a house in the Holly­wood Hills, revealing only a gray garage door and a bare cement courtyard.

At precisely five minutes before our tour is scheduled to begin, a tall, thin, blond woman comes out, opens the locked front gate, and carefully checks our names against a list. She instructs us to wait on the back terrace and forbids us to take any photos. My fellow architecture tourists and I hang out on a sun-baked concrete patio furnished only by a semicircular wooden bench with a chain across it. Sitting is also forbidden.

A group of students from Tulane University's School of Architecture—the only Americans I encounter during my week in Brno—arrive, late, and our tour begins. In the upstairs entry hall we put on blue cloth scuffies over our shoes to protect the floor. I half expect that they'll ask us to don face masks.

Undeniably, this is a magnificent house. Its ebony-paneled walls and built-in closets are gorgeous, and so are the travertine floors, gleaming onyx wall, and great expanses of window. As I thread my way among Tulane students who have taken out their sketchbooks and planted themselves at intervals on the living-room floor, I think that this must be the Mies-iest spot on earth, the one extant building where he got to try out all his best ideas.

I spend days roaming the city's streets, finding the houses, schools, churches, and stores represented by the 44 dots on my map, which I track with the anticipation of a treasure hunter following a pirate's map. Dot No. 36, representing a small development called Nový Dům, is my favorite. Off in a far corner of the city, tucked between a wooded park and a highway, are three short blocks of Modernist row houses. This was Brno's answer to the larger and much better known Weissenhof Siedlung, which opened in Stuttgart in 1927. Here, as in Stuttgart, the idea was to build exhibition houses that would, at the end of the public display, become an actual neighborhood. Nový Dům (New House), with 16 buildings by nine architects, debuted in 1928. Nový Dům is now an almost pastoral place, fully occupied but largely forgotten.

The Vila Tugendhat is quite grand, but Nový Dům is what Brno Functionalism was really all about: simple, practical architecture for ordinary people. Less doctrinaire than the hard little homes Walter Gropius built for the workers of Dessau, Germany, near the Bauhaus school, these three-story row houses have character and sweetness. Some of the details, like the balconies, are so rudimentary that they might have been fashioned from Play-Doh. Here, at the corner of Šmejkalova and Drnovická Streets, the poignancy of a lost moment in history moves me almost to tears.

Of course, most architecture tourists crave something more monumental, something like a cathedral. And Brno provides. The Nový Dům houses were actually built as an off-site component of 1928's Exhibition of Contemporary Culture in Czechoslovakia, a fair commemorating the 10th anniversary of the new republic. "It was like a celebration of a young, capitalistic, democratic state," says Iveta Černá, an architectural historian who administers the Vila Tugendhat for the Brno City Museum, and who shows me the fairgrounds built on former sugar-beet fields not far outside the original city walls.

Pavilion A, the fair's most powerful structure, was the result of an architectural competition won by Prague architect Josef Kalous. This is a glorious building. Its giant, wishbone-shaped concrete ribs supporting a glass (now Plexiglas) ceiling embody both a Modernist passion for structure and a Gothic sense of awe. These days Pavilion A—along with 15 others, including some 1920's gems, a couple of 1950's examples of Communist engineering, and several pavilions from the 1990's—is a venue for the endless parade of trade fairs that are Brno's bread and butter. The International Fair of Footwear and Leatherwear, the International Welding Engineering Fair, the International Funeral Fair, and so on.

After two nights at the Vila na Hroz-nové, I relocate to the Hotel Slavia, a 19th-century historicist heap chosen not for its architecture but for its location in Brno's thriving downtown. It is a compact, healthy medieval center with two large squares and a network of narrow streets (many of them reserved for pedestrians), with endless charming courtyards and passageways.

Brno gives the impression of a city that is blossoming, one that takes pleasure in its own habits and rituals. As I walk around town, still following the dots, my architectural mission is frequently, and happily, interrupted. For instance, one afternoon my view of the structurally significant 1930 Moravian Bank building on Brno's main square is obscured by a beach volleyball competition—the sand trucked in for the occasion—practically on the bank's doorstep. On another day, the same spot is filled by a concert of remarkably good Czech-inflected country and western.

Mostly this lack of reverence is for the best, although there are times when I wish the town were a little more self-conscious. For instance, I would have loved to stay in the Hotel Avion, a sliver of a building designed by Bohuslav Fuchs and considered, back in 1928, a symbol of the Czech avant-garde. The Avion, sadly, has not been well maintained. It's furnished in a way that might best be described as functional, but not Functionalist, the sort of Eastern European décor that makes IKEA look swank by comparison.

But gradually, Brno is find ing ways to commemorate and preserve its Modernist heritage. The Brno City Museum, located in the Špilberk, the hilltop castle that more or less constitutes the city's skyline, has an extensive permanent exhibition, "O Nové Brno" ("For New Brno"), that documents the Functionalist moment with historic photos, renderings, and examples of furniture from the period. The wall text, sadly, is only in Czech, but the show's catalogue is available in English.

However, the best indicators of a growing appreciation of design are the cafés. On Jezuitská Street, in a park on the fringes of Brno's medieval core, is a 1995 reconstruction of Café Zeman. Originally built in 1925, this airy white structure, with its wide-open façade, was the first important Functionalist building by Fuchs. It was torn down in 1964 to make way for an opera house. Now, reincarnated and furnished with 1920's-style Thonet bentwood chairs, it doesn't seem like a waxworks at all. And Café Onyx, newly opened on narrow Zámečnická Street, has floors of Miesian travertine, white upholstered chairs with bent plywood backs and chrome legs, and a dazzling backlit onyx wall.

I enter Onyx gingerly, half expecting that I'll have to slip blue booties over my shoes. As I sit and drink a glass of champagne (absinthe is also on the menu), I chat with an architecture student from Graz who moves slowly through the café, methodically videotaping every last detail. He pauses to point out the way that the wainscoting meets the marble floor. "That is copied from Tugendhat," he says.  And all I can think, as I sip my brut, is that quiet, understated Brno is slowly beginning to trade up: the naïve optimism of Modernism's past for the unvarnished opportunism of the present.

KARRIE JACOBS is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.


Vila na Hroznové
14 Hroznová; 420-5/4321-1395; doubles from $80.

Hotel Slavia
15–17 Solicní; 420-5/4232-1249;; doubles from $125.


Café Onyx
1 Zámecnická; 420-5/4221-1406; dinner for two $25.

Café Zeman
6 Jezuitská; 420-5/4221-8096; dinner for two $20.


Brno City Museum
1 Špilberk; 420-5/4212-3611;

Nový Dum
9, 111 Bráfova; 2–10 Drnovická; 2–10 Petrvaldská; 144–148 Šmejkalova.

Pavilion A
Brno fairgrounds, 1 Výstavište.

Vila Tugendhat
45 Cernopolní; 420-5/4521-2118;; tour reservations required.

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