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Discovering Brno’s Architecture

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.

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