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Discovering Brno’s Architecture

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.

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