Why Brno? A place, many would say, distinguished only by its lack of distinction, set at the very heart of Europe but always in the shadow of its mighty neighbour Vienna or its more distant cousin, Prague. A capital of course, but only a regional capital, of South Moravia. The writer Jirí Kratochvil, a native of the place, makes it clear in his prose poem ‘How to Paint a Picture of Brno’: ‘Brno is a city on which there lies the curse of provincialism.’
And yet in a curious way — I’ve never lived there, and visited only a handful of times — Brno has occupied a large part of my life ever since the day, four years after the Iron Curtain came down, I first crept cautiously into the city. I’d driven up from Vienna through the bleak Moravian plain and I didn’t really know what to expect. The city lies at the confluence of two rivers and is surrounded by forested hills, which all sounded promising enough, but, on approach, an outer circle of concrete apartment blocks — the paneláky of the Soviet era — does little to inspire confidence, and an inner circle of railway bridges and grimy run-down frontages from the Viennese Secession doesn’t do much to lift the spirits either. However, I was on a pilgrimage and pilgrims have always been able to put up with hardship. The object of my particular veneration was Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian friar who, in his role as the father of genetics, has ironically become something of a secular saint since his death in 1884. While not a native of Brno, Mendel lived all his adult life in the city and carried out his epoch-making experiments on the humble pea in the garden of the Augustinian convent in Old Brno.
The convent is a fine sixteenth-century complex on the edge of the square named after him where trams clang and shudder into the terminus. The buildings themselves have a collegiate air about them, like an Oxbridge college where one might think long and hard about serious matters or nothing much at all, whichever one pleases. In the former refectory was a tiny Mendel Museum with the good friar’s spectacles staring blindly from a glass case at the occasional visitor. The visitor’s book had entries from all over the world, almost all of them biologists.
For me that visit was an epiphany — but Joycean rather than religious. I felt the old man’s presence there, benign, benevolent and inspiring, a cleric of the nineteenth-century who had yet been prepared to stare Nature straight in the eye without flinching and without recourse to sophistry. And as I looked round the place I felt the first stirrings of that entirely fictional character, Benedict Lambert, who came to inhabit my novel Mendel’s Dwarf. The convent library keeps Mendel’s own copy of the German edition of On the Origin of Species, with his pencil markings in the margin. He read the Origin as a biologist looking for enlightenment not as a religious fundamentalist looking for heresy, much as Ben confronts his own dwarfism and life in general as a scientist and rationalist rather than a victim.
On that first visit I also caught a glimpse of another figure from Brno’s past, a mere child, boarder in the convent choir school. His name? Léoš Janácek. Later in his life he became organist and choir master at the convent, appointed to the position by Abbot Mendel himself; indeed, in January 1884 it was he who played the organ at the Abbot’s funeral mass. If Mendel was able to stare Nature dead in the eye, Janácek was able to do the same with musical tradition and thereby create something both modern and highly original. Yet recognition came slowly. Was he, one wonders, a victim of Brno’s provincialism? From his schooldays spent in the convent (he hated it) he was little more than a noteworthy local composer until he was past his sixtieth birthday, when national and then international renown finally came his way. Had he been a denizen of Prague would discovery have come earlier? Who knows? What is sure is that now, over eighty years after his death, his importance continues to grow as more and more people come to appreciate the extraordinary achievement of operas like Jenufa and The Cunning Little Vixen, the great choral work known as the Glagolitic Mass, or the haunting piano music.
There is a nexus within this modest city, a network that links people across the disciplines and across the years: from Abbot Mendel to Léoš Janácek, from Janácek to his pupil, Ludvík Kundera, composer and teacher, from Ludvík to his own son and sometime pupil, Milan. From the eighteenth-century to the twenty-first, from science to music to literature. Famously Milan Kundera escaped the clutches of the city and now lives in Paris, but that’s the fate of provincial cities, isn’t it? They lose their children and such loss is both the cause and the effect of that stultifying provincialism that Kratochvil talks of. ‘You’ll get the urge to run away from your city a hundred times,’ he warns. So who else, apart from Kundera, fled Brno? The names may surprise you. Let me give you three: Ernst Mach, physicist, he of shock waves and the Mach number; Robert Musil, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century; Kurt Gödel.
There are many ghastly things about the twentieth-century, so many that all too often we fail to enumerate the wonders. Kurt Gödel, friend and colleague of Einstein at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, is one of the wonders. He is up there in the pantheon of original thought, of mad, fascinating, exquisitely twentieth-century thought, as dotty as Marcel Duchamp, as absurd as Beckett and Ionesco, as visionary as Schrödinger or Dirac. Gödel it was who proved mathematically that there are mathematical truths that can never be proved.
True to form as a native of Brno (he would have called it Brünn), Gödel abandoned his home town as soon as he could and decamped to Vienna, complaining that he had felt like ‘an Austrian exiled in Czechoslovakia’. He might have got the mathematics right but he got the politics profoundly wrong. What he left behind when he abandoned his home town in 1929 was a country that was quite the opposite of strife-torn Austria. Created at the end of the First World War out of the wreckage of the Austria-Hungary Empire, Czechoslovakia was the world’s tenth industrial power and the only liberal democracy in central Europe. It had thriving theatrical, musical and art scenes. Kafka’s works were being published by the indefatigable Max Brod. Karel Capek had given the world the word robot in his seminal play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Janácek had finally achieved international status as a composer. And through its architecture, the city of Brno was becoming emblematic of the country’s optimistic regard for the future.
The clarion call came even before the First World War, when Adolf Loos — yet another child of Brno who fled his native city — published his notorious ‘Ornament and Crime’ polemic attacking ornamentation in general and the style of the Viennese Secession in particular. This essay became a Magna Carta of the modernist, International Style of architecture and once the guns had fallen silent in 1918 and the politicians had redrawn the map of Europe, Loos’ challenge was taken up in his native city. From the mid nineteen-twenties onwards architects such as Arnošt Wiesner and Bohuslav Fuchs created a range of spare, functionalist buildings across Brno, from banks, apartment stores and houses to the trade exhibition centre beside the Svratka River, the municipal swimming pool in the east of the city, and the city crematorium in the south. And in 1928 an outsider, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, came to town at the invitation of the industrialist Fritz Tugendhat and his new wife Greta.
The Vila Tugendhat is the beautiful International Style house that came out of that invitation. It lies to the north of the city centre on Cernopolni, Blackfield Street, a quiet, suburban road that winds across a hillside like a contour line marking a high tide of architectural fashion as much as altitude. From the street the building is more obvious by its reserve than anything else, as low slung and anonymous as a sports pavilion. Perhaps even that is emblematic of the city where it stands: you need to get inside in order to discover its merits. On my first visit, one wet Wednesday in March, I stood at the gate in the drizzle and wondered if I would achieve even that. The guide book had advertised that access was by appointment only but at my hotel I had heard a rumour that the house was open to the public on Wednesdays. ‘Maybe,’ the receptionist had said, shrugging. ‘Maybe it opens.’
The Iron Curtain may have collapsed in a heap of breeze-blocks but attitudes hadn’t collapsed with it: one of Brno’s two most famous sites — the other is the grim Špilberk fortress — seemed to be closed.
And yet… the flat roof of the building forms a kind of porch between the main house and the annex on the right, and there were people sheltering there out of the rain, as though waiting for something to happen or someone to come. I hesitated. I shook the gate like a prisoner shaking the bars of his cell. I took three steps away, and paused and took three steps back. And then I was rescued. The leader of the group had noticed my vain attempts to enter and he called out to me, not in Czech, not in German but in English. Maybe it was the anorak that gave me away.
‘Look, just hang on a moment,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to persuade this fellow to let you in.’
The figure beside him, clearly the custodian of the treasure, was arguing. Apparently it was one thing to have a private visit booked, quite another to get people in off the street to join your group. Finally, fortunately, the custodian lost the debate and came over to unlock the gate.
My rescuer was a sculptor, in the city for the opening of an exhibition of his work that afternoon. Just as biologists render homage at Mendel’s convent, so visual artists pay their respects at the Vila Tugendhat. We followed the custodian into the house and the guide began her spiel: ‘The house was designed by master architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the Brno family Tugendhat. Here they lived in the years from nineteen thirty to nineteen thirty-eight. We are now on bedroom level.’
She opened a door to reveal a short corridor, then more doors to show bedrooms and a bathroom. ‘The bathroom fittings they are modern. Not of the period but were changed when the house was modernised for being guest house of the city.’ It was like being shown round by an estate agent with a view to buying. The bathroom was tall and white-tiled, lit from skylights. Our voices reverberated from the walls as we complained about the taps and the basins. The bedrooms were small and box-like, empty of furnishings. Through the windows you could see the terrace. There was something of a seaside resort in winter about it — weather-beaten concrete, a pergola made of rusted piping, wooden shutters that were in need of repair, a sandpit.
We followed the guide back to the hall and downstairs to the floor below. It was like descending into something subterranean, a cave perhaps — twelve steps down, then a mathematical curve round one hundred and eighty degrees, and a further nine steps to the lower floor. But the door at the bottom opens not into a cave but into space and light.
Another epiphany. Entrance, en’trance. Coming into that room was like walking towards a work of art and suddenly and surprisingly finding yourself part of it, a work of art yourself, capable of all kinds of beauty. The thrill was palpable — a shiver down the spine, the hairs standing up on the back of the neck, goose flesh on the arms. Perhaps architecture is the antithesis of sculpture. The one deals in substance, material, the hard facts of stone and metal; the other deals in space. In the living room of the Tugendhat House this space is luminous, shot through with light that pours in from the glass wall and ricochets off chrome and white plaster and ivory linoleum. You stand within that light, bathed in it, almost drowned by it. And through the windows you can look at the city itself, this provincial place laid out to view, from the nearby roofs of the Secession period apartment blocks to the spires of baroque churches and the Špilberk fortress on the opposite hill hunched against the clouds. The past laid out in full view of the future.
‘Here,’ the guide said, ‘is the celebrated onyx wall. Here the family sat.’
We tiptoed across and peered round the wall, almost as though the family might still be sitting there. But nothing remained except the chairs they might have sat in, three on one side, two on the other, iconic pieces that anyone would recognise from a catalogue of twentieth century furniture: the Tugendhat Chair, designed by Mies specifically for this house; the Barcelona Chair, first installed in the German Pavilion at the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona.
Like so many natives of Brno, like Kundera and Musil and Loos, the Tugendhats duly left their home town, in their case in 1938. But of course they didn’t leave through some inner desire to escape the dead hand of provincialism. They fled because they saw the coming horror. And they left behind this extraordinary house, a perfect emblem of an ideal that still has resonance, in which ornament is perceived as something excessive and meretricious, life may be lived as a work of art, and there are no boundaries.
Of course most ideals break down when confronted with the hard facts of reality and all too often it is irony that wins. So it was with the Tugendhat House. Here, in the garden of this exemplar of International Style architecture, the ideals of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia — those of a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual democracy — finally met their end. For it was here on 1st January 1993, under the gaze of Mies van der Rohe’s great plate glass windows, that the state of Czechoslovakia, created by international treaty after the First World War and so often betrayed by the outside world, was formally split into the two nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. As Vladimír Meciar for the Slovaks and Václav Klaus for the Czechs put their signatures to the document that divided Czechoslovakia on narrow national lines, I wonder if the irony struck them. Probably not. But at least the separation took place amicably.
The Glass Room is Simon Mawer’s tenth book and eighth novel. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. He is married with two children and has lived in Italy for the past thirty years.