The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

“Of my European work, the Tugendhat House is considered outstanding, but I think only because it was the first house to use rich materials, to have great elegance. At that time modern buildings were still austerely functional. I personally don’t consider the Tugendhat House more important than other works I designed considerably earlier.” – Mies van der Rohe

In 1930, in Brno, Mies van der Rohe completed a home for Fritz and Grete Tugendhat.  The home, the last residence he built in Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site, is known as quintessential van der Rohe.  It is minimalist, with an open plan, where light-filled space is as much a part of the building’s essence as its walls.  It is constructed of materials both functional and luxurious—rich wood, silk curtains, and, most dramatically, a translucent onyx wall that glows from within when touched by sunlight.  Van der Rohe also designed the furniture for the house, including his enduring Barcelona and Brno chairs.

The home’s story is the stuff of fiction.  The Tugendhat’s were wealthy.  Grete Löw-Beer’s family owned textile factories, sugar refineries, and cement works; Fritz Tugendhat’s family were manufacturers and traders of wool.  They commissioned the house from van der Rohe in 1928, giving him nearly complete freedom and a blank check.  They began living in the house in 1930.  They left in 1938.  They were Jewish, and fled to Switzerland.

In 1939, the Gestapo occupied the house.  In 1945, the Soviets occupied the house.  It survived, although with considerable damage to its interior.  Furniture was destroyed, walls were moved, glass was broken.  Briefly, horses were stabled inside.  For a while, it was a dance studio.  In 1950, it became the property of the Czech state, and for the next 20 years it was a rehabilitation center for children with spine defects.  In the 1980s, there was a restoration attempt, but it was generally viewed as a failure.

Meanwhile, the Tugendhats survived the war in Switzerland and then Venezuela (Fritz died in 1958, Grete in 1970, having returned to Switzerland), and their children grew to adulthood.  Their youngest daughter, Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat, became a professor of art history and married a professor of art restoration.  After 1989, her efforts to achieve a full restoration began in earnest, leading to contentious battles for control and ownership of the house.

Daniela Hammer-Tugendhat did not regain ownership of the house, but she succeeded in her quest for full restoration.  Earlier this month, the Villa was re-opened to the public after a £5.7m restoration which returned the building to its original state, furnished with replicas of the original furniture. 

But almost none of this is in Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

The Glass Room was inspired by the Villa Tugendhat, and the house is its central character.  By the time I finished the book, I felt as if I knew the house nearly as well as my own.  I knew its moods, as the light flooding the open-plan rooms changed with the weather and the seasons.  I knew the magic of the glowing onyx wall, and the close quarters of the upstairs bedrooms.  I knew the basement maze of mechanical rooms, including the engines that rose and lowered the glass walls, opening the living room to the outdoors at the touch of the switch.  I knew the sloping garden sliding down from the house, and the view across the hills to the cathedral.  I didn’t read about the house or see pictures of it until after I finished the book, but when I first went to the Villa Tugendhat’s website, the pictures were exactly as I had imagined.

But I didn’t know Grete and Fritz Tugendhat at all.  Mawer has used the house as vehicle for telling an entirely fictional story.  Or so he says.  The names (Viktor and Liesel Landauer, not Fritz and Grete Tugendhat) are different, of course, as are many details of their life, such as the source of their wealth and the number of children they had.  In reality, in the 1930s, Grete Tugendhat actively supported aid for German refugees crossing the border into Czechoslovakia.  In the novel, Liesel Landauer is apolitical.  In reality, the family ends up in Venezuela.  In the novel, it’s Massachusetts.

Apparently, though, the Tugendhat family sees the novel as slander.  Central to the novel is Viktor Landauer’s long-time affair with an impoverished Jewish woman who later becomes the family’s governess, and who escapes with them to Switzerland.  In reality, according to the Villa’s website, the family indeed had a governess, but she was a German “citizen” as well as a German “national”  (meaning, pointedly, not Jewish) and she went to England after the family left.  Also central to the novel is the possibility that Liesel was gay, and that the true love of her life was a woman.  Not surprisingly, the website is silent on such issues.

So one can see how the family might be bothered.

But setting that aside, is this a good book?  Apart from its historical interest, would I recommend it?  Yes, I would.  It is not the very best thing I’ve read this year (Mawer’s writing is competent but not always graceful; he relies a bit too much on explicitly telling you what characters are thinking and feeling, rather than allowing the reader to interpret and wonder; and some of the drama borders on melodrama), but he tells a moving and memorable story.  He has also written a touching love letter to modern architecture, giving life and soul to a white box of glass and steel, perched on a hillside for the last 82 years.

“And all around them is the Glass Room, a place of balance and reason, an ageless place held in a rectilinear frame that handles light like a substance and volume like a tangible material and denies the very existence of time.” – Simon Mawer, The Glass Room

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