What was it like to grow up in an avant-garde modernist building? Did the new way of living change life? Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster talked to former residents about what they remember about the houses of Mies von der Rohe, Hans Scharoun, J.  J. P. Oud and Le Corbusier.

By Thomas Wagner.

Mies van der Rohe. Staircase Villa Tugendhat.
Mies van der Rohe. Staircase Villa Tugendhat. Photo: Tugendhat

When Grete and Fritz Tugendhat lived in their villa in Brno, designed by Mies van der Rohe in the International Style, their children Hanna, Ernst and Herbert were joined by a nanny, a chauffeur, together with his wife and dog, as well as a cook and two maids. The building for the textile manufacturers was not only architecturally unusual, it also housed an upper middle-class household. Ernst Tugendhat was born in Brno in 1930, a few months before moving into the villa. He was just eight years old when the family left the house to flee the impending occupation of Czechoslovakia by the National Socialist German Reich. Asked about his relationship to the villa, Tugendhat, a philosopher and most recently professor at the FU Berlin, states laconically: “I am relatively neutral towards the house. It doesn’t mean that much to me.” What he does remember is the sound of the car horn, an unmistakable “Da-da-dada” that announced his father’s homecoming – significantly, not from visual memory but from acoustic memory. Closer to the family than to the house remained the relationship with some of the furniture that travelled with him from Brno via Switzerland to Venezuela.

Exterior view of Villa Tugendhat by Mies van der Rohe.
Exterior view of Villa Tugendhat by Mies van der Rohe. Photo: Tugendhat
Mies van der Rohe. Interior view of Villa Tugendhat.
Mies van der Rohe. Interior view of Villa Tugendhat. Photo: Tugendhat

A Journey to Mies, Scharoun, Oud and Le Corbusier

Exterior view of one of the terraced houses in the Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart
Exterior view of one of the terraced houses designed by J. J. P. Oud in 1927 in the Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart. Photo: Rolf Fassbaender

The question Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster asked themselves and former residents of famous houses sounds simple: “What do you think it was like to grow up in an early modern villa or housing estate?” In order to find out more and more precisely at first hand, the two visited the icons of modern architecture and asked former residents about their childhood memories using the oral history method. In the summer of 2015, the Canadian architects and university lecturers set out on a journey with their own child in a caravan to Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat in Brno, Hans Scharoun’s Villa Schminke in Löbau, Saxony, Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille and J. J. P. Oud’s terraced house in Stuttgart’s Weißenhofsiedlung. It is no coincidence that they chose three exemplary building types: a terraced house, two (very different) villas and Le Corbusier’s equally legendary and influential housing machine.

Living places, not abstract entities

Dach von Le Corbusiers Unité d'Habitation in Marseille.
Dach von Le Corbusiers Unité d’Habitation in Marseille. Foto: Gisèle Moreau.

Houses are anything but abstract entities. If you only look at plans or photographs that have been cleansed of all the mundane, the rooms quickly look as if they have been decked out in festive dress. The fact that houses are made by people (or by idiosyncratic architects) for people and are meant to be lived in is often enough forgotten over the nimbus of modernist concepts. It is quite different here: Each building visited is lovingly described in as many of its facets as possible. The location, character and layout of the rooms, the choice of materials and furnishings, speaking details make the building as present as possible. Illuminating photographs from the private photo albums of the former residents, historical and current photographs of the buildings as well as floor plans explaining the living structure complement the carefully retold accounts of the conversations. They complete the picture of the houses as places where life was lived, which for their inhabitants were more than just part of a heroic architectural history.

Everything together opens up completely different perspectives: For Rolf Fassbaender, it is the balcony of his room in one of the terraced houses designed by J. J. P. Oud in 1927 in the Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart that has remained particularly in his memory because he could sleep there under the open sky. Helga Zumpfe, who lived with her siblings in the Schmicke house in Löbau (the “noodle steamer”) from the age of three until she was fifteen, experienced Hans Scharoun’s house (and garden with pond) as open and accessible: “In my memories of the house I see light – space and joy.” The child-friendly planning extends to colourful portholes placed in the doors at eye level for the little ones, through which “you can look through as a child and always see the world in a different colour”. And Gisèle Moreau, who lived as a child, mother and grandmother in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, relives all the transformations that life went through in the famous housing machine.

A piece of the lost paradise of childhood

Children's room at Villa Schminke
Children’s room at Villa Schminke. Photo: Helga Zumpfe

However, the book also identifies some of the pitfalls of remembrance. The dialectic of public veneration and private experience becomes visible – how far removed from everyday experience such icons are usually presented and how naturally their purified image adorns the showcases of an enraptured architectural history that knows great creators but only rarely users. Because Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat was carefully restored to its original state ten years ago, it is considered an example of formal and constructive perfection – but in its museum-like form it seems large and empty. But even if much has long since been forgotten, one can eavesdrop on the childhood memories time and again to get an unbiased view of the icons of modernism. One realises that architects have a great deal of control over whether their creations consciously promote or deny lively appropriation by their inhabitants. Mies and Scharoun are good examples of how different the approaches are, even in modernist buildings. As far as the differences between children and adults are concerned, Helga Zumpfe sums it up when she states: “As a child, you live and don’t experience! – I guess for children everything is just normal. It was just where we lived.” Memory is not only a vast country; sometimes it is also a house, a garden, a pond, a playroom, a terrace – just a piece of the lost paradise of childhood.


Cover "Kinder der Moderne"
© Birkhäuser

Growing up Modern. Childhoods in Iconic Homes

Julia Jamrozik and Coryn Kempster (Eds.)

320 S., geb., Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel 2021

ISBN 9-783-0356-2167-9

EUR 40

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