Everybody knows Villa Tugendhat. Nearly every Czech has heard about the famous architectural jewel of a villa and even a UNESCO site. In 1992, politicians met there to agree on the break-up of Czechoslovakia. Its restoration cost tens of millions and even seven years being re-opened to the public, visitors still have to book a ticket several months ahead.
Any newspaper article dealing with modern architecture or even a regular restoration of a village house mentions Villa Tugendhat by Ludwig Miese van der Rohe. There are famous legends about its onyx wall, movable windows, and the rich Jewish family which had to abandon its luxury villa due to the Nazis and the coming war. During WW2, the building was brutally modified as well as damaged by bombs, only to be looted when the war was over. The story of the villa is fascinating. That said, only a few people have experienced it other than during an official tour. Also, not many people know which pieces of wood are authentic. Or what it feels like to be alone in the villa. Its current inhabitants – the guides – know all this. And I used to be one of them. I worked in the villa in 2014 and 2015, and it was just awesome! We were a great team, and we still are, which is even more awesome.
Tutankhamun's guides and box office attendants Photo Michael Kalábek
Being a guide in Villa Tugendhat is quite an exceptional diagnosis, and it involves a lot of duties as well as privileges. A guide needs to know everything – about the building, history, family, and restitution. A guide needs to know about architecture, the construction industry, modern history as well as law, as visitor questions can be quite prying at times. A guide needs to speak Czech and English and – ideally – German or French as well. A guide has to be a natural storyteller. The tours in Villa Tugendhat are nothing like usual tours at castles or chateaus, so don’t expect a monotonous lecture with unnatural diction and texts learned by heart. Each guide has their own way of telling the story of the villa. I’ve always adjusted my tours to the visitors and their interests; some were curious about the composition of the plaster on the walls and the bearing capacity of the pillars, while others preferred the story of the Tugendhat and Löw-Beer families. I’ve always tried to get the visitors involved, turning the tour into a friendly chat while walking through the villa. The best moment was when I brought the group down the winding staircase to the main living room – the glass room – and let them absorb the beauty for a while. The villa never loses its appeal, so I’ve always enjoyed it with them.
Is this authentic?
Some things happen on every single tour. They used to happen to me, and they happen to the current guides as well. The “most not funny” one takes place right after entering the entrance hall, where a special “shoe cover” tool puts protective foil on the visitors’ shoes. “This was designed by Mies van der Rohe too?” inventive jokers say regularly. The most frequent question during the tour is “And this is authentic too?”, while “this” refers to absolutely anything – from the furniture, lino, and switches to obviously unauthentic flowers. However, the visitors enjoy all the interactive things – from various puzzles to practical demonstrations. They love to watch the windows go down, they like to guess the prices of various things in the villa, and they pause in awe when they see the place where Czech and Slovak prime ministers Klaus and Mečiar were sitting on that particular summer day. Almost every time, some joker assumes the laundry room is in fact a distillery, while the bolder ones think the photographic darkroom is a torture chamber. I enjoyed taking the visitors to what’s called the mixing chamber at the air conditioning facility area through only a narrow manhole, forcing them to squat or get on their knees. It is dark inside and there’s a special chamber with sea stones that I would shine my mobile phone on. A tour is, in fact, a kind of one-man show, usually rewarded by a round of applause at the end, which is always nice.
Press only in danger Photo Michael Kalábek
There are lots of visitors, and they are various kinds of people, so you need to be benevolent. That’s why guides usually have the patience of a saint. Unfortunately, people don’t always understand that the tours need to be booked well ahead, that the capacity is limited, and that the clerk at the ticket office just won’t soften up and let them in because they arrived from as far as the very north of Brno (true story, bro!). The surname of the Jewish family the villa is named after is not an easy one to pronounce. We regularly received requests to book a tour in Tutenhad (which is how you’d probably call a snake with no limbs in the local dialect), Turandot (an opera by Giacomo Puccini) or even Tutankhamun (the ancient Egyptian pharaoh). As a guide, you’re in charge of the tours as well as all the paperwork and organizing with dozens of emails and phone calls every day. Also, Mies van der Rohe designed the villa for one family, not for tourists. There’s no waiting room and the bathrooms are hidden in the technical area downstairs so they wouldn’t disturb the impression. The ground floor is where the tours end, so if a visitor needs to use a bathroom already prior to the tour (“Where’s the toilet please?”), the guide needs to make a detour and take them all the way downstairs. Well, visitors sometimes have quite crazy ideas. Not long ago, this lady broke the protective glass and pushed the fire alarm, and when three minutes later several fire trucks arrived at the villa and the fire fighters with the hoses were about to climb over the fence, she blushed and just said “Well, they really did arrive…”.
Fake alert in the villa Photo Michael Kalábek
You can go places. But you can visit the villa in three months at the earliest
What’s different when you’re a guide and not a regular visitor? The guide has the key to the gate and doesn’t have to ring the bell. The guide is allowed to lower the movable windows. The guide uses the “shoe cover” tool several times a day (and may get their shoes damaged by the heat of it). A villa employee has no free weekends or bank holidays; however, they rest on Monday when the villa is closed. The guide meets people they’d never have a chance to meet elsewhere. I’ve done tours for several famous actors and even the Israeli ambassador, so I could use my Hebrew that I study as a hobby. The guides and the clerk also inhabit the part of the villa originally designed only for staff; in the room behind the garage is the ticket office and the guides’ room divided by a partition. It’s a small area with a table, a computer, and a notice board, which is where the guides answer phone calls and process bookings between individual tours. And, of course, they play music and funny videos there. Among the most popular hits were Lean On by Major Lazer, DJ Snake and MØ, Anaconda by Nicky Minaj and Drake’s Hotline Bling. And the remix of the main theme from the famous Czech version of Cinderella was our Christmas anthem! We also enjoyed comments by famous Czech fortune-teller Jolanda or edited versions of the Wheel of Fortune TV program from the 1990s. Even when very busy, we were always in a good mood. The guides and clerks quickly became friends who got together outside work as well and would celebrate just about anything. Of course, the members of the staff have come and gone, but we still know and see each other even across generations. We had an internal ritual as well – drinking the liquor made of rapeseed; it tastes a bit like a vegetable salad and a bit like eating soil. And the members of the staff who were leaving would receive a memorial paperboard (I still have mine.). We even go on trips and compose songs together. This isn’t just a job; it’s a dream job.
Villa guides and and box office attendants on a beer Photo Michael Kalábek
And it’s thanks to the guides that the villa has been handling the visitor invasion for several years now. When you hear once again that Villa Tugendhat breaks records in the number of visitors and that people have to wait even six month to get a ticket, just remember the guides and clerks. It’s them who process the booking and make the tour an unforgettable experience. A group of enthusiastic people who just love the villa and have become good friends. Also, it was the very guides and clerks from the villa (and from the Spilberk Castle, i.e. regular employees of the Brno City Museum) who established a citizens’ association and successfully started the efforts to save the neighbouring Arnold Villa.
At her lecture in Brno in 1968, Greta Tugendhat among other things said that she’d like the villa to be full of life. And the guides try to make this wish true every day (during the opening hours). Hello, my friends from the villa!