Our next contributor to Modernist Dreams is contemporary design and architecture curator Pete Collard. Pete works at the Design Museum where his research takes him to visit the finest examples of modernist architecture around the UK and beyond. He is currently splitting his time between London and Prague which might explain the Czech bias of this list.
Villa Tugendhat, Brno, Czech Republic
MIes van der Rohe
This list is in particular order but I’ll start with the Villa Tugendhat because I currently live in the Czech Republic. The project was van der Rohe’s last major residence in Europe, designed and built during the same period as more famous German Pavilion for the Barcelona Worlds Fair in 1929. The house is built into a steep incline above the town, meaning the low angle of the sun perfectly illuminates the thin onyx marble wall that divides the property if you visit in winter.
There is a very Heath Robinson-esque electrical system that opens the glass facades in the lounge, allowing the entire room to be opened to the gardens outside. A similarly complex air-ventilation system housed in the basement also demonstrates the acutely modernist approaches to new technology. The cost of the original construction was reported to be 5 million Czech krowns, enough to build thirty family sized houses at that time. This exhorbitant cost underlines the economic and cultural strength that Czechoslovakia enjoyed during the 1920s and 30s; when the house was completed it must have felt like the future had arrived to residents of Brno.
Atwell House, El Cerrito, California, USA
In November I visited California for the first time, on what was originally planned to be a holiday but actually turned into a very ad-hoc Richard Neutra road-trip. In three weeks we managed to visit 48 Neutra buildings across the State, clocking up over 2500 miles in the process. A favourite would be hard to pick, but I will chose the Atwell House in El Cerrito. Originally offered 32 acres from which to pick a site, the architect visted several times over the course of a year before make his choice. Neutra chose extremely well and his design of the house carefully hides the stunning views of San Francisco Bay until you enter the property.
Another reason for choosing this house above the others was that the current owners could not have been more welcoming and didn’t mind unexpected overseas visitors turning up on a Sunday afternoon. Ben and Nancy bought the property around 10 years ago and are slowly restoring the house themselves to its original state. Despite the work ahead of them I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier home-owners and having spent an afternoon with them watching the sun set across the bay I can fully appreciate why.
2 Willow Road, London, UK
A bit obvious maybe but it’s a fine building. The Design Museum has an example of Goldfinger’s Entas chair in its permanent collection, a design that was used in a handful of the architects’s commercial and personal projects during the 1930s, including Willow Road. I recently curated a small display at the museum to tell the story behind the chair and as part of this we commissioned a short film about the house and its contents. Starting with the exterior at dawn, we slowly worked our way in and around the property, documenting the unique architectural spaces and features, as well as the personal possessions and effects of Goldfinger and his family.
Spending an extended period of time in the house gave me the chance to explore and understand better the rationale behind the myriad of unique design features that Goldfinger specified. In many ways the house was a prototype, something that the architect could use to try out various new ideas and materials. The National Trust has done a fantastic job in conserving the house and keeping it open to the public and if you haven’t been to visit already you really, really should.
Mill Owner’s Association Building, Ahmedabad, India
I used to work for the British Council and had the very good fortune to travel to India to work on a number of occasions. One particular trip took me to Ahmedabad to visit the National Insitute of Design and upon arriving early in the city I asked a taxi driver to take me to as many architectural treasures as I could manage in two hours. My favourite was Le Corbusier’s Mill Owner’s Association Building, the first of four projects that the Swiss architect completed in the city.
The current estates manager has done an excellent job in restoring foliage to the façade in recent years, something that was missing for a number of years. However, despite my praise for efforts, he was most insistent that I purchase some postcards before he would let me take any photos. I am going back to Ahmedabad next month and hope to gain access to Le Corbusier’s Villa Sarahbai across town, although using the roof slide into the swimming pool might be pushing things a bit.
Bata Factory, East Tilbury, UK
Frantizek Gahura & Vladimir Karfik
To conclude, another Czech project, albeit one built in England. The industrialist Tomáš Baťa created a global shoe-making empire during the first half of the 20th Century and central to his business philosophy was the welfare of his employees. To facilitate this Bata created a series of ‘company towns’ featuring housing and leisure facilities built next to his factories. In 1932 he built a factory and worker’s estate in East Tilbury, Essex, designed by Bata’s chief architects Frantizek Gahura and Vladimir Karfík.
The project pre-dates most British modernist architecture of the era and the design and layout followed closely the blueprint of the main Bata site in Zlin, a Constructivist garden utopia of 45,000 people built by the company in the south of Czechoslovakia. Today the factory in Essex is closed and without its main source of employment East Tilbury feels isolated and neglected on outer reaches of the Thames Estuary. Tomáš Baťa once famously pronouced “we are not afraid of the future” yet I somehow doubt he would feel quite the same now if he if saw the replacement uPVC windows and the occasional St. George’s flag draped from them.
Images © Pete Collard