My friend and former student David Lightfoot, who spent some years in Brno and speaks Czech, was certainly right about one thing: the Brno train station has got to be one of the ugliest in Europe, and I think always was. The post office next to the station is a true Soviet relic, which in its metallic shabbiness is worth seeing. David informs me it has an open elevator that is like a “man eating escalator,” but we managed to avoid that one.
The rest of Brno, however, was quite pleasant. David also gave us directions up to the Cafe Era (the sexy staircase above is in the cafe), which is in the tonier part of town, with some excellent examples of Czech functionalist architecture from the 1920s and 30s. Despite the good directions, we still got a little lost–being once again, like Poland, somewhere in which not a word makes any sense to us–and found that, as David had suggested, almost all Czechs can speak some English, or if they’re old enough, some German. We asked either old ladies in German or teenagers in English, and they were amazingly helpful and friendly. A nice older woman actually walked us right to Cafe Era’s door.
And what a lovely place it was! Great food–we had rabbit (Kralick in Czech)–very friendly waiters, and fantastic architectural surroundings. The building, which was derelict and nearly lost in the Soviet-era days, was built in 1927 by a young Czech architect Josef Kranz, under the thrall of the Dutch de Stijl architect Oud, who had just completed his famous Cafe de Unie in Rotterdam. The spaces are wonderful, and nothing beats that sexy staircase!
Not surprisingly, the cafe is within walking distance of the main architectural attraction in Brno, Mies van der Rohe’s masterpiece, the Villa Tugendhat. We once again had to ask directions, this time of two very eager students of the university who were more than happy to speak English and give us specific directions to the Villa. Although we already knew that we hadn’t been able to get reservations for the limited tours of the interior, we hoped that we would somehow have been able to get in. We almost pulled it off by tagging along with a group, but in the end, we could only pay for admission to the gardens, which was fine with us, since all I really wanted to see was the exterior anyway. While trying to get in, we did sneak a photo of the garage, which held this car, apparently owned by the Tugendhats.
This house is really Mies’s masterpiece, built in 1928-30 for a supportive patron, at the same time he was formulating his ideas for the famous Barcelona Pavilion of 1929. When you see this back facade from the garden, with its enormous glass windows, geometric edges and clean lines, you understand how much Mies was inspired by and appreciated German Neoclassicism. It now all looks so common to us, but at the time, this whole conception must have looked like something from another planet to good bourgeois neighbors. I have always said that the real beauty of what later came to be called The International Style can be seen in the architects’domestic structures, not in their corporate designs. And since the whole structure is essentially comprised of glass (Mies is the one who created the first glass house at Farnsworth, Illinois, before inspiring Philip Johnson’s better known one in Connecticut), it was possible to look inside and see the famous Tugendhat Chairs. And a nice display in the lower floor, to which we were admitted, included a fascinating video showing how complex was the construction of these chairs, which the latest renovation team lovingly recreated.
We unfortunately had scheduled too little time in town to go see the other gems of Brno’s functionalist heyday, because we were also drawn to one of the other historical aspects of the town: Brno was the site of the work of Gregor Mendel, widely considered the father of modern genetics. Out of obligation to Max , we felt we really had to see the tiny museum in Mendel’s honor, in the very Abbey where he carried out his famous experiments with peas and bees. Here we found a cheery example of the Czech character. While the museum was rather modest and a bit dorky, a fun team of designers had played up the color green–for Mendel’s peas, get it? They had funny postcards, with peas and bees, and instructive information about DNA presented in a breezy way.
And in the exhibition, they included the original beehives that Mendel had used, complete with audios of buzzing bees!
We then walked around the abbey’s gardens, where Mendel had actually presided as abbot, and where he began his work. Once again, although less stridently than in Poland, we were struck by the fact that while Mendel was actually of German descent, and only learned Czech late in life, and lived in Brno when it was known as Brunn, no signs or information appeared in German anywhere.
It says ”On 30. May 1945 the Germans of Brünn and its ‘Sprachinsel’ had to leave their homeland. In the future may all people in Europe live in peace and with respect for human rights. Erected by the Brünner Homeland Group on 30. May 1995.” A duplicate plaque in Czech stood next to this one, a rather pointed reminder of the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans at the end of the war. The fact that the Czechs allowed such a memorial to be erected is, I think, evidence of their gentler nature. While I really shouldn’t make any sweeping generalities after such short associations with the Czech people, my feeling is that their character is a little more laid back, a kind of bemused maturity in their outlook. ”Wry” is the word that my friend David uses to describe them. They do seem to have a great sense of humor, and to have endured a bumpy history with dignified irony. (But if our experience both coming and going is anything to go by, the trains do not run on time….)
We will go back and experience more of the place!