The New York Times

January 4, 2001, The New York Times

From Modernism to Communism and Back

An Adolf Loos masterpiece reopens in Prague

PRAGUE – The Villa Muller, a landmark of early modernist architecture, nearly vanished in the tumult of postwar Czechoslovakia. Its intricate interiors were inaccessible for decades after Prague fell behind the Iron Curtain and the Communist regime seized the property, turning it into a succession of state-controlled offices including the ruling party’s ideological institute.

But the villa, designed as an elegant private residence by the Viennese architect Adolf Loos, has emerged unscathed. Following a painstaking $1 million restoration, the building has opened to the public for the first time, as a museum.

Commissioned by a wealthy Czechoslovak engineer and building contractor, Frantisek Muller, the villa was completed in 1930, within a year of two other icons of modernism: Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat.

Loos is best remembered for his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” which was among the first architectural tracts to idealize undecorated surfaces. Loos even scorned the use of notches on his shoes, preferring that they be made of completely smooth leather. His obsession with pared-down design found its fullest expression in the Villa Muller’s unadorned white cubic facade.

But if Loos disdained ornament, he by no means advocated austerity. He furnished the Muller family with Chippendale chairs, ivory doorknobs, mahogany paneling, silver embossed Japanese wallpaper, richly veined marble, Oriental carpets and silk curtains. He also wielded a vibrant color palette, using canary yellow on the exterior window frames and red on the radiators.

Loos’s projects, which included a Paris house for the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara and an unbuilt Paris residence for the dancer Josephine Baker, often included a system of interconnected spaces that became known as “Raumplan,” or volumetric planning. He perfected the system at the Villa Muller, varying the floor level and ceiling height of the rooms according to their function and significance. Loos aspired to an architectural equivalent of “playing chess on a three-dimensional board,” creating a series of multilevel, interlocking chambers with enticing glimpses of adjacent spaces.

The Villa Muller’s innovative design provoked a sensation in avant-garde circles. Some 70 years ago, the artist Man Ray invited the French ambassador stationed in Prague to tour the newly completed villa in hopes (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) of securing state funding for a Loos-run architecture school in Paris. The composer Arnold Schonberg likened the design to the “work of a great sculptor,” adding, “everything is thought out, imagined, composed and molded in space.”

About the same time the Mullers moved into the villa, Le Corbusier wrote, “Loos swept right beneath our feet, and it was a Homeric cleansing — precise, philosophical and logical. In this Loos has had a decisive influence on the destiny of architecture.”

The Mullers had free rein of Loos’s puzzle-like composition for 18 years. As non-Jewish Czechoslovaks, they went unharmed during the Nazi occupation of their country. But when the Communists seized power in 1948, they nationalized Frantisek Muller’s vast business holdings. In short order the Mullers’ dream house on a hillside overlooking Prague Castle became a storage space for Czechoslovakia’s Applied Arts Museum and offices for a state textbook publisher.

The Mullers were allowed to stay on as tenants, but their quarters were reduced to the library and boudoir.

Frantisek Muller died in 1951; his wife lived to witness the 1968 Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms. When she died a few months later, the residence — where Loos had celebrated his 60th birthday surrounded by aristocrats in white tie and evening gowns — became the headquarters of the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s Marxist-Leninist Institute, an ideological research center and propaganda agency.

Some of the Mullers’ artworks ended up at the Czech Museum of Decorative Arts and others at the National Gallery of Art in Prague. Access to the villa was tightly restricted throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. “The place was sealed up like Count Dracula’s castle,” said Jan Sapak, a Czech architect who has extensively researched Loos’s work. A handful of Loos’s admirers managed to visit surreptitiously what architectural historians regarded as his masterpiece. Zdenek Lukes, a preservation adviser to President Vaclav Havel, said that at one point Arab students lived there while being trained in subversive activities. Vladimir Slapeta, an architectural historian who gained entry with a Western architect after giving a custodian the equivalent of a $5 bribe, recalled seeing discarded bottles of vodka and wine alongside volumes of “Das Kapital” and the essays of Lenin.

After the Communists were ousted in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the institute vacated the building, by then dilapidated. Coal lay in heaps outside the once pristine entry, and the leather upholstered couches designed by Loos were rotting in the cellar. The bright, Mondrian-inspired colors of the children’s rooms were covered by drab institutional hues, and the living and dining rooms were dingy and bare.

But lush expanses of green cipollino marble and rare woods remained intact.

In 1993, ownership was restituted to the Mullers’ daughter, Eva Materna-Muller, who was living in England, and she put it up for sale. “It had lost its magic for the family,” said George Materna, a grandson of Frantisek Muller. “It was tainted because it had been ripped away and used by other people.”

Two American architects, Leslie van Duzer and Kent Kleinman, documented the building’s origins in a 1994 monograph, which helped draw scholarly attention to its fate. President Havel and his first wife, Olga, briefly considered purchasing the house as their private residence. But the Havels decided not to, and only an international campaign by preservationists thwarted its acquisition by a Prague businessman who, it was feared, might have drastically altered it. Finally, in 1995, the city of Prague bought the house, turning it over to the City of Prague Museum.

Now freshly refurbished with city funds, the house reopened in May for guided tours. Many of the original artworks have been returned. Today, as in 1930, fish swim in the two aquariums Loos recessed into a marble living room wall. The eclectic furnishings have been restored or replicated, including the original mahogany toilet seats and nickel-plated bathroom fixtures.

The former servants’ quarters now contain displays devoted to Loos’s life and work. “A work of art is revolutionary, a house is conservative,” it says on one wall, quoting Loos. “A work of art points new ways to mankind and thinks of the future. A house refers to the present.”