Will the Tugendhat House always be linked with fraud?

4. 6. 2009

The UNESCO-listed Tugendhat House, from 1930, designed by Mies van der Rohe, `aryanized' by the Germans , has not been maintained for seven years. You may, rightfully, wonder why. The sole reason is that the body managing it, the City of Brno, has been unable to complete the tender for the renovation project in accordance with the law and in the spirit of fair play. On the contrary, the city has repeatedly proceeded against the law, even when the courts have decided beyond the shadow of a doubt. If the clear, legally valid court judgements had been respected, the repairs and renovation would have begun in summer 2007 in keeping with a new, legal project, which would surely have, from the start, won the confidence and recognition of experts in the field, writes Jan Sapák, academic architect.

Instead, there's a danger that the illegal project, which has been accepted on the basis of a swindle, will be used, and this renowned work of architecture will be forever tarnished with the blemish of a grave, demonstrably illegal act. Using the illegal project the house will not be as seriously damaged as it was by the excesses committed in the 1980s, when `expert' renovation resulted in the destruction of the bathrooms and original radiators. None the less, it should at least serve as a warning that an extremely dangerous change to the foundations was successfully averted only in the last minute.

Until the Tugendhat House was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, few people in Brno noticed what a great work of architecture it is. It is unfortunate that few people were able to recognize its greatness simply by looking at the building. Even after it was listed, however, the situation changed little. Most people, including those managing it and "responsible" for it, still cannot appreciate it before it gets some official certification that even the authorities recognize the greatness of this unique work of art. After the Changes in Czechoslovakia of late 1989 people suddenly began racing to get historic monuments listed as World Heritage Sites. It was as if the only important thing was to get listed. The Bohemian Lands are truly rich in cultural monuments, and many did in fact manage to get listed.

Getting listed as part of the world's cultural heritage was not, however, only a good thing. It also had its negative aspects. The interest that it awakened was for the most part merely superficial, concentrating more on quantitative rather than qualitative aspects. Like a magnet it attracted opportunists, who would otherwise have not noticed the building and its plight. Earlier indifference was superseded by spectacular attention, which in certain circumstances could lead indirectly to damaging the authenticity of the Tugendhat House. The pendulum swung in the other direction.

Hand in hand with that went the fraudulent acts of one participant, who eventually, for a while, unrightfully won the tender.

Instead of the best experts from all over the world coming together before the initial preparation (as in, say, Fallingwater, the Bauhaus, and the Barcelona Pavilion), and instead of a transparent architectural competition being called, people who worked for the City of Brno chose a construction company. That company was able later to come up with a project for its own needs. Yes, that's right: the reconstruction was initially to be carried out without plans. The protests of experts, including Prof. Pavel Zatloukal and Prof. Rostislav Švácha, both of whom quit the steering committee, led to the fact that a competition for the project at least began to be organized, though not for the architectural competition.

Eventually, Brno, in late 2003, announced a public tender, which, though not an architectural competition, had a committee, which was sufficiently representative in terms of the professionals on it. The committee established the criteria for judging: 50 per cent, experience with restoration of works of modern architecture; 40 per cent, the composition and competence of the team; 10 per cent, the cost of the project. The deadline for proposals was 9 January 2004.

On the same day the envelopes with the tenders were opened, and, as required by law, each proposal was checked to see if it met the basic terms and conditions, such as whether the architects were licensed, whether they had business licences, the provision of evidence that the entrants had paid their taxes and were without criminal records. The checking was extremely rigorous (for some people at least), and three applicants were mercilessly disqualified for rather petty reasons.

On 20 February 2004, the committee met, and information was leaked from many sides that for the time being a completely unknown association of several people controlled by the Omnia company had come out on top.

One merely had to take a quick look at the public registers to see that this association was in the tender illegally, that it could not meet even the most basic terms and conditions. The head of the company had neither a certificate of authorization nor a licence to operate an architectural practice. They should not have been in the tender at all. Others were disqualified for far more trivial shortcomings.

With Omnia it was not a matter of mere `formalities' or oversights. It was an offence against the basic terms and conditions. Only a swindler could have put up with that.

Although this fact was immediately pointed out to the Brno authorities on 26 February 2004 and later the Office for the Protection of Competition (the anti-monopoly office), nothing happened. In two illegal decisions, of 15 October 2004 and 15 January 2005, the Office for the Protection of Competition eventually `forgave' (that is, concealed) the fundamental breaking of the rules, despite its being as clear as day that this had happened.

Despite being notified that some of the most flagrant breaking of the law may have taken place, that the contract would be invalid, and that the project would later be unusable, preparations for the project began in February 2005. As the applicant who came in a close second in the tender, I filed a suit with the administrative court, which is authorized to investigate the decisions of the Office for the Protection of Competition and potentially to quash them.

It was not, however, a matter merely of failures in law. The illegalities went hand in hand with deficiencies in quality. The Omnia project, which was well underway, was presented to a number of leading people in the field, at the international `Materiality' conference, in Brno, in May 2006,. The project was not praised, however. On the contrary, it led to a highly critical debate.

Even in the Czech Republic justice eventually triumphed when, on 27 September 2006, the Regional Administrative Court decided that Omnia had illegally taken part in the tender, and should have been excluded at the beginning. From that moment onwards, there was no doubt that the contract was invalid from the start. Decision No. 31 Ca 4/2005-114 acquired the force of law on 22 November 2006.

Even that, however, did not suffice. The City of Brno, the Office for the Protection of Competition, and Omnia, which were obliged to follow the decision, instead defied the law. They appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court (which they are certainly within their rights to do, but that does not mean they have the right to put off obeying the decision). Eventually, the Supreme Administrative Court also decided, on 30 April 2008 (Decision No. 8 Afs 58/2007-247), that the original decision had been absolutely correct and that Omnia had participated in the tender illegally. In other words, the competition as a whole had no flaws, but the presence of one of the entrants, Omnia, was in clear violation of the law.

Only then, after 22 months of resistance, did the Office for the Protection of Competition finally listen to the decisions and complied. It quashed its previous illegal decisions in which, for some strange reason, it had tolerated the presence of swindlers in the tender, and now ordered that they be disqualified.

That, however, makes the contract for the project utterly invalid from the start, and the project, now about 85 per cent ready, may not be carried out. Some people think that it would be a pity not to carry it out. Let's consider, however, whether the Tugendhat House deserves a renovation that will be forever stigmatized by blatant illegalities and fraud, and that the project for its renovation was made on the basis of a swindle that was tolerated.

Most recently, the City of Brno, together with the Office for the Protection of Competition, suddenly felt cancelling the tender to the detriment of the other entrants. That too is of course illegal. To her shame, Marion Jones had to return 2007 the Gold Medal won at Sydney in 2000, when it was later learnt that she had used drugs. If we used here the logic of the Brno case, then together with Jones, quite absurdly, Ekaterini Thanou would have to return the Silver Medal she won for Greece, and Tanya Lawrence would have to return the Bronze she won for Jamaica, even though neither woman tested positive for doping. Similarly, in the cross-country race at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Larisa Lazutina for Russia was excluded, but the race, rightly, was not cancelled, and Kateřina Neumannová of the Czech Republic later won the Silver Medal and Stefania Belmondo of Italy the Gold Medal. The attempt to `cancel' the tender, only once it has been decided, and the law forbids it, is only an illegal step intended in a roundabout way to ensure that the illegal project is carried out.

The matter was gradually decided by three courts in the Czech Republic. The Regional Administrative Court, the Supreme Administrative Court, and the Regional Court, the last of which considered the suit against the claims that Omnia was unauthorized. All three, after thorough presentation of the evidence, reached the same conclusions. Omnia had no architect's certificate, nor was its licence valid for this narrow area. It had no legitimate reason for being in the tender. Nor did it have a right to prepare a project. It is actually the same thing as if one tried to enter the Paris--Dakar motor race or to become a driver of police car without having a valid driving licence.

As if that were not enough. These essentially irremovable legal irregularites generated qualitative irregularities. The project involves a serious, highly dangerous change to the foundations and original basement floors of the Tugendhat House, which are not only entirely unnecessary, but also would strip the house of a considerable, technical part of its originality with the risk of further undesirable consequences. A large committee and several experts had to demonstrate this fatal flaw, which could reasonably be compared to an incompetent surgeon preparing to remove a wholly healthy organ from a patient. The public authorities, ignoring this flaw, allow the repairs even after the court decision, when it was already obvious that the project planner had illegally taken part in the tender and that the contract was invalid.

The people who stand on the side of illegality and the fraudulent closing of the tender are trying to make sure the illegal project gets used, by applying public pressure, saying that the house is in danger of falling into disrepair because there are law suits. In fact, the most visible flaws appeared in 1993, and should have been repaired long ago without waiting for a big renovation. The house is not about to collapse, though long delays are certainly not in its favour. Publicizing the flaws in the media, however, are caused only by the absence of regular maintenance. I would add that in repairing of this architectural gem it is far less important how quickly the job gets done than how to proceed correctly, avoiding all mistakes in the actual work. The renovation in the 1980s has already harmed the house enough.

Translated from the Czech by Derek Paton


Obsah vydání | Čtvrtek 4.6. 2009