Erich Mendelsohn - Oriental from East Prussia
A Life on the Move
Extant from those years are Mendelsohn's sketches of modernist architecture, sent in letters from Russia. Among these is a design for a very unusual tower which was to prove Einstein's theory of relativity by measuring the sun's spectral lines.
The Einstein Tower, a daring piece of architecture, part of which is underground, was finished in Potsdam near Berlin in 1924. A kind of concrete sculpture, it is still standing and is a place of pilgrimage for visiting architects.
In 1918 Mendelsohn the soldier was wounded; he returned to Berlin and opened an architect's office and his first exhibition, "Architecture in Steel and Concrete." He designed stage sets, costumes, and window displays. In 1921 he lost his left eye to cancer.
In the same year, he finished the Rudolf Mosser department store — an eclectic 19th century building to which he added two floors. With his new ideas, the building changed the proportions of the street.
In His Prime
As early as 1923 this "grandfather of modernist architecture" formulated his thesis: "The primary element is function. But function without a sensual component remains construction. The postulate is functional dynamics."
Also in 1923, he built the first reinforced concrete villa in Berlin. The following years, until 1930, were his most productive. He worked on commissions throughout Germany and abroad.
Mendelsohn developed his new ideas by studying and precisely analyzing local conditions. (Years later, he opened an office in Jerusalem, then paid his assistants their first month's wages and told them to travel around the country and report on conditions.)
In 1926 the Schocken department store in Nurnberg was completed, with its window bands, plain furnishings, and stairs at the end of the building. Damaged in World War II, it has been rebuilt.
Following on this success came the Schocken department store in Chemnitz, a reinforced concrete building with continuous window bands alternating with limestone bands, a fully glazed ground floor, escalators and air conditioning.
The first to fifth floors have a 184-foot (56-meter) bay protruding by 3 feet (1 meter) running between side staircases. His well-known Schocken Department Store in Stuttgart with its elongated rounded front was followed by similar buildings in Duisburg, Breslau, and Oslo.
His private villas were very different from the contemporary bourgeois, Biedermeyer houses; Mendelsohn's were abstract constructionist compositions — cubes with flat roofs.
In March 1933, Mendelsohn left his native Germany, never to return. "Erich" became "Eric" and he now wrote in Latin characters instead of Gothic.
He went to London, where he formed a partnership with British architect Serge Chermayeff. Together they entered and won a competition for the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea. This was the first major welded steel-framed building in Britain and thus a landmark of modern architecture.
The building opening received extensive press coverage and generated much discussion about modernist architecture in general. At the time, it was one of Britain's most talked about buildings.
Charles Reilly wrote about it in the Architect's Journal of February, 1934. "The straightforward spaciousness of the interiors and the great spatial staircase gracefully mounting in their glass cylinders are things we have all dreamed about but none of us have done on their scale or with their sureness of touch. Thank goodness we still open our gates a little now and then to foreigners and make them members of our community."
He Becomes an Oriental
Mendelsohn, a lifelong Zionist, then moved to Palestine, where he earned his nickname "the Oriental from East Prussia."
In 1940 he wrote, "Palestine of today symbolizes a union between the most modern civilization and a most antique culture. It is the place where intellect and vision, matter and spirit meet."
Mendelsohn's ambition was "to build all of Palestine." Although he did not build even a majority of its new structures, he did create several imposing buildings, among them the important Hadassah-Hebrew University medical complex in Jerusalem.
As a gesture to its neighboring Arab village, Mendelsohn designed a large dome on one of the buildings. In Jerusalem he also designed the Anglo-Palestine Bank (now Bank Leumi) on Jaffa Road and the Schocken villa and library in the Rehavia residential quarter.
The rounded corner was Mendelsohn's signature. That was difficult to execute in Jerusalem, where a city ordinance stipulated that all buildings be faced in stone. Unfazed, Mendelsohn continued building round by designing protruding, round balconies.
This signature is prominent in the Villa Weizmann, 1934-36, in Rehovot, Israel. A semicircular staircase is the central motif in the round tower, one story higher than the house. Owner Chaim Weizmann later became Israel's first president. He and his wife Vera are buried on the grounds of the 11-acre (4.5-hectare) estate which was bequeathed to the State of Israel.
Landscape played an important role in all of Mendelsohn's designs; in Villa Weizmann all windows face the green countryside panorama. He also designed the garden and the indoor decorative pool.
A few years ago this 22-room villa was restored by architect Hillel Schocken, grandson of the owners of the German department stores and the Jerusalem residence Mendelsohn had designed.
Schocken said that the aim of the restoration was that "if Mendelsohn entered the house today, he would see it as something he had designed." Today this villa, one of Mendelsohn's most prominent private residences, serves as a museum and historical monument.
The American Years
Mendelsohn arrived in the United States in 1944. He supported himself with a Guggenheim grant, by lecturing extensively, and by advising the War Department on how best to destroy buildings similar to those he himself had constructed. He befriended Frank Lloyd Wright, William Wurster, and Lewis Mumford.
His first American commission was the B'nai Amoona Synagogue in University City, Missouri. In later synagogues and community centers throughout the United States, his resolution of the sacred and the social served as paradigm for the postwar American suburban synagogue.
Completed in 1950, the B'nai Amoona Synagogue contains a parabolic sanctuary roof and huge windows that fill the place with light. Today the building is home to the Center of Contemporary Arts (COCA).
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the building, it houses a Mendelsohn retrospective exhibit, curated by Kathleen James-Chakraboty. Open until March 10, 2001, the exhibit highlights the architect's life and work via photos, designs, models, and his own writings. A COCA-organized trip to Berlin will tour Mendelsohn's early work.
Another Erich Mendelsohn exhibition, at the University of Tel Aviv, illustrates via sketches, plans, photographs, and models the great range of building commissions he received. The exhibition is curated by Regina Stephan and will travel in March, 2001 to the Academie van Bouwkunst in Amsterdam, Holland.
The photographs at the Tel Aviv exhibition were taken soon after the buildings' construction. Over time, many of these have been either destroyed or heavily modified.
Yet the exhibition demonstrates the volume and variety of Mendelsohn's creativity, the products of which were most numerous in Germany, the country Mendelsohn repudiated and called a "wicked nation."
He died in exile in San Francisco in September 1953. As a gesture of reconciliation, his widow, Louise Mendelsohn, sent his archive to the Berlin Kunstbibliothek (Art Library).
According to architecture historian Ita Heinze-Greenberg, who has made a study of Mendelsohn, the library does not, for some inexplicable reason, permit public access to the archive. As she puts it, "Mendelsohn is still in exile."
Lili Eylon is a freelance writer based in Jerusalem and a frequent contributor to ArchitectureWeek.