Erich Mendelsohn (21 March 1887 – 15 September 1953) was a German Jewish architect, known mostly for the buildings he made during the Weimar republic, which have been labeled many times as expressionist. He was active in Berlin from 1919 to 1933 and became one of the most successful architects of the era. The Einstein Tower (1920-1922) is one of his most famous buildings and one of the few from that period that still survive. Other known buildings are the Columbushaus (1930-1932) in Potsdamer Platz (torn down during the 50s) and the recently renovated De La Warr Pavilion (1934-1935) that is considered the first public building in England belonging to the International Style. After 1933, Mendelsohn moved to London, Jerusalem and finally San Francisco.
Early years and sketches
Erich Mendelsohn was born in 1887 in Allenstein, East Prussia (today Olysztyn, Poland).
His father, David Mendelsohn, was a merchant and his mother, Esther Mendelsohn Jarusalwsky, was a milliner.
He stayed in Allenstein until 1907 that he moved to Munich to study economics.
After two terms, he decided to turn to architecture and in April 1908, he moved to Berlin and enrolled in the architecture school of the Technische Hochschule. He stayed in Berlin for two years and then in May 1910 decided to continue his studies in Munich with the architect Theodor Fischer. Years later, he explained this decision as a rebellion against the teaching of historical styles. During his studies, he worked as a designer of posters, shop windows and concert programs. Mendelsohn completed his studies in 1912 and directly opened his own office.
In the two years he stayed at Munich, Mendelsohn received only one architectural commission for and worked mainly as a stage set and costume designer. He designed the sets for a production by the expressionist director Max Reinhardt and collaborated with Hugo Ball (who later founded the Dada cabaret in Zurich).
While he was in Munich, Mendelsohn was related to the artists of the Blau Reiter (Blue Rider) expressionist group and was influenced by the theories of Wassily Kandinsky about abstract art. Another important influence was the Jugendstil designer Hermann Obrist who also lived in Munich. He also maintained an interest in the activities of the German Werkbund, an association of artists and industrialists that promoted reforms in the applied arts). In 1914, Mendelsohn moved to Berlin and the next year he married Luise Maas. Their daughter, Marie Luise Esther, was born in 1916. After the outbreak of WWI Mendelsohn was called to military service. He served at the eastern front in 1917 and was transferred to the western front in 1918.
He returned to Berlin directly after the end of the war and started work as an architect. He was a founding member of the Novembergruppe, a group formed by artists supporting the November Revolution and was also a member of the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, a more architectural group whose leadership included Bruno Taut and Walter Gropius. Through these groups, Mendelsohn established contacts with the artistic avant-garde of Berlin who at that time was oriented towards expressionism. However, he did not participate in the Arbetsrat’s Exhibition of Unknown Architects. Instead, he presented his work in a solo exhibition titled Architecture in Steel and Concrete at the Paul Cassirer Gallery in December 1919.
In the exhibition, Mendelsohn presented the drawings he had made during the war. These were perspective freehand drawings of various buildings he had designed, mostly factories and some public buildings. They were all imaginary projects with no specific location and program. They were monolithic concrete volumes pierced by great glass openings and complemented by steel structures. Without any reference to historic forms and completely devoid of ornaments, these buildings represented a clear break with the past. They were part of his intention to harmonize the subjective artistic imagination with the objective reality of the modern industrial world. Mendelsohn did not consider his drawings as mere fantasies but as buildable projects. It was just after the exhibition when he started to work full-time on his first major commission that he realized the difficulties of implementing his vision.
The years of the Weimar Republic
The Einstein Tower
Mendelsohn became familiar with the basic ideas of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity long before it became famous.
The astrophysicist Erwin Finlay-Freundlich, a friend of Luise Maas, was one of the first to learn about and support Einstein’s work.
He had intended to measure the bending of light during a solar eclipse but was prevented t do because of the outbreak of the war.
He also published the first book on relativity in 1916.
Freundilch had explained to Mendelsohn the basics of Einstein’s theory and Mendelsohn had enthusiastically incorporated these ideas to his own.
The equation of matter and energy had captured his imagination and from that moment on, he would always talk about the latent energy of the masses and volumes in his buildings.
In 1918, Freundlich received an offer from the director of the Astrophysical Observatory in Potsdam to construct a laboratory on the grounds of the observatory. He had tried for a long time to establish a laboratory that would make experiments to prove Einstein’s theory. He directly contacted Mendelsohn who was still at the front and sent him a detailed description with a plan and an elevation that explained the necessary layout for fitting the equipment he wanted to use. The domed tower and the underground laboratory were prescribed in these sketches.
Mendelsohn started immediately to work on the project but the November revolution and the absence of funds delayed the construction. On November 1919, British scientists announced that the solar eclipse experiment Freundlich had tried to do was performed and that it had verified Einstein predictions. After that, it became easier to obtain funds and in early 1920, work began on the site. The main building was completed on less than a year but it took another three years to complete the interiors and install all the necessary equipment.
Mendelssohn’s intention was to create a building like the ones he was sketching. He used the same formal language and wanted to create the entire building from reinforced concrete. It was only after construction had started that he realized that it was impossible to do so and that great parts of the building should be made from brick following traditional construction methods.
The building and his architect became quickly famous. It appeared on the front page of newspapers and on specialist architectural magazines. Although at first it was praised, as years passed and the avant-garde moved from expressionism to objectivity, the building was more criticized as irrational and idiosyncratic.
Buildings during the inflation years
Through the exhibition, his lectures and the publication of the Einstein Tower, Mendelsohn acquired some fame and was able to find commissions during the difficult years of inflation when most of his colleagues dedicated their time to utopian designs.
The industrialist Gustav Herrmann was one of Mendelsohn’s first clients. He commissioned a garden pavilion, a small housing development and, most important, a new hat factory. The Steinberg – Herrmann Factory at Luckenwalde became Mendelsohn’s first undisputed success. It was a concrete construction, more restrained than his sketches and the Einstein Tower, but dynamic and original in form. At the same time, it was admired for its functionality and for technical issues such as the ventilation system.
The second major work of that period is the renovation of the Rudolf Mosse publishing house offices. The Mosse company was one of the bigger publishing and advertisement companies in Germany. Hans Lachmann-Mosse, son-in-law of the founder of the company Rudolf Mosse and director of the company had learned about Mendelsohn through the publication of the Einstein Tower.
The building of the Mosse company was located centrally in the newspaper district of Berlin. Its corner had been heavily damaged during the Spartakus rebellion of 1919 and there was also need for an expansion. Hans Mosse had discarded proposals from other architects finding them too conventional; he expected that the new building would also serve as advertisement for the company.
In this project, Mendelsohn collaborated with the architect Richard Neutra and the sculptor Paul Rudolf Henning. The design highlighted the rounded corner of the building adding a canopy over the ground floor and five broad bands of curved widows. The new building added two stories at the sides of the old and three at the corner. The street entrance on the corner was designed with much more detail since it was the part of the building perceptible by pedestrians. In the Mosse building, Mendelsohn worked for the first time with the different perceptions that passersby would have of the building according to their means of transportation. Richard Neutra designed most of the interior of the building. The building became Mendelsohn’s greater success to that day. Its location and size (it was one of the tallest buildings in the center of Berlin) and the fact that it was used in the Mosse advertisements added to its fame.
During those years, Mendelsohn traveled extensively.
He visited all the sites of his projects, mad lecture tours and established relations with foreign architects.
He also published books and articles with his impressions from the places he had visited.
Mendelsohn traveled twice to Holland, once in 1921 and again in 1923; both travels were arranged as lecture tours. For the first trip, he was invited by Hendricus Theodorus Wijdeveld who had seen his exhibition of sketches and later published an issue of Wendingen, the magazine of the architects association of Amsterdam, entirely dedicated to Mendelsohn. In this trip, Mendelsohn met the architects of the Amsterdam school and became close friend of Michel de Klerk. The second trip to Holland was arranged after Mendelsohn met the Dutch architect Johannes Jacobus Peter Oud at the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition. He was deeply impressed by Oud’s work but disagreed with him on issues of theory. During the trip, Mendelsohn visited many of Oud’s buildings.
In the spring of 1923, Mendelsohn traveled to Palestine together with his wife and Wijdeveld. Although the journey was a very important personal experience for Mendelsohn, the various plans for buildings in Palestine (a series of buildings related to a power plant on the river Jordan) never materialized.
In late 1924, Mendelsohn traveled to the United States. His ex-assistant Richard Neutra had immigrated to the United States and was working in the office of Frank Lloyd Wright so he could arrange for the two architects to meet. At that time, American culture had an important presence in Germany. With the economic stability hat came in part through the Dawes Plan, many Germans started to see America as the prototype of a modern society. Among German architects, there was great interest not only in the works of Wright and of the other well-known architects but also in the anonymous industrial buildings that were seen as exemplary works of modern design. Although Mendelsohn made some lectures in the United States, his main reason for going was to see the American culture and society with his own eyes.
On the beginning of the trip, he traveled together with the film director Fritz Lang (who later said that the visit to New York was the inspiration for his film Metropolis). They stayed in New York and then Mendelsohn visited Buffalo, Pittsburg, Detroit and finally Chicago where he stayed for two weeks and visited Wright at Taliesin.
Mendelsohn’s impressions of America were mixed; he admired much of the industrial architecture and the American cityscape but found a spiritual poverty in American culture. One outcome of the journey was the book Amerika that was published in 1926. It contained photographs made by Mendelsohn, Fritz Lang and Karl Longberg-Holm accompanied by short commentaries by Mendelsohn.
Between 1925 and 1926, Mendelsohn traveled three times to the Soviet Union after a commission for a textile factory in Leningrad. Mendelsohn’s main contact in the Soviet Union was El Lissitzky, whom he had also met at the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition. In Leningrad and Moscow, Mendelsohn show the work of the Russian avant-garde but he was also interested in traditional architecture and art. In 1929, Mendelsohn published the book Russland-Europa-Amerika that contained photographs from both the Soviet Union and America and his impressions from both countries.
In the following years and before leaving Germany, Mendelsohn traveled also to England, Norway, Spain, Paris, Corsica and Greece.
During the 20s, Mendelsohn became famous as a designer of department stores.
His main client was Salmann Schocken, owner of the Schocken chain of department stores who specialized in selling products of high quality (although not luxuries) at low prices.
He had seen Mendelsohn’s exhibition in 1919 and six years later contacted him for designing his new store at Nuremberg.
During the following years, Mendelsohn designed two more stores (in Stuttgart and in Chemnitz) as well as advertisement posters, brochures and typefaces creating a corporate identity for the firm.
Apart from the Schocken stores, Mendelsohn designed also the C. A. Heirpich & Sons store in Berlin, the Cohen & Epstein department store in Duisburg, the Petersdorff department store in Breslau and the Dobloug Garden department store in Oslo.
Mendelsohn’s designs were innovative and substantially different from earlier designs for the same building type. Earlier department stores relied on the creation of a lavish environment and the display of luxurious goods. They were heavily decorated with imposing inside atria. Schocken’s marketing strategy and Mendelsohn’s designs relied instead on ideas of functionality and efficiency. The stores had an almost factory-like unornamented appearance; the interiors were one-storey spaces that made maximum use of the building’s surface. The functionality was projected to the outside through a dynamic but simple form. The only decorative elements were the large lettering and the illumination of the façade in horizontal bands.
Buildings in Berlin
Mendelsohn was the only modernist architect of his generation who had so many opportunities to build in the center of Berlin.
Most other modernist architects like Taut and Gropius built mostly housing projects in the outskirts of the city while Mendelsohn except of the Mosse building and the C. A. Heirpich & Sons store built the WOGA complex (with cinema, shops, theater and housing), the Metal Workers Union building and the Columbushaus in Potsdamer Platz.
He also won the competition for a high-rise office building in Friedrichstrasse that was never built.
The designs of these buildings lead to many disputes with the building authorities and mainly with Ludwig Hoffmann, the city architect of Berlin from 1896 to 1926. The dispute with Hoffmann over the Heirpich store was one of the main factors that lead to the establishment of the Ring, an association of modernist architects that included Gropius, Bruno and Max Taut, Mies van der Rohe, Peter Behrens and Hans Poelzig. The Ring opposed Hoffmann policies, initiated debates over housing and promoted modern urbanism in Berlin. In 1926, the members of the ring aided to the appointment of Martin Wagner as city architect. Wagner gave the final approval for the Heirpich store. Later during the design of the Columbushaus Mendelsohn was in close collaboration with Wagner and the building was designed to form part in Wagner’s plan for the reorganization of Potsdamer Platz.
Columbushaus was one of Berlin’s tallest buildings and Mendelsohn’s last building in Germany. The project started in 1928 as a Galeries Lafayette building, was stopped because of the 1929 depression and was finally completed as an office and restaurant building named Columbushaus in 1932. It was much simpler that Mendelsohn’s earlier buildings and closer to the New Objectivity style. It was internationally published and admired as an example of modern architecture. Soon after the Nazis came to power in 1933, the top floors were used as an SS prison. The building suffered some damage during the war and was torn down before the building of the Berlin Wall.
The years in exile
Mendelsohn and his family left Germany less than two months after Hitler came to power and never returned.
They first went to Holland where Mendelsohn worked in collaboration with Hendricus Theodorus Wijdeveld and Amédée Ozenfant on the project of founding a South Mediterranean Academy of Arts. The idea was initiated by Wijdeveld in 1930. In the beginnings of 1931, Mendelsohn had made various trips to France in order to organize the project. In summer 1932 Mendelsohn and Wijdeveld traveled to south France to search for a suitable site for the academy and found one near Cavalière. By January 1931, they founded a limited liability company and published an extensive brochure with the program of the academy. The advisory committee was headed by Albert Einstein and included among others the architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Heinrich Pertus Berlage, August Perret and Henry van der Velde, the theatrical director Max Reinhardt, the musician Igor Stravinsky and the poet Paul Valéry. Mendelsohn, Wijdeveld and Ozenfant would had been the professors together with Paul Bonifas, Serge Chermayeff, Pablo Gargallo, Eric Gill and Paul Hindemith. By June Mendelsohn had started to work on the project of the academy’s building but soon after disagreements among the three founders and worries about the future security of France in case of war lead him to abandon the project.
After the abandonment of the academy project, Mendelsohn moved to London.
There he was welcomed and supported by members of the RIBA, gave lectures at the Liverpool School of Architecture and established partnership with the younger architect Serge Chermayeff.
At that time, the architecture of the New Objectivity (or International Style as it had started to be called) was little known in Britain. Although European examples had been published there were few architects and clients that were interested in the modern style. Mendelsohn had difficulties in finding commissions. However, together with Chermayeff they won a competition for the De La Warr Pavilion, a seaside entertainment center that became England’s first International Style public building. Apart from that, Mendelsohn and Chermayeff built various houses and developed larger projects that were not built.
From 1934, Mendelsohn got involved in a series of projects in Palestine that eventually lead him to install in Jerusalem in 1939.
The first of these projects was a house for Chaim Weizmann, who new Mendelsohn from his first visit in Palestine in 1923 and who later became Israel’s first president.
Later commissions included a house and a library for his old client Salmann Schocken, the Hadassah University Medical Center, the Government Hospital in Haifa and the Anglo-Palestine Bank in Jerusalem.
The architectural situation in Palestine was very different from England. Many young European architects, including students of the Bauhaus, had emigrated there and were building in the International Style. Mendelsohn did not approve of these buildings and considered them an imitation of European architecture that was not related to the realities of Palestine. He was disappointed to see modernist architecture, including his own previous work, becoming a fashion that was followed uncritically. In his own architecture, he searched for precedents in the traditional Arab architecture of the area and intended to create an east-west synthesis. This coincided with his political beliefs concerning the future of Palestine, which he envisioned as a land where Jews and Arabs could coexist and become a modern nation. In contrast to his wife, Mendelsohn was a supporter of Zionism since his student days. He believed in the founding of a Jewish independent state in Palestine but envisioned it as a member of a Semitic commonwealth.
In early 1941, Mendelsohn left Palestine troubled by the appearance of Rommel that had created fears that the war was reaching but also disappointed by the nationalistic tendencies that went contrary to his dreams.
On March 1941, he left Palestine for the United States after a formal invitation by Lewis Mumford whom he knew from his journey of 1924.
In the United States Mendelsohn prepared an exhibition of his work for the Museum of Modern Art in New York that opened in December and then, in 1942, he made a series of lectures in various universities. During the war, he worked as a consultant to the American War Department providing information on German construction methods and planning. From 1943 to 1945, he supported himself through a Guggenheim fellowship for writing a book called Architecture in a Changing World. In 1945, he moved to San Francisco and opened an office with two young partners. In the following years and until his death in 1953, Mendelsohn designed and built various synagogues and private houses.
Design method, professional practice and success
Mendelsohn had many assistants and employees during his career but few partners and those only for short times. His method of work relied on intuition and he was very reluctant to make changes in his designs whether for technical reasons or to accommodate client wishes.
At receiving a commission, his first work was to go and study the site, noticing the surrounding buildings, the views and the orientation in relation to sun and wind. Then he would start making small sketches of the project. At that stage he worked at home listening to music (usually Bach). He also had the custom of drawing during concerts. He considered architectural and musical composition to be similar in many ways and had written an article on the subject explaining that both harmony and counterpoint were also methods of architectural composition. The sketches were almost exclusively perspective drawings with low vanishing points. He developed a number of variations of the building on the same paper omitting any detail of the surrounding space. Once he reached a satisfactory form, he would remain strictly attached to it.
The job of making building plans from the sketches was trusted to his assistants. Especially after the eye operation in 1922, he was unable to draw anything more than small-scale sketches. In many cases, he lacked technical knowledge of how his designs were to be constructed. He depended on his assistants and paid them more than the average but he also exercised strict control over their work.
At its highest point in the late 20s, Mendelsohn’s office had about forty employees and was among the largest architectural offices in Europe with international clientele and fame. It was well-known for constructing high-quality buildings in very short time. Mendelsohn had managed to become quite rich from his office by charging relatively high prices for his work. In 1931, he completed his house in Berlin, a small villa occupied with the latest technological achievements. One year later, he published a book on the house called New House, New World and he was heavily criticized for boasting.
Beyer, Oscar (1967) Eric Mendelsohn: Letters of an Architect, London, Abelard-Schuman
James, Kathleen (1997) Erich Mendelsohn and the Architecture of German Modernism, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521571685
Mumford, Eric (2000) The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960, Cambridge, MIT Press ISBN 0-262-63263-2
Stephan, Regina (ed.) (1999) Eric Mendelsohn, Architect 1887-1953, New York, Monacelli Press, ISBN 1-58093-034-4
Tafuri, Manfredo & Francesco Dal Co (1976) Modern Architecture, Milan, Electa ISBN 0-8478-0760-6
Ward, Janet (2001) Weimar Surfaces: Urban Visual Culture in 1920s Germany, Berkeley, University of California Press ISBN 0-520-22299-7
- On the context of Mendelsohn's department stores designs see Ward (2001) chapter 4.
- Charlotte Benton "Buildings in England and the Partnership with Serge Chermayeff 1933-1941" in Stephan (1999) p. 190-203
- Ita Heinze-Greenberg "Architecture in Palestine 1934/1941" in Stephan (1999) p. 204-241
- On the subject of architecture and music see James(1997) p. 179-180
- Mendelsohn working method is described in Regina Stephan "Mendelsohn and his Assistants in the 1920s and Early 1930s" Stephan (1999) p. 152-159
- Ita Heinze-Greenberg "Success, House and Home" in Stephan (1999) p. 170-181