March 21: Not the One-Hit Wonder You Thought He Was
2016/03/21 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1887 Erich Mendelsohn was born.
Most famous for his Einstein Tower, Mendehlsohn (d. 1953) was more than a one-note Expressionist. More important is his life story, which is more dramatic than any of his buildings.
Born in East Prussia, the Jewish architect studied in German universities before opening his practice in Munich in 1912. His early work falls into that interesting Alpine stripped-vernacular; let’s call it Klassizismus auf Deutsch à la mode Jugendstil. With the outbreak of war he enlisted; after its conclusion he reestablished an office in Berlin. During these years he found his Expressionist voice and made his name with the Einsteinturm (proposed just at the close of the war constructed in the years immediately following it) (and which is looking pretty good after a recent and expensive restoration). Although actually built of very conservative brick bearing walls that have been slooped-over with a thick frosting of stucco, it was conceived as an expression of concrete technology: the plastic potential of this liquid material frozen in undulating form. This was his approach as an Expressionist, which prohibited development of a style per se; he sought the visual expression of the character of materials in an emotional sense, not the duller “truth to materials” of others from Ruskin to Wright. Thus the striking difference between the gloopy “concrete” Einstein Tower and the Hutfabrik (hat factory) in Luckenwalde, which is all about the brickyness of brick.
But Expressionism, alas, had a short lifespan, and was replaced by the Neue Sachlichkeit. (For the record, Clio doesn’t have a lot of patience for any kind of [so-called] Sachlichkeit, be it neue oder alte.) Mendehlsohn was a significant shaper of this movement for “objectivity” in architecture. By the early 1930s he headed a big firm of over forty employees, was tight with Mies and Gropius and others in Der Ring, further expanding his reputation with a series of clean, sleek, Functionalist/Modernist department stores (like this one and this one and this one).
But 1933 was not a good year for Jews in Germany, and Mendehlsohn not only fled aesthetic oppression but indeed ran for his life. By doing so, in the following years he actually practiced what Hitchcock and Johnson would preach with their ideal of an “International Style,” designing Functionalist structures in England, Jerusalem, and finally the US. For whatever reason–and it is interesting to speculate why–he did not find as significant a place in the US as others who had left Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise to power. Yet his smaller and less considerable works–at least as judged by your garden variety survey of “Modern Architecture”–are every bit as technically profound and arguably more content-worthy than the better known monuments constructed by the so-called Master Builders. In the years of Mies’ Crown Hall, Wright’s Price Tower, and Gropius’ Harvard Graduate Center, Mendelsohn was pouring himself into the first synagogue he had the opportunity to build. The Park Synagogue in Cleveland is a striking example of European Modernism channeled into a building for worship. The complex is centered on a round sanctuary (not just a cool shape, but a centralized form that directs all attendees attention to a common center, per tradition, and alludes to the symbolism of the “Crown of Torah”) covered by a 4″ ferro-concrete dome (weighing in at 680 tons) clad with copper (here it is under construction). Weighing in at 680 tons, the 120′-diameter dome is raised 125′ above the ground seats 1,000.
Too often passed over as a one-hit-wonder, Mendehlsohn illustrates (as do all the “Masters,” if we bother to look beyond–or, rather, before–their crowning achievements, as defined by a narrow group of historians) the complexity of Modernism’s development. But more than that, from his most famous building (in part, monument to a Jewish scientist), to this little-known wondrous dome in Ohio (sheltering Shabbat Morning services), we can read in his buildings a story much richer than mere bricks and concrete would first suggest.
Read more about the Synagogue here
Image: Park Synagoguge, Cleveland, 1945-50 (from this source)