Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with ten quick facts. Our August focus is on Erich Mendelsohn, one of Germany's founding Expressionists, one of the Modernist movements to emerge in early twentieth-century Europe.
Born in Germany in the late 1880s, Mendelsohn was the son of a hatmaker and shopkeeper. He attended a humanist school and in university, studied economics and architecture in Munich and Berlin.
After graduating from the Technical University of Munich, Mendelsohn worked as an independent architect before marrying cellist Louise Maas. Many letters over the following years between him and Mass have been recovered and used for historical research and insight.
Maas’ close friend, fellow cellist, and former associate of Einstein, Erwin Finlay-Freundlich, became acquainted with Mendelsohn, and asked him to design an Einsteinturm ("Einstein Tower"), in which he planned to continue testing Einstein’s theories. The solar observatory, completed in 1924, was the result of numerous designs from Mendelsohn and his team, which included his mentee, a young Richard Neutra. Einstein himself is said to have described the final design in just one word: “organic.” The avant-garde nature of the building led Mendelsohn to be regarded as a leading Expressionist.
While the Einsteinturm was designed with a concrete exterior in mind, material shortages resulting from World War I led Mendelsohn to substitute stucco-covered-brick for concrete. Because part of the tower had already been built with concrete, an overwhelming amount of repairs were required five years after construction had ended. Mendelsohn oversaw the first round of renovations, and another round took place in 1999, after his passing.
When two of the country's largest hat manufacturers merged in 1921, its owners decided to combine their factories. As a family friend of the hatmakers, Mendelsohn was tapped by the owners, Herrman and Steinberg, to design a large facility that would eventually become a primary landmark of the area, Luckenwalde Hat Factory. Mendelsohn was praised for his thoughtful design, which allowed toxic fumes from the factory to be funneled out of the building through a chute in the roof. While the site fell into disrepair during World War II, it remains standing today. Many residents of the town say that the structure itself is shaped like a hat.
In 1924, after establishing himself as a leading architect, Mendelsohn and his Modernist contemporaries founded “Der Ring,” a Berlin-based collective of progressive designers, which took a stand against the more popular style of the time, Historicism. Notable members of the group included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
Over the next decade, Mendelsohn employed over forty architects at his firm in Berlin. He and his team designed numerous stores and emporiums in Germany under the leadership of the Weimar Republic. The most notable of these stores was a chain of Schocken Department Stores; although only one of the stores is standing today, all of Mendelsohn’s Schocken stores are seen today as modernist landmarks.
Mendelsohn was responsible for multiple art-deco projects in Germany as well. His redesign of a popular newspaper office, Mossehaus, and a cinema, the Universum, considered the first Modernist cinema in the world.
In 1928, Mendelsohn designed a villa for himself in the westernmost area of Berlin. He
released a book of the property, “Neue Haus – Neue Welt” (“New House, New World”) in 1932, which garnered him increased public popularity.
When World War II began, Mendelsohn and his wife, who were of Jewish descent, fled to
England, and eventually Palestine, where Mendelsohn opened an office and began working with the government to build notable institutions in the area, including a university; the Weizmann Institute of Science, a villa for the university’s founder, and two large hospitals.
From 1941 onwards, Mendelsohn was a professor at University of California, Berkeley, but his immigration status limited his teaching opportunities. During this time, he acted as an advisor to the US Government during World War II, building replicas of Berlin housing estates to help the military. After the war, Mendelsohn designed six synagogues in Jewish American communities.
After his passing in 1953, Mendelsohn’s relationship with cellist Louise Maas, and their subsequent fleeing to England remained alive in the many letters they exchanged over their three decade marriage. A documentary film, “Mendelsohn's Incessant Visions,” was released in 2011 by Isreali filmmaker Duki Dror, and tells the story of the architect’s life and personal struggles. Today, the Einsteinturm remains a working observatory, and is part of Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam.
“Erich Mendelsohn,” Wikipedia; “Einstein Tower,” Wikipedia; “Erich Mendelsohn,” Architectuul; “Hat Factory,” Architectuul