Erich Mendelsohn

Erich Mendelsohn was a German-British architect, known for his expressionist architecture in the 1920s, as well as for developing dynamic functionalism in his projects for department stores and cinemas. Mendelsohn was born on March 21, 1887, in Allenstein, Germany died on September 15, 1953, in San Francisco, California.

He was an architect recognized for his Einstein Tower in Potsdam, a notable example of German Expressionism in architecture, and later for his use of modern materials and construction methods to make what he saw as organically unified buildings. The Einstein Tower in Potsdam was Mendelsohn’s first major work and continues to be his most renowned creation. The stucco exterior allowed for smooth organic curves to flow around the building in ways never seen before. The reception was mixed, with some calling it an ‘ungainly spaceship’-perhaps not necessarily a bad thing for an observatory. The unorthodox arches and exciting levels of the Einstein Tower enhanced his status as an innovator of architecture.

Mossehaus, originally a printing press and newspaper offices, is one of his most acclaimed works today. The long horizontal lines of the windows that wrap around the corner make this building an important work of Streamline Moderne – a late Deco style of curves, lines, and nautical influence. The use of grey and black interlocking tiers exemplified the style and had an impact on future Art Deco and Streamline Moderne works. At one time, this was the tallest building in Berlin, although since then, huge tower blocks have been built nearby.

During WWII, the building was taken over by the military and suffered some damage during air raids in the local area. Finally, in 2005, the building underwent extensive restoration and was reopened as a center of contemporary arts, becoming one of the largest galleries on the south coast.

Erich Mendelsohn would have much to contend with in his lifetime. At the age of 21, he began his study of architecture in Berlin, later transferring to Munich where he graduated in 1912. While studying architecture at the Academy in Munich, he supported himself by selling his paintings and by designing decorations for store windows and stage productions. During that period, he had close contact with the Blaue Reiter group of German Expressionist artists in Munich. His career flourished during WW1, after which he set up his first architectural
practice in Berlin.

While serving in the German army during World War I, he made a series of highly imaginative architectural sketches that attracted widespread attention when they were exhibited in Berlin shortly after the war. The sketches led to Mendelsohn’s first commission after the war, the Einstein Tower, Potsdam (1919-21). This bizarre, highly sculptured structure caused an immediate sensation. He had intended the structure to convey the possibilities of poured concrete, but a shortage of this material necessitated the substitution of brick covered with cement.

The hat factory of Steinberg, Hermann & Co. that he designed at Luckenwalde (1920-23) also had a striking appearance, and it was entirely functional as well. Son of a hat maker, the Hat Factory was a fitting place to establish Mendelsohn’s early reputation. The vast dyeing hall was supported by a great concrete rib cage, holding the busy heart of the factory together. Huge skylight panels ran the length of the hall, flooding the building with natural light for the workers. This was a functional space as well as a striking work of architecture.

During the 1920’s Mendelsohn designed several structures that were particularly notable for their prominent and imaginative use of glass in strongly horizontal compositions; outstanding were the Schocken stores at Stuttgart (1927) and Chemnitz (1928).

With growing anti-semitism in Germany and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in power, Mendelsohn was forced to emigrate to England in 1933. He first stopped in Brussels and then went to London. Here he met Serge Chermayeff and together they created the De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex. Some claim this was the first major Modernist public building in the UK, with its sweeping helical staircase and curved balcony evoking ocean liners and Art Deco. Unfortunately, this was a building built at the wrong time for holidaymakers.

Chaim Weizman, later President of Israel, designed a series of buildings in Palestine and Weizman’s own home. The Weizman Residence is today regarded as one of the gems of modernism in Israel. A building of flat planes and straight edges has been dramatically enhanced by a central staircase tower. Floor-to-ceiling windows run the entire length of the tower, filling the space with light and emphasizing the elegance of the architecture. The white walls of the building are offset by striking crimson surfaces under the cantilevered roof.  Mendelsohn brought the International Style of Le Corbusier to the heart of the Middle East with this building.

Now with an established office in Jerusalem, Mendelsohn has worked on many more commissions in the country, including numerous medical institutions and an Anglo-Palestine bank.

He was commissioned for important works in Palestine, notably large hospitals at Haifa (1937) and Jerusalem (1938). In 1941 Mendelsohn went to the United States, and in 1945 he settled in San Francisco, where his important works include the Maimonides Hospital (1946). To his credit also are synagogues and community centers in St. Louis, Mo.;  Cleveland, Ohio; Grand Rapids, Michigan.; and St. Paul, Minn.

The Mount Scopus campus of Hadassah Medical Center looks more like a hotel than a hospital – Mendelsohn did not wish to create a traditional, purely functional medical building, he wanted the same sense of art that was in all his other works. Warm stone, a tranquil pond, and a neat courtyard with a dome veranda overlooking the city-this was not a place to be ill, but a place to get better. After his works in Jerusalem, Mendelsohn emigrated to the USA where he lived until his death in 1953. As the second world war progressed, Mendelsohn became an adviser to the government, assisting bombers with his knowledge of German housing estates. In 1945 he moved from California to San Francisco, where he undertook various projects, particularly for the Jewish community. One of his last works, Park Synagogue (completed 1950) is considered an important example of modern synagogue design.  A great dome sits low on the building, creating an intimate space and uniting the congregation.

Mendelsohn’s blending of International Style, Art Deco, and the Streamline modern has influenced architects around the world, earning him a place among the elite of modern architects.  Erich Mendelsohn was a successful architect born in Europe who emigrated to the United States. He was able to overcome the struggles of the war and design many great structures. At Scarano Architect, PLLC, we are amazed at the accomplishments of Erich Mendelsohn. We work hard to be able to count ourselves among the greatest architects of the world.  Visit our website to see our award-winning designs. Please call us for all of your architectural and design needs.

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