06172019

Leaving Something Eternal

The life and love of the architect Erich Mendelsohn

This film brings forgotten Jewish people and forgotten Jewish stories back to the city”, said Nicola Galliner, director of Berlin’s Jewish Film Festival, at the fi rst screening of “Erich Mendelsohn. Incessant Visions” in Berlin in June. Forgotten? The architecture buffs in the audience groaned. Don’t Mendelsohn’s works form a chapter in the history of architecture? And yet, little is known about the private life of the famed architect and his mesmerizing wife Luise. The twelve hundred letters, which Erich Mendelsohn (1887−1953) wrote her, and the memoirs of Luise Mendelsohn (1895−1980), “My Life in a Changing World”, are at the base of Duki Dror’s homage. He has animated the memories and letters of the couple with the help of art historian Ita Heinze- Greenberg, a renowned interpreter of Mendelsohn’s work.

Early works

“I was born in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur 1963 as Zadok Salah Dror Darwish”, the Israeli fi lmmaker says. “My parents were born in Baghdad, Iraq, from which they fl ed in the 1950’s. I found the story of Erich Mendelsohn while walking in the streets of Tel Aviv, looking at Bauhaus architecture and wondering where this modern idea originated from. This was a compelling story of a displaced artist who had a radical will and a pencil in his hand with which he wanted to change the world. And so he did.” Erich Mendelsohn was born in Allenstein (now Olsztyn), “an oriental from East Prussia”, as he called himself with a wink. He studied architecture fi rst in Berlin, then in Munich, where he graduated cum laude in 1912. In 1915 he married Luise Maas, daughter of a well-to-do Jewish merchant from Königsberg, a trained cellist and socialite. Serving in the German army, Mendelsohn sent his wife tiny futuristic illustrations he drew in the trenches. The idea for his most famous early work, the Einstein Tower observatory, emerged at the Russian front. Luise presented his sketches in an exhibition to the art world in Berlin to promote her husband’s ideas, thereby helping him to early success. The tower, which captures the spirit of German Expressionism, was followed by more functional buildings: a hat factory in Luckenwalde, a series of department stores run by the Schocken family and the Mosse building in Berlin, to name but a few. “No stucco cakes for Potemkin and Scapa Flow”, he explained at the opening of Berlin’s largest cinema, the “Universum”, in 1928. In 1925, when Erich was “deep in his work,” his wife went on vacation to Switzerland, where she met the revolutionary playwright Ernst Toller. The film describes their relationship as a romantic love affair. To mend the rift in their marriage, Erich decided to build Luise a dream house at Rupenhorn in the outskirts of Berlin, overlooking the river Havel. “He designed the house, the furniture, the silverware, my evening gowns and a full set of jewelry. Erich had to have complete control,” she recalls. Her husband documented all the details in a book, “so that he could take the house with him where ever he went,” adds Ita Heinz Greenberg. For three years, the villa was a meeting place for artists, scientists and connoisseurs, with Albert Einstein joining Luise for chamber music concerts in her home. Soon they had to realize that things were changing. “I am not able to participate in the competition to design the new Reich’s Bank building. Thirty German architects and I’m not one of them!”, Mendelsohn complained. In March 1933, when he was expelled from the Academy of Arts, they left Berlin together with their daughter Esther for Amsterdam. “A new era begins, without the burden of any possessions.”

Exile

“Incessant Visions” recounts a revealing anecdote: When the couple stepped off the train in Amsterdam, they bumped into an acquaintance who asked Mendelsohn what he was doing there. The architect took a pencil out of his pocket and held it in the air. “I’m relocating my offi ce,” he shortly declared. The Mendelsohns settled first in Great Britain, where Erich planned the stunning De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. In London, they met Chaim Weizman, president of the Zionist Organization. In 1934, Mendelsohn, who had joined the Zionist movement as a student, went to Palestine to build the Weizmann Villa in Rehovot. He was not too excited to see the new buildings of the White City of Tel Aviv. “All me and Le Corbusier”, was his rather dismissive comment. A young generation of Bauhaus architects had borrowed from the patterns Mendelsohn had developed in the 1920’s in Berlin and copied him in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard and on the Carmel slopes of Haifa. He didn’t want to be imitated and favored a blend of European modernity and Arab architecture. During his fi rst visit to Palestine in 1924, he had been fascinated by the local “architecture without architects”; his following projects, including the Schocken Villa, the Anglo-Palestine Bank and the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem tell about Mendelsohn’s search for a Jewish-oriental style that wouldn’t alienate Palestine from its Arab hinterland.

The “German Village”

In 1941, the Mendelsohns left Palestine for the United States, where Erich designed a number of synagogues, hospitals, shops and private homes. As a new immigrant, he was not immediately allowed to teach but became an advisor before teaching at UC Berkeley until his death in 1953. Duki Dror stresses in his film that Mendelsohn was “the famous German architect who built Berlin and later helped the Americans destroy it”. In fact, he served as an advisor to the U.S. government and collaborated in 1943 with the U.S. Army and Standard Oil Development Company in order to build a “German Village” in the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. This set of replicas of typical German tenement buildings became the training grounds for the fi rebombing of Berlin.

In his film, Duki Dror asks Mendelsohn’s only granddaughter, Daria Joseph, if her grandfather is buried in San Francisco. “I don’t think he is buried anywhere. Neither are my grandmother and my mother. Their ashes were strewn by the wind under the Golden Gate Bridge”, she answers. “Architects think they leave something eternal. Their buildings are carved in stone and steel, but they too finally decay and vanish,” writes Luise Mendelsohn in her memoirs. It is remarkable that the very fi rst building Erich Mendelsohn built, the Beth Tahara at the Jewish cemetery in his hometown Allenstein, has become a place where the citizens of the Polish city of Olsztyn are trying to keep his legacy alive. In Berlin, the Erich Mendelsohn Foundation is dedicated to preserveing his works; the foundation’s premises, Villa Bejach, were designed by Mendelsohn in 1928.

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