The German architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) was a leading pioneer of modern architecture. Beginning with a sculptural and emotional approach, he later became more closely allied with the International Style.
Erich Mendelsohn was born in Allenstein, East Prussia, on March 21, 1887. He received his architectural training in Berlin and Munich, and he set up in private practice in Munich at the age of 25. In Munich he was friendly with leaders of the German expressionist movement in painting. Following military service in World War I, Mendelsohn returned to his practice and prepared an exhibition of his architectural sketches. His designs showed the strong influence of expressionism in their dynamic and dramatic use of line.
Mendelsohn's first major commission was the Einstein Tower (1919-1921), an observatory in Potsdam, Germany. Although he had originally intended the building to be executed in poured concrete (to emphasize the expressive forms of the tower), for technical reasons it was constructed of brick rendered with cement. The building attracted considerable attention, particularly because of the plastic treatment of form, which made the seven-story tower seem to flow upward from its rounded base to its domed observatory. This structure typifies his interest in an architecture of abstract, sculptural expressionism.
Shortly after this Mendelsohn began to turn away from free-flowing designs. An example of this new direction is his Steinberg Hat Factory (1920-1923) in Luckenwalde, Germany. During the late 1920s he became more and more attracted to the formal lines of the International Style. At this time he was commissioned to design several branches of the Shocken Department Store. In the one at Stuttgart (1926) he emphasized the horizontal by using continuous-ribbon windows separated with bands of brick. The rounded staircase at the corner of the asymmetrical structure was cantilevered over the entrance. Mendelsohn refined this approach in the design for the Shocken store at Chemnitz (1927-1928). Here, in an imposing curved facade, the windows alternated with opaque white bands, creating a feeling of clarity and lightness.
The rise of Nazism in Germany and its accompanying religious persecution forced Mendelsohn to flee in March 1933. In London he entered into partnership with Serge Chermayeff. Mendelsohn divided his practice between England and Palestine. His most important British design was the De la Warr Pavilion (1934) at Bexhill-On-Sea. In Palestine he executed a number of buildings, including a hospital at Haifa and the University Medical Center (1937-1939) on Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem.
Mendelsohn emigrated to the United States in 1941 but did not practice until after the war. His American work included many hospitals, synagogues, and community centers. Among the most important was the 14-story Maimonides Hospital in San Francisco (1946); here he emphasized the horizontal with conspicuously cantilevered balconies with small, curved projections.
Mendelsohn designed a number of synagogues and community centers in the Midwest, including those in St. Louis, Mo. (1946-1950), Cleveland, Ohio (1946-1952), Grand Rapids, Mich. (1948-1952), and St. Paul, Minn. (1950-1954). The Cleveland design was the most ambitious, successfully harmonizing the central dome of the synagogue with the building's undulating site. Mendelsohn died in San Francisco on Sept. 15, 1953.
Further Reading on Erich Mendelsohn
A primary source is Erich Mendelsohn: Letters of an Architect, edited by Oskar Beyer and translated by Geoffrey Strachan (1968). An excellent discussion of Mendelsohn's early European career is Arnold Whittick, Eric Mendelsohn (1940). A more recent treatment, including his American projects, is Wolf von Eckardt, Eric Mendelsohn (1960). □