A different Modernist diet Eric Mendelsohn, Architect 1887-1953 Edited by Regina Stephan. Monacelli Press, 1999. 287pp. £50
Eric Mendelsohn dropped the 'h' from his first name in America after realising that he would never return to his native Germany. His first major building, the Einstein Tower at Potsdam of 1921, is one of the earliest permanent European examples of what came to be known as the International Style, but with a distinctly organic basis.
In this, Mendelsohn stood apart from the leaders of the Modern Movement and was not invited to contribute to either the 1927 Weissenhof Seidlung exhibition at Stuttgart or the Congres Internationaux de l'Architecture Moderne (ciam). Yet throughout the 1920s he was the most successful Modern architect in Europe.
Despite that positive start, he has since been poorly served by writers (with the exception of Bruno Zevi's Erich Mendelsohn: The Complete Works, aj 24.6.99). It must be said, though, that his English, Palestinian, and finally American buildings lack the verve of those he realised in Germany. This new book covers all the major works up to the last, and its authors have not persuaded me to change my mind. While it is a worthwhile attempt, a book with several authors cannot sustain a single line, and we learn little about the motivations of the man himself.
Apart from unsourced quotations, such as 'I often fear the envy of the gods', that head each essay, the general picture is of an intense man who was not easy to work for and impossible to partner professionally. He had little hard knowledge of construction to back up his soft pencil/crayon perspectives; that was left to a few assistants who stayed with him during the Berlin years but did not follow him to London. Having inspected the Cohen house in Chelsea when Norman Foster was (masterfully) altering it some years ago, I can say that the original construction was a 'lash-up' that Mendelsohn's collaborator Serge Chermayeff probably could not fathom either.
And yet, Mendelsohn's German works comprise an architecture of 'functional' dynamism which, in those early days, would have had an immediate appeal - and still do against what the International Style so crudely became. The last decade has, at long last, thrown up serious studies of Wright, Haring, Scharoun, Aalto and Mendelsohn, which together bring into question the diet of Modern architectural history that my generation was fed at school - and which undoubtedly affected many buildings of the last 40 years.
A truly wonderful present that comes with this book is the collection of Mendelsohn's coloured sketches that I have not seen published before. As a client wishing to build something out of this world, but with real presence, you would surely be persuaded by them. On the other hand, while the Einstein Tower is well-covered by Kathleen James, she does not properly refer to the building being the spur for streamlining in America.
Neither before nor since in the last century did any architect catch a world-wide public imagination in its yearning for freedom. Streamlining ran through everything, even to Jane Russell's Herbert Bayer bra in the film The Outlaw.
Patrick Hodginson is emeritus professor at the University of Bath
illusn = Silo, 1915