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Immense imagination


For nearly half a century, the critic Bruno Zevi has been an active promoter of the architecture of Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953). This magnificent book (a translation from the Italian text of 1997) represents the latest chapter in Zevi's impassioned campaign and is the most significant work on Mendelsohn to appear since Arnold Whittick's pioneering monograph, first published as early as 1940. It should be in every architectural library and, despite its intimidating price, is a vital tool and inspiration for the present and future generation of architects.

Looking at the hundreds of photographs in this book (usually well-reproduced), the plans (often printed unhelpfully small) and, above all, the staggeringly eloquent drawings, a selection of them printed in colour and all the work of a man who could never stop sketching, one wonders how Mendelsohn's standing as one of the great architectural imaginations of the twentieth century could ever have been in doubt.

But questioned it was. Mendelsohn may have completed some of the best- known Modern buildings in Germany, but he was cold-shouldered by Johnson and Hitchcock, who excluded him from their 1932 moma exhibition on the International Style where the work of Gropius, Corbusier and Mies was extolled. (Mendelsohn later described Mies' iit as being 'as dead as Julius Caesar'.) Nikolaus Pevsner (who later changed his tune) and Sigfried Giedion found no room for Mendelsohn in their influential histories of the Modern Movement. The Neue Sachlichkeit was dominant and those who did not subscribe to it were damned as apostates.

First amongst the outsiders (and only grudgingly admitted to the MOMA show) was, of course, Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Mendelsohn admired unreservedly from the time that the two men met at Taliesin East in 1924. 'I am twenty years younger,' he wrote. 'But we were friends at once, bewitched by space, holding out our hands to one another in space; the same road, the same goal, the same life, I believe. We understood one another at once, like brothers . . . No-one else approaches his genius . . . Wright lives naturally and will continue to flower until he drops.' Has there ever been a more heartfelt expression of one architect's debt to another?

In 1932, the International Style seemed a fertile hope for the future. Today, it lies discredited, damned by its own legacy of destruction and ugliness. Interest in Wright has never been stronger and Mendelsohn's time too has, it appears, belatedly arrived. In a curious afterword to this book, Zevi attempts to trace links between Mendelsohn (and the Expressionist tradition stemming from Poelzig, Taut et al) and 'action architects' of the late twentieth century - Pietila, Utzon, Renaudie, Behnisch, Hecker, Libeskind and Gehry. His conclusions seem perfunctory and unconvincing; there is a good deal more to be said about these connections. (And they do exist - try visiting Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower, Scharoun's Philharmonie, and Libeskind's Jewish Museum in quick succession.)

Had Mendelsohn designed nothing but the Einstein Tower, he would have earned a place in the history of architecture. In fact, he built extensively. The loss, largely in the Second World War, of many of his major buildings and the isolation of others in the old East Germany - the Luckenwalde hat-factory is currently in desperate need of refurbishment - has clouded Mendelsohn's achievement.

Yet there are important works in both Israel and the USA which are still hardly known: for example, the Schocken House in Jerusalem, Mendelsohn's first stone-clad structure, the buildings for the Hebrew University in the same city, the almost primitive agricultural college in Rehovoth, the Russell House in San Francisco, and the amazing Jewish community centre in St Louis, completed in 1950.

The invaluable biographical notes by Mendelsohn's widow Louise, published in this volume, are wonderfully vivid - and candid. But it is Zevi's fervent advocacy which makes the book such a convincing reassessment of Mendelsohn's reputation. The Universum Cinema in Berlin, Zevi boldly claims, 'surpasses even the Guggenheim Museum and, after almost half a century, still belongs to the future'. Mendelsohn was, indeed, 'bewitched by space'. His work reflects a belief that architecture is about the imagination and the senses, about human experience rather than technics. It is work in progress - and it is still unclear where it leads.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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