Life and soul
Last February, a major exhibition of the work of Erich Mendelsohn opened at the Academie der Kunste in Berlin. The occasion was noteworthy for the hundreds of the great and good from the German architectural and artistic establishment who attended.
They were welcoming back Mendelsohn as one of their own, and as Falk Jaeger wrote in Der Tagesspiegel (29.2.04), Mendelsohn had once again gained his rightful place alongside Gropius and Mies as a giant of German Modernism of the interwar period.
The show has now reached Manchester's CUBE, whose director, Graeme Russell, has worked closely with the original curator, Regina Stephan of the Institut f³r Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute of Foreign Relations) in Stuttgart. Compared with what I saw in Berlin, this is a much more focused, integrated and appropriately expressive exhibition.
The use of Mendelsohnian sketching colours, such as red, yellow and green, underscores the fact that Mendelsohn - unlike the early protagonists of the International Style - loved to use colour both inside and out. This colour on the exhibition walls also brings to life early, sensuous Dionysian posters such as the 1914 lithograph for the Valhalla Press Ball.
Mendelsohn's great pleasure in sensuality and bodily curves is evident, of course, in the Einstein Tower, which Einstein famously (and euphemistically) called 'organic', but the sense of delight in surface, colour and the texture of materials, and collaboration with artists and interior decorators from the Mossehaus onwards, were fundamental to his work.
Through the use of modern colour photography, the exhibition shows what we never got from the old monochrome images - that Mendelsohn's architecture is all about delight, though it is certainly about firmness and commodity as well. His architecture is about life in the fullest sense.
By avoiding chronology, and instead dividing the exhibition into sections (such as Mendelsohn and the Arts, Office Buildings, etc), Russell and Stephan clarify Mendelsohn's approach in all these areas. And by emphasising the horizontal, by keeping exhibits and elucidatory material at eye level on the walls, and by positioning the superb models - truly revelatory compared with photographs - as islands around which we circulate, the curators achieve a relaxed and restorative ambience.
Metaphorically, too, they remind us of the horizontality in Mendelsohn's architecture, as in the WOGA complex and other 1920s buildings that were predicated on the movement of the motor car along the street, both by day and by electrically strip-lit night.
The great achievement of the exhibition is to bring home, really for the first time in Britain, Mendelsohn's status as the complete architect - one who is also a great artist, a great planner, and finally a great contextualist. Stephan reminds us of the influence that Theodor Fischer had on Mendelsohn, when he was his architectural student in Munich, with respect to the sense of dynamic interplay between building and site. She points out how shocked Mendelsohn was in Palestine in 1934, when he saw the work of imitators who copied stylistic elements such as his curves without considering the site.
No proto-Post-Modernist was Mendelsohn.
The WOGA complex nearly didn't make it. We learn from the exhibition that large sections of it were demolished in 197881. There are horrendous photographs of arguably Mendelsohn's greatest building after the Einstein Tower, the Universum Cinema, razed to the ground; though in the 1980s, Jurgen Sawade painstakingly rebuilt its outer shell to enclose what is now the Schaub³hne Theatre.
We have only to think of what John McAslan has achieved with the De La Warr Pavilion to reflect bitterly on what might have been in Berlin. However, while the Stuttgart Schocken was destroyed in 1960 as part of a proposed widening of Eberhardstrasse (which never happened), a surprising number of Mendelsohn's buildings have quietly survived, albeit in modernised form - as with the Mossehaus. We are reminded, happily, that all is very far from being lost.
David Hamilton-Eddy is an architectural writer in London