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From Building towards Landscape
Erich Mendelsohn and a Reconstitution of Geographical Forms, 1919-1929
Jeremy Kargon, Assistant Professor
Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning
Morgan State University
Among German architects active following World War I, Erich Mendelsohn is
remarkable for his early projects conceived for sites far beyond the borders of his native
land. Mendelsohn’s visits to Palestine, Greece, the United States, and the nascent Soviet Union resulted, too, in extensive written and graphic descriptions, many of which were published by the popular press. And although these foreign places were as diverse culturally as they were geographically, Mendelsohn’s letters, lectures, and books quite naturally reflect the designer’s own sensibility both towards architecture, per se, and towards something else: architecture as a constituent part of a universal “visual landscape.” In Mendelsohn’s case, photography was a significant tool in the assembly of his travel- based narratives. Mendelsohn’s use of photographs betrays a reversal of the more typical relationship between landscape and an architect’s creative process. Rather than having drawn inspiration for new man-made forms from nature, Mendelsohn’s travel images evoked a world in which technical artifacts appear to constitute the background against which new architecture might -- or might not -- emerge.
Although most readily apparent in his book Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (An Architect’s Photo Album), this perspective persists throughout his second book, Russland, Europa, Amerika. The latter’s subtitle makes explicit Mendelsohn’s extension of the human gesture into geography's domain: “An Architectural Cross Section.” Examination of photographs taken or selected by Mendelsohn for this publication points to a formal process by which man-made things come to substitute for the landscape and its more widely-held moral properties. Yet in the years following Russland, Europa, Amerika’s publication, Mendelsohn’s writing betrayed a shift in his attitude towards the natural landscape. His travelogue of a visit to Greece, published in Berlin’s popular press, suggests a more synthetic understanding of architecture’s relationship to natural forms.
Among the catalysts for this change may have been his 1923 visit to Palestine, during which Mendelsohn first encountered that region’s characteristic topography, climate, and light.
Sources for comparison throughout this period include illustrations by contemporary artists and architects such as Hermann Kosel, Bruno Taut, Hannah Höch, and Paul Citroen.
0 From Building towards Landscape Erich Mendelsohn and a Reconstitution of Geographical Forms, 1919-1929 1 But Seriously… In its September 1927 issue, the satirical, Berlin-based magazine Ulk published a twopage spread by Hermann Kosel, titled “Die neue Bauform”: the New Design1 [Figure 01].
In this illustration, a single, grotesque building has been formed from a collage of architectural elements. Appendages to the building, such as an over-sized ship’s ventilator and a human figure giving a military salute, have been culled from nonarchitectural sources; otherwise, the constituent elements of both the large building and its surrounding environment derive from modern buildings widely depicted at that time in the popular press. At the base of the large building, photographs of smaller, mostly domestic buildings have been placed to mimic the texture of the dense, contemporary city. A cartoon figure of an elderly man, dressed in overcoat and capped by a bowler hat, regards the “New Design” with apparent resignation. This figure is the only warmly-hued element in an image otherwise composed in monochrome.
At the lower right hand side of the illustration is an additional picture caption, which reads, “If only we can change ourselves into ‘twisted people,’ then we can live quite comfortably in this place.” 2 Readers of Ulk and its parent publication, Berliner Tageblatt, would likely have been somewhat less befuddled than the man in the picture. The most obvious target of this graphic satire should have been familiar to many as Erich Mendelsohn’s C.A. Herpich Sons building, most of which had been completed the year of Kosel’s photomontage [Figure 02]. As architect, too, of the Berlin headquarters of the Rudolf Mosse Publishing Company (which produced Berliner Tageblatt), Mendelsohn and his designs had been promoted extensively to Mosse’s readership by both print and patronage. The Herpich store’s façade renovation had been controversial among conservative city officials, and the extended battle for approval made the design and its architect emblematic of what others called “Neue Bauen.” 3 As portrayed by the jumbled, collage-like landscape at the base of Kosel’s photomontage [Figure 03], the background for this new architecture was essentially more new architecture, as though the process of design could be conceived as enlarging or deforming those visual elements already at hand. And so, although the magazine illustrator may have been ostensibly unflattering (if not unfair) towards Mendelsohn’s Herpich design, Kosel had made his point by making use of a visual language which derived in large part from the architect’s own well-known picture books, the first of which had been published by the Mosse Company just the year before. Inspired by the architect’s travels to the United States in 1924 and, later, to Russia, these books are 1 Hermann Kosel, “Die neue Bauform,” Ulk 56 (1927): 282-283.
2 Nun brauchen wir bloss alle Spiralmenschen zu werden, dann muss sich's in solcher Bude ganz hubsch wohnen.
3 Kathleen James, Erich Mendelsohn and the Architecture of German Modernism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 111-115.
1 From Building towards Landscape Erich Mendelsohn and a Reconstitution of Geographical Forms, 1919-1929 essentially visual narratives by which the architect sought to promote his ideas about Europe’s own potential architectural development. Yet to approach their photography’s
formal construction suggests another fundamental – if only implicit – concern:
Mendelsohn’s view of architecture’s surrounding landscape.
2 Mendelsohn: Landscape and Context
Historians have tended to ignore the relationship of Mendelsohn’s designs to their environment, particularly for projects conceived before 1933, the year he left Germany.
Writers have found ample material of interest relating to Mendelsohn’s clientele, the commercial nature of his work, his Zionism, or his relationship with other architects throughout the world. In addition – and not surprisingly – writing about Mendelsohn continues to emphasize the importance of the architect’s early sketches for imaginary projects, conceived during the last years of World War I. These drawings, many of which illustrated quasi-industrial forms, occasioned his initial notice among clients and established his reputation as a visionary architect for both public and professionals alike [Figure 04]. These early building sketches typically included no mark of a surrounding context, as though Mendelsohn’s designs were intended for a landscape neither yet constructed nor, even, yet conceived. The only exception was his rare inclusion of an arc, representing the sky, drawn above a few later sketches [Figure 05]. The effect of this gesture is exceedingly generic, and evokes mostly what Mendelsohn himself once called “tellurian and planetary things.” 4 Bruno Zevi does mention, in a caption to one of those early sketches, that Mendelsohn’s work before 1933 reflects a “tenacious, intransigent, anti-naturalist approach.” Zevi
We look in vain for a tree, a hill in the background, a topographical feature… Mendelsohn frees the building from its natural context and despises environmental details. Only the ground and sky are of importance to him… Owing to their character, Mendelsohn’s visions and later his constructions were both autonomous and open; they omit description and mimesis…5 Zevi’s categorical insistence upon Mendelsohn’s “anti-naturalism” is belied by a series of sketches titled “Dune Architecture,” retained by Louise Mendelsohn and exhibited after her husband’s death. Executed during a visit to the Baltic Sea in 1920, these drawings are representations of the naturally-occurring sand formations which he encountered there [Figure 06]. In an interview conducted almost fifty years later, his wife would suggest 4 Letter to Louise Mendelsohn, 24 June 1917. In Oskar Beyer, ed., Eric Mendelsohn: Letters of an Architect (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1967), 40.
5 Bruno Zevi, Erich Mendelsohn: The Complete Works, tr. Lucinda Byatt.
(Boston: Birkhäuser Publishers, 1999), 44.
2 From Building towards Landscape Erich Mendelsohn and a Reconstitution of Geographical Forms, 1919-1929 that “these shapes were in turn reflected in his actual working architectural drawings.”6 But Mendelsohn himself excluded these drawings from his published monographs, and so they are difficult -- as isolated examples – to relate to his professional thinking.
Part of the challenge towards understanding Mendelsohn’s view of landscape has to do with the elliptical character of his verbal comments about the subject. Although given to write a great deal throughout his career in Germany and afterwards, Mendelsohn’s correspondence and essays were typically infused with a kind of rhetoric which had little room for description of natural surroundings. A typical example is an impressionistic account of Pittsburgh, dating to his first visit to the United States in 1924. The passage
shifts quickly from a description of the city’s environment to an emphasis upon artifact:
An early glimpse from the Allegheny Mountains onto the rivers, the suburbs, and the city itself. The same disorderly skyline as New York. It is a tongue of land that re-enters the waters of the Ohio River, which starts here at the confluence of the Monongahela glacial stream and the Allegheny spring waters. All amid the mists of the American Ruhr, the collieries (which line the whole length of the track from Buffalo) and Carnegie’s wells of steel.7 Rhetoric aside, a more fundamental challenge may be the fact of his best architectural work’s urban settings. The commercial designs conceived at the time of his greatest professional success – the Herpich store, the Schocken department stores, the Petersdorfff store, or the Columbushaus – are those for whom urban relationships are fundamental to each building’s unique plasticity and functional logic [Figure 07]. Yet, for many of us, the architecture of cities and the morphology of their streets remain outside our considerations about “landscape,” except in the context of parks or gardens. That our understanding of landscape must include both rural and urban settings has been a
repeated concern for much of the recent critical discussion about environmental design:
“A landscape is a cultural image, a pictorial way of representing, structuring, or symbolizing surroundings.”8 It is, therefore, through this filter that one can begin to perceive those elements in Mendelsohn’s vision which distinguished him from his contemporaries. Furthermore, even in his first public statements, as Mendelsohn attempted to stake out a unique position vis-à-vis his contemporaries, he did so through a critique of others’ use of landscape.
6 King, Susan. The Drawings of Erich Mendelsohn (Berkeley: The Regents of the University of California, 1969), 26.
7 Letter to Louise Mendelsohn, 22 October 1924. In Beyer, op. cit., 69.
8 Denis Cosgrove and Stephen Daniels, eds., The Iconography of Landscape (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 1.
3 Words and Images: The “Oppositional Landscape” An early example is Mendelsohn’s illustrated public lecture, “The Problem of a New Architecture,” conceived originally for his gallery show at Paul Cassirer Gallery in 1919 and given later under the auspices of the “Arbeitsrat für Kunst” in 1920. 9 The place and audience of his lecture were themselves significant. The Arbeitsrat had been established by Bruno Taut and had been populated by many of the artists who were soon to contribute to the “Crystal Chain” correspondence, in which the faceted forms of nature were explicitly evoked as the wellspring of a new architecture. Although Mendelsohn had been affiliated with the Arbeitsrat through his connection with the related Novembergruppe,10 he rejected offers to participate in their gallery shows.11 He accepted, however, their invitation to speak about his own work.
With little apparent irony, Mendelsohn drew his first two lecture slides from Taut’s Alpine Architecture [Figure 08]. In the published version of the lecture, Mendelsohn identifies Taut’s drawings with the first of “three very different ways of realizing this future [architecture, which] will eventually merge… I am going to read to you what the artist felt when he visualized it. ‘In the deep valley between crystal-edged, carved mountains, one can see from above, through the transparent glass vault, into the room with its supporting columns’ … Here the ideal experience is placed above the spatial one.12 Mendelsohn then drives his point home with a reference to The Cathedral Star [Figure 06b]. “It is liberated from any architectural vision… Here is the call: Create symbols, not forms.”13 Mendelsohn’s references to Taut’s drawings are among the few mentions of landscapebased form throughout this lecture.14 In his direct quotation of Taut’s own evocative language, Mendelsohn pointed his audience’s attention towards the identification of landscape with a wellspring of feeling, not of form. From this perspective, landscape was not a meaningful context from which a design might derive its shape or its organization.
9 James, op. cit., 26.
10 Zevi, op. cit., xix.
11 Beyer, op. cit., 51.
12 Erich Mendelsohn, Complete Works of the Architect, tr. Antje Fritsch (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 8-9.