Talks: Erich Mendelsohn in Dublin
An exhibition on German archictect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) is currently running in three venues across Dublin. Well, to be accurate in and around Merrion Square and Stephen's Green in the offices of the OPW, the RIAI and at the Goethe Institut.
To put the exhibition in context, Regina Stephan, academic and author, recently gave a talk on his life and work at the National Gallery, which opened with the observation that though Mendelsohn lived through two world wars and was exiled three times, he managed to produce a vast body of work that remains one of the most impressive of all twentieth century architects.
Born to a middle-class Jewish family in northern Germany, and after studying economics in Berlin, Mendelsohn went to Munich in the early 1900's eager to become part of the expressionist art movement that was then flourishing in the city, in particular Der Blaue Reiter group, which included artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter.
Mendelsohn was an inveterate sketcher and also dabbled in costume design for theatre and the many balls held in the city. Sent to fight on the eastern front in the first world war, Mendelsohn spent most of the time sitting in the trenches making over fifteen hundred sketches, which he sent to his family and which are now stored in the KunstBibliothek in Berlin.
After the war ended, he managed to pick up the commission to design the 'Einstein house'in Potsdam, outside Berlin, a project intended to provide a laboratory in which the theory of relativity could be proven. Stephan noted that despite the severe post-war economic climate, there was a national 'Einsteinspend' to raise funds for the building so that the Americans wouldn't get there first.
From this project until the economic crash of 1929, Mendelsohn developed what was then the biggest architectural practice in Europe, designing department stores and cinemas around Germany. Particularly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mendelsohn visited America in the twenties and was overcome by the near carnivalesque nocturnal flood of light that greeted him in Times Square. It is hard to imagine now but European cities at the time were largely shrouded in dark at night and Mendelsohn proceeded to produce buildings that would replicate the American light, albeit in a more subtle integrated fashion.
Another pivotal journey was to England in the early thirties as the Nazis were on the brink of attaining power. Mendelsohn's modernist architecture was then falling out of favour as the 'Heimat stil', a more traditional, necessarily nationalistic form, was beginning to dominate. In London, he gave a lecture on modern architecture that amounts to his aesthetic manifesto and calls for the union of function and expressiveness in design. He and his family left Germany permanently in 1933, moving to London and setting up a practice there. Despite being a fixture on the social scene, Mendelsohn completed only one building there - the much praised performance centre in Bexhill (which featured in Children of Men) in the south of the country. In exile, he met Chaim Weizmann, later to become the first president of Israel, who invited him to work on a number of projects in Jerusalem. He moved there in the late thirties but was obliged to flee again in 1941 when the Germans were descending on the city. This time like many other Jewish emigres he headed for New York. Despite this being a spiritual home, Mendelsohn didn't work for many years and only managed a few more commissions before he died in 1953.
As well as sketching, Mendelsohn was a prodigious letter writer, in particular to his wife, to whom he wrote constantly. Unfortunately this correspondence is dispersed in various institutions in Germany and the US and if collected would no doubt give greater insight and detail into what appears to have been a remarkable life.
Token Irish reference: apparently there is a bandstand in Bexhill that is designed by an Irish architect. It stands in front of the performance centre looking out over the English channel.