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Blood and Space, Race and Three Dimensions! Letters of an Architect revisited

Raquel Rapaport

Abstract: By the early 1930s, Erich Mendelsohn’s Berlin office was the world’s busiest modern architectural practice, taking on a team of over forty employees and building all over Germany and abroad. He foresaw, however, that "we shall not end our days here". Indeed, Mendelsohn’s outstanding activity came abruptly to an end with the rise of Hitler and his resulting emigration. His was a final departure from Germany; consequently, he would settle in Palestine for a short while. Mendelsohn had the gift of beautiful writing: his lifelong correspondence was published posthumously as Eric Mendelsohn: Letters of an Architect. His texts convey asingular testimony of thoughts and feelings about Palestine, the Zionist movement, the Land and its architecture, and the Jewish people rebuilding their destiny. This paper revisits some significant excerpts from his letters and lectures.

             

 

Erich Mendelsohn was one of the most prominent and original architects working during the inter-war period, and probably the best known representative of the profession during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933). His Berlin office was the world’s busiest modern architectural practice, taking on a team of over forty employees and building all over Germany and abroad. Yet as early as 1925, he had had the intuition that “we shall not end our days here.” Indeed, Mendelsohn’s extraordinary activity came abruptly to an end with the rise of Hitler to power and Mendelsohn’s resulting emigration. He abandoned not only a flourishing practice, but also Am Ruperhorn, his recently finished dream-house. This was a final departure. He would not return to Germany, to which he would call henceforth as “our tears-and-Bach country”.[1]

 

dates

 

For a short while, this architect settled and built in Palestine during the British Mandate. He moved first to London where he opened a new office, establishing a new partnership with Serge Chermayeff. In Britain Mendelsohn re-encountered his patron Salman Schocken and through him renewed contacts he had in Palestine. The outcome was a series of commissions there yielding brilliant projects and at least two masterpieces. These represent a period of deep reflection and significant change in the architect’s life. Mendelsohn recorded:

 

In these years I have two offices – London and Jerusalem.

I travel much and learn a great deal of the ancient world around the Mediterranean Sea. My feeling for organic unity receives a new stimulating confirmation.[2]

 

Birkin Haward, who was then a young architect in Mendelsohn’s new London office, wrote in his memoirs that, “early in 1935 Mendelsohn decided to establish an office in Jerusalem”.[3] Mendelsohn divided his time between England and Palestine.

 

Ten years earlier Mendelsohn had visited Palestine for the first time, and he was overwhelmed by emotion: “The experience is great, beyond expectation”, he wrote. Eventually Mendelsohn settled in Palestine for about four years (1938-41); however, since his first visit during the spring of 1923 to his death in the States thirty years later, there is constant evidence in his writings of his interest in Palestine, the Land and its architecture, the Zionist movement and the Jewish people rebuilding their destiny in a National home.

 

Berlin, 1930's

 

Mendelsohn’s lifelong correspondence with his wife Louise and close Jewish friends conveys an extraordinary testimony of his thoughts and feelings on the cultural relations between himself, Germany and Jewish identity. These letters were edited after his death by Oskar Beyer, Mendelsohn’s lifelong architect friend, becoming Eric Mendelsohn: Letters of an Architect, a book which was translated and published in English in 1967.[4] About fifty instances of direct reference to the questions of Zeitgeist, Zionism and his work in Eretz-Israel are to be found in this book only. Out of these, three main themes emerge: first, Mendelsohn’s personal identification with the Zionist cause, Eretz-Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and what he named ‘Artistic Zionism’: restoring visual awareness to the Jewish people. Second, there is the Land: the force of the landscape of Palestine and the architect’s response to it, planning ‘gardens in the desert’ – creating nature within architecture. Finally, Mendelsohn’s candid thoughts on the after-effects of emigration, the challenge of commuting to and fro London-Jerusalem and his changing personal feelings about the work he is doing at the time.

 

                      

Jerusalem, 1930's

 

1923:  The first encounter with Palestine

Erich Mendelsohn was forty-five years old in 1923, and reaching the peak of his career. The visionary engineer and future industrialist Pinhas Ruthenberg invited him to Palestine, since Ruthenberg had recently obtained from the British government the concession ‘to electrify Palestine’, which would lead to the erection of a series of power stations. The first of these, Haifa Aleph, he asked Mendelsohn to design. Accepting the invitation, Mendelsohn travelled with his wife Louise and another Dutch friend, the architect Hendricus Theodorus Wijdeveld, editor of the influential Wendingen 'building and decorating' magazine[5]. Simultaneously, he was seeing to other possible ventures, the project of a garden settlement on Mount Carmel for Adolf Sommerfeld and a competition for a new commercial centre in Downtown Haifa, which he would design with Richard Neutra (see Appendix).

 

Although none of the first three commissions would materialize, this visit was crucial for Mendelsohn’s life: He was deeply moved with 'the land of his fathers' and with the prospects of shaping the architecture of the Jewish national home, of which he began to dream "to guide it architecturally – to build… all the important buildings”.[6] The allure of the Palestinian vernacular architecture was immediately felt; the reverberation of ancestral memories equally strong. On 9 March 1923 Mendelsohn sent a postcard to his friend Oskar Beyer from Jerusalem. Drawing on it a pen sketch view of Jerusalem’s Old City showing ‘the approach to the Wailing Wall’ (see Fig. 4), he wrote:

 

Dear B., Don’t expect anything written. The experience is great, beyond expectation, and will take time to settle. Once it settles, then it can only fortify what has long been strong. Blood and space: race and three dimensions![7]

 

Mendelsohn’s peculiar use of the word Rasse, a term so burdened in our time with negative meanings, only reflects the wide significance of the subject and its ubiquity in Germany of the ‘twenties. There, the idea seemed to be present everywhere at once. The phrase ‘blood and space’ – Blut und Raum – apparently is the architect’s adaptation ofBlood and Soil, or in German Blut und Boden.[8]

 

 

Mendelsohn's first visit to Palestine, postcard to Oskar Beyer, with autograph pen sketch,9 March 1923

 

 

The Sacredness of the Sketch

It is particularly enlightening to study Mendelsohn’s sketches together with his letters. Since his student’s days in Munich, where he met Kandinsky, Mendelsohn shaped his inclinations in an Expressionist context, being tightly connected to Expressionist artists from Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter groups, as well as the Berlin School and the Amsterdam School of Expressionist architecture. Mendelsohn believed in the purity and inviolability of the first outline, and its ‘sacred’ power to convey the deepest feelings and significance, the seeds of creation. Time and again, when asked to explain his work, he referred to his drawings. “Look at my sketch”, he used to say. “Look at my sketch, there is everything in it” (See Figs. 4-10). He made clear:

My sketches are only notes, outlines of sudden visions, although they are all in the nature of buildings. It is very important to record these visions on paper as they flash through the mind, because every new creation carries with it the seed of its potential growth… [9]

 

 

'Look at my sketch'

 

1923-1933: From the first visit to Palestine to Hitler’s rise to power

During the decade 1923-1933, Erich Mendelsohn’s practice had achieved considerable distinction, building some of the most interesting modern projects of its time.

During the winter of 1925 Mendelsohn was invited to talk at the Berlin seat of the Blau-Weiss youth movement. Blau-Weiss is considered today to have been the first Zionist youth movement. Established in Germany in 1912 and inspired directly the German youth movement, it had adopted an official Zionist platform in 1922; the movement stressed an agricultural way of life, leading many of its members to become pioneers in the Kibbutz movement in Mandatory Palestine. Following the meeting and the upsurge of ideas that issued from it, Mendelsohn wrote to Louise:

 [I gave a] Lecture at the Blue and White – Zionist Youth. Delighted with the human material – a strong impression. Proposal for the founding of a large building society with the purchase of land and dwelling houses on the grand scale in Palestine. Sunday evening, first discussion.[10]

Mendelsohn was aware that the day-to-day dealing with his office’s production impeded longer or deeper consideration upon ideological matters. In the same letter, he continued: “Reflections, kept to myself, on America-Europe-Palestine”. Considerations: self, plus good employees, as head of the planning office and engineering department... Business once more overshadows life, reflection and composure.[11]

1933: Interregnum

By the mid 1930s, Erich Mendelsohn was a very different person from the young professional that had visited Palestine eleven years earlier. Two basic changes had taken place: Mendelsohn had reached the pinnacle of his career, while in the spring of 1933 Hitler had been elected chancellor of Germany.

 

The Reichsbank, now Germany’s Foreign Office, was the first large new building of the National Socialist regime in Berlin. In February 1933 a long-prepared competition was declared in which participated ‘30 of the best-known architects from all German districts’, including Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, whose design was shortlisted. Mendelsohn was not invited to join; in a letter from Berlin written shortly before the elections, Mendelsohn voiced his own encounter with discrimination. Referring to Nazi anti-Semite doctrines as ‘the new orthodoxy’, he wrote:

“The first consequence of the new orthodoxy coming into the open is in my not being invited to take part in the competition for the new Reichsbank building. Thirty German architects, and I am not one of them. I expected as much, but the task would have stimulated me and would have brought me somewhat more into equilibrium.Meanwhile, yesterday, we heard Hitler outline his program.”[12]

The Reichsbank had called for proposals for a new building, selecting thirty architects and paying them 5,000 marks each, offering six further shortlist prizes of 4,000 marks. The competition “reflected the state of architectural discussion at the end of the Weimar Republic”[13]. Hitler “de­cided ‘personally’ in favour of the plan of the Reichsbank building director Heinrich Wolff, which had existed previously”[14]. The new building was dedicated in 1940.[15]

Indeed, Mendelsohn’s office extraordinary activity came abruptly to an end with the rise of Hitler to power and his resulting emigration from Germany. Erich and Louise Mendelsohn left Germany, in his words, “The day Hitler takes over, March 1933. I am forty-five years old. The door to the European continent closes behind me”[16]. Mendelsohn abandoned not only a flourishing practice, but also Am Ruperhorn, his recently finished dream-house.This was a final departure. He would not return to Germany, to which he would refer henceforth as “our tears-and-Bach country”. With the election to power of the National Socialists Mendelsohn decided to leave at once. He left Germany, the office, and the house; he would never go back.

For some time Mendelsohn entertained the idea of founding a ‘European-Mediterranean Academy’ on the French Riviera, with H T Wijdeveld, Amédée Ozenfant and Eric Gill, among others, but this project came to nothing[17]. Nevertheless, while staying in the Cote d’Azur, Mendelsohn was smitten again by the Mediterranean and thought of the Levant, where he had began to consider establishing a new home. He wrote to his wife:

I see a new Ruperhorn, with a broad horizon, more inward activity and the ease, the blessedness of this coast, which every time brings me back to my sources...[18]

 

 

Haifa house

E. Mendelsohn, Carmel Garden Settlement, Haifa, 1923

 

 ‘Am Ruperhorn’ was the name of Mendelsohn’s villa in Berlin. Built as a statement on the success of Modernism, it was planned and detailed like a labour of love. Mendelsohn and his family enjoyed it for less than two years; by alluding to “a new Ruperhorn”, Mendelsohn meant: ‘a new ideal home for us’. Then he explains:

The Mediterranean is a first step towards a return to that country, to that final stage where we both belong. One is glad to know that. Glad of the fate that has driven us, that drives us...[19] 

 

Haifa marketplace

E. Mendelsohn, Carmel Garden Settlement, Haifa, 1923

 

Then, from Jerusalem, in an important letter written to his wife by the end of 1934, Mendelsohn began to take a decision concerning his future:

What obliges us to live in a northern country?

Civilization, enrichment coming from outside – shall we be the less for the lack of them? Is not our place here? Is not Palestine for eighteen millions the only island, the point of departure and the historical point of conclusion? I am resolved to remain here. Every day I come to regard the people in the fields, even the towns’ people, a little more as my brothers. Behind their faces is our own history, good and bad, happy and desperate, always aware of the dangers, but still always victims of destruction.[20]

 

Some days later, he wrote to Louise again: “once I am here for good, any position I want can be sought”.[21] It was at this point that Mendelsohn’s second Palestinian period began. Unlike the former visit, which had yielded only hopes and disappointment, this time he faced eight years of busy activity (1934-1941), of which the last three he would spend as a resident of Jerusalem.

 

In London Mendelsohn had re-encountered his patron Salman Schocken, for whom he had planned famous department stores in Germany; through him he renewed contacts with local Zionist leaders, mainly with Chaim Weizman. The outcome was a series of commissions yielding brilliant projects and at least two masterpieces. These represent a period of deep reflection and significant change: in an unprecedented manner, the spirit of the vernacular is present in his work, revealing a strong link with local and ancient building traditions.

 

Salman Schocken stood out amongst the clients who had most shaped Mendelsohn’s practice. He had seen the Mendelsohn’s Cassirer exhibition of 1919, with his trenches sketches, and in 1926 he approached the architect and began a series of commissions and brilliantly conceived projects that would cement a unique relationship between the architect and his client. Schocken Department stores were for Mendelsohn “especially decisive for the expression of his own style.”[22] Schocken was ten years elder than Mendelsohn, and it is amazing to see how similar their paths would turn out to be in the future. After the shared triumphs of Nuremberg, Stuttgart and Chemnitz, their next meeting place was in the most famous of the new Garden suburbs of Jerusalem, Rehavia.

 

1934-1941: Palestine, again

Gradually, Mendelsohn begun to see himself as destined to become the architect of the Jewish National Home. Two passages of letters written in December 1934 illustrate how Mendelsohn felt the worsening situation of European Jewry and the one hope to solution that was gathering force in Palestine. In the first, he reflects on the personal implications on his own family. He comments:

Today is my father’s eightieth birthday. I have to think about him and his fate. It is just as embittering in itself as it is tragic in its broad circumstances. [...] Today, an old man, he endures the fate we all have to endure – with dignity, courage and almost no emotion. He is leaving his own town...[23]

 

Four days later he wrote again, this time telling Louise about his encounter with ‘H.C.’ (for High Commissioner), the person who at that time was the highest political authority in the Holy Land[24]. The meeting made him consider the problem of European Jewry from a national point of view. This would turn into a convoluted process of Mendelsohn’s personal identification with the Zionist cause:

I had lunch alone with the High Commissioner and could discuss everything. He promised to do everything that his non-party position permits. [...] We spoke for some time about Egypt and then about the Jews in Palestine. Who can help here? It is high time. If we lose the game with England, we shall become the pawn of the world. We have great responsibility, great duties.[25]

 

After this visit in the winter of 1934, Mendelsohn returned the following spring, Palestine suddenly seemed to Mendelsohn very welcoming and full of opportunities; referring to his previous visit twelve years earlier, he commented to his wife:

I have only just arrived here, after a whole day spent at Haifa in the most wonderful weather. [...] The sea, the bay, all the meadows are bright with flowers. Back by car through the sunset, as if I had not been away at all.[26]

 

A fortnight later, from the just-opened King David Hotel he confided his feelings to Oskar Beyer (as Beyer lived in Crete at the time, the two friends hardly ever met):

I am here as an English architect, and I am reminded of our tears-and-Bach country only in bad dreams and in flashes of boundless ignominy. We – Louise and I – are about to rent an old Arab windmill for an office and home. We see the future as full of changes and only desire Cartago esse delendam so that the world may live. Meanwhile, we tell one another that we are alive, work and think; and are good to one another. In Berlin it took me twenty years, in London two years: here – or at least that is what my clients demand – it must not take more than two months (even with a practice running well, that is difficult).[27]

 

As earlier, High Commissioner Wauchope admired Mendelsohn’s work and encouraged him in this respect. In the summer of 1936, Wauchope affirmed his intentions explicitly. Mendelsohn announced to his wife:

I arrived late for lunch because I had to see H.C. Delightful, friendly twenty minutes. [...] He said the National Home will exist as long as England exists and he wishes me to guide it architecturally – to build, as he said, all the important buildings.[28]

 

This is a very significant document, as it reflects Mendelsohn’s perception of his future role in Palestine. He presents to his wife the avowed intention of the High Commissioner to give him the part he yearns to play in shaping of the architecture of the Jewish National Home. It is clear that Mendelsohn was very pleased with Arthur Wauchope’s declaration, as it suited his plans and dreams: to become the chief architect of the Zionist cause, under the British administration. At this time, Mendelsohn felt he had found a new, worthy, definite goal for his life: to be the helmsman and the main designer of the country’s physical future. To advise, supervise, plan and build all the important buildings, according to his ideology and exacting standards.

In parallel, Mendelsohn began to outline his own brand of Artistic Zionism, an idea that intended to restore visual awareness to the Jewish people. Mendelsohn, as a discerning artist, was very conscious of the apparent lack of aesthetic sensitivity of his fellow men. He explained that the Jewish people was suffering of the ‘loss of our eyes’ as a consequence of centuries of wanderings, and expected that once the Jewish people would settle in the old/new land again, that must be remedied by artists like himself who should set the right example. This was the path back to normality.

What the country needs most is creative people. They alone will once more win respect and honor for our name. He who came early already sees beginnings today – he who comes today already sees the bad fruits. We must tear them out, but we must create good new ones.[29]

The issue assumed special poignancy when the architect was offered the prestigious Rosenbloom building project for the Hebrew University and the adjacent Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus; this gave him the opportunity to begin to form his own critique of the architecture in modern Palestine. He wrote:

It is not simply a question of the Rosenbloom building, the Hostel building – Hadassah, but of an entirely new master plan for the whole University complex. The site is indescribably beautiful – yes, shattering – but the present buildings are scattered about without any plan, in a terrifyingly small-minded way.”[30]

A fortnight later, he is harshly critical again:

I have visited all the [existing] buildings on Mount Scopus. A God-given piece of country between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean has been violated by devils’ hands. A wretched, botched fruit of incompetence and self-complacency.[31]

 

E. Mendelsohn, Hadassah University Medical Center, Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem

 

One of the central factors that contributed to shape Mendelsohn’s architecture in Palestine was the landscape of Israel and its force and the strong response of the architect to it. His friends, as well as early critics were well aware of this. Beyer, for instance affirmed: "He was deeply impressed by the strange beauty of the country”; von Eckart pointed out in a chapter of his biography, named “Building in the Sun”:[32]

Mendelsohn’s architecture in Haifa and Jerusalem is different from his previous work not only because he had to shelter his clients from a hot and glaring sun, or even because he had to use different materials, mostly stone. They are decidedly distinct because he also deeply felt the impact of Palestine strange and beautiful landscape and its ancient and diverse culture.

The first design directives for a new architecture in Eretz-Israel came from what he recognized as the Mediterranean’s ageless balance between dynamism and statics:

The static and the dynamic elements came together in the equilibrium of the Mediterranean – the eternal creative force, which achieved the union of death and life in the timelessness of great art. Everywhere in the Orient this force is present. I believe I am myself a part of it.[33]

For the Orient resists the order of civilization, being itself bound to the order of nature. That is why I am so strongly attached to it, trying to achieve a union between Prussianism and the life-cycle of the Muezzin; between anti-nature and harmony with nature.[34]

 

 

E. Mendelsohn, Hadassah University Hospital, Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem, 1935

 

These ideas he developed further; in a letter to his wife written two years later, he reiterates: "Intersections outside and in; built space and landscape; man’s handiwork and God’s; this marriage of our productive idea with the organic creative power of nature."[35]During a visit to Capri he made in the spring of the same year 1937, he wrote to his friend the German Jewish architect    Julius Posener, he stated:    

We have found Capri far lovelier than we had hoped; a grand, almost Greek spaciousness, without pettiness and with much historical glory. I conclude that no one ought to build in Palestine who has not first studied the rural buildings of the Mediterranean.[36]

Recent scholarship has established ‘the essential bond’ between Brit Shalom, German Zionism, and the Zionist policy of Chaim Weizmann[37]. We shall point out the link between them and Mendelsohn. Being as he was very close to its founders, amongst who were some of his patrons and clients, the ideas of Brit Shalom deeply influenced the political thinking of Erich Mendelsohn, and, it will be argued, contributed to form some of his architectural decisions on how to build in Palestine. Mendelsohn published privately in 1940 “Palestine and the World of Tomorrow” the most political of his writings.

Palestine is not an uninhabited country. On the contrary, it forms part of the Arabian world. […] Palestine of today symbolizes a union between the most modern civilization and a most antique culture. It is the place where intellect and vision, matter and spirit meet. In this union, Arabs and Jews, both members of the Semitic family, should be equally interested. […] Genesis repeats itself.[38]                    

 

1941-1953: Rupture and Epilogue

The outburst of the Second World War brought to a halt the building boom that characterized the 1930s; commissions stopped, causing a serious threat to the livelihood of the architects in Palestine. Closing his attempt to live in Palestine, Mendelsohn decided to leave, to settle in the United States. This move did not improve his sense of cultural belonging; on the contrary, it enhanced a certain feeling of alienation from the American state. Bruno Zevi refers to that time:

Ever a restless spirit, Mendelsohn decided to move to the United States. A fundamental anxiety seized him during his last project. In March 1941, he left for the United States.[39]

But if there was a recession in building in Palestine, the situation was not better in America for a newcomer. Mendelsohn “was not able to build in the United States during the war, as there was no work being done other than for the war effort.” [40] Yet, a first commission came from the Jewish community of St. Louis; that being very successful, it set the pattern for most of the next ones. Nikolaus Pevsner, in his introduction to the “Letters of an Architect” wrote in 1967:

After the joys and suspense of these buildings in a land which he wanted to love, there is a long gap in the letters, and so we do not know what made Mendelsohn, when the war had started, emigrate into a land of doubtful congeniality. America in 1924 had been a great thrill, but what would it be as a land to live in?”

What would have happened to Mendelsohn if he had followed the “fate” which had led him to this land?

 

Mendelsohn would long for the landscape of Israel during his years in the States. All this was expressed in poignant letters written from his new house in San Francisco to Julius Posener, in which he discussed his latest projects, their significance and his own state of mind.

At San Francisco – the most beautiful situation of a city I ever saw – the vegetation will remind me of Palestine’s perennials, its cosmopolitan character tending to the renascent East of Jerusalem’s ... looking towards a dying Western world.[41]

Mendelsohn also described his work for Jewish communities, recovering after the Holocaust, presenting them as our people and himself as one of them. He wrote:

To lift the mind of our people – five synagogues and community centers – and to heal their physical afflictions – two hospitals – is a welcome task for one of them and befits well my present status and philosophy...                                                                Here and not in Palestine. How sad and pathetic…![42]

 

In May 1948 the State of Israel was born; Albert Einstein was offered the honorary post of first President, but declined; subsequently, the role was accepted by Chaim Weizmann, Mendelsohn’s old friend and client. This might have been a good opportunity for him to come back; however, First Prime Minister Ben Gurion had a different candidate in mind to plan the new state: the brilliant Bauhaus graduate Arie Sharon. As far as is known, no move was made to invite Mendelsohn to return. Louise’s contemporaneous recollection was that “he had only seven active years in America, difficult years. But Erich enjoyed life wherever he was, and loved to build wherever he was”[43]. Suddenly, in 1953, Mendelsohnbecame very ill. He died of recurrent cancer on the 15th of September at the age of sixty six. In parallel, Sharon became the official planner and architect of Israel; his unrelentingly avant-garde, pro-International-Style views were implemented widely during the ‘fifties and the ‘sixties, to the detriment of a finer, more locally tuned architecture that Mendelsohn would have fostered.

 

1953. Mendelsohn’s will

A few months earlier, Mendelsohn had endorsed a book entitled Rebuilding the Land of Israel, by Gershon Canaan.[44] Canaan, then an Israeli research student at the School of Architecture of the University of Texas, asked Mendelsohn to write a ‘Foreword’ to his thesis; Mendelsohn agreed, but he died of before the book was published. This foreword was, therefore, his last manifestation on the issues of Zionism and the architecture of the Land of Israel. It maintained that in order to “render an important contribution to the new constructive period as well as to her own reconstruction, Israel will have to derive her formative principles from her own human habitat, her actual needs and social ideas”. He added:

During the long centuries of the exile, the Jewish people was [sic.] forced to concentrate its creative potential one-sidedly on the development of its intellectual faculties: theoretical knowledge and critical inquiry, philosophy and science. But our poetry – the great visions of the Genesis – the dramatic fire of our Prophets, and the lyrical devotion of our Psalms – were emotional acts rather than intellectual compositions. […] Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia as Israel is, her Architecture will have to integrate the irrational, the creative spirit of the Eastern world – with science and technology, the rational achievements of the Western world. [45]

The basic elements for Israel’s contemporary architecture, he argued, were to be founded on ‘the inherited architectural background, the geological and climatic characteristics, and present material and structural potentialities’, resting organically upon ‘the natural conditions of the soil from which it must grow, without being imposed upon it’.[46]

 

 

will

 

 

Aftermath

Historically, the local appreciation of Mendelsohn’s heritage passed through a convoluted and interesting process. The glory of the 1930s was transformed into widespread public repulsion after his leaving Palestine for the USA in 1941. Mendelsohn was then regarded as a traitor to the Zionist cause, having committed yeridah – literally a descent – the unaccepted act of emigrating from the National home. This near excommunication led to a deliberate erasure of his memory, and indeed it succeeded to obliterate his work from scrutiny and study for about a quarter of a century. These ‘years of amnesia’ – the mid 1940s to late 1970s – coincide with a period in which only one school of architecture existed in Israel and the Modern Movement became the only architectural local mainstream.[47]

Nevertheless, in 1979 a fundamental change began with an exhibition of Mendelsohn’s work in the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, under the apparently innocent name of “Erich Mendelsohn: Drawings of an Architect” (in fact an expanded reconstruction of Mendelsohn’s famous “Architecture in Steel and Concrete” of 1919). Marc Scheps, then Director of the museum, expressed his wish that “the present exhibition […] will enable the Israeli public to become familiar with the work of a man who had first visited this country in 1923, worked here from 1935 to 1941 and in 1939 settled for a few years in Jerusalem”. The special contribution of the exhibition, he explained, “lies in the comprehensive display of Mendelsohn’s buildings and projects in Israel”.[48] Hence one entire room of the exhibition was dedicated to “Mendelsohn in Eretz Israel”; the curator, Nehama Guralnik, published a list of local works and a groundbreaking research article on the subject. From the point of view of historiography, this article concludes with a most significant remark:

Mendelsohn’s contribution to the development of modern Israeli architecture lies not only in the important buildings he left behind, bespeaking his concept of “organic unity”, but on the influence he exerted, along with the Bauhaus school, on local architecture of the Thirties and Forties.[49]

The show and its catalogue were exceptionally influential: Mendelsohn was re-discovered by the public, admired by students of architecture, and re-adopted by the architectural profession. No mention was made of the former passionate criticism of his departure; instead, there was understanding:

The amount of work that Eretz Israel of the Thirties could offer an architect, who only a few years before had headed one of Europe’s biggest offices, was naturally limited. […] His great ambition was to be appointed as Chief Government Architect and Planner. This wish did not come true.[50]

This renewed reception of Mendelsohn since 1979 has produced an ample bibliography of works on him to be written in Israel. Almost every local architectural historian has published on some aspect of his work; this reflects a complete change of attitude, from rejection and oblivion back to the centre of the consensus.[51]

All in all, Mendelsohn designed seventeen projects for Palestine: seven for Haifa and its environs, of which two were realised; five for Jerusalem, of which four were built, and other five for Rehovot, three of which were actually built (See appendix). Nevertheless, Mendelsohn’s creativity was too intimately connected with the cultural atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, within which it blossomed and thrived. The decade of the 1920s had brought to Germany an enormous cultural renaissance, becoming a most innovative period of cultural change; Mendelsohn’s star shone brightest and strongest there and then. The exile from Germany, therefore, took from him a heavy toll: that rich cultural context could not be easily replaced. All his good intentions notwithstanding, nor an increased Jewish identity neither his identification with the Zionist ideal turned out to be adequate substitutes. 

Appendix: The Work of Erich Mendelsohn in Palestine

(Bold type identifies the projects that were actually completed).

 

 

1923

Project for an Electrical Power Station, Haifa. (Haifa Aleph)

 

Project for a Garden Settlement on Mt. Carmel, Haifa.

(Sommerfeld Gartenstadt)

 

Project for a Commercial Center, Haifa

(designed with Richard Neutra).

 

These first three schemes were followed eight years later by twelve works of which nine projects were built and are still extant:

 

1935-36

 

Weizmann House, Rehovot.

Schocken House, Jerusalem.

Schocken Library, Jerusalem.

 

1936-38

 

Project for Hebrew University, Mt. Scopus. Jerusalem.

Hadassah Medical Center, Mt. Scopus. Jerusalem.

Government Hospital, Haifa.

 

1937

Project for a Business Center, Haifa (written documentation only

Project for a Hotel, Haifa (written documentation only).

 

1937-39

Anglo-Palestine Bank, Jerusalem.

Ludwig Teitz Vocational School, Kibbutz Yagour.

 

1939-41

Agriculture Faculty, Weizmann InstituteRehovot.

Daniel Wolf Research Laboratories, Rehovot.

 

Finally, Mendelsohn projected from New York two new schemes for Rehovot -then hometown to his friend Chaim Weizmann- of which only written documentation has been found at present.

 

1944

Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot.

Congress Hall and Music Conservatory, Rehovot.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] For Mendelsohn and his work in general, see the following published sources (presented according to date): Erich Mendelsohn, Erich Mendelsohn: Complete works of the architect: sketches, designs, buildings (London: Triangle Architectural Publishing, 1992, first published asDas Gesamtschaffen des Architekten: Skizzen, Entwurfe, Baute, 1930); Arnold Whittick, Eric Mendelsohn, (London: Leonard Hill, 1940, 1956); Wolf von Eckart, Eric Mendelsohn (London: Mayflower, 1960); Oskar Beyer, ed., Eric Mendelsohn: Letters of an architect. (London New York &Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1967); Bruno Zevi, Erich Mendelsohn (New York: Rizzoli, 1985, first published in Italian by Nichola Zanichelli, Bologna, 1982); Regina Stephan, ed., Erich Mendelsohn: Dynamics and Function: Realized Visions of a Cosmopolitan Architect (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 1999).

[2] See E. Mendelsohn, “My own Contribution to the Development of Contemporary Architecture”, lecture delivered at the University of Los Angeles, School of Architecture, 17 March 1948, quoted by Beyer, ed., Letters, see next note.

[3] Birkin Haward, “Birkin Haward, OBE, FRIBA, Hon MA, FSA, Architect: Autobiographical Notes”, unpublished illustrated typescript, extract pages 3/4a-4/5a, Ipswich, 1996, private collection, p. 4/2.

[4] Eric Mendelsohn: Letters of an architect, Oskar Beyer, ed., (London, New York & Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, 1967), henceforth referred to as Letters.

[5] For further details on Mendelsohn’s connections with Dutch Jewish architects and the preparations for this visit, see Ita Heinze Greenberg, “Around noon land in sight: Travels to Holland, Palestine, the United States and Russia”, in Regina Stephan, ed. and curator, Erich Mendelsohn: Dynamics and Function: Realized Visions of a Cosmopolitan Architect (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 1999), pp. 56-65; for the relationship between Wijdeveld and Mendelsohn in particular, see Ita Heinze-Greenberg, “An Artistic European Utopia at the Abyss of Time: The Mediterranean Academy Project 1931-1934”, Architectural History vol. 45 (2000), pp. 441-482.

[6] See Letters, p. 147.

[7] Letter to Oskar Beyer from Jerusalem, 9 March 1923, Letters, p. 59 [My stress in bold]

[8] Blood and Soil (translating the German Blut und Boden) refers to the contemporaneous ideology focusing on a concept of ethnicity based on descent (Blood) and homeland (Soil). The German expression was coined in late 19th century Racialism and National Romanticism.

[9] See Bruno Zevi, Erich Mendelsohn (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), p. 24.

[10] See letter to Louise from Charlottenburg, 16 January 1925, Letters pp. 75-76.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Letter to Louise from Berlin, 11 February 1933, Letters, p. 126.

[13] See text as appears at the official website of the city of Berlin [last accessed 16 October 2008]: http://www.berlin.de/tourismus/sehenswuerdigkeiten.en/00012.html. The ample dimensions of the intended building entailed the demolition of several streets with 18th and 19th-c. historical buildings. Among the judges were Paul Bonatz, Peter Behrens, Martin Wagner and Fritz Schumacher; even though most of the selected designers invited were on the conservative and side of the profession, amongst them were also Modernists, Mendelsohn’s contemporaries such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. The issue of Bauwelt of the 3rd August, 1933 was dedicated mostly to review the competition; it featured the six prize-winning proposals, Mies’ entry being one of them, as well as some of the non-awarded projects, by Gropius and Poelzig. It is worth mentioning here a twisted symmetry: five years after having been traumatically passed-by for the Reichsbank completion, Mendelsohn was asked to design the building for the Anglo-Palestine Bank (today Bank Leumi, National Bank of Israel), in the centre of Modern Jerusalem.

[15] The Reichstag building as designed by Heinrich Wolff was erected in 1934, serving as the Reichsbank up to 1938. In 1959 the building became the headquarters of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, the ruling party in the German Democratic Republic; both the Central Committee and the Politburo met there. In 1995, after the reunification of Germany, it was decided to locate there the Federal Foreign Office, adding to it a new building on Werderscher Markt (design: Thomas Mueller and Ivan Reimann built 1997-9). The old Reichstag building was refurbished and altered (design: Hans Kollhoff) and continues (2008) to fulfil its role as the nerve centre of the German Foreign Office.

[16] See Letters, p. 169.

[17] For a thorough study on that particular venture, see Ita Heinze-Greenberg, “An Artistic European Utopia at the Abyss of Time: The Mediterranean Academy Project 1931-1934”,Architectural History vol. 45 (2000), pp. 441-482.

[18] Letter to Louise from Cavalières, 30 May 1933, Letters, p. 135.  

[19] Ibid.

[20] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 10 December 1934, Letters, p. 137.

[21] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 23 December 1934, Letters, pp. 138-139.

[22] Peter Rumpf, q.v. “Mendelsohn, Erich”, in Lampugnani, Vittorio Magnano, ed., Dictionary of 20th-Century Architecture (London, Thames & Hudson, 1996, originally published in 1963 asEncyclopedia of Modern Architecture).

[23] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 10 December 1934, Letters, pp. 136-137.                             

[24] Major-General, later Sir, Arthur Wauchope (1874-1947), High Commissioner for Palestine who served in this charge for an uncommonly long period of seven years, 1931 to 1938, was an ardent supporter of modern arts and modern architecture.

[25] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 14 December 1934, Letters, p. 138.                                          

[26] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 4 April 1935, Letters, p. 141.                                                 

[27] Letter to Oskar Beyer from the King David Hotel, Jerusalem, 30 April 1935, Letters, p. 141.

[28] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 7 August 1936, Letters, p. 147.

[29] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 10 December 1934, Letters, p. 137.                                          

[30] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 12 December 1934, Letters, p. 137.                                          

[31] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 27 December 1934, Letters, p. 139.                                          

[32] Wolf von Eckart, Eric Mendelsohn (London: Mayflower, 1960).

[33] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, 10 December 1934, Letters, p. 137.

[34] Letter to Oskar Beyer from the King David Hotel, Jerusalem, 30 April 1935, Letters, p. 141.

[35] Letter to Louise from Jerusalem, from Jerusalem, 10 August 1937, Letters, p. 151     

[36] Letter to Julius Posener from Capri, 30 March 1937, Letters, p. 148.

[37]See for instance, Hagit Lavsky, "German Zionists and the emergence of Brit Shalom”, in Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira, eds., Essential Papers on Zionism, (London: Cassell, 1996), p. 649. First published in Hebrew in Yahadut Zmanenu 4 (1988). Also, to some extent, in Reinarz, Jehuda, “Ideology and Structure in German Zionism, 1882-1933”, in op. cit., pp.290-1.

[38] See Erich Mendelsohn, “Palestine and the World of Tomorrow”, in Gilbert Herbert and I. Heinze-Greenberg, eds., Erich Mendelsohn in Palestine, (Haifa: Architectural Heritage Research Center, Technion, 1994), pp. 23-30.

[39] See Zevi, op. cit., p. 200.

[40] Letters, p.156.

[41] Letter to Julius Posener from San Francisco, 10 July 1945, Letters, p. 157.                    

[42] Letter to Julius Posener from San Francisco, 14 July 1947, Letters, p. 160.

[43] See Zevi, op. cit., p. 201.

[44] See Gershon Canaan, Rebuilding the Land of Israel, (New York: Architectural Book, 1954).

[45] Canaan, Rebuilding the Land of Israel, ‘Foreword’.

[46] Ibid.

[47]See Raquel Rapaport, ‘Conflicting Visions: Architecture in Palestine during the British Mandate’(unpublished doctoral thesis, Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, 2005), pp. 208-210.

[48] Nehama Guralnik, Erich Mendelsohn: Drawings of an Architect (Tel-Aviv: The Tel Aviv Museum, 1979), p. 78.

[49] Guralnik, op. cit., p.  46. [My italics].

[50] Guralnik, op. cit., p. 48.

[51] The following are the publications by local architectural historians which stand out, in chronological order: Guralnik, Nehama, Erich Mendelsohn: Drawings of an Architect (Tel-Aviv: The Tel Aviv Museum, 1979); Abraam Erlik, “E. Mendelsohn in Palestine-Israel", Tvai 20 (1981), pp. 3-6, [H]; Omri Eitan, ”Eric Mendelsohn in Eretz Israel”, Kav 2 (1981), pp. 49-58 [H]; Ram Aharonov, and Christina Toren, “A vision to the future without denying the past: Eric Mendelsohn: the Weizmann House in Rehoboth,” Studio 28 (1991), pp. 37-39, [H]; Gilbert Herbert and Silvina Sosnovsky, Bauhaus on the Carmel: Architecture and Planning in Haifa during the British Mandate, (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 1993), passim; Gilbert Herbert, “The Divided Heart: Erich Mendelsohn and the Zionist Dream”, in G. Herbert and I. Heinze-Greenberg, eds., Erich Mendelsohn in Palestine, (Haifa: Architectural Heritage Research Center, Technion, 1994), pp. 11-15; Heinze-Greenberg, Ita, “Erich Mendelsohn in Palestine: In Search of Architectural Roots”, in G. Herbert and I. Heinze-Greenberg, eds., Erich Mendelsohn in Palestine, (Haifa: Architectural Heritage Research Center, Technion, 1994), pp. 7-9; Ita Heinze-Greenberg, “The Impossible Takes Longer: The Planning of Weizmann’s House in Rehovot”, Cathedra: 72 (June 1994), pp. 99-112. [H]; Alona Nitzan-Shiftan, “Contested Zionism – Alternative Modernism: Erich Mendelsohn and the Tel Aviv Chug in Mandate Palestine”, Architectural History 39 (1996), pp. 147-180. ([H] Denotes a Hebrew publication).


Dr. RAQUEL RAPAPORT is Lecturer in History of Architecture and Architectural Design Studio tutor at the Architecture Department of the WIZO School of Design and Education, Haifa, Israel; she is also Associate lecturer of Modern and Israeli Architecture at the History and Theory Department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, Israel. Her PhD research studied the architecture in Palestine during the British Mandate. Her publications include articles on the work of C.R. Ashbee, Sir Patrick Geddes and Erich Mendelsohn in Palestine; on Martin Buber’s texts on architecture, and on Interdisciplinarity in architectural education.

Germania, September 2009