Modern Designers

Erich Mendelsohn

Design Profession: Architect

Building Types: Religious

At times an Expressionist, at others a Rationalist, Eric Mendelsohn believed that the primary element in architecture was function, but function without sensibility was mere construction. He went on to say that a balance of both function and dynamics was the challenge in architecture, "Otherwise both will be destroyed – the functionalist by a deadly chill in his veins, the dynamist by the heat of his own fire." In his own work Mendelsohn endeavored to always walk the line between functionalism and dynamism-as seen in his attempts at merging organic forms with inorganic material.

Mendelsohn was a budding architect during the Weimar Republic era of Germany. Growing up in East Prussia, Mendelsohn was surrounded by and inspired by medieval architecture. He attended a humanist Gymnasium where he was introduced to the arts and continued his education at the Technische Hoschule in Munich, until his graduation in 1912.

After finishing his degree, Mendelsohn opened his own practice. He worked as an architect until August 1914, when he enlisted in the military, serving as an engineer during World War I. His first commissioned project following the war was for the Einstein Tower, an astrophysical observatory in Potsdam, Germany, completed in 1921. The unusual building is an excellent example of Expressionism and an organic approach to architecture. It was widely acclaimed and brought Mendelsohn his first fame.

Throughout the 1920s, Mendelsohn began to turn away from Expressionism and toward the International style in order to pursue the new possibilities steel and reinforced concrete brought to architecture. The Shocken Department stores he designed in Germany, characterized by bands of ribbon windows, represent this change. In 1933, feeling the tension of anti-Semitism, Mendelsohn left Germany for England. There he partnered with architect Serge Chermayeff and in 1934 they designed the first major welded building in Britain, the De La Warr Pavilion, for which they won a number of awards. Shortly after, Mendelsohn moved to Palestine as part of the Zionist movement, with a dream of building a new Jewish nation there. While this dream was not fully realized, he was able to contribute many significant buildings to the city of Jerusalem.

Mendelsohn moved to the United States In1941 and spent a number of months touring the country with his wife. On December 7, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City opened a retrospective of Mendelsohn's work. Mendelsohn was granted a fellowship by the Guggenheim Foundation and went on to lecture at various universities while consulting for the War Department in Washington, D.C.

In 1945 Mendelsohn took a professorship at the University of California, Berkley. He established an architecture practice and began designing a series of temples and community centers around the United States. The Temple Emmanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, built in 1952, is a prime example of his work in mid-century American synagogues. The building is shaped like a butterfly and is designed around functionality of space, a true example of Mendelsohn's constant play between the functional and the dynamic.

Mendelsohn maintained international fame throughout the entirety of his career. On September 15, 1953, with a number of large-scale projects waiting to be started, Mendelsohn passed away, falling victim to cancer.

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