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Erich Mendelsohn

Updated Monday 26th November 2001

Some suspect that the architect of the De La Warr Pavilion was never enitrely committed to Modernism...

Erich Mendelsohn Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Copyright

Date:
(1887 - 1953)

 

Nationality:
German

Famous Buildings:
Astrophysical Observatory (Einstein Tower), Potsdam
Schocken Department Store, Stuttgart
The De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

The Forgotten Modernist

In the 1920s Erich Mendelsohn was one of the most prolific modern architects practising in Europe. His reputation at this time dwarfed those of his contemporaries Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, yet today it is Mendelsohn who stands in the towering shadows of these two giants of the Modern Movement.

However, Mendelsohn is remembered in this country for the De La Warr Pavilion, at Bexhill-on-Sea, which he designed in collaboration with the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff. And as the Pavilion remains one of the most important beachheads established by the Modern Movement in Britain in the 1930s, we can consider Mendelsohn to be one of British Modernism's most important pioneers.

The reasons for the eclipse of Erich Mendelsohn's reputation is more to do with the social and political climate in which he worked than his architecture.

Being Jewish, his career in Germany was prematurely ended by the rise of the Nazis. His large department stores, many built for Jewish clients, were often seized and altered unsympathetically by their new owners, the Nazis destroyed some of his projects for cultural reasons, and much of what remained was damaged or destroyed during the Second World War.

Whilst Mendelsohn was also prolific in Palestine, this was also a troubled land, and his work in the United States after the war consisted largely of synagogues, whilst his fellow émigrés Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe were building university campuses and prestigious skyscrapers.

Einstein, Hitler, and Bexhill-on-Sea

There also remains a suspicion that Erich Mendelsohn was never truly devoted to the Modernist cause: his Einstein Tower in Potsdam (built to test Albert Einstein's theory of relativity in 1921) is perhaps his most famous building on mainland Europe, squatting in a forest like a concrete tree-stump. The tower, and the Expressionist sketches on which much of his early work was based, suggest however a more organic approach to architecture, rather than the cool Modernism of his contemporaries.

Mendelsohn arrived in Britain in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor and the year that Wells Coates and others founded MARS, the British wing of CIAM. Within three months he had won this country's first explicitly Modernist construction competition, organised by the radical ninth Earl De La Warr, mayor of the small south coast resort of Bexhill.

Amongst the 230 entrants were Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius, fellow émigrés of Mendelsohn, and an indication of how the British Modern Movement benefited from events in Germany. Mendelsohn's partner was the Russian architect, interior designer, and former ballroom dancer, Serge Chermayeff.

Pleasure Palace

Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's original plan was far bigger than what was eventually built. They had planned to include a cinema and a hotel on each wing of the building as well as a circular swimming pool at the front. Nevertheless, what emerged is a striking pleasure palace which fulfilled Earl De La Warr's intention of bringing the state-of-the-art benefits of modern architecture to the wider community.

Opened in 1935, the Pavilion's bars, restaurant, terraces, and rooftop games area were immediately popular with most of Bexhill's residents. However, local and national opposition to Mendelsohn's masterpiece tended to focus on his and Chermayeff's background.

Mendelsohn, who had fled fascism in his home country, was the subject of letters to the Architect's Journal which complained about the employment of "these aliens".

Mendelsohn and Chermayeff's partnership ended in 1936. Mendelsohn began to work increasingly in Palestine, before moving to the USA in 1940. Perhaps because the bulk of his work consisted of department stores, synagogues, and one-off projects like the De La Warr Pavilion, and did not include social housing estates or grand plans for urban renewal, Mendelsohn's position as a true Modernist, committed as much to the Movement's social agenda as to its revolution in technique, has been questioned.

But with the De La Warr Pavilion, he succeeded in introducing to the hitherto sceptical British the possibilities of Modernist architecture.

The Modernist architects

 

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