Monday, September 15, 2014

Remembering Architect Erich Mendelsohn (died September 15, 1953)

Erich Mendelson (1887-1953)
Remembering Architect Erich Mendelsohn (died September 15, 1953), the Émigré Architect who Spread Modernism to the Post-World War II American Jewish Community
by Samuel D. Gruber 
The great 20th century architect Erich Mendelsohn died on this day in 1953 - just as he was enjoying his reestablishment in his new country, and his acceptance as one of the leading architects of post-World War America. Mendelsohn's post-war synagogue projects - of which only two were complete at the time of his death – launched the era expressive modernist synagogues, and had great influence on the other religion's houses of worship, too.
Mendelsohn’s career in Germany, England and Palestine was successful, innovative and influential –even though he had left Germany along with so many other Jewish artists, architects and academics. He had many Jewish clients and several important Jewish projects before coming to America for the last stage of his work, but his American synagogues are his Jewish works that have had the most lasting effect in the past half century.

Today, Mendelsohn's designs of synagogue centers in St. Louis (B’nai Amoona) and Cleveland (Park Synagogue) remain well known among architects, though they are less celebrated at large. In the public mind Mendelsohn’s achievement in modern synagogue design were soon over shadowed by the media attention to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park. The work of prolific modern synagogue architect Percival Goodman, which owed much to Mendelsohn, is better known among the American Jewish public because of the sheer number of Goodman synagogues.
Mendelsohn arrived in America in 1942 with his career, dignity and ambition intact and was engaged as a leader in the first round of American post-war synagogue construction in the later 1940s. He and a few other refugee architects) helped create the architectural language for synagogues and Jewish institutional buildings that was quickly adopted by American colleagues including Goodman, and dominated for several decades. Though Mendelsohn’s American work is always forward-looking, he acknowledged the legacy of the Holocaust in his design with Ivan Mestrovic for a great memorial planned for Riverside Park in New York (never built).

Design for American Memorial to the Six Million Jews of Europe, Erich Mendelsohn and Ivan Mestrovic, 1949

The following account and description of some of Mendelsohn’s late work comes from my paper “Émigré Architects and the Spread of Modernism in the Post-World War II American Jewish Community,” in the session Jewish Architecture and Jewish Space in the Post-Holocaust World: Between Modernism and Postmodernism at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (Boston, 2010): 
Erich Mendelsohn was born in 1887 and practiced architecture in Germany, Holland, England and Palestine before arriving in the United States in 1942. His architecture reflects many different styles – he was an impatient man – something of which can be seen in the directness and fluidity of his drawings, but also in the career trajectory that led him through many distinct career phases in several countries. Still, through it all he was an expressive modernist with a love of concrete and glass. Mendelsohn’s final body of work - designs for six American synagogues - was intended to excite worshipers’ imaginations and to seduce their minds into contemplation. 

The sanctuaries of these synagogue centers are characterized by elegant curves unadorned with decoration. When Mendelsohn died in 1953 at age 66, this series of large synagogue and community center commissions had both revived his career and his creative energies and had stimulated the creative juices of a new generation of America designers of religious buildings. While Mendelsohn only completed two synagogues before his death (the others were completed following his designs), they indelibly put his stamp on the subsequent half century of synagogue design in American and abroad. Mendelsohn writing about synagogues in 1946, before any of his new designs had been created, stated that:
“This period demands centers of worship where the spirit of the Bible is not an ancient mirage, but a living truth, where Jehovah is not a desert King, but our Guide and Companion. It demands temples that will bear witness of man’s material achievements and, at the same time, symbolize our spiritual renascence. A question no architect can pass upon, but the answer will inevitably be recorded in the pages of history now being written.”
Mendelsohn began to receive commissions for new synagogues in the mid-1940s, beginning with B’nai Amoona in St. Louis in 1945. Mendelsohn, because of his Jewish credentials and his established reputation, was sought out by progressive synagogues. He was recommended to B’nai Amoona as the architect of the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, to which American Jews had contributed financially. For synagogue congregations eager to break with the historicism of the past – especially in light of the horrors of the Holocaust – Mendelsohn’s international stature as a modernist was also important. An exhibition of Mendelsohn's work had traveled to the City Art Museum in St. Louis during March and April 1944. It was Mendelsohn’s architectural mission from 1946 until his untimely death to create an expressive language in which to develop a very practical Jewish communal arrangement for the modern age.

St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona. sketches by Eric Mendelsohn, 1945 ff.

By 1945 Mendelsohn was creating the first of a series of hundreds of dynamic sketches for synagogues, which would come to comprise one of the most powerful series of modern architectural drawings of the 20th century. Dynamically drawn with broad pencil strokes, Mendelsohn’s first drawings for B’nai Amoona show the sanctuary developing from a cylindrical form to its eventual rectangular shape. In the final version the expressive energy was provided by the sweeping parabolic concrete roof supported on massive curved steel beams. The rest of the building is constructed of concrete blocks with brick surfaces. Though Mendelsohn did directly reference the Holocaust, his energetic design, which also emphasized education, was clearly intended to reinvigorate – (symbolically at least) post-war Judaism.
The use of a parabolic roof derived from Mendelsohn’s earliest work when he was experimenting with the creative potential of concrete and steel. Indeed, B’nai Amoona and Mendelsohn’s subsequent synagogues provided Mendelsohn, in the words of Rachel Wischnitzer, of architecturally "going back" home. 

 St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona model by Eric Mendelsohn

 St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona, original Ark wall and bimah.  Eric Mendelsohn, arch.
 St. Louis, MO. B'nai Amoona plan of complex by Eric Mendelsohn

His synagogue sanctuary designs more closely recall his early German designs such as the famed Einstein Tower in Potsdam, than his later more rationalist offices buildings, hospitals and other large commissions. Mendelsohn conceived of the plan arrangement for the various parts of the complex, balancing the sanctuary with administrative and education buildings around a central courtyard, though the articulation of the individual elements took time to resolve. After years of planning, construction began in 1948.
Meanwhile in 1946, Mendelsohn began working on Park Synagogue in Cleveland which  took shape as a low elongated building from which a cupola emerged, a shape that reflected the topography of the site -- 30 acres of densely wooded, undulating land, cut by the ravine of a stream, which gave Mendelsohn greater freedom than the urban environment in St. Louis.  The building was dedicated in May 1953. The final design is a long wedge-shaped plan with a distribution of parts not unlike the earlier B’nai Amoona – but strung along a central axis rather than tightly held together in an enclosed square plan.

 Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo from Bruno Zevi, Eric Mendelsohn Opera Completa, 1970

 At the tip of the wedge, projecting like the bow of a ship is a small daily chapel. Though a strong design element it is overshadowed by the immense hemispheric dome that weights the entire composition. The placidity of the dome counters the dynamic thrust of the horizontal wedge of the building’s base. Inside, the sanctuary is quite striking because of both its enormity and because the dome appears to float down to engulf the congregants, rather than to soar aloft, away from them. Emphasizing this intersection of earthly and heavenly space, the massive bimah cuts into the hemisphere of the dome in an act of expressive architectural integration. Mendelsohn was a master in the use of light – with which he flooded the interior to great effect. Much of the light comes through the drum itself, which is transparent – made of glass extending into glass-lined ambulatories. The light, which filters through the glass drum also serves as a lifting force, seemingly supporting the concrete dome as if the dome were levitating on air. The low dome symbolizes the closeness of heaven and earth, and increases the intimacy of the large building mass. Mendelsohn said on this subject: "Thank God, the building rises with the contour of the land and doesn't shake its fist at God."

Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)

Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)

 Cleveland, Ohio. Park Synagogue. Eric Mendelsohn, arch., 1946-1953. Photo: Paul Rocheleau (2002)

Mendelsohn had begun designs for synagogues that were never built, or were finished by others. Like the first synagogue designs, they utilized the concept of a central court around which all the constituent parts of the complex faced. But like the earlier designs, the sanctuary structure is given the greatest prominence and the most forcefully expressive articulation. The central court planning concept and the relationship of sanctuary to ancillary buildings as worked out by Mendelsohn remained extremely influential in American synagogue designs for decades to come.
For further reading:

I first wrote about Mendelsohn's synagogues in my book American Synagogues: A Century of Architecture and Jewish Community (New York Rizzoli, 2003), from which some of this text is drawn.  There are several other noteworthy studies of these buildings.  I especially recommend:
Zevi, Bruno. Erich Mendelsohn Opera Completa: Achitetture e immagini Architettoniche (Milan: ETAs/KOMPASS, 1970), 303 ff.

Morganthaler, Hans R., “'It will be hard for us to find a home': Projects in the United States 1941-1953,” in R. Stephan (ed.), 1999. Eric Mendelsohn, Architect 1887-1953. (New York: Monacelli Press, 1999). 
James-Chakraborty, Kathleen,  In the Spirit of Our Age: Eric Mendelsohn’s B’nai Amoona Synagogue. (St. Louis, Missouri Historical Society Press, 2000).

Leedy, Walter. Eric Mendelsohn’s Park Synagogue: Architecture and Community, (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2012)

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