New York

Erich Mendelsohn

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Architect Erich Mendelsohn (1887–1953) is commonly identified as an expressionist, but this description overlooks the nuanced qualities of his vision. He was as preoccupied intellectually with the questions of a nascent Modern architecture and its new syntax as he was with the visceral, sensual, and dynamic forces of form. A large part of this exhibition focused on his early sketches. These drawings—often spontaneous, diminutive studies—coincided with a growing interest in typology and the emergent building types of the 20th century. They explore an approach to typology that originates in function and program with Mendelsohn’s own litany of formal elements and properties. A particularly urgent set of drawings was created in 1917–18, while the architect was stationed in Russia on the German front. Mendelsohn drew endless studies of buildings, among them railroad stations, grain silos, airports, industrial projects, and theaters. Rendered in flat planes and opaque colors, they show the same fluency, passion for detail, and strong sense of abstraction that is evident in his most ambitious architectural processes.

Mendelsohn’s first built commission, represented here by drawings and project photographs, was the Einstein Tower, Observatory, and Astro-Physical Institute, 1919. This project changed the direction of Mendelsohn’s creative work. The buildings’ modeled forms, deeply recessed windows, and incongruous skeletal system suggest an architecture of elasticity and relativity, expressive of a dynamic world, as well as its own inconsistencies. Unfortunately, the built project never achieved the brilliant fluidity depicted so passionately in the sketches.

After this building, Mendelsohn turned to more taciturn forms and systems. In 1926, he designed the Cinema Universium in Berlin. Shaped like a tapered horseshoe in plan, its side walls seem to rush along the edges of the corner site; an unbroken horizon of windows exaggerate the sweeping qualities of the elevations. At the entrance, a large marquee was placed flush against the surface of the wall, giving the signs and text a hyperbolic quality. The interior was a marvelous sculpted oval of space that expressed the building’s configurations, and embodied the passionate enthusiasms of the public for the new cinema and the artifice of the projected image. Mendelsohn’s preoccupation with the impact of the technological vernacular structures on Modernism is evident in his later work, where he refined a new commercial type based on industrial precedents.

Mendelsohn’s work remains significant because of its unusual combination of personal expression and universalist Modernism—its merging of the intuitive and the rational. This exhibition presented the material consequences of his intensely dialectical mind.

Patricia C. Phillips