Nomadic Architects, Rooted Buildings

Ulf Meyer
23. March 2022
Erich Mendelsohn: Steinberg, Herrmann & Co. Hat Factory, Luckenwalde, 1923 (Photo: Carsten Krohn)

What ends up on UNESCO's World Heritage List is the product of both a horrendous bureaucratic selection process and, oddly, sheer coincidence. This is particularly evident when ensembles, not just individual buildings, are listed: if the owner of one property disagrees, the applicants simply list another work. So it can easily happen that mediocre works are declared World Heritage Sites, while masterpieces go unnoticed. The UNESCO World Heritage List currently includes only two listings that are groupings of modern architecture by individual architects: seventeen of Le Corbusier's buildings and ten designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Two brave groups are currently trying to register the oeuvres of Alvar Aalto and Erich Mendelsohn as World Heritage Sites.

Both heroes of modernity stood outside the mainstream — albeit for very different reasons. While a certain Nordic humanity found expression in Aalto’s architecture, Mendelsohn's early expressionism gave way to an incredibly elegant dynamic metropolitan architecture — and later to the connection of modernity with the vernacular architecture of Palestine. Both architects gave architectural form to young nations: Aalto's architecture standing for the North European welfare state and Mendelsohn's for a Zionism sensitive to its locus. Mendelsohn’s architecture has been described as timeless but not placeless, but for Mendelsohn himself, (architectural) space was made “to pass through.”

Aalto had already begun to turn away from functionalism in the 1930s and to focus his designs on “the individual, the community and their well-being,” according to the nomination text. Aalto's approach heavily influenced the development of Finnish architecture to this day. The Alvar Aalto Foundation's nomination for "Aalto's humane, modern architecture" identifies 13 UNESCO-worthy buildings in Finland, which later would be supplemented by works outside of Finland, including Germany, France, and the United States.

Erich Mendelsohn: Einstein Tower, Potsdam, Germany, 1924 (Photo: Carsten Krohn)

The international team behind the Mendelsohn nomination — members refer to him as “the most famous Jewish architect of the modern era” — brought together buildings in eight countries where Mendelsohn was active and that they think deserve UNESCO protection. Unfortunately, chances are high that some of Mendelsohn's best buildings will not be listed because their owners (in Russia, for example) may not support the act.

A high-level conference titled “Positioning: Erich Mendelsohn and the Built Heritage of the 20th Century” convened experts from Israel, Poland, Canada, and Italy in the building of the Metallarbeiter-Verband, one of Mendelsohn’s finest works in Berlin. The symposium wanted to finally anchor Mendelsohn in the canon of the best modern architects and thus compensate for injustices last century. In terms of architectural history, neither Sigfried Giedion's Space, Time & Architecture nor the legendary “International Style” exhibition at MoMA in 1932, curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, mentions Mendelsohn. Furthermore, the brutality of Hitler's Germany meant Mendelsohn was expelled from his profession and become a nomad.

Eran Mordohovich, president of ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) in Israel, and Maristella Casciato of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles agreed that Mendelsohn's early works are an expression of constant movement, but his special ability to react to places is what makes Mendelsohn stand out from other modern masters. The applicants also emphasize a spiritual component. Mendelsohn's Jewish Cemetery in Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad), for example, is an interesting contribution to the proto-sacred architecture of the Weimar Republic. After World War II, Mendelsohn became the most sought-after designer of suburban synagogues in the American Midwest.

Erich Mendelsohn: Haus des Deutschen Metallarbeiterverbandes (House of the German Metalworkers' Association), Berlin, 1930 (Photo: Carsten Krohn)

For Alona Nitzan Shiftan, professor at the Technion in Haifa, Mendelsohn's legacy is "cultural Zionism in practice." She sees no expression of exile in Mendelsohn's works in Jerusalem, but on the contrary of home. Finding “Attributes and Values” and “Outstanding Universal Values,” as required by UNESCO, should not be difficult given the richness of Mendelsohn's oeuvre. Still, having to find “narratives of place and diaspora” and a suitable “framing” that finds political support is not a rewarding task; it means turning a fascinating artistic life into Excel spreadsheets. 

The pitfalls of a “transnational and serial nomination” for a UNESCO World heritage listing can be tricky. Berlin has experienced such a dilemma: when modernist housing estates were placed under UNESCO protection, Bruno Taut's Onkel Tom Hütte housing estate in Berlin-Zehlendorf was not included because the owners were not cooperative. That groundbreaking work remains un-listed to this day.

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