Erich Mendelsohn: the Mossehaus & the Metalworkers Union Building

Also see other post for Mendelsohn’s Einsteinturm in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.

Today we’re pretty used to the idea of putting modernist (usually high-tech) elements into buildings from previous eras; Foster at the Reichstag, I M Pei at the Deutsche Historical Museum, to name a couple of Berlin examples.

But in the early twentieth century the idea would have been almost unheard of. So how groundbreaking must Mendelsohn’s Mossehaus have been?

The original building of 1900-1903, by Cremer & Wolffenstein, was a neoclassical sandstone affair, the corner of which was badly damaged by post first world war rioting (it must have been pretty extreme rioting, but such were the conditions in Germany at the time, I guess).

Mendelsohn retained most of the building’s main facades, but completely rebuilt the corner, and added two/three additional stories, in a totally original, streamlined expressionist style.

What was also radical for its time was the focus on the corner of the building, seen by Mendelsohn as the focus of movement; at the junction of streets, as opposed to a ‘static’ entrance in the middle of a facade.

Oddly, section of ‘original’ facade on the southern elevation which should date from 1903 has been replaced by a recent, bland, office curtain wall. Perhaps this part was lost in WWII and the whole elevation rebuilt, including the Mendelsohn additional stories?

Elevation on Jerusalemer Strasse

Elevation on Schützenstrasse – more recent, but why?

Following the Einsteinturm, (see other post on this) Mendelsohn became hugely successful, running Germany’s largest architectural practice between the wars, with commissions including department stores in Stuttgart, Chemnitz and Berlin (Potsdamer Platz, demolished after the war).

It’s interesting that the Mossehaus was Mendelsohn’s first major commission following the Einsteinturm, and the expressionist ideas are evident. But by the time he was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s (he was a Jewish, successful, modernist architect, so not exactly popular with the Third Reich) he was producing buildings that we would recognise as entirely modernist. The Metal Workers Union building (Industriegewerkschaft Metall), at the southern end of Alte Jakobstrasse, is one of these.

Unlike the Mossehaus, which is currently occupied by Total, who don’t like you even peering into the entrance area, reception staff at the Union building allow access to the entrance area and main staircase (if you ask nicely).

Annoyingly, the staircase was completely scaffolded when I went; I’ll drop in again soon and replace the images with better ones.

The original commission was for a substantially larger building over two blocks, linked by a bridge; someone at Manchester Uni has done a quite cool video for the building.

The building has just been completely refurbished, and is classic ‘streamline moderne’ – long, long brass handrails, strip windows and expanses of white render. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lobby bears a striking resemblance to the interiors of his pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea – Mendelsohn’s only major building in England. The spiral staircase, with its sweeping handrails and vertical lighting system suspended throughout its height, seems near identical.

staircase.jpg Bexhill

And then Berlin…

Rear elevation, which fittingly enough looks out over Libeskind’s Jewish museum directly to the north.

Alte Jakobstrasse elevation. An unsettling image on show in the atrium shows the Union symbol replaced with a swastika in the same circle design during the 1930s.

Oddly, the atrium information boards also describe Mendelsohn’s Bexhill pavilion erroneously as being in Bexley (a part of south east London, in which it definitely isn’t).

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