Monday, December 29, 2014 Tevet 7, 5775

Speaking Volumes

March 30, 2006 By:
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Until the modern period, architecture was not a profession much open to Jews. Judaism itself - except perhaps for the Temple periods in Jerusalem - never really made much fuss about buildings per se. Synagogues, in the ghettos and shtetls of Europe, at least through a good part of the 19th century, were not generally grand affairs (western Europe was another story altogether, but nobody frequented those synagogues anyway). The impulse not to adorn Jewish houses of worship, especially among the devout, had something to do with the graven image issue and the sense of avoiding idolatry (even in western Europe, the decoration in synagogues was just that - decorative, not figural art, except maybe for a paschal lamb or two rendered in stained glass). This suppression of detail may also have been a reaction against the grandeur of church architecture throughout the world. Jews could pray wherever - and often, the simpler the place, the more sincere the kavanah elicited.

All this changed with modernity and the Jewish trek out of the ghetto. The book, Icons of Architecture: The 20th Century, published by Prestel, makes this abundantly clear, even though Jewish architects are still not voluminous in number in its pages (nor is it a subject actually pursued by the editors of this breezy, informal survey). One has to read between the images - literally. The Jewish presence in the profession does grow as the century moves on, but the influence of Jewish architects, especially in terms of the styles and aesthetics that would predominate in modernity, is undeniable.

You see this immediately in Erich Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower, built between 1919 and 1924 in Potsdam. The accompanying text in Icons of Architecture, in this instance the work of Christian Brensing, reads: " 'Organic!' Albert Einstein is alleged to have exclaimed on seeing the Einstein Tower on the Telegrafenberg near Potsdam, Germany. The new solar observatory erected for the venerable Astrophysical Institute for the practical testing of Einstein's theory of relativity was soon famous beyond Germany's borders as a building with a distinctive identity and a tremendous aura. It is the symbol of Expressionism become form."

According to the text, the origins of the tower stretch back to the trench warfare of World War I. In one such dugout, Mendelssohn began sketching ideas during the lulls in combat. The building's eventual "bold curves" were already apparent in the various early sketches the budding visionary architect committed to paper.

Even before the end of the war, Mendelssohn initiated a series of exchanges with Einstein's assistant, Dr. Erwin Finlay-Freundlich, and these two men, who happened to be good friends, "agreed upon the main details between the two poles of functionalism and aesthetics, fusing them into a most successful synthesis."

Brensing describes the finished building as depicting "in pure, unadulterated form an architectural organism that, in its molded, sculptural design represents a unity that can be neither divided nor extended. A dynamic quality pervades the volume of the building, intensifying its expression and the space around it. Nothing could better focus - in a metaphorical sense - the rays of the sun that enter here than this compact archetype that reflects matter, energy, space and time in a relative play of forces."

The form of the tower can be seen in the later work of such giants as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. And the boldness of the Mendelssohn design is echoed even much later in the 20th century in the work of other Jewish masters, such as Louis Kahn, Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry.


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