Erich Mendelsohn Archive (EMA)
The Kunstbibliothek (Art Library), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin)
in partnership with the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles,
with funding from the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation
Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) is considered one of the seminal figures in modern architecture. With his ground-breaking buildings in the Berlin of the 1920s the capital was a testing ground for new architecture. In 1933 Mendelsohn fled Germany, going on to become an architect of international repute with projects in the Soviet Union, Norway, Spain, England, Palestine and the USA.
The EMA centres on the correspondence between Erich Mendelsohn and his wife Luise. Decades of letters have been scanned into a database and can now be viewed online for the first time. The correspondence dates from 1910, the year that Mendelsohn first met Luise Maas, and ends shortly before his death in July 1953. The letters provide a fascinating glimpse into the ideas and working practices of the architect and the lives of German Jewish émigrés in England, the British Mandate for Palestine and the USA. The attitudes and feelings of what Erich Mendelsohn called a ‘changing civilization’ can be detected in the letters even today.
For decades the correspondence existed only as a geographically split entity – Luise’s letters to Erich having been held since 1988 at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, and Erich’s to Luises having shifted to the Kunstbilbliothek in 1975 along with assorted sketches and. In 2011 the Institute and Library started discussing a project aimed at bringing the letters together in a single database. So it was that 1,410 letters from Erich and 1,328 letters from Luise came to be digitised and transcribed and then annotated by the esteemed Mendelsohn researcher Regina Stephan. The project, funded by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation, was completed in early 2014.
The EMA represents an additional strand in the commemoration of a designer who exerted considerable influence on 1920s architecture in Germany, particularly in Berlin, and then saw himself forced to leave Germany as a result of the Third Reich. Erich Mendelsohn was quick to weigh up the National Socialist policies of Adolf Hitler and was correct in his assessment of the repercussions for the German Jews. He felt like an outcast and did not set foot in Germany after 1933, instead working tirelessly to ensure the survival and prosperity of his family in England, Palestine and America. The EMA represents the realisation of Luise Mendelsohn’s wish that her husband’s estate be available to researchers on a permanent basis. Early in the 1970s, in an act of reconciliation, she devoted herself to a plan to have Erich Mendelsohn’s architectural papers his letter returned to Berlin, the city where his career began.
The digitisation process has provided access to an integral collection that, owing to geographical distance, had never before been viewable as a single entity. Many of the letters could only be deciphered and interpreted by experts. The EMA throws open this trove of correspondence to all interested parties. Architecture specialists, historians, art fans and history buffs can observe Erich and Luise as they compose their letters and mingle in a circle of friends and acquaintances that included Albert Einstein and Erwin Finlay Freundlich, the Mosse and Heymann families, entrepreneurs Simon and Salman Schocken, architects Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Ely Jacques Kahn, Richard Döcker, J.J.P. Oud, the painter Amédée Ozenfant, the sociologist Lewis Mumford, the composer Arnold Schönberg and the leading figures in German and international Zionism, Kurt Blumenfeld and Chaim Weizmann.
A bound volume of facsimiles would have stretched to more than 11,000 pages and been a prohibitive undertaking. Not so the digital version. The side-by-side layout of facsimiles and transcripts make perusal so simple that readers have no difficulty in shutting out external distractions and immersing themselves in the material. A detailed index of proper names enables readers to keep tabs on people, places, projects and institutions. Introductory texts summarise the events of a particular year, providing a key in to the relevant correspondence. Furthermore, the website is designed to allow future adjustments and additions to the specialist commentaries and annotations.
The EMA forms one strand of an overarching strategy that aims to provide researchers and teachers with access to the full range of collections held at the Kunstbibliothek (http://www.smb.museum/museen-und-einrichtungen/kunstbibliothek/forschung.html). The emphasis is on digitisation and research projects relating to the history of architecture, photography, fashion, design and the art market. Cooperations with Berlin universities form another area of focus. The objective is to develop the various collections into an interdisciplinary field of research for future generations of academics and artists. The EMA presents students and university teachers with yet another opportunity to draw on authentic texts in writing and investigating the history of art.
Prof. Dr. Moritz Wullen
Director, Kunstbibliothek – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Prof. Dr. Thomas Gaehtgens
Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles