Actors and Vehicles of Architectural Criticism (10)

Writing through the Eye of an Architect.
Erich Mendelsohn’s Visual Criticism
Michele Stavagna
Independent scholar, Berlin

The role of Erich Mendelsohn’s criticism in the context of architectural theories during the 1920s has been widely ignored by historians. Despite being among the greatest protagonists of modernism architecture, his being mainly a practicing architect, and not openly involved in a teaching position or in organizations like the CIAM, has casted a shadow over his critical agency. Nevertheless, Mendelsohn sought a direct contact to a modernity-friendly audience, exploiting his connections with the publisher Lachman-Mosse and his role as well-established professional. In the second half of the 1920s Mendelsohn developed a peculiar criticism, which aimed to reproduce his own architectural visions through a purely visual language, i.e. using photography rather than descriptive texts. While his actual writings were often tainted by an expressionistic style, he tried to avoid an emphatic language using visual aphorisms instead, for example contrasting pictures, photographic sequences, removal of typographic elements. This was most effectively achieved when the architect has full control of his contributions, in particular in the books Amerika, Russia Europa Amerika and Neues Haus Neue Welt. Nevertheless, when the medium where he was contributing was a traditional newspaper – as it happened for his articles delivered while travelling in Greece – he was able to synthesize and present his thought with a pragmatic use of his famous sketches. Whether fostering his own ideas against those of orthodox functionalist architects, or contributing to international debates and preservation campaigns, the recurring concern in his contribution is the quest for clarity and immediacy. For Mendelsohn the modern public “wants to understand, but quickly, clearly, without a lot of furrowing of brows and mysticism”.


Michele Stavagna, Dr. phil., studied Architectural Design (Laurea, 2000) and History of Architecture and Urban Design at the Università IUAV di Venezia (PhD, 2005 – Thesis: “I fotolibri di Erich Mendelsohn e l’immagine del Moderno” [Eric Mendelsohn’s Photo Books and the Image of Modernism]).
Michele Stavagna’s research focuses on the development and propaganda of modernism in architecture and design in the context of the mass audience and the economic development of modern society. Other major research topic are the photographic medium in architectural theory of the 20th century and the work of Eric Mendelsohn. He translated and edited the first Italian edition of Baukunst der neuesten Zeit by Gustav Adolf Platz -first historical account of Modernist Architecture published in 1927 by Propyläen Verlag, Berlin. He is a co-founder member of the international architectural research network Netzwerk Architekturwissenschaft e.V., founded in Berlin, August 2010.
Michele Stavagna has given lectures in Universities in Italy and Germany and presented papers at international conferences; among others: 10th & 11th International Bauhaus Colloquium, Weimar 2007 and 2009; 61st SAH Annual Meeting, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2008; 5th Scientific Meeting of the Greek Docomomo, Thessaloniki 2010, 2nd Forum Architekturwissenschaft, Darmstadt 2015.

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