Dispatches from Olsztyn: The House that Erich Built

Photo: Marcel Krueger

Photo: Marcel Krueger

By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog.

Erich Mendelsohn had a skewed relationship with his hometown. The man who would become one of Germany's most prominent inter-war architects was born into a Jewish family in Allenstein in 1887, as the fifth of six children of Emma Esther (née Jaruslawsky), a hatmaker and David Mendelsohn, a shopkeeper. The family home was situated in the old town (just one bloc down from where I'm living at the moment), and Erich went to the nearby humanist gymnasium. But from there he went to Berlin and Munich to train as a merchant and study national economics, but soon switched allegiance to architecture and began studying his profession at the Technical University of Munich in 1906.

Photo: Erich Mendelsohn, cropped from an image donated by National Library of Israel to Wikimedia Commons and used under the  Creative Commons   Attribution 3.0 Unported  license.

Photo: Erich Mendelsohn, cropped from an image donated by National Library of Israel to Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

From there, he went on to a stellar career as one of the most visionary architects of Germany: first working as an independent architect in Munich, then after the First World War opening his practise in Berlin which employed 40 people thanks to such iconic buildings like the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, the Schaubühne in Berlin or the hat factory in Luckenwalde. He even designed whole neighbourhoods like the WOGA-complex at Lehniner Platz in Berlin, and together with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius founded the influential progressive and humanist architecture group The Ring. Erich also travelled extensively, often with his wife Luise: to Palestine (where Erich built a hydroelectric power station), the Soviet Union, the US.

He did rarely return to his hometown. What he did do here however was to realise his first ever project: the Tahara house of the Jewish community. Commissioned when Erich was still studying in Munich and completed in 1913, the Bet Tahara (a place where the Jewish deceased are prepared for burial) was built as a component of the Jewish cemetery of Olsztyn and also came with a second building designed as the residency for the cemetery's caretaker. The building showed many of the organic-looking characteristics that made his later buildings stand out, and came with a fine tiled cupola, while simplified geometric elements around the main hall and specially designed lamps showed the influence of Art Nouveau and expressionism.

Photo: Marcel Krueger

Photo: Marcel Krueger

After 1933, Erich and his family emigrated to Palestine, London and subsequently the US. He died in San Francisco in 1953.

Many other Jews from Allenstein did not survive the war: in the summer 1942 the Germans deported them to the Minsk Ghetto and the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The Jewish community ceased to exist, but the cemetery and Erich's building remained. After the war, it was used by the new Polish administration as a magazine for the municipal archive, the headstones for building materials and the cemetery slowly turned into an unofficial park used by the neighbours (my own grand-cousin, who lived in Olsztyn until 1961, remembers using it as a shortcut often).

Today, Olsztyn is rightfully proud of its famous son, also because his building is accessible again: in 2005, the Borussia Foundation (Fundacja Borussia) initiated the reconstruction of the building. Borussia is a group of local writers, artists and teachers founded in 1990 and dedicated to the research of East Prussian heritage and cultural dialogue (and one of my main partners in the city). The restoration project was realised with the support of European Founds, and the building and the adjacent cemetery were acquired by the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland. Since 21 March 2013, the 126th anniversary of the Mendelsohn's birth, the building has been used as a center for intercultural dialogue by Borussia Foundation and was named Mendelsohn House (Dom Mendelsohna) in memory of Erich.

There is however another instance that might symbolise Erich's skewered relationship with his hometown: in 1943 he collaborated with the U.S. Air Force to build a "German Village", a set of replicas of typical German working-class housing estates and other building types, where the effects of incendiary and other bomb types could be tested. In this way, Erich contributed to the Allied war effort in the way he knew best. And even though Allenstein was never bombed during World War 2, I wonder if he thought about his hometown and its fate when he designed the buildings to be bombed, and about the first house he had built there.


Passages / Transambulare

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By Anna Evans:

The passage is a city, a world in miniature.
– Walter Benjamin

Our walk back through the city, in the fading light, when everything starts to look different. We take the Metro upwards, with the idea that we can descend back towards the centre via a series of steps marking our route. I am charged with navigating streets unknown to me: guesswork, anticipating the disorienting effects of the darkness. Already, it begins to fold over us, obscuring the paths we take, bending downwards through the lit city streets.

You expect the secrets of the streets to unveil themselves like a map, as if you could look at them from above; but they only come step by step, there is no panoramic view.

It is at this time of day that the city begins to reveal itself. When street lamps are lit, exposing walls and the narrow passageways between buildings. The lights illuminate brightly so that the wall seems cast in yellow stone, and the shadows of overlooked corners steal away to find new hiding places.

The shutters suggest a neglected abandon, broken and crumbling. For a moment I am mesmerised, drawn inwards to claustrophobic interiors, the living darkness; concealment of unspeakable shadow. Echoes of the uncountable possibilities of the concave life of the city.

Out on the streets daytime is retreating, furtively, while the night is lit up like a museum display. Steps leading upwards, and at their base the silent scream of graffiti on walls. Unabashedly colourful, it becomes a mural, taking its place within the narrative of the streets.

As we walk, you identify one of the symbols that mark the famous passageways, the lion’s head, and opening the heavy wooden door we enter, perhaps there is a passage through. At the entrance I take a photograph…

***

It has been a day of wandering streets, drawn into courtyards and entrances, seeking glimpses of interiors, arches and vaulted ceilings. The traboules, the network of passages between buildings, crossing through the streets of old Lyon.

When the city was occupied in the Second World War, Resistance fighters used this system of passageways to evade the Gestapo and as meeting or drop-off points. Perhaps this is why they feel underground in some way, like stumbling upon the unseen and hidden side of the city. An in-between space, they suggest undercover operations, secrets and trespass, a code you have to know about; off the map.

They are a passage through where it looks like there is none.

***

The photograph shows a series of staircases lit up, rising to the top of the building. Railings ascending, the stairwells connect the floors, crossing sides and linking them together. The stairway exposed, ironwork and stone pillars; it is as though one partition, one side of the edifice has been removed, like a doll’s house.

In the photograph, the yellow light is eerie; it accentuates murkiness and incandescence. The ascent of the stairs a gradual slant upwards, shadowy and bending towards the reflected cast of iron railings. Lit up, haunted space. Through the closed door the city continues, spilling its inside into the outside. It is like seeing what usually takes place under cover, behind the walls of the building. Like an undercover car park, subterranean and suggestive. The illusion of mystery; what it looks like when no one is around.

Looking at the photograph, I notice the figure again; remembering how entering the passage had seemed like an intrusion, into a space we thought was empty. In the way that cities have always that possibility of an encounter, in passing by or meeting another, in crossing over. Footsteps following onwards.

In the contrast between bright and dark, the figure both blends in and is exposed. Like a shadow emerging from the walls of the building, ghostlike, and appearing only as the photograph is taken. An apparition. An echo of the light and the shadow. As if the figure is both there and not there.

It is the stillness of the figure that strikes me now. It is as though they have been sitting a long time, on the stairs, outside of laws and history. The lit cigarette, like a pause. The brightness of the light making a silhouette. The smallness of a human figure positioned in space and timeless, against the city streets. A witness to all the hidden and secret encounters, and to everything that might take place in a passageway.

***

Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction.


Event: Disappear Here Launch in Coventry, 16 March

We have recently discovered a fascinating project in which a collaboration of 18 artists have produced 27 films about the Coventry ring road as an inner city superstructure that crosses the boundary between Modernist and Brutalist architecture. Sounds interesting? Well, on the 16 March the work of the last few months will be launched at The Box - Fargo in Coventry where there will be a screening as well as a Q & A session with the artists and the organisers of the project.

Here are a few words from Adam Steiner, the Project Lead of Disappear Here:

“It’s been a great experience to work alongside emerging and established artists from Coventry and beyond to reimagine the ringroad through a series of poetry films. Coventry ringroad is one of the city’s most iconic (and notorious) physical landmarks , acting as both city wall, orbital conduit and dividing line. 

I feel the ringroad deserves to be celebrated as well as criticized – it is the duty of artists and citizens to engage with issues of public space, control of architecture and the human experience of our built environment – to shine a light on the fantastic, the boring and the universal in the everyday. Coventry has always been underrated as a place to live, work and create – so I hope the films will encourage people to visit and seek inspiration where they can to read, write and attend more poetry events!”

You can watch the trailer here and all important links are below:

Postcard from... Papaverhof, The Hague

By Kelly Merks:

I was riding my bicycle when I first saw the Papaverhof. The sense of place I felt is unforgettable: with the simple motion of turning a street corner, my 1930s brownstone neighborhood ceded to a horseshoe-shaped row of low-lying but imposing white concrete blocks. I froze in fascination, and my bike slowed gently to a stop.

“It’s De Stijl! In real life!” my head clamored. My eyes followed the geometric masses of white that tumbled down the street, hemming in short and bold lines of black, blue and yellow. The scene recalled Piet Mondrian’s iconic Tableau and Composition series; the buildings mimicked the paintings’ cubic rhythm and primary colors. This unique housing development, the Papaverhof, was like nothing else I had ever seen, and my modest district of The Hague was not the place I would expect to see something like it... but here it was. 

The discovery was only a personal one, of course, because people have been living in the Papaverhof for almost a century. It’s a housing development that represents a unique moment in Dutch and local history, yet many people in The Hague don’t know about it. 

After the First World War, Dutch cities faced a shortage of adequate housing and building materials. In 1917, before the war ended, a 25-hectare (61.7-acre) plot between The Hague and an adjacent village called Loosduinen was created as a suburban extension and given the name Daal en Berg after the farmland it occupied. This new development was meant to help alleviate the region’s crowded urban living conditions, and is seen today as an early example of Dutch suburban social housing. Later the same year, Daal en Berg became a Coöperatieve Woningbouw Vereeniging Tuinstadwijk — roughly translated, a Cooperative Housing Garden City Association. I found no evidence that this garden city initiative was influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City Movement. Daal en Berg’s reality, in fact, was closer to that of a mini garden suburb. Garden suburbs are built on the outskirts of cities and are typically absent of industry, density, or connectivity: the antithesis of Howard’s garden city dream. 

Daal en Berg’s social housing complex—called the Papaverhof in keeping with the area’s botanical street names, like Rozenstraat, Magnoliastraat, and Irisstraat—went from concept to creation under the direction of architect Jan Wils. In 1919 Wils was favored in a design competition by the cooperative’s commissioner, Hendrik P. Berlage. Berlage is regarded as the patriarch of Dutch modernist architecture. He was especially enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright’s work after a 1911 tour of the American Midwest and east coast, and he became a liaison between Wright and “both the expressionists of the Amsterdam School and the rationalists of the De Stijl movement,” according to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. 

Indeed, the Papaverhof is not only one of Wils’ and Berlage’s important works, but bears the fingerprints of other contemporarily and regionally influential artists and architects: Gerrit Rietveld, Vilmos Huszár, Piet Mondrian, and the De Stijl movement founder Theo van Doesburg, who lived at Daal en Berg (on Klimopstraat, across from the Papaverhof) for 20 years. 

The Papaverhof is also an exemplar of a short-lived architectural movement called Nieuwe Bouwen, or “New Building”—an offshoot of Functionalism that centralized economy of scale and relied on modern technology. If De Stijl provided the development’s aesthetic, Nieuwe Bouwen concerned itself with materials and organization. It was a response to the interwar demands of economic and demographic expansion. Nieuwe Bouwen reorganized the home to provide more light, air, and space, focusing on efficiency and modernization instead of ornamentation. “Form follows function” lives on at the Papaverhof.

Despite its architectural and social importance, the Papaverhof’s 128 units were initially slow to sell. People were wary or just turned off by the large open garden in the center. But this problem doesn’t exist anymore; residents tend to stay for decades, and the waiting list to buy is long. The Papaverhof is among the top 100 national rijksmonumenten, or heritage sites, and one of only 11 in The Hague. 

Today the city has subsumed Daal en Berg. The once-suburban satellite is now well within city limits and sits only a short walk from the Laan van Meerdervoort, the longest avenue in the Netherlands at 5.8 km (3.6 miles). To celebrate Daal en Berg’s 100th anniversary in 2017, residents of the Papaverhof have created a virtual tour of a model home, and hope to eventually recreate for virtual tour a home as it was designed by Jan Wils in the early 1920s. 

(Follow this link to take a virtual tour of the Papaverhof)

Kelly is an American enjoying life on the frigid North Sea after a few years in Japan, having swapped great sushi for better beer in the Netherlands. As the daughter of an aerial photographer and a geographer, she grew up in a home of mapping equipment, old globes, and atlases that have informed her search for hidden contexts of the landscapes we travel and live in. You can find her on Twitter at @flaneurie and read more of her work on her blog, Bullet Trains and Bike Lanes