Erich Mendelsohn and the Einsteinturm

2008.02.12

See also post on two other Mendelsohn buildings in Berlin – the Mossehaus and the Metalworkers Union building, here.

When you actually see them ‘in the flesh’ for the first time, some seminal modern buildings are a disappointment. Buildings hardly ever look like they do in photos, and the sun’s not always shining (especially here in Berlin).

Not so with the Einsteinturm (Einstein tower), probably the best known work by architect Erich Mendelsohn. The tower, actually a solar observatory, forms part of a cluster of other observatories and related research buildings on a wooded hill on the edge of Potsdam. The Mendelsohn building is the last one you reach, after passing the various much larger Victorian structures (Wilhelmisch, in Germany?). When you finally catch site of it, it seems tiny; an effect magnified by the fact that it’s lower down the hill, and that the lowest level is set into the ground. Small but perfectly formed though. It’s as if the rest of the site was built for the use of ‘great men of science’ and the Einsteinturm for tiny fairy folk.

Einstein tower

The telescope itself has a vertical and a horizontal component; the vertical part is housed in the tower, with the horizontal part running the length of the whole building. This lower section of the building is partly buried, with its windows poking out of the turf, adding to its hobbit-like qualities. No need to describe its technical aspects further, as there’s an excellent simulation here (what did we all do before Youtube?).

The structure is actually brick with a cement render covering, rather than the solid concrete which Mendelsohn claims was his original intention. The overall effect though is quite unearthly, in an early sci-fi, Flash Gordon kind of way. It’s also a surprisingly pretty building.

Einstein tower rear view

The tower was completely refurbished in the late 1990s and is now once again in use as a solar observatory. Access to the interior is therefore limited – you can visit by appointment on certain Saturdays in winter only, but can walk up to and around it pretty much anytime during the day (staff at the gatehouse to the site were friendly and obviously used to archi-tourists).

Some fine shots by velvetairProjects here at Flickr, including a photo of the cut through model.

Like Hans Poelzig, Mendelsohn’s career spanned from early expressionism to international modernism. As well as the Einsteinturm, his key surviving buildings in Berlin are the Kino Universum (now the Schaubühne), the alteration of the Mossehaus, and most notably the Metal Workers Union Building – see my other post for these last two.