Goodbye to Berlin
Erich Mendelsohn designed some of the world's finest buildings - and helped
destroy the German capital. By Jonathan Glancey
Monday May 12, 2003
Deep in a desiccated, Utah desert, surrounded by mountains and fringed with
scorched sage and saltbush, stand the surreal remains of German Village. Out of
bounds, out of place, out of time and 90 miles from Salt Lake City, it is surely
the most bizarre feature of Dugway Proving Ground, a test site created by the
Allied military during the second world war to develop weapons of mass
destruction for use against civilian targets in Germany and Japan.
All that survives of German Village is a single block of high-gabled, prewar
Berlin working-class housing. It is accurate in every respect. And it should be:
commissioned by the chemical warfare corps of the US army, it was designed by
Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), the German architect who settled in the US in 1941
after a spell in England.
I was alerted to the story of German Village by Mike Davis, who features it in
his provocative book Dead Cities: A Natural History, a study of the
vulnerability of modern cities from New York to Tokyo to destruction by man and
nature. Mendelsohn's involvement in this deathly project, seemed, at first,
bizarre. A Jew from Allenstein in East Prussia (today, Olsztyn in Poland),
Mendelsohn settled in Berlin, where he trained as an architect after studying
economics in Munich. From the trenches of the great war he sent home visionary
sketches of extraordinary streamlined, or expressionist, buildings. In 1919,
during the great flu epidemic, he began work on the Einstein Tower, an
astrophysics laboratory for the German mathematician and scientist, at Potsdam
on the edge of Berlin.
Over the next 10 or 12 years, Mendelsohn developed beautiful, sweeping,
clean-lined, light-filled architecture - much of it in Berlin - that appeared to
catch the spirit of the old German Enlightenment and represent it afresh in the
uncertain days of the Weimar Republic. These included the Metal Workers Union
building, the Universum Cinema on Kurf�rstendamm, the Columbushaus (Galeries
Lafayette) and several villas, including his own. Outside Berlin, the
streamlined department stores he built for Schocken at Nuremberg, Stuttgart and
Chemnitz were hugely influential worldwide.
Mendelsohn left for England when Hitler was voted into power in 1933. Here, with
the Russian-born dandy Serge Chermayeff, he built, among a number of fine
houses, the De la Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea.
How can this Erich Mendelsohn be the architect of the dark and deathly German
Village in the Utah desert? Mendelsohn left no correspondence or notebooks
relating to the Dugway Proving Ground project, where napalm and poison gases
were developed and tested. He had been under gas attack in the trenches, yet it
is hard not to think that his primary motivation in the desert of Utah was
revenge on the Nazis. If this seems fair enough, what remains disturbing is the
fact that this work was expressly designed to destroy working-class districts of
Berlin, including Wedding and Pankow. These had been communist strongholds,
virulently anti-Hitler, before the Gestapo and SS all but destroyed opposition
to the Nazi regime.
A concerted Allied attack, by the British and US air force on working-class
districts of German and Japanese cities had, however, become more or less
official policy by 1943. Churchill wanted to gas them. Killed and mutilated in
sufficient numbers, the German working class would, he argued, rise up against
Hitler and bring a quick end to the war. "It is absurd to consider morality on
this topic," he told RAF planners when the first German V1 rockets fell on
London. "I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people, and not by
psalm-singing uniformed defeatists."
Sensible people included the prime minister's favourite scientific adviser,
Professor Frederick Lindemann (Lord Cherwell), who insisted that "the bombing
must be directed essentially against working-class houses. Middle-class houses
have too much space around them, and so are bound to waste bombs." Psalm-singing
uniformed defeatists included the US's air force's celebrated commander Jimmy
Doolittle, who took against Churchill's proposed Operation Thunderclap that
aimed to kill 275,000 Berliners in a single 2,000-plane raid scheduled for
August 1944. It did not take place.
Washington's war secretary Henry Stimson said he did not want "the United States
to get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities". His less diplomatic
deputy, Robert Lovett, pleading the case for adopting anti-personnel bombs
loaded with napalm and white phosphorous, said: "If we are going to have a total
war, we might as well make it as horrible as possible." Churchill trumped Lovett
by calling on US president Franklin D Roosevelt to speed up production of a
promised 500,000 top-secret "N-bombs" - filled with anthrax, developed at Dugway
- to be dropped on Berlin and five other German cities.
As the debate raged in political and military circles, Mendelsohn, with
scientists from Standard Oil and German-emigre set designers from Hollywood's
RKO studio, set to work on German Village. RKO expertise contributed the design
of proletarian Berlin interiors down to the last detail. Using forced labour
(inmates from Utah state prison), German Village and its six "mietskasernen"
(rent barracks) apartment blocks were completed in 44 days, in time for
experiments scheduled from May 1943.
Mendelsohn and his team had done a good job. Their designs were far superior to
the German housing built in England for test destruction by the RAF at
Harmondsworth, near Heathrow airport. Assaulted by napalm, gas, anthrax and
incendiary bombs, German Village was rebuilt several times during 1943. Nearby,
the Japanese Village (long since vanished), designed by the Czech-educated
architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), paved the way for incendiary attacks on
working-class districts of Tokyo. On March 9 1945, 334 US air force B-29
superfortress bombers dropped 2,000 tons of napalm and magnesium incendiaries on
the timber and paper houses of Asakusa. Officially, 83,793 Japanese were killed,
40,918 injured and 265,171 buildings destroyed. The same month, German Village
aided the fire raids on Dresden. By the time Germany surrendered in May 1945, US
and British raids had destroyed 45% of German housing. And, as Davis wryly
observes: "Allied bombers pounded into rubble more 1920s socialist and modernist
utopias than Nazi villas."Mendelsohn was the architect of some of the very best
of these white, concrete dreams. Dugway, Davis argues, "led the way to the
deaths of, say, two million Axis civilians", and German Village remains "a
monument to the self-righteousness of punishing 'bad places' by bombing them".
There is no doubt that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had to be defeated; but
did the Allies really need German Village, Japanese Village and the refined
architectural efforts of Mendelsohn and Raymond? At the fiery dawn of the 20th
century, beneath the civilised, enlightened facades of Britain and the US, as
well as Germany and Japan, was a desire for expansion, destruction and terrible
revenge. Sitting on the sun-deck of Mendelsohn's pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea,
this axis of modern evil seems so very far removed, as far away, in fact, as the
sole surviving "rent barrack" of German Village, Utah.
� Dead Cities: A Natural History by Mike Davis, The New Press, �16.95.