An Ithaca of Sorts

And then, that hour the star rose up,
The clearest, brightest star, that always heralds
The newborn light of day, the deep-sea-going ship
Made landfall on the island … Ithaca, at last.
— Homer, Odyssey 13.105-108 [1]

Gegen Mittag Land in Sicht. Lange flache weiße Strandlinien. Blaues, unglaublich
frisches Meer.
— Erich Mendelsohn, on board the S.S. Deutschland, 11 October 1924 [2]

HAPAG (Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Aktien-Gesellschaft), the German shipping company that inaugurated the famous and profitable Hamburg Amerika steamship service at the beginning of the 20th century, launched four of the most luxurious passenger ships ever built during the early 1920s. One of these, the “palatial twin screw oil burning” S.S. Albert Ballin weighed in tare at a modest 21,000 gross tons. It was not the largest of vessels. Measuring over 600 feet from bow to stern, the ship was 200 hundred feet shorter than the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic. Yet the Albert Ballin featured comforts otherwise unknown in seagoing passenger vessels after the First World War: spacious first-class berths, sumptuous dining halls, a modern gymnasium, private writing rooms, and even an innovative “anti-rolling” mechanism insuring “the greatest degree of steadiness in all weather conditions.” The vessel resumed HAPAG’s famous “de-Luxe” service across the North Atlantic, making frequent voyages from Germany to New York via Southhampton, England. Along with the Albert Ballin, HAPAG’s other new passenger ships, the Hamburg, and Resolute, and the S.S. Deutschland all carried thousands of passengers on the profitable Atlantic crossings.

S.S. Deutschland (1923)

Hamburg Amerika vessels served with distinction during the interwar years, some meeting odd, nefarious ends. In 1935, for example, the German Navy, or Kriegsmarine, rechristened the Albert Ballin as the S.S. Hansa. Like Walther Rathenau, the founder of Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (A.E.G.) electrical equipment company, Ballin was a prominent Jewish businessman eventually disgraced by the Third Reich—the renaming of his vessel with a Germanic moniker was a symbolically- and politically-charged act. The Deutschland, on the other hand, met a much more sordid fate. In 1940, the Kriegsmarine assigned the Deutschland to the German-occupied port of Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on the Polish Baltic coast. The port was not only turned into a naval base in 1943, but it also became an important point for the transfer of prisoners to a nearby concentration camp, also called Gotenhafen. In 1945, the German navy used the Deutschland to transfer over 70,000 refugees seeking protection from the advancing Red Army.

The Deutschland no doubt reminds us of war’s own exigent circumstances and countless tragedies. Yet the vessel’s strange relationship with the Second World War begins sometime around 1924, when the Deutschland was only beginning its heralded transatlantic service. Indeed, a passenger standing on its teak decks, gripping the side railings as the ship lumbered into New York harbor, might not be able to see very far into the future, to witness the smoldering ruin of Europe during the 1940s. Even Hamburg, home to the Blohm und Voss shipyards that gave birth to the Deutschland, would be laid waste by the Royal Air Force’s devastating firebomb raids in the Spring of 1943.

“This is the foil for the flaming scripts, the rocket fire of moving illuminating ads, emerging and submerging, disappearing and breaking out again over the thousands of autos and the maelstrom of pleasureseeking people.” Fritz Lang, Photograph of Broadway (1924) (Caption by Mendelsohn, photo republished in Mendelsohn’s Amerika)

This voyage away from home was nevertheless a formative experience for two passengers. Aboard the Deutschland’s deck, Fritz Lang would have seen a massing of medium-height buildings, crowning the very spit of land forming Manhattan’s own prow, with the Brooklyn Bridge’s iron tendrils reaching across the grey waters for nearby land. Lang’s first visit to New York resulted in a series of photographs that inspired those very dystopic urban visions forever associated with Metropolis (1927). In one of these, a night scene on Broadway, lighted Coca-Cola and Dairylea billboards leave incandescent traces across the celluloid. It as if Lang were momentarily disoriented, moving too rapidly, avoiding the onslaught of artificial light while keeping the camera aperture open. This light inscribes everything as a double-image, anticipating the scene in Metropolis when the technocrat Johann Fredersen stares outside his own office at the frenzied city lights flickering faster and faster: a vision of a city in disrepair.

Lang’s photograph would eventually make its way onto the pages of Erich Mendelsohn’s Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (1926). Mendelsohn, who was not only a passenger aboard the Deutschland, but who also toured New York with Lang, processed his own ideas about the American metropolis differently. Whereas Lang found inspiration in this trip for his upcoming films, Mendelsohn was overtly caustic in his appraisals. He did admire much of the industrial architecture we saw during his travels in the United States, but was nevertheless struck by the abject moral bankruptcy that such buildings represented. The text accompanying the photographs in Amerika is pithy and biting. Indeed, in the very opening chapter to the book, called “Typical American Traits”[3], a picture of Manhattan from the sea inspired Mendelsohn to describe the city as the “Port of the world. Announcer of the new country, of liberty and the unmeasurable wealth behind it”.[4]

This first visit to the United States had a powerful impact on Mendelsohn’s subsequent work. The photographs of skyscrapers, industrial structures, and city streets gracing the pages of Amerika are portentous. If, for Le Corbusier, the aerial view is totalizing in its ability to indict urbanism’s own failures, then for Mendelsohn, the Sheeler-like views from below opt for something else. In the preface to Amerika, the architect declares that “America demands nothing of our love, but wants to be treated by us as unemotionally as we are treated by her. In architecture this country supplies everything: the worst of Europe’s refuse, deformed offspring of civilization, but she also gives hope of a new world.”[5]

Mendelsohn’s own captions reinforce this totalizing conception of architecture, its ability to encapsulate everything. In the introduction to Amerika, Mendelsohn noted “For what we generally characterize today as ‘typically American’ is a caricature of the European mother countries of Americans.”[6] Yet Mendelsohn finessed the idea of typicality by suggesting that a single American city was a synecdoche for a larger swath of European cities. Describing New York to his wife Louise in a 1924 letter, Mendelsohn declares that the towering spires of the Woolworth Building stand for something else, something greater: “That is not a city in the European sense, that is the whole world, in a pot”.[7]

Consider Homer’s Odyssey, the very first travel monologue, a record of a personal Diaspora. Signs of a wholly modern predicament unfurl from the poem’s hexameter strains: tensions between personal and national identity, crises of faith, geographic dislocation by virtue of armed conflict. And in 1922, only two years prior to Mendelsohn’s departure for New York, James Joyce published his very own paean to Odysseus’ travels. Ulysses, Joyce’s contemporary retelling of Homer’s work features these very same elements. The novel’s main protagonist, Leopold Bloom (né Leopold Virag) is distanced from his very own personal Ithaca. Within the urban fabric of post-Easter Rebellion Dublin, Bloom wanders, questioning his own religion, Irishness, matrimonial loyalty, and history. In the novel’s penultimate Ithaca chapter, before the storied return to home and hearth, father and son, Leopold Bloom’s Odysseus to Stephen Dedalus’ Telemachos, levitate into the firmament, seeing the planet below in its own totality, their very own world, literally, in a pot. The implication could very well be that return is conditioned only on the greatest possible distance away from home. For Odysseus, it was an endless sea voyage; for Bloom, a voyage into (literal) outer space. And yet such wanderings are preceded by unparalleled tragedy. Odysseus travels began the moment the Trojan Wars ended, as the fiery hulk of Troy sat on its searing plain. Mendelsohn’s own exile coincides with the incipient Nazi regime’s promise of war during the 1930s. When aboard the deck of the Deutschland in 1924, even if he could have seen the vessel’s own twisted and mangled hulk at the bottom of the Bay of Lübeck in the near future, he might not have been able to recognize its significance of such a portent. Not yet.

Wave crashing on the deck of the S.S. Deutschland (date unknown)

Upon his return to Germany, Mendelsohn experienced pendulum shifts between commercial success and dismal failure. Indeed, the years between 1924 and 1933 were very fruitful for the architect. In addition to his expressionist fantasy, the Einsteinturm in Potsdam, Mendelsohn also finished some of his most significant and memorable works. His Schocken department stores in Nuremberg, Chemnitz, and Stuttgart all featured his signature curvilinear facades. Unlike these buildings, his domestic projects were all flat-roofed cubic compositions. In 1936, however, after Adolf Hitler’s election as Reichschancellor, and eager to escape incipient anti-Semitism in Germany, Mendelsohn moved to England. He became a British citizen, dropped the “h” from his name and entered into a partnership with Serge Chermayeff. Though their working relationship may have been contentious, the two designed one of the first welded steelframe buildings, the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea. Impoverished, with seized assets, and excluded from German Architects’ Union, Mendelsohn turned to his good friend, Chaim Weizmann, who helped the struggling architect open an office in Jerusalem in 1940.

Mendelsohn’s Palestinian projects mark a different stage of his creative trajectory. Gone are the dynamically expressive forms of the Einstein Tower. Here, the volumetric explorations of the Hat Factory at Luckenwald are replaced with a much more sober, staid style. Buildings such as the Hadassah-Hebrew University medical complex in Jerusalem or the Anglo-Palestine Bank have a decidedly regional influence: built of white stone with domes and brises-soleil, these structures not only reference the sun of this part of the world, but the nearby Arab architectures that so fascinated Mendelsohn. Though the architect desired to build all of Palestine, he had few projects before his eventual move to the United States in 1941.

Working out of offices in New York and California, and while on the lecture circuit, Mendelsohn again evoked the same images of fire that he saw in Lang’s photographs of Broadway. He abandoned the subtler criticism underlying these earlier images, instead prophesizing a fiery vision of a war, a conflict whose winds would cause uncontrollable conflagrations and “strike dead the past and all who ride with it.”[8] An eerie premonition indeed, for only a couple of years later, working as a consultant for the United States Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) and Standard Oil Development Company, Mendelsohn would be instrumental in helping the United States Army Air Force perfect the dark business of firebombing.

Erich Mendelsohn, Konrad Wachsmann, and Antonin Raymond, “Typical German and Japanese Test Structures” (Built, Rebuilt and Destroyed, 1943-1944) Dugway Proving Ground, Tooele County, Utah (Source)

In 1943, the CWS and Standard Oil entrusted Mendelsohn with describing how a singular building could represent the whole of the German world “in a pot.” The goal of this project was the design and construction of a series of “Typical German Test Structures” – replicas of apartment housing blocks in major German industrial-residential areas. These structures not only faithfully replicated the interiors and exteriors of buildings in major German cities, but they were the result of a concentrated and directed program of research spearheaded by Mendelsohn and Konrad Wachsmann. This project marked the end of a tedious and controversial program inaugurated by the National Defense Research Committee in 1942 for the design and development of incendiary munitions, culminating in the creation of the M69 napalm-based incendiary bomb.[9]

Test of M69 bomb on Mendelsohn’s and Wachsmann’s “German Village” (1943) (Source)

Writing from Jerusalem in 1935, Mendelsohn summed up his work to his wife: “I am drawing up plans, I am alive. I am building for the country and rebuilding myself. Here I am both a peasant and an artist – instinct and intellect – animal and human being.”[10] The tone is optimistic, reflective. Perhaps Mendelsohn did not characterize his working in Palestine as a part of an exile. For him, it was a return to a religious and ancestral home, only short-lived by his inability to get a city planning commission. He realized that emigration to the United States would bring necessary professional and pecuniary benefits.

Mendelsohn would never go back to Germany. In his offices at Croton-on-Hudson, New York and San Francisco, California, the architect would design the very artifacts documenting an exile without return. Away from Palestine, half-blind and with failing health, Mendelsohn completed designs for synagogues, community centers: all evocative of his wish to create architectures of faith. And only several years before he completed these projects, a War Department consultant eager for work, Mendelsohn would return home. Not to Palestine, but Germany. His last act as a German architect would be to recreate his own Ithaca, home and hearth, in the alkali flats of Tooele County, Utah.

S.S. Cap Arcona, shortly after launch (top), and after attack on 26 April 1945 (bottom)

The very vessel that inaugurated Mendelsohn’s own travels met a fate similar to that of the “Typical German Test Structure” built in Utah and many Northern and Central European cities from 1943 onwards. In early 1945, back from service at Gotenhafen, the Kriegsmarine retrofitted the Deutschland as a hospital vessel. On 26 April 1945, a little more than a week before Germany’s unconditional surrender, the Deutschland, along with the S.S. Cap Arcona, and the smaller Athen and Thielbek, were part of an orchestrated effort to transfer prisoners from the nearby concentration camps at Neuengamme and Mittelbau-Dora to neutral Sweden from the Bay of Lübeck. Due to a shortage of white paint, only some of the vessels could be marked with proper hospital markings. And later that day, acting on uncorroborated intelligence reports that a naval attack on Norway was commencing, fighter-bombers from the Royal Air Force’s Second Tactical Squadron, 83 Group, attacked the flotilla from the northwest with rockets and bombs. After listing helplessly in the frigid waters, the Cap Arcona, Thielbek, Athen and Deutschland all burned and sank to the bottom of the bay. Survivors who managed to swim back to land were promptly executed by SS guards. 7,000 refugees were killed.



[1] Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fagles, trans. (New York; Penguin, 1999): 289.
[2] Erich Mendelsohn to Louise Mendelsohn, 1924 in Oskar Beyer, ed., Erich Mendelsohn: Breife eines Architekten (München: Prestel Verlag, 1961): 60.
[3] “Das Typisch Amerikanische”
[4] “Hafen der Welt. Verkünder des neuen Landes, der Freiheit und des hinter ihr liegenden unermeßlichen Reichturms.” Erich Mendelsohn, Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (Berlin: Rudolf Mosse Verlag, 1928): 12. Compare a more recent version of the book, where the same passage is translated as “Port of the world. Announcer of the new country, of liberty and what lies behind it: measureless wealth, the most reckless exploitation, gold seekers and world domination.” Stanley Appelbaum, trans., Erich Mendelsohn’s “Amerika”: 82 Photographs (New York: Dover Publications, 1993): 1.
[5] Louise Mendelsohn to Bruno Zevi, in Zevi, Erich Mendelsohn: The Complete Works (Boston: Birkhauser Verlag, 1997): 80-81.
[6] Appelbaum, trans., Erich Mendelsohn’s “America”, p xi.
[7] “Das ist keine Stadt im europäischen Sinn, das ist die Welt, ganz, in einem Topf.” Erich Mendelsohn to Louise Mendelsohn, October 16, 1924, in Erich Mendelsohn: Breife eines Architekten (München: Prestel Verlag, 1961): 61.
[8] Erich Mendelsohn to William Bruck, quoted in Tom Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures Along the Ruins of Atomic America (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002): 73.
[9] For more information about the design and development of the M69 incendiary bomb, see Louis F. Fieser. The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace (New York: Reinhold, 1964), Chemical Corps Association, The Chemical Warfare Service in World War II: A Report of Accomplishments (New York: Reinhold, 1948), and Charles Sterling Popple, Standard Oil Company (New Jersey) in World War II (New Jersey: Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, 1952). Materials regarding the results of the M69 trials at Dugway Proving Ground are located at the National Archives: ETF 550 E-2844: Military Intelligence Division, Great Britain – “Dropping Trials of Incendiary Bombs against Representative Structures at Dugway, USA, October 12, 1943”, Edgewood Arsenal Technical Files Relating to Foreign Chemical Radiological, and Biological Warfare Retired to the Defense Intelligence Agency for Reference Purposes (Entry 1-B), Records of the Defense Intelligence Agency (Record Group 373), and ETF 550 E-2844: Military Intelligence Division, Great
Britain, IBTP/Report/128, “Comparison of the Japanese Targets and Test Results at the Building Research Station, Edgewood Arsenal and Dugway Proving Ground, H.M. Llewellyn, M.A. London”, Report No. R3583-45, June 29, 1945, Edgewood Arsenal Technical Files Relating to Foreign Chemical Radiological, and Biological Warfare Retired to the Defense Intelligence Agency for Reference Purposes (Entry 1-B), Records of the Defense Intelligence Agency (Record Group 373).
[10] Erich Mendelsohn to Louise Mendelsohn, 1935, quoted in Zevi, p. 234.