In Spring 2015 the Modernist Tourists took to the skies to visit Berlin and nearby Potsdam. Famously Potsdam is the location of Frederick the Great’s palaces and of the ‘Potsdam Conference’ attended by Churchill, Stalin and Truman at the close of World War 2. Erich Mendelsohn’s iconic Einsteinturm sits atop Potsdam’s Telegraphenberg and is located within the Albert Einstein Science Park. The tower is the best known example of expressionist architecture, a unique style easily distinguished from other modernist schools by its unusual massing and adoption of biomorphic forms. It was one of Mendelsohn’s earliest commissions and completed while a young Richard Neutra was on his practice staff.

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The Einstein Tower is not particularly easy to find, after all, most tourists come to Potsdam to see the famous palaces and not to head off in the other direction and get lost in the woods. Regardless, it is a very enjoyable climb to the top of the Telegraphenberg as the winding road snakes through its dense trees and lush foliage. Signage is negligible and no-one seems particularly bothered if you are here to see the tower or just wander around aimlessly. There are a few students and the odd visiting professor to be seen strolling quietly around the small Science Park, but otherwise it is a most peaceful setting and thus perhaps the perfect one for this most ‘spiritual’ piece of modernist architecture. Indeed it is a structure which has the feel and character of a great monument rather than a functional building.

The tower was commissioned and built as an observatory, whose purpose was to test Einstein’s theory of relativity (with which I am sure you are all intimately familiar) and it is still a working observatory to this day. Public access is thus extremely limited and we were unable to venture inside.

Interior photographs by R. Arlt http://www.aip.de

As Christina Lodder points out in her essay ‘Searching for Utopia’ (pg. 60-61, Modernism 1914-139: Designing a New World, ed. Wilk, C) Mendelsohn’s idea sprang from a large number of drawings he made while serving on the Russian Front during World War 1. He was understandably in constant fear for his life and lived “among incessant visions”. In 1917 he wrote from the trenches to say that he was haunted by a feverish desire to get his ideas down on paper, and that “problems of symmetry and of the elasticity of the building components, and of the closed contour and of methods of construction concern me at every line.” The tower is said to have been designed by Mendelsohn out of some unknown urge to interpret the mystique of the universe and Einstein’s theories of it. He is later quoted as saying, “towers mount and grow out of themselves with their own power and spirit and soul”.

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Completed in 1921 the building entered operation in 1924. Initially designed to be built of reinforced concrete, a critical shortage of cement in post-war Germany forced a compromise and the final structure was made partly of brick and covered over with a skin of concrete. The building was therefore quickly subject to cracking and leakages and for decades required near constant repair. The tower was badly damaged during World War 2 but happily in 1999 underwent a major renovation to mark the 75th anniversary of its opening.

In summary – a surprisingly spiritual building in a beautiful and tranquil setting. Well worth getting lost in a forest for.

© Modernist Tourists 2016

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