Designed by Erich Mendelsohn, completed 1921
True to modernism’s precepts, the Einstein Tower in Potsdam, Germany, designed and
built by Erich Mendelsohn from 1919 to 1921, is one of the most unique expressions of
avant-garde architecture of the early 20th century.
Born in 1887, Mendelsohn was drawn to architecture at a young age. Like so many
artists and architects at the fin-de-siècle, he believed that a new era was dawning, and that
new forms of architecture were necessary for the modern epoch. In 1913 Mendelsohn met
the astrophysicist Erwin Finlay Freundlich; the two men discovered shared interests and
developed an enduring friendship. Freundlich introduced Mendelsohn to the thenunpublished
radical theory of relativity by Albert Einstein, ideas that would profoundly
influence European intellectual thought, as well as the visual arts, for years to come.
Freundlich; was interested in making observations that would confirm Einstein’s new
theory, and Mendelsohn sought to adapt Einsteinian principals to built forms endowed
with expressive plasticity. Unfortunately, both mens’ plans were interrupted by the
outbreak of World War I. In 1917, Mendelsohn was sent to the Western front.
During the war, Mendelsohn sketched continuously. These small sketches, in ink, of
factories and observatories are remarkable for their abstract forms and stark play of light
and dark. Mendelsohn began creating images of an architecture without reference to
history or style. He indicated in his letters to his wife that these images came to him as
fleeting visions that he labored to jot down before they vanished.
In 1918, Freundlich decided to build his own observatory in Potsdam where he could
explore and apply Einsteinian principles. He immediately sent detailed information to
Mendelsohn on the front. Early studies for the observatory for Freundlich are among
Mendelsohn’s sketches.
Mendelsohn began serious work on the Einstein Tower in May 1920. Construction
began in the summer of 1920; the exterior was completed by October 1921, and the
project was generally finished by 1924. The plan, in keeping with modernist reductivism,
was relatively simple; a vertical shaft was required down which light was reflected into a
horizontal underground observation chamber. The finished building consisted primarily
of a three-story tower supporting an observatory cupola, a ground-floor workroom, a
second-floor room, and the underground observation area.
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 744
However, the appearance of the structure is less like a device for scientific experiment
than like a ship, airplane, or vehicle of transport already in motion across the landscape.
The conceptual program was perhaps more complex than the functional one: Mendelsohn
consciously strove to make a design devoid of right angles, that was molded rather than
built, and that architecturally expressed the dynamic interchange of mass and energy
inherent in Einstein’s theory of relativity. For this reason, he emphasized the interplay of
mass and light, drawing on his impressionistic wartime sketches. The observatory was to
be constructed of poured-in-place concrete, the only material Mendelsohn thought
capable of expressing the dynamic possibilities of the new age. In the end, because of
cost considerations and material wartime shortages, the underground portion was built in
concrete, but the shaft of the tower was constructed of brick with a plaster finish.
The windswept form of the building reflects the conglomeration of a number of ideas
and influences. In part, Mendelsohn’s thinking had been influenced by the German
Expressionist writers and painters, such as Wassily Kandinsky, whose meetings he
attended. Kandinsky’s metaphysical exploration of a new German Zeitgeist shaped by
spiritual rather than rational forces proved particularly influential for Mendelsohn’s
The organic vitality of Jugendstil interior design and architecture was equally
influential. Jugendstil (or German Art Nouveau) derived its sinuous and curvilinear
motifs from nature, particularly from vines and trailing plants, which suggested fecundity
and irrationality in their sensuous curving stems. The first-floor plans of the Einstein
Tower seem to be derived from Jugendstil organicism, as seen in the ovoid entry porch,
chrysalis-like stair chamber, and the curvaceous walls of the workroom, all of which
evince references to germination and plantlike growth.
Finally, Mendelsohn’s concern for energy, dynamism, and vitalism led him to the
ideas of the Italian Futurists and their manifestos, particularly to the work of artist
Umberto Boccioni. For example, Boccioni’s sculpture, Unique Forms of Conti nuity in Space, of 1913—a virtual icon of
Futurist ideals of power, movement, and violence—would seem to echo in the sense of
undulating movement that is evoked by the curving walls of Mendelsohn’s Einstein
Tower. In particular, the swept forms of the legs in Boccioni’s soldierlike sculpture find
their way into the surrounds of the Tower’s first-floor windows, suggesting a kind of
protective cowling against movement through some medium, as if the building were
really a vehicle designed for travel.
The Einstein Tower became the most famous, albeit often misunderstood and esoteric,
German building after World War I. Despite the fact that Einstein himself referred to the
building in a private aside to Mendelsohn as organic, the architect’s intentions that the
building formally embody the physicist’s theories was not generally perceived. In his
later work, Mendelsohn continued to explore formal dynamism, but the work was much
more linear and rational, using steel and glass, brick, and concrete slab. He never built
anything like the Einstein Tower again.
The building functioned successfully as an observatory, yet its formal influence on
other architects seems to have been minimal. In this regard, it is a victim of its own
originality and uniqueness. It was a vision, but perhaps not visionary.

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