Architect of Form and Spirit: Eric Mendelsohn

Center of Contemporary Arts, through March 10

Still, the photographs and the layout of Mendelsohn's book make it a modernist masterpiece. The COCA exhibition displays a copy of the book and makes excellent points about its influence. It contains, after all, several photographs by Fritz Lang, the influential German director who would later create the film Metropolis (1926). And the book's photographs were an influence on the Russian avant-garde artist El Lissitzky, who likened the book's layout to a dramatic film and who used at least one of its photos as the basis for his own work.

Fate would see Mendelsohn returning to the U.S. to settle permanently, but only after his 1933 emigration to England and his years spent in the British Mandate of Palestine (now Israel). Mendelsohn finally immigrated to the U.S. in 1941, settling in San Francisco and establishing his own architectural firm. Four years later, Mendelsohn had the commission for the B'nai Amoona synagogue in St. Louis.

The exhibition features Mendelsohn's preliminary sketches of the synagogue, and it's fascinating to see, in his fluid, energetic strokes, the transformation from a centralized, domed sanctuary to the unprecedented parabolic roof of the final design. Mendelsohn's building complex combines graceful, horizontal masses with the forward spring of that forceful sanctuary. One of the building's most remarkable features is its use of light. The exhibition includes a computer-animated diagram that follows the path of the light shining through the building's clerestory. Mendelsohn's design allows light to become a theme in the sanctuary, a metaphor for redemption, renewal and forward movement.

The former B'nai Amoona synagogue is now home to the Center of Contemporary Arts.
The former B'nai Amoona synagogue is now home to the Center of Contemporary Arts.

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Through March 10
Center of Contemporary Arts

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It's hard to conceive that, at one point, the building almost didn't happen. Construction of Mendelsohn's design was delayed two years while the congregation debated moving farther west. The building was finally completed at its intended location, thanks to the efforts of a handful of congregation administrators. It is to St. Louis' credit that the delay had nothing to do with the modernism of Mendelsohn's design. As the exhibition notes, St. Louis already had a long history of modernist architecture by the time Mendelsohn arrived on the scene, with buildings like the Morton D. May House (1941) in Ladue by Samuel Marx and the Shanley Building (1935) in Clayton by Harris Armstrong. Soon to come were modernist masterworks like the Famous-Barr building in Clayton (1948) and Lambert International Airport (1957), not to mention Saarinen's Gateway Arch.

The brilliance of Mendelsohn's design was not lost when the building was transformed into COCA in 1986. On the contrary, the architect's sensitivity to human scale, metaphor and open planning translate perfectly to a community arts center. The success of COCA is witness to the success of his vision.

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