Weizmann was a man with a big vision and in commissioning Erich Mendelsohn he found a man who could interpret that vision and make it his own
Dr Chaim Weizmann and his wife Dr Vera wanted to build a unique family house in Rehovot, a place founded by the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob. Weizmann a successful industrialist would later become the first President of Israel and who better to ask to design an important house than famed German Architect, Erich Mendelsohn, a man who had already achieved huge success in Germany and was known across Europe. Mendelsohn also ticked the box of having a genuine interest in Zionism, having already visited British Mandate Palestine in 1922.
Mendelsohn, born in Allenstein, East Prussia into a modestly comfortable Jewish family gained his degree in architecture in Munich in 1912, perhaps understanding his later experiments in Expressionist Architecture came from hanging out with the likes of Klee, Kandinsky and Franz Marc in pre World War 1 Munich. Mendelsohn also painted and found employment as a set designer and painter. During the war, Mendelsohn served on the Western and Russian fronts as an engineer. Returning home he set up a practice which didn’t just blossom, it became a powerhouse, the world’s busiest modernist practice. By now he was moving in illustrious circles, clients included publisher and German retail magnet Salman. Z. Schocken, for whom he had designed department stores with beautiful features such as sweeping staircases, a signature familiar to fans of De La Warr Pavillion and the interior of the Weizmann House. A friendship was formed with Albert Einstein whose mathematical equations were interpreted by the architect in his 1921 Einstein’s Tower in Potsdam.
When Hitler came to power everything stopped abruptly for Mendelsohn fearing all that was in reality to unfold, he quickly left Germany, forced to abandon his practice to become a refugee from his own land. His client Salman Schocken left Germany in December 1933.
In a very changed world Schocken, Mendelsohn and Chaim Weizmann found their lives intertwined in mid-’30s Britain. Weizmann was often in London (later losing his son in WW2 who flew with the RAF), Salman Schocken by now had established himself (never fully settling emotionally) in Jerusalem, and was a regular visitor to London.
Mendelsohn didn’t have to start all over again, however, he was reliant on being offered opportunities and Serge Chermayeff did just that, inviting Mendelsohn to join him in his London practice, the pair opened an office on Old Oxford Street, London which operated until 1936. Chermayeff and Mendelsohn needed to beat off stiff competition competing with the likes of Marcel Breuer to win the competition to design and build De La Warr Pavillion for Earl De La Warr on the English coast.
Meeting in the safety of London triggered a renewal of old contacts and led to Mendelsohn’s first commission in British Mandate Palestine, to build a home for Weizmann and a home for Salman Schocken and a library in Jerusalem to house Schocken’s famed collection of early Hebrew manuscripts, his magnificent collection of books by Kafka and priceless books which were rescued and removed intact before the Nazis could plunder and destroy them. It made perfect sense by 1936 for Mendelsohn to open an office in Jerusalem.
Mendelsohn’s vision for Weizmann was to build a house reminiscent of a ship at sea, no mean feat in landlocked Rehovot. His task was to interpret Weizmann’s desire for a family home and Weizman’s wife Dr Vera Weizmann’s vision for something on a grand scale, Mendelsohn saw the project differently, he knew this house needed to be a presidential home suitable to welcome guests from around the world. What he achieved was to create an iconic International Style house with a vigorous nod to Mediterranean homes.
Mendelsohn relished the project and said he wanted to
“construct a building which would be Oriental to such an extent as to make a European feel at home in it.”
The house in Rehovot was completed in 1937, its location was purposefully close to the Sieff Institute which Dr Weizmann, an industrial chemist by training, had founded in 1934, today it has developed into the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science.
Other Mendelsohn commissions in Palestine included Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, the Anglo-Palestine Bank in Jerusalem and the Rambam Hospital in Haifa. Mendelsohn relocated to Jerusalem in 1938 later moving to America in Spring 1941, to help with the war effort and to teach at Berkeley. He remained in the US until his death in San Francisco in 1953.
In 2017 by Israeli Architect, Tal Eyal, whose Tel Aviv firm specializes in historical conservation, carried out detailed renovations. Eyal worked closely with Yad Chaim Weizmann Archives, which holds the original correspondence, telegrams and bills connected to the planning and construction of the house.
Israeli Architect Tal Eyal noted
“the house’s surrounding gardens were designed with a unique topography of terraces reminiscent of waves. The water theme is echoed in the estate’s mirror-like pool reflecting the home’s central tower, and which–in the current renovation—was restored to its original glory while its foundation was raised in compliance with modern safety standards. The original plaster used to build the house was reproduced as part of the conservation process, creating a renewed façade that closely matches historical photos.”
Today the beautiful house which is of important architectural significance has become part of IconicHouses.org
With thanks to Gizel Maimon and Yael Edelman of the Weizmann Archive and Weizmann Institute of Science for showing Greyscape this beautiful house and sharing their extensive knowledge of the Weizmann House, Chaim Weizmann and Erich Mendelsohn.
Find out more about visiting the Weizmann House http://www.chaimweizmann.org.il/