St. Louis Beacon
By Robert W. Duffy, Beacon Associate Editor
Posted 9:30 am Fri., 11.11.11
INCESSANT VISIONS: LETTERS FROM AN ARCHITECT
Soon after the end of the World War II, in what must be regarded as an act not only of optimism but of defiant courage, members of Congregation B'nai Amoona in St. Louis commissioned the great architect Erich Mendelsohn to design a synagogue for them.
A Jew, an artist and an intellectual, Mendelsohn fled Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom and even Palestine to escape almost certain death by the Nazis. He ended up in 1945 in America. He settled in San Francisco, where he died in 1953.
The connection between the St. Louis congregation and him was Erwin V. Weichmann. As a young architect, Mendelsohn had designed a store for him, in what was then Silesia.
When the time came to build a new house of worship for B'nai Amoona - the children of faith - Weichmann (who changed his name to Winston) suggested Mendelsohn. Although the synagogue's members did not universally embrace the choice, we must thank those who approved of this radically modern building. Their legacy is the building at 524 Trinity Avenue in University City.
On Sunday (Nov. 13) at 3 p.m., in a marvelously appropriate selection, a movie called "Incessant Visions" will be shown in the synagogue, now art center, building. The visionary founders of the Center of Cultural Arts (COCA) saved the edifice, unmistakably Mendelsohnian, from probable destruction. It has been well used as a temple of learning and a vessel of the arts.
The movie is a braid of three complex skeins: architecture, culture and personal biography. The latter is eloquently, poignantly addressed in the autobiographical words of Mendelsohn's wife, the beautiful, exquisitely articulate cellist Louise Maas Mendelsohn, and through letters written by her and Mendelsohn.
The culture - well, the culture of Europe in the mid-20th century, especially as it affected intellectuals, avant-garde artists and Jews - is always and ever with us.
Mendelsohn's buildings, and his drawings and his resolute commitment to the spirit and the manifestation of the new, give definition to the word genius.
Giants of architecture tend toward grandiosity; forever, it seems, they regard their individual visions as the ones that will reinvent, purify, glorify and bring beauty and impose rationality on the chaos that distinguishes our world. Mendelsohn was no exception. As Louise Mendelsohn explains, he wanted to control everything he touched, including her. He was, of course, confounded constantly in ways both trivial and cataclysmic.
"Incessant Visions," both the title of the movie and a profound condition of Mendelsohn's existence, is an affecting and telling documentary, a story of bravery, genius, infidelity, triumphs and tragedy.
I hope many will make time for Duki Dror's fine picture. Once you see the show, you may wonder why he did not include the B'nai Amoona-COCA building is in the film. My guess is because, in the inventory of works by Mendelsohn, it is problematical. His "incessant vision" of it was on a Missouri hillside rather than an urban street corner.
No matter. B'nai Amoona-COCA survives, and remains to enrich our regional treasury. The film provides a sweeping look at many other Mendelsohn buildings standing and lost. Filmed through a sheer veil of melancholy, it accomplishes what art is meant to, and that is to touch our souls and animate our intellects, while revealing to us worlds that for good and ill surround us and exist as well within ourselves.