We discovered the work of Harry Rosenthal (1892 Posen - 1966 London) principally in two ways. First, from the architectural critic Julius Posner, who wrote that Rosenthal was one of the four most important Jewish architects practicing in Berlin in the twenties before their exile – along with Erich Mendelsohn, Arthur Korn, and Alfred Gellhorn. That got us to look more carefully into his work (along with the others). We sought out the few heavily altered remnants that exist in Berlin. Then, we devoured Sylvia Claus’s 2006 book Harry Rosenthal – Architekt und Designer in Deutschland, Palästina, Großbritannien, which is based on research done at Rosenthal’s archives at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. When we learned that Rosenthal had been asked in 1928 to present work at an exhibition in Düsseldorf very much like the current AD New Perspectives show where you now stand, we understood that we could honor his deserving memory by building upon his ideas that resonated so clearly with us – work that is colorful, surprising, well- planned, modern, critical, funny, playful, silly, and full of contrasts.
Rosenthal was well-known in his day; broadly published in the French and German Press as a progressive voice, especially for his colorful interiors and furniture, but also for his white villas which fit neatly as part of the Neue Bauen. There are many reasons for why his name is not more familiar today: much of his work did not survive the war, and - of course - his German career was cut short because he was Jewish. When he went into exile in Palestine, there was little need for his sophisticated interiors on the frugal settlements. He was never able to re- establish his career in wartime England or afterwards because there, he was considered a German national. Also, he favored expensive materials and fine hand craftsmanship while the architects of this period who were championed by historians preferred inexpensive industrial and functionalist solutions. Besides, the history of the interior has never been taken as seriously by architectural historians as exteriors.
In Düsseldorf, in 1928, Rosenthal exhibited Wohnzimmer für ein berufstätiges Ehepaar (Living Room for a Working Couple) for a building exposition of interiors - a rival to the 1925 Parisian Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs from which German artists had been excluded because of their involvement in the First World War. For the show, Rosenthal presented a setting for a working couple – extremely progressive in 1928 – which was a sort of manifesto for the modern as an explicit critique of a similar stuffy, formal setting for the French aristocracy - such as at the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France (1907-12). He took the same built-in and freestanding furniture out of the old-fashioned, Rococo-revival, backwardslooking aristocratic setting – and modernized it – simplifying it, democratizing it, removing its heavy and anachronistic gilded ornament – and re-presenting it as something clean, egalitarian, progressive, inclusive, available – and modern.
Two completed projects from early in Rosenthal’s career made an enormous splash at the time: the Landhaus Bab, Berlin- Wilmersdorf, (1923-25) and the Haus Ernst Rosenthal (1923-25), built for his brother. The Haus Ernst Rosenthal was the first use of flat roof for a villa in Berlin - and the very public controversy it caused with building officials was certainly noted by his most progressive colleagues. The plasticity of the massing shows a composition of cubes - playing with the materiality of brick and the flatness of plaster planes - perhaps influenced by Wright’s Unity Temple of 1905 or more likely, the Dutch architects who were so influenced by Wright...also, a bit of Loos in the interior? The expressionist house Landhaus Bab was praised by one critic from the period as “born entirely of the feeling of the present.” Rosenthal likely adapted the jagged zigzag gable decoration from Hans Poelzig’s Luban factory of 1912 with which he would have been familiar since it was nearby Rosenthal’s childhood home. The interior of the Landhaus Bab brought Rosenthal particular notoriety - it was especially colorful and filled with wall panels, built-in furniture, and bespoke loose furnishings made from a variety of exotic wood veneers, all in a “modern” idiom.
For his residential interiors, Rosenthal created compositions that balance an interplay between the architectural shell, the built-in, and the freestanding. Rosenthal was among the first modernists to adapt this traditional Bourgeois approach - especially in Germany - and accounted for his widespread popularity in the Parisian design press of the time. Rosenthal approached the project of the interior as a holistic design problem, subordinating all of the furnishings to the design idea derived from the architecture of the room - whether it was in one of his freestanding villas where he controlled all the design or in an apartment renovation where he responded to found conditions. Among his curious ideas was to allow materials from furniture extend to walls and floors.
Haus Salzbrunn, Berlin-Schmargendorf, 1928-29. The best pre- served of Rosenthal’s work is the apartments on Salzbrunner Straße in Wilmersdorf. It is an otherwise restrained work of the Neue Sachlichkeit - but for the expressive sweeping balconies on the street side that distinguish the block. All the apartments had generous floor plans of 150-250 square meters. Writing in 1930, Rosenthal wrote, “The development of modern architecture in the last ten years is characterized by the victory of the modern direction. The winning ‘modern’ idea here was the objectivity abstracting from all decorative accessories, which, if only correctly derived from the building task at hand, led to designs full of character.”
Two Berlin villas from the late twenties. Haus Schulze, Berlin- Wilmersdorf, 1927-30; the massing shows the excitement of essential and reduced forms: curved and straight blocks. This was exciting and new and places Rosenthal’s work on parallel with many of his peers who would become more famous. The second project, the Wohnhaus Eisner, Berlin-Dalhem, 1928-29, is a super-plastic composition that reveals differences at every side. The project was selected to represent Rosenthal’s oeuvre on the cover of the a mid-career retrospective in 1930. Such a shame that these projects did not survive the War – Rosenthal would certainly be better know today if they had.
Haus Arnold Zweig, Berlin, 1929-30. This house was built for the writer Arnold Zweig, most famous for his 1927 anti-war novel Der Streit um den Sergeanten Grischa and his long correspondence with Sigmund Freud. The street side shows a sober cube with a single vertical void; the garden side presents a play of grids and cubes that dissolve into pergolas and other garden structures. Most of Rosenthal’s work was destroyed in the War - or greatly diminished by refurbishment, like this house, which is almost unrecognizable today (see photo comparison).
Settler’s Houses, Pardess Hanna, (now Israel), 1933-36. Rosenthal went into exile in Palestine and he built several modernist houses in the settlement of Pardess Hanna, south of Haifa. He brought all the skill of an architect and interior designer working at the top of his game - but he was dissatisfied with the conditions he found and emigrated to Britain. In exile from temperate Germany, Rosenthal had to address a climate that allowed a play of inside and out - and his plans shows the importance of cross ventilation in this new climate. His budgets were very low and his clients had different needs than did his Berlin clientele. In exile, Rosenthal’s houses are plastic plays of solids and voids, insides and outs, influenced especially by his Berlin-based peers Erich Mendelsohn and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.