I’ve recently been to Darmstadt because I had never visited this town before. What I knew before I started was that a part of the town is an Art Deco gesamtkunstwerk* and I assumed that the rest would be nice enough to be worth visiting. The size is just right, a bit more than 140.00 inhabitants, not too small and not to big. It’s located in the land of Hesse, 30 km south of Frankfurt/Main.
No tourist information office in the station, the town is too small. In Germany only big cities have this convenience, in towns it’s in the centre. Normally, I find this annoying, it can happen that when I’ve finally reached it, I’ve already passed a lot of sights without realising it and without having information on them. I needn’t have bothered in Darmstadt, however, as I soon learnt. A woman told me to take any bus or tram I’d find in front of the station, they’d all take me to the Luisenplatz, the town centre.
I was shocked about the monotonous, unimaginative buildings on either side of the street, clearly built in the post-war era to give the people of Darmstadt a place to live, no money for aesthetically pleasing architecture then. I hadn’t informed myself about the destruction Darmstadt underwent during WW2 beforehand, I wanted to get an unbiased impression. It was clear from the first moment that it had been massive. Back home I read on it and learnt that the old city centre was largely destroyed in a British bombing raid on 11th September, 1944, only one house remained completely intact. In fact, 99% of the centre and 78 % of the whole city were destroyed. An estimated 11,000 - 12,500 inhabitants died. Big and important buildings were reconstructed, but only single buildings can be considered ‘sights’ nowadays, there are no ensembles.
The Luisenplatz is the largest square of Darmstadt, too large in my opinion, no cosy downtown feeling here. It’s surrounded by big, plain, post-war buildings and modern ones which don’t look better. It’s the main public transport hub, trams and buses criss-cross it all the time. In the middle of the square stands a 33-metre high column, the Ludwigssäule, commemorating Ludwig I, first Grand Duke of Hesse. It seems to be the meeting point of punks and boozers, already in the afternoon everyone sitting on the steps of the pedestal had a bottle in their hands.
The tourist information office is on the ground floor of the Karstadt (a department store) building. I told the woman in charge that I had planned three to four hours for my visit and asked her where she advised me to go. Not surprisingly, she mentioned the Mathildenhöhe at once, where the aforementioned Art Deco gesamtkunstwerk can be found. She said that after visiting it, I could cross the town and have a look at the ‘Waldspirale’ (Forest Spiral), a residential complex by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser which was built from 1998-2000. His buildings are famous for having no rectangular shapes and every window being different as well as being painted in gaudy colours and a lot of gold.
She said that after going there my time would be up. I asked what I would miss if I left then and from her hesitant reply I concluded that it wasn’t much. She mentioned the Ducal Palace which burnt down to the outer walls in 1944. The faVade was reconstructed to nearly pre-war status and it now houses a historical museum. But I didn‘t want to go to a museum, I wanted to get a feeling for the town.
Off to the Art Deco gesamtkunstwerk then. Bus F took me directly to the stop Mathildenhöhe. ‘Höhe’ means ‘height’ in German, the Mathildenhöhe is a small hill of 180 m, the highest point in Darmstadt. Already in the 19th century the Ducal court had a garden there which was structured as an English landscape garden in 1833. The plane grove stems from that time, too. The area was named after *Mathilde* Karoline Friederike von Wittelsbach, Grand Duke Ludwig III‘s wife.
From 1897 to 1899 a Russian Chapel was built on top of the hill in the style of 16th century Russian churches by the architect Léon N. Benois from St. Petersburg (btw, one of Peter Ustinov‘s granddads). The Russian Tsar Nikolai II, whose wife was a princess from Darmstadt, wanted to have a church for his family and the royal household when on visit. It’s still in use for orthodox services.
Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse, a grandson of Queen Victoria’s, made Darmstadt the second centre of the Art Deco style (the other one was Munich) by inviting seven young artists in 1899 to form an artists’ colony on the Mathildenhöhe. In the first decade of the 20th century he had the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich build an exhibition hall and a building for studios which nowadays houses a museum for art deco artefacts. In 1908 the 48 m high so-called Wedding Tower was finished, also designed by Olbrich, a present of the town of Darmstadt for the Grand Duke to commemorate his wedding. Besides, the artists had the possibility of designing and building houses for themselves and their families. They’re situated in a street running half way between the top of the hill and its foot.
Coming up from the bus stop I first saw the exhibition hall (it’s closed when there is no exhibition). Stepping round the corner and passing a café my eyes were attracted by the glittering golden onion domes of the tiny Russian chapel. I’d have liked to get a closer look of the icons but didn’t dare. A young woman was praying fervently, leaning her head against the icons, even kissing the glass covering them; I felt like an intruder and left. In front of the chapel is a basin which must look nice in summer when filled with water, in the middle of October it was empty. I moved on to the plane grove, the oddest part of the Mathildenhöhe in my opinion. The planes were planted 177 years ago, but they look like bonsai trees. How is it possible to keep them so small over the years? Some period sculptures adorn the grove.
Next I visited the Wedding Tower, I took the lift up to the room at the top which shows some exhibits of the wedding it was built for and from which one has a panoramic view of the town. I saw Hundertwasser’s Waldspirale in the distance and decided not to go there. We’ve got a small Hundertwasser house in a neighbouring town, I know the style and I know that it doesn’t appeal to me much. The tower is not only called Wedding Tower, the town of Darmstadt has its register office there nowadays. One can stop the lift and peep into the room where the ceremony takes place and, on the floor underneath, where the registration takes place.
My final stop was the building formerly housing the studios of the artists, now a museum with art deco exhibits: coloured glass windows, furniture, crockery, cutlery, jewellery, decorative knickknack. I’m not an ardent admirer of the Art Deco style in general, I like some things and would take them home with me at once, others are too decorative for my liking and bordering on kitsch. The (permanent) exhibition is well presented but there are too few artefacts, I expected to see many more. Pity.
When I had soaked up everything there is on the Mathildenhöhe, I asked the woman at the counter of the museum what else she’d advise me to see. She mentioned the Rose Heights, another English landscape garden nearby. I asked her what she thought I could do there in autumn when all the roses had withered. She said, "Well, you could shuffle through the dry autumn leaves." Funny, the Darmstädters.
So back by bus to the Luisenplatz. On the way we passed a big, yellow, classical looking building with columns flanking the entrance. My leaflet informed me that this was the former Court Theatre from 1819 which, after complete destruction and renovation, was reopened as the House of History. "A sight no-one should miss is the magnificent foyer, restored in the style of the 1830s". I didn’t go back, however, I had seen the Mathildenhöhe and the rest of Darmstadt didn’t appeal to me. After a cappuccino on the Luisenplatz I went back to the station a bit earlier than I had intended.
I’m not an architect or urbanologist, I don’t have to come up with a design for Darmstadt, but I know that it’s possible for towns that were severely bombed during WW2 to look nice nowadays, more than half a century after the end of the war.
*gesamtkunstwerk = the German term is also used in English. Possible translations are: complete artwork/artistic synthesis