Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt represents the architectural and artistical transition from Art Noveau to Modernism.
The artist colony was founded in 1899 by Ernst Ludwig, the Grand Duke of Hesse, and existed until 1914. As patron he invited famous designers and architects to Darmstadt, including Joseph Maria Olbrich and Peter Behrens. The Mathildenhöhe complex, divided across 2 locations, includes the exhibition buildings, the wedding tower, a plane grove with sculptures and pavillons, and several master houses.
Map of Mathildenhöhe DarmstadtLoad map
This place is right up UNESCO's street, so if the inscription process takes place this year, I should imagine this will almost certainly be successfully inscribed.
It was also a lot more up my street than I expected. Although this is a relatively small area, we enjoyed strolling amongst the exhibition halls, gardens etc, even though it only lasted around 20 minutes!! Sadly the main exhibition hall attached to the wedding tower is currently undergoing major restoration work, so is covered in scaffolding. I liked the Swan Temple particularly.
My favourite part though was the artists houses. I understand that most are now in private hands, but it would be great if the opportunity arose, for at least one of them to be accessible to the public. Again Olbrich House is being restored so the exterior tilework is not really visible at this time. I liked all the houses but the standout one for me is the Behrens House.
Overall I didn't expect the colony to feel so 'complete', so obviously different from its surroundings, and so easy to interpret. The design ideals represented here are very well preserved in the architecture, and remain authentic despite the disruptions of recent history.
Germany is working towards a 2020 nomination for the Artists' Colony Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt. This is a Gesamtkunstwerk of buildings, gardens and works of art, created during the years 1901-1914 over the course of four exhibitions. The art-loving Hessian Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig was the patron for the notable Jugendstil artists that were part of this community.
I had never been to Darmstadt before, and I visited it for a night and a morning on my return from the Ice Age Art Caves. My first impression was that of a rather dull city. It is large enough though to have its cosmopolitan edges – I ate at a Peruvian restaurant on Saturday and a Persian one on Sunday right after visiting Mathildenhöhe (the recommended Shiraz which is within walking distance). To find a site like the Artists’ Colony in a city like this still is a real surprise.
Mathildenhöhe is signposted all over Darmstadt. It’s a small quarter just northeast of the city center. The core consists of a block with the Wedding Tower and the Exhibition Building, with the emblematic Russian Orthodox Chapel and the Platanenhain (sycamore grove) in front of it. Around this cluster lie a number of houses created for and by the artists. It has the general atmosphere of a public park, and many locals were also out for a Sunday stroll. People also were entering the Russian Chapel to pray. The chapel has no direct link to the Artists' Colony but it greatly adds to the ensemble. I wonder how they will handle it in the nomination.
The Wedding Tower is the main landmark of the area. For Darmstadt residents it is still possible to marry at this location. I went up to the top floor but it is not really worth it.
I was just whiling my time away (also did a double loop around the sycamore grove), as the Museum “Künstlerkolonie” only opens at 11 am. This museum is the best introduction to the works of interior decoration of this group of artists. The museum is located in the former Ernst Ludwig House, which was built as a common atelier. The house has a wonderfully opulent entrance (see first photo above), although one now enters the museum from the back. Unfortunately none of the artists’ houses are open to visitors, so this is your best bet to see their furnishings. The number of exhibits at the museum isn't huge. I know my Art History friends would love what's on display, but I found the whole setting a bit cold and stiff.
The main Exhibition building is under construction at the moment. Banners at the surrounding fences display the text “Welterbe werden!” - their undeniable goal is the upcoming World Heritage nomination. When the renovations are ready and a glossy yet thorough nomination file has been written, this will be a shoo-in for World Heritage status. There’s a coherent story to tell, and most of the original buildings are still there although there was heavy damage in World War II. And for us World Heritage Travellers it is a much more worthwhile site to visit than the similar Stoclet Palace, which seems to remain off-limits indefinitely.
The Mathildenhöhe Artists' Colony is one of the most promising candidates on the new German tentative list, and it is also a site which I would like to see inscribed. The artists' colony was founded in 1899 by the Grand Duke of Hesse to stimulate industry and crafts with innovative ideas. Until the beginning of World War I, several artists of the Art Nouveau showed in four exhibitions their ideas of architecture, design and visual arts. In some ways, the Mathildenhöhe colony represents the transition between Art Nouveau and Modernism. The most influential artists in Darmstadt were the Austrian architect Joseph Maria Olbrich, who had planned most of the buildings, and Peter Behrens, best known for his later industrial buildings and design.
The Mathildenhöhe is a hill close to the city centre, the proposed area comprises the permanent buildings of the four exhibitions, particularly the two exhibition halls and the artists' houses. But it also includes small structures such as sculptures, a water basin, a pavillon. The most striking building is the Wedding Tower, the landmark of Darmstadt.
I used to live near Darmstadt and I have visited the artists' colony many times. I agree with Assif, that it is a nice place to spend a Sunday afternoon. The buildings are very well described in his review below, thus just a few additional comments:
The Orthodox Church was built shortly before the artists began their work, and although it was constructed in the style of Russian churches of the 16th century, it harmonizes well with the whole ensemble in my opinion.
I would also recommend to visit the collection of furniture, tableware, jewellery etc. in the first exhibition hall. You'll get an impression of the broad spectrum of the artists and their ambition to influence almost all aspects of art and modern life.
Six out of eight artists' houses have been preserved largely in their original state. I like best the Behrens house, it was his first work as an architect. Currently, none of them is open to the public. Some are in private property, but others are owned by the city of Darmstadt and are currently used by cultural institutions. There are plans to open one or two of them to the public in the future.
A visit to the artists' colony can be easily combined with a trip to the Messel pit, the distance between the two sites is only eight kilometres. And a nice addition to both is a visit of the Hessisches Landesmuseum in the city centre. The museum shows among other things numerous fossils from the Messel pit and a large Art Nouveau collection, not only by artists of the Mathildenhöhe colony.
We have already got a connection "Art colonies", however, Mathildenhöhe in Darmstadt will probably become the first site the OUV of which lies in its function as such, unless Cubanacan makes it on the list before. Mathildenhöhe is probably one of the first modern art colonies and among the most famous ones. It was built ex nihilo in the beginning of the 20th century and conceived as a innovative art colony. The artists were also encouraged to build their villas at the site.
Despite grave destruction during WWII the site survived and makes an authentic impression, although some of the original buildings no longer stand. The complex includes a fountain, a sculpture garden, the Orthodox church, the iconic Nuptial Tower, the two exhibition halls and the nearby artists villas. Living next to Frankfurt, Mathildenhöhe makes an easy day trip by public transport and I spent several Sundays enjoying it. Some comments on the visit:
The Orthodox church: It seems to have very beautiful interior, but it is still an active church. Each Sunday I came a mass was underway and I could not enter the building. It is not too big and it seems it attracts numerous prayers from the entire area, so even a short glimpse proved impossible through the crowds blocking the entry.
The Nuptial Tower: Do not buy the (cheap) tickets for visiting the tower. Three impressive rooms are featured in the tower. The first is the hallway covered with beautiful mosaics. It can be accessed without a ticket. Then there are two ceremonial rooms upstairs that are covered with impressive frescoes. The Nuptial Room cannot be visited unless you are invited to one of the current weddings held there. The Prince's Room is similarly covered with frescoes. These can only be admired through the door, which is also located in such a way the blocks the view for most of the room. So unfortunately, when visiting the Nuptial Tower the only thing you get to see is a panorama of the area at the top of the tower, which was a great disappointment to me.
The Exhibition Halls: The first exhibition hall is now used to house the permanent collection that includes works by the historical local artists. It is very worthwhile to visit. The original decorative entry to this building is now on its back side, so do not miss it. The second larger exhibition hall is now used to house changing exhibitions of contemporary art. You can visit its beautiful interior without a ticket if you to the cafe there. Using this building for contemporary art is justified by keeping the original purpose of the art colony alife. On the other hand, the Mathildenhöhe Foundation prides itself in possessing the largest collection of Art Nouveau worldwide. Only a fracture of this collection can be exhibited at the first exhibition hall. Therefore, I find it regrettable that the second hall is not used to display more of the original collection. To remedy this situation a third modern hall is planned.
Artists Villas: It is worthwhile to admire these villas from the outside. Unfortunately, due to the fact they are still used as private residences it is impossible to visit the interior unless happen to come at the annual open day.
Following in my travel plans on Els footprints, I ventured to Darmstadt on the same weekend as my visit to the Ice Age Caves.
During my visit the Mathildenhöhe was fairly busy with plenty of tourist groups roaming the area. Several parts of the site were closed and undergoing renovations. In addition, the wedding tower was closed for … weddings. Still, I feel I managed to get a good look.
On the one hand side I get Els overall point. This is a consistent ensemble of Jugendstil buildings. The museum on site provides a great overview of the art objects created in the artist's colony. And while several of the buildings are off limits, you still get to see a lot of the Jugendstil interior design by visiting the museum and the wedding tower.
On the other hand side I left the site having taken less than ten pictures during my visit, all of them mediocre at best. Now, admittedly, I wasn't in the best possible shape. During the previous night there had been an oversupply of drinks and an undersupply of sleep. Still, I really tried to find a nice shot on a sunny day with blue skies and couldn't.
Part of it was due to the ongoing repair works of the site. In preparation for the world heritage site bid, the authorities have started renovating several of the buildings. Especially the artist houses seem in dire need of some construction work. Knowing Germany in a few years this will look shiny and new.
Part of it, though, was due to the ensemble not working for me. The outside space and the landscape architecture didn't feel nice or organic. The architecture itself (not the interior design) still felt kind of stuck in the past. Take away the fancy decorations and the wedding tower is a generic brick tower. What the Bauhaus movement did afterwards feels like a way more consequential step in architecture. Indeed, the Russian chapel on the premise goes to show that a lot of the ideas already existed as it blends in perfectly with the Jugendstil surroundings.
Darmstadt can be reached by train from Frankfurt or Heidelberg. Via Frankfurt you are connected to all of Germany by train or plane. Darmstadt Hauptbahnhof is located on the western side of the city while Mathildenhöhe is on the eastern side, so it's a bit of a walk (40min). Alternatively, you can just take a bus or tram. Every 15min or so there is a direct connection to the Mathildenhöhe. Alternatively, take a bus/tram to Schloss and walk from there.
While You Are There
Darmstadt was a residence town and some of its former glory still shows. A terrible bomb raid in 1944 destroyed most of the old town. Today Darmstadt is probably best known for it's technical university that you find covering large swaths of the city area.
Darmstadt is also the hub to get to Grube Messel. Rather frequent buses can take you there. A 45min train ride to the south lies Kloster Lorsch (you have to change trains once in Bensheim). From Lorsch you can continue along the Bergstraße to Heidelberg. Heidelberg, albeit not making the list, is still a pleasant and popular tourist destination.
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