The German city of Darmstadt rarely makes it onto the tourist route. This is understandable, since from a afar it just looks like your average German industrial town, but upon closer inspection you'll find it's rich in cultural curiosities and sites.
I used to work at the particle accelerator (GSI) located nearby, so I know Darmstadt pretty well. While I lived in Frankfurt, I often travelled to Darmstadt since all my friends from work lived there, which meant I went out in Darmstadt more than in Frankfurt. Even when I moved to Spain, I returned to GSI and Darmstadt on a regular basis for my work, and until I gave up my career in physics, I made at least one or two trips a year.
Darmstadt is a fascinating city and it has most certainly earned its title as "the City of Art and Science."
With two particle accelerators (GSI and the recently constructed FAIR on the same grounds), the German site for the European Space Agency, the industrial centre of the German pharmaceutical industry (with big companies such as Merck basing their main plants here), it's easy to see why Darmstadt has earned it's scientific wings. Not to mention the city has a chemical element named after it: Darmstadtium (atomic number 110, which was discovered in GSI in 1994).
On the arts side, Darmstadt is also home to the former Artists' Colony, Mathildenhöhe. Artists from the German Jugendstil movement both lived and worked in this community. The artists were financed by patrons while they worked together with other members of the collective. Darmstadt Artists' Colony is not just a movement in the history of German Jugendstil, but it also refers to the modernist buildings left behind. From the exhibition hall to the houses artists houses, Mathildenhöhe's modernist architecture has put Darmstadt on Europe's map of art nouveau cities.
Darmstadt's avant-garde doesn't stop there. Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser's Waldpirale is also hidden away in this small, industrial city.
Darmstadt might have earned its title as the city of art and culture, so what specifically should you see?
If you're staying in nearby Frankfurt, then Darmstadt is just a short train ride away. If you're looking to get out of the city and away from Mainhatten's high-rises, it makes a nice escape. Or, if you're travelling down towards Heidelberg, Darmstadt is a great place to break the journey.
Visiting the center of Darmstadt will take you to the area surrounding Luisenplatz. This is the largest square in the city, and it's also the central hub for any public transportation. You'll find many shops and restaurants in this pedestrianised area, but it's also easy to navigate the city from here.
Many of the monuments are walking distance from Luisenplatz, such as the ducal palace of Darmstadt. This was once the palatial residence of the counts of Hesse-Darmstadt, and then the Grand Dukes of Hesse.
The palace's look stems from its 18th century refurbishment and additions, but the castle itself actually dates back to the 13th century.
Opposite the square is the historic Marktplatz. Facing the front of the ducal palace is the old town hall, which now houses a tavern. The "Ratzkeller" (link in German) serves its own beer (there is a brewery in the basement) and traditional food from the Hessen region. It sports a cosy atmosphere and bags of character, not to mention the high quality food and delicious selection of wheat beers.
The Artists' Colony in Mathildenhöhe is a little out of town, but worth a visit. Here you'll find the iconic five fingered "wedding tower" which has become a symbol of the city. In addition, there is a Russian chapel and a number of the artists' houses in the Jugendstil style.
The colony was founded at the end of the 19th century by the Grand Duke of Hesse, Ernest Ludwig. Mathildenhöhe was created by Ludwig to promote the art scene of the Hessen region, helping to combine trade and art so it would act as an economic stimulus for the land. Artists housed in the colony sought to develop the modern and avant-garde into a way of living and construction.
As a result, Ernest Ludwig brought many of Germany's top Jugendstil artists to live in Darmstadt, such as Peter Behrens, Paul Bürck, Hans Christiansen, Rudolf Bosselt, and more.
A short walk from Mathildenhöhe is Hundertwasser's surreal Walspirale. Hidden away between allotments, concrete block apartments and an Aldi supermarket, this is hardly a prime location.
The Hundertwasser House in Vienna is famous, and always full of tourists. When I visited the Austrian capital it was marked on my list of key things I had to do while I was there. The Hundertwasser House was stunning, a modern-day rival to the modernist buildings of Barcelona, yet the Waldspirale in Darmstadt is even more spectacular. It's downfall is that it's hidden away in Darmstadt's uglier outlying neighbourhoods.
Darmstadt is an attractive destination for those looking to immerse themselves in the German countryside. The nearby Bergstrasse (part of the larger Odenwald), a chain of low mountains that run between Darmstadt and Heidelberg, offers stunning hikes. The rolling mountains of the Odenwald are rich in woodlands, vineyards and are dotted with historic, ruined and romantic castles. The most famous, Castle Frankenstein, is located in Darmstadt's suburbs.
Legend has it Mary Shelly drew inspiration for her novel Frankenstein after a trip to the to the region. Whether this is true or not is another matter.
Looking beneath the surface, Darmstadt has a lot to offer any traveller interested in science, art history or even Gothic literature.
Find more information about Darmstadt here!
This article was originally published in Kunstpedia in August 2012
The curving lines of wrought iron and delicate motifs of Tbilisi’s art nouveau have been forgotten. The “Great Art Nouveau Cities of Europe” conjure up images of Paris, Barcelona, Nancy, Riga and Budapest, with iconic impressions left by Gaudi’s curves or even Paris’s Metropolitan entrances. Tbilisi on the other hand deserves its name on that list, and while the obscure South Caucasian capital is slowly gaining recognition for its Stil Modern architecture – it may be too late to save it.
Georgia has always been a country of crossroads. Its location and history has turned it into a melting point of unique art and architecture that still burns bright today. However, as a former southern colony of the Russian Empire, Tbilisi is a city as European as Paris or Budapest, and in turn, has an architectural history that runs in parallel to the cities of Continental Europe.
The decorative motifs of European art nouveau penetrated Russia and made its way down through the Caucasus into Tbilisi. The integration of modernist architectural design was simply a natural part of the city’s evolution, entering Georgia not only from the north, but also via the Black Sea.
Art nouveau in Georgia flourished, and not only due to Tbilisi’s status as the cultural, political and administrative centre of Transcaucasia, but also from a general interest and disposition towards the style from local professionals and craftsmen. This resulted in numerous buildings springing up around the city that display rare and complex examples of the style. Georgian Stil Modern is eclectic, and perhaps even chaotic in parts. In the Georgian style, standard forms and repeated samples are rejected in favour of creative improvisation.
While the movement’s innovation gave birth to Georgia’s modern architecture, it has become considered an “unimportant” part of the country’s art and architectural history. We have the imposed values of the Soviet Union to thank for that.
This “bourgeois” art form was considered a “crime of ornamentation” and until the end of the Soviet Union these beautiful buildings were left to fall into disrepair and decay.
After the modernist renaissance in Georgia, it wasn’t only the new houses that sprung up around the city that carried the aesthetic, but also cinemas, theatres, shops and even factories integrated the style. Renovations round Tbilisi opted to incorporate these flowing curves into their designs, and the various doors, staircases, balconies and façades with art nouveau details are a testament to its popularity.
Tbilisi’s tragedy lies in the lack of protection and conservation of these monuments, many of which were damaged due to neglect, air and water pollution, and not to mention inadequate maintenance.
A part of this conservation issue is both political and economical. Private houses predating the Bolshevik revolution became state-owned under the Soviet Union. The change of their function as private offices affected the buildings’ looks. Yet even with privatisation of these properties, many owners cannot afford the maintenance and rehabilitation of these buildings.
Some of Tbilisi’s finest examples of art nouveau can still be seen if you take a walk round either the Mtatsminda neighbourhood or the streets surrounding Aghmashenebeli Avenue. This way, you’ll stumble upon beautiful, but overlooked examples.
Their beauty still gazes out through flaking façades, but you have to stop to really look at them. Some of the buildings still retain their original interiors, sporting frescoes, gilded ironwork and small art nouveau details. Many of these buildings are hidden in Tbilisi’s back streets and to see some of the interiors may require some breaking and entering.
The earliest examples of art nouveau in Tbilisi can be found just around Aghmashenebeli Avenue, such as number 4 Vartsikhe Street (renamed Rome street), which was built by architect Simon Kldiashvili. Since academic recognition of the art form arrived late in Georgia, the studies around art nouveau in the city’s architectural history are superficial. It is possible that there may be earlier examples of the style, but this residential house in Vartsikhe Street is perhaps the oldest existing example in the Stil Modern in Tbilisi – dating back to 1902. Its façade is decorated with omega shaped iron-wrought balconies and elaborated with detailed plasterwork. It serves as a unique example and impression of Georgian art nouveau.
Close by on 36 Aghmashenebeli Avenue is a building dating back to 1903. It has original features on both its interior and exterior. I slipped through the back door of a second hand clothes store that offered forbidden entry into the hallway. Here you can see frescoes with scenes from Shota Rustaveli’s “Knight in Panther Skin” – a medieval Georgian poem that is a key to decoding Georgian culture.
The old house on 3a Ia Karagereli Street dates back to 1903, and is an apartment by an unknown architect. It’s a beautiful example lined with coloured tiles and elegant motifs. The brickwork shows through the flaked exterior and this house is a certified example as to why the city needs to restore these buildings.
Up in Mtatsminda, you can find other examples of fading grandeur. Number 12 Daniel Chonkadze Street, designed by architect M. Ohajanov, is a good example. The interior shows some beautiful, fragmented stained glass work that looks down onto an abandoned staircase.
While the issue of the restoration of these buildings has been raised, this brings us to another problem – inappropriate construction and reshaping.
Another concern, which is just as tragic as the disappearance of Tbilisi’s art nouveau monuments, are the examples of their poor renovation. In these cases original features and elements have disappeared under a layer of plaster and paint. Interiors are forgotten and modern inauthentic materials are used in the buildings’ reconstruction.
The Apollo on Aghmashenebeli Avenue is an example of poor restoration. For years this endangered building was a knockdown waiting to happen, but even so, its recent restoration is not the saviour it should have been. Many of its original details and features have been erased rendering the Apollo almost unrecognisable, and easy to just bypass it without knowing it was once something special.
Other such restorations include the TBC Bank on Marjanishvili Street and the National Bank on 3 Giorgi Leonidze Street.
The fight to preserve Tbilisi’s art nouveau heritage continues, in 1997 the “Art Nouveau Preservation Group” and “The Open Society – Georgia” foundations were established, only a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their aim is to raise awareness of the importance of these buildings as well as their protection.
For the moment, damaged buildings that are in critical condition from this era are being destroyed in favour of replacing them with modern structures. Other buildings of the same time period are being subjected to careless and destructive restoration. These monuments are in desperate need of specialists who’ll care for the details and the décor with the respect they deserve.
The art nouveau of Tbilisi is part of our global and cultural heritage. Even the World Monuments Fund has listed Georgia’s modernist buildings as some of the most important and endangered monuments in the world.
One of Europe’s great art nouveau cities is on the brink of extinction, and the tragedy is no one knows it exists.
I would like to give special thanks to Maia Mania for her knowledge and help in my research on Georgian art nouveau.
1. Nestan Tatarashvili, Art Nouveau in Tbilisi: Guidebook, map and routes (2008)
Jennifer is a freelance writer specialising in art, travel & culture. This blog is a melange of her published articles and independent thoughts.