Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Werner Durth: Historical and modern architecture in Darmstadt

Located at the junction between the Rhine valley and the Odenwald range, the castle was the heart of the “Darmundestat” settlement, which was made a city in 1330. It originally spread out east on hilly ground to sprawl into the Rhine plain in the 18th century. While today the palace across the market square with town hall and parish church presents the style changes throughout the periods like an open-air museum, you can admire further representative buildings of the land­­graves, from the hunting lodge Kranichstein in the north to the Orangery in the south, charmingly nestled in gardens and parks.


With the appointment of Louis I as Grand Duke and the expansion of his dominion, Darmstadt gained in impor­­t­­ance from 1806. The Ludwigssäule monument on the main square Luisenplatz, designed by master builder Georg Moller, the classicistic theatre near the Herrngarten, now­­adays the public record office, as well as the St. Ludwig church with its imposing dome at Wilhelminenplatz are memorable testimonials of the expansion of the ducal seat. During the course of the following centuries, the progressing industrialization, new transport infrastruc­ture, Gründerzeit residential quarters with opulent façade ornamentation, and finally also the new buildings of the technical university gave Darmstadt the character of a big city. The construction of the state museum in 1906 and of the main station from 1907 laid down telling markers for the emergence into modernity, whose way had meanwhile been paved elsewhere already with provokingly unconventional buildings.
To promote the furniture industry and arti­­san crafts of Hesse, Grand Duke Ernest Louis founded the artist colony in 1898, which in 1901 created an international stir with the exhibition “A Document of German Art”. The houses and artist’s workshop designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich and ascribed to the art nouveau in the Mathildenhöhe district attracted visitors from around the world. Here, they discovered not the latest trends in architecture, but, down to the furnishings and cutlery, the vision of a new home décor and way of life. In the following years, the ensemble was complemented by a plane tree grove, Russian Chapel and other buildings. Since the Hessian state exhibition of 1908, the city’s crown, the Hochzeitsturm (wedding tower), also designed by Olbrich, has become its distinguishing mark throughout the world. Thanks to the Duke’s initiative as well as to the still-potent tourist attraction effect ex­­erted by this artistic synthesis of artists such as Camillo Albinmüller, Peter Behrens, Bernhard Hötger, Ludwig Habich and Olbrich, Darmstadt is considered to be the centre of the European life reform movement around 1900.


After World War II and the devastating night-time fire of September 1944, the city was a field of rubble and the old town with its half-timbered houses burnt down to their foundations.
It took years of reconstruction for the city to regain shape. Historically significant buildings such as the palace, town hall, parish church, state museum as well as numerous other buildings were rebuilt. Parts of the former old town were rebuilt as residential quarters and a commercial centre in simple styles, another part was allocated to the new construction of the technical university giving it the opportunity to expand towards the city centre. Distinctive squares, streets and parks were preserved, allowing us still today to recognize the different periods in not only the city layout but also its significant buildings, despite that deep gash in the city’s history.

In commemoration of the exhibition of 1901, internationally renowned architects were commissioned in 1951 with designing “master buildings”, some of which were realized: Otto Bartning’s women’s hospital at Bismarck­straße, Ernst Neufert’s residential complex for singles in the Mathildenhöhe district, Hans Schwippert’s Georg Büchner School at the Lichtwiese campus, and Max Taut’s Ludwig Georgs Gymnasium in the city centre are nowadays still counted among icons of post-war modernity as well as other benchmark-setting reconstruction-era buildings such as the art gallery at Rheinstraße or the Merck House on the Luisenplatz, both designed by Theo Pabst.


From 1960, the new urban planning principle of “urbanity through density” led to college structures such as the administration building of the technical university (TH), whose large foyer documented the self-representation of the technical university as an open university in the “City of Science” at the beginning of the 21st century. That new ensemble at the Herrngarten was complemented by the extravagant science and congress centre, whose spectacular shape stands out prominently in a row of single structures east of the palace and which, surrounded by open space, marks the Erich Ollenhauer Promenade as a prelude to the Mathildenhöhe district. In the wake of growing competition between cities and of the urban redevelopment of the last decades of the 20th century, the city centre and cultural significance of Darmstadt was bolstered by the Luisencenter and the newly constructed state theatre, which is currently set in a very attractive surrounding after the Georg Büchner square was redeveloped, renovated, and given a new access.

However, the city’s quality of life and appearance have also been significantly influenced by the numerous housing developments built during recent decades, including the houses in the Neu-Kranichstein estate, which were residential construction experiments.


The quarter which emerged on the grounds of the former slaughterhouse, north of the Rhönring, is also architec­turally noteworthy, complemented by the picturesque residential complex “Waldspirale”, built after sketches by Viennese artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and whose residential tower and gilded cupola bestow a conspicuous reverence upon the Russian Chapel. Further­­more, new urban perspectives are opened up with plans for the conversion and modernization of the barracks and settlements set up by the former US occupation authorities.

Evidently, Darmstadt continually offers new discoveries and surprises to visitors with an interest in building culture exploring the city’s history. However, your attention should not be solely devoted to the buildings, but also to the diversely appealing landscapes: on the way from the Rhine valley through the city to the Mathildenhöhe, through the Löwentor portal over the Rosenhöhe up to the Oberfeld expanse between the hills of the Odenwald.


WD_01_2008Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. h.c. Werner Durth is a German architect, sociologist and architecture historian. He is a professor of history, theory and architecture at the architecture faculty of the Technical University of Darmstadt. He studied architecture and urban planning as well as sociology and philosophy. Werner Durth has been awarded several prizes, including the Schelling Architecture Prize for architectural historiography as well as the Fritz Schumacher Prize for his lifetime achievements.