I should have been the last person to suggest writing about Darmstadt. I grew up there and nothing seemed better than getting away.
Yet when people say, “Darmstadt, why should I go there”, I get the urge to put the picture straight and it needs a lot of straigthening, because physically Darmstadt was completely destroyed during a “Firestorm” attack in September 1944 and the scarring becomes evident, when looking at old pictures of the former “Residenzstadt” and comparing it to what we have to today. Only a few of the buildings that remind of its former glory of “Residenzstadt” (City of residence/Royal Seat) to the Grand Dukes of Hessen were rebuilt and some of the original gems are hidden away on the Marienhöhe, where a Künstlerkolonie (colony for artists) was created and housed some of the finest artists representing “Jugendstil” (Art Nouveau, Liberty Art) in Germany around 1900. The Russian chapel on the same premises reminds us of the close connections Darmstadt had to both the British and Russian Royal Families. Amongst old photos you might find one of Queen Victoria visiting. But looking at its town centre and several horrendous architectural mistakes of the sixities, seventies and eighties (and I am not sure about the most recent additions) it would be hard to believe that once it was also the capitol of earlier versions of Hessen.
Nowadays its fame is a secret tip. Would you know that “Darmstadtium” has been discovered here, or that is a renowned centre for “Neue Musik“, that it has Universities, its own Theatre and Opera and that ESOC – the European Space Operations Centre has been here since 1967. The list does not end here.
My days out in town included walking through the Hessische Landesmuseum (currently being renovated), whose exhibits were entirely free then (much appreciated by poor students that needed a place to meet which was dry, warm and interesting even on the worst days, which were more likely than not). This was the place were my great affection for everything Jugendstil was born. The swinging forms of the furniture, the paintings and jewellery collected and displayed drew me to visit them over and over again. I would dream of one day sitting at such a piece of art, feels its smoothness and bathe my eyes in the harmony of the display.
Right next to the Museum is the former Theatre. For many years it housed a little cellar theatre and it was where I went for my first ballet classes. It was cold, drafty and I was mightily impressed by the perfectly round hole above the sink of the bathroom, which I was convinced was caused by a bomb. Then for many years it was declared unsafe and much later it was renovated and turned into an archive.
I remember walking through an exhibit of Jugendstil posters on the Mathildenhöhe and afterwards enjoying a piece of Käsekuchen in the adjoining Café. Can life be any better. If you ever get a letter from Darmstadt make a note of the ink stamp on top of your stamp. The shape might remind you of a hand and it is the outline of the “Hochzeitsturm” (Marriage Tower) or more endearingly “Fünf Finger Turm” (Five Finger Tower).
As a child I was part of a troupe of pre-school ballet dancers that would participate in various theatre productions (in the new theatre – don´t ask me what that looks like!). I remember representing a sack of gold in the Story Baba Yaga or jumping on the stage in Antigone. Other evenings had me in the audience watching a friend of my parents singing “Die verkaufte Braut”.
Later I performed at a local Jazzclub, which is housed in a Gewölbekeller, and heard about the archive dedicated to Jazz and held in Darmstadt. Darmstadt has a knack for archives it seems, even if they don`t always keep them, like the one that was created for the Bauhaus movement. Architecture certainly always had a playing field in Darmstadt and some of it it can be proud of like the Hundertwasser Haus called the Waldspirale, with is playful round shapes and rainbow colors that look fantastic from the outside, although I don´t want to imagine what it is like to furnish an appartment that lacks straight walls in a world in which straight is King.
Many dedicated and talented individuals got together in various “Vereine” Clubs to restore Music, Art and Science to the high standards that it had aspired to in Darmstadt before WWII. Being unaware of this as a teenager, I would frequently lament the provinciality and lack of opportunities of our little town.
Some time has gone by since I lived there and Darmstadt, seen from the distance, has surprised me again and again. At the last bookfair in Frankfurt I was drawn to the display of print machines of the old style. When speaking to one of the exhibitors he mentioned that they now housed all these machines in a Museum in Darmstadt. Due to the vast technological changes in the field, the many print houses in Darmstadt have either closed or are ridding themselves of the old machines, but former printers have volunteered to maintain the machines for the Museum and prevent the knowledge of the art being lost, in the hopes that people like me will realize that we need to preserve “real” printing for the beauty it transmits in the final printed book.
Another time I spoke to a well established italian musician during a stay in Italy, who mentioned that he had just returned from Darmstadt, where he had attended the “Neue Musik Tage”. Wander over the “Alte Friedhof” and you will be surprised by names of composers and writers, not only vaguely familiar. You speak to Engineers from other countries and they will praise the research at the University and Institutes of Darmstadt. Architects are aware of the Hundertwasser House and the Marienhöhe enchants countless tourists year by year with its unexpected beauty and those are only the “points of interest” I have heard of and discovered for myself over the years. Who knows what else is hidden beneath the surface of this book, always in the writing?
I learned that I should never judge a book by the cover.
More great links:
http://www.hlmd.de/w3.php?nodeId=300 hessisches landesmuseum