Tag Archives: Darmstadt

Trying to write about Darmstadt

“The Bauhaus you wrote about in your last post reminded me of Darmstadt” Francesca said. “Let´s write about Darmstadt”. 

This time it was my turn to be polite: “Darmstadt, of course …”.

Why should I know anything about Darmstadt?

Maybe, because it is only 35 km away from where I live? Or because it would only take 31 minutes to get there? 

In 15 years I have been there once. The only place I know in Darmstadt is the dirt track at the college sports field. Amongst runners, Darmstadt is quite famous, because one of the best German triathletes, Lothar Leder,  lives in Darmstadt. The local running club and the sports medicine department at Darmstadt University are known to produce good athletes. Therefore, ten years ago, I went to Darmstadt in an attempt to improve my running style.

I had decided on a workshop with a highly acclaimed triathlon coach after I had come second to last in a 10km public run–the last one was 84 years old.

The weekend started with a cardiac fitness check. While everybody else got his or her optimized range of heartbeat for serious running, the computer analysis told me rather to excercise in light walking. Then we hit the dirt track, and I met my fate.

I ran and ran, panting. My blood whooshed and swooshed. My head turned red. Sweat trickled into my eyes. My T-shirt clung to my body. My lungs ached. I ran as fast as never before, only to see the other students pass me twice in four rounds. “We do have special workshops for overweight people”, the coach said, and I decided to erase Darmstadt from my map.

My map shows a lot of blank spots, when it comes to the cities surrounding Frankfurt: Mainz, Gießen, Marburg, Aschaffenburg, Limburg. I have been to London four times, to Marburg (50 km away, a medieveal Fachwerk-gem and home of one of the oldest German universities) … once. 

Germans are proud to be the tourist champions of the world. When it comes to travelling, they ignore the wisdom of Goethe, the most famous German poet, who wrote, three hundred years ago:

Willst du immer weiter schweifen?

Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.

Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen,

Denn das Glück ist immer da.

In English shorthand: Why travel far? Look, and you will find the good things in your neighbourhood. 

Said Goethe, and set out on a year long voyage through Italy, the first “Bildungsreise” or “Grand Tour” in history. This journey and the book he wrote about it started the trend of travelling in Germany. In the 19th century any well-off young man, who wanted to be part of the in-crowd, had to go to Italy. In the 20th century, everybody had to go to the Canary Islands. In the 21st century you fly to New York for Christmas shopping.

Goethe didn´t go to Darmstadt, though he grew up in Frankfurt. But he did go to Offenbach, a city only 10 km  away from Frankfurt. He must have been the only citizen of Frankfurt to do so.

These two cities live in deliberate ignorance of each other. Thus, they recall the times when Germany consisted of  more than 100 little kingdoms and dukedoms – Kleinstaaten. Till the 19th century, each of them minted its own money, ran its own mail system and provided its own transportation system. Every few miles,  travellers had to pass custom controls. Furthermore, they had to get out of the stagecoach and change into a new one. This still happened in the 1990ies between Frankfurt and Offenbach. As an innocent newcomer to Frankfurt, I one day decided to go on  a sightseeing tour to Offenbach. I took the tram saying Offenbach and expected to arrive in Offenbach. But suddenly the tramway stopped in the middle of nowhere and a loudspeaker announced: “Stadtgrenze-city limit”. I had to get out and  wait 15 minutes (to get rid of any Frankfurt germs?). After  buying a new ticket, I was finally allowed into Offenbach.

As all those little German states couldn´t sustain themselves by agriculture and industry any more in the 18th century, they found new means of filling the “Staatssäckel”, like selling their male population to the British to fight in the American War of Independence. The duke of Hessen-Nassau, his capital Wiesbaden only 40 km away from Frankfurt, was one of the most notorious of these slave traders. Thus, one fourth of the British army in the Revolutionary Wars was made up of Hessians.

Traces of the old Kleinstaaten are still found in German legislation and administration, like federalism. Today, Germany consists of 16 Länder-states, which can act autonomous in a few fields like culture and education. And there are Landkreise-counties, that play an important role in daily life administration. Darmstadt, the former capital of Hessen-Darmstadt, now is the political center of Landkreis Darmstadt-Dieburg.

The most adventureous thing about Darmstadt I know is that they built their new congress center exactly on the Oberrhein fault, the line where earthquakes generate. I admit, this is not the St. Andreas Fault, and earthquakes aren´t as disastrous in Germany as in other regions of the world. But why run any risks deliberately? They are even proud of it and show off the technical knick-knacks Darmstadt´s technical university engineered to minimize the effects of an earthquake on the building. 

Jedem Tierchen sein Pläsierchen-every little animal has its own version of fun. I won´t organize any congresses in Darmstadt. But when I have finished this, I will take the next S-Bahn to Darmstadt.

Darmstadt owns a Museum for the Art of Printing, with a working Linotype printing machine on show. From the way the inventor of the Linotype, Ottmar Mergenthaler, is honoured in their information material, I inferred that he was a son of Darmstadt, and his revolutionary new printing process therefore a German invention.

Internet research showed that he wasn´t a son of Darmstadt, but of Bad Mergentheim, and that he invented Linotype after his emmigration to Baltimore in the USA.

Irren ist menschlich-nothing more human than to be wrong. So allow me to be proud of the invention of newspaper printing in Darmstadt, as long a President Obama believes that cars where invented in the USA.

But this is another story.


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Darmstadt – Stadt der Künste – Believe It!

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.


Henry van de Velde, Schreibtisch, 1899 @HLMD

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






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