The Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt

The Defining Ensemble of Early Modernism

The building ensemble on the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt in Germany embodies, like no other, the development of modern architecture and landscape design, from the Arts-and-Crafts movement and Art Nouveau of the 19th century to the International Style of the 20th century. The Mathildenhöhe’s unique ensemble of progressive architecture and imaginative landscape design was created by members of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony. This innovative group of artists, architects, and designers was founded by Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine in 1899. Inspired by numerous life reform movements, the artists shared a wish to provide high quality living and work environments to all classes. In four ground breaking building exhibitions on the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt in 1901, 1904, 1908, and 1914, featuring architecture as well as fine and applied arts, the Mathildenhöhe was shaped as it can be seen today. In contrast to earlier world fairs, the members of the artists’ colony built living environments not only for the exhibition, but also to be lived in permanently.

In the center of the first exhibition, in the year 1901, stood the Ernst Ludwig House built by Joseph Maria Olbrich. This wide two-story building, today home to the Artists’ Colony Museum, features a bold juxtaposition of a highly ornamented omega portal, alluding to the 19th Century, with a surprisingly modernistic white exterior introducing the 20th century. Here, the first seven members of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony worked, from 1901 on, side by side in open studios, painting, sculpting, and designing applied arts products. All these works were then on display during the exhibition of 1901 in newly constructed and fully furnished houses grouped around the Ernst Ludwig House. In the first exhibition, the only building not designed by Olbrich was the house of Peter Behrens. His artistic success and experience in Darmstadt formed the foundation for his later work giving birth to our understanding of corporate design and his teaching of such exceptional talents as Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Meyer, and Le Corbusier.

In the following exhibitions, central landmarks of Darmstadt were constructed: the architecturally innovative and influential Wedding Tower from 1908, as well as the Plane Tree Grove featuring ancient Egyptian texts and verses from the Bhagavad Gita. Overall, with its succession of fully furnished buildings in a designed landscape, featuring global influences, the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt exemplifies the development in modernism from solitary structures to forms of social housing as well as aesthetically designed apartments. Today, the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt stands as a focal point of early modernist movements and as the prototype of modern building exhibitions. Situated at the city’s highest point as an “acropolis”, as it was described in 1908, the ensemble of the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt, until today, fulfils its role as vibrant international cultural site and center of the city’s urban identity.

Foto: Bildarchiv Foto Marburg: Ingo E. Fischer