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The total artwork of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony on the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt, with its buildings, gardens and works of art spanning the years 1901-1914, constitutes not only a unique ensemble testifying to experimental creativity, but also an incomparable document of the architectural and artistic renewal at the dawn of Modernism inspired by the international reform movement of the early 20th century.
The art-loving Hessian Grand Duke, Ernst Ludwig, founded the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony in 1899 as a means of promoting the arts and crafts in Hesse. Over the 16 years of its existence, 23 notable artists were members of this community. The Mathildenhöhe (Mathilde Heights), situated in the eastern part of the city of Darmstadt, developed into an innovative and experimental centre dedicated to architecture and all areas of the fine and applied arts mainly under the direction of Joseph Maria Olbrich, a former member of the Vienna Secession. Other eminent members were Peter Behrens, Hans Christiansen, Albin Müller, and Bernhard Hoetger. The Mathildenhöhe artists’ programmatic focus on the aspects of “domestic living” and “work” came to provide a major inspiration for architectural developments of the early 20th century. Over the course of four exhibitions, a number of pioneering buildings came into being, complete with their interior decoration and furnishings, all surrounded by a park embellished with sculptures, fountains and pavilions. From living space to garden and from furniture to tableware, the artists orchestrated walk-in living environments, each in the form of an aesthetic total art work (“Gesamtkunstwerk”).
The first exhibition, “Ein Dokument Deutscher Kunst” (“A Document of German Art”), held in 1901, was planned and organized by Olbrich, the pre-eminent architect and artist of the colony. The focus of this exhibition was on eight residential houses, each conceived as an integrated whole, fully decorated and furnished, and arranged in a clear urban setting surrounding the central studio building, the Ernst Ludwig-Haus.
For the second exhibition (1904), Olbrich created ephemeral pavilions but also the Dreihäusergruppe”, an arrangement of three artist-designed middle-class residences serving as model homes. Mathildenhöhe’s most striking structure by far is Olbrich’s Hochzeitsturm (“Wedding Tower”) with the Exhibition Hall. The ensemble was built for the third exhibition, the “Hessische Landesausstellung für freie und angewandte Kunst” (“Hessian State Exhibition of Fine and Applied Arts”) of 1908. Albin Müller was in charge of the exposition, which featured, among other exhibits, a model estate of six fully furnished workers’ homes, three of which were rebuilt on a site nearby after the exhibition ended.
Criterion (ii): The total artwork of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony on the Mathildenhöhe represents an important interchange in the development leading up to architectural Modernism. Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig deliberately embraced the Arts and Crafts movement that had, in its turn, developed in response to the industrialisation process. He drew on it in order to incorporate reformist notions of living, experimental architecture, and innovative design of the highest artistic order in the Mathildenhöhe project. The four exhibitions and the fully furnished “Wohn-Meisterhäuser” were careful representations of newly conceived life-worlds, unprecedented innovations that attracted much attention and were to have a determining influence on later developments in architecture and design.
Criterion (iv): Over the course of 16 years, a specific and outstanding type of architectural ensemble came into being on the Mathildenhöhe. It is composed of buildings, landscaped gardens with their statuary, interior decoration, and design. Central principles of what was to become Classical Modernism were first introduced into architecture on the Mathildenhöhe.
The constitutive parts of the total artwork of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony on the Mathildenhöhe are authentic in their form and design. The original materials and substance have been preserved to a very large extent, despite the effects of war. The use and function of the buildings and gardens remain true to their originally intended purposes. The ensemble has not been disturbed in its overall context and, due to its location, still radiates its original dominant, space-defining power even today. The mindset of the Mathildenhöhe artists is easy to read from the preserved works, and exceptionally well documented in the Museum Künstlerkolonie (“Artists’ Colony Museum”) with its vast collection of fine and applied art created by the Mathildenhöhe artists.
In accordance with the UNESCO Operational Guidelines, the ensemble that constitutes the total artwork of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony on the Mathildenhöhe includes all the elements necessary to express its outstanding universal value. It is of adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes that convey the property’s significance. The nominated property is competently cared for; it does not suffer from adverse effects of development and/or neglect, and neither is it threatened by these effects.
With its focus on the unity of residential building, interior design, and exhibition hall, the exposition “Ein Dokument Deutscher Kunst” (“A Document of German Art”), staged on the Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt in 1901, reinvented the whole concept of exhibiting in a manner that was as innovative and striking as it was consistent: The concept of a renewal of the modern art movement, first developed by the British Arts and Crafts artists, was taken up and developed further, and the event even inspired many later art and architecture exhibitions till today.
The development of experimental architecture, innovative interiors and pioneering design, with the founding first of the German Werkbund and then the Bauhaus, its buildings in Weimar and especially in Dessau (“Bauhaus and its Sites in Weimar and Dessau” – WHL, 1996) setting standards to the present day, was first initialised and facilitated in Darmstadt through the combination of art and craftsmanship for the purpose of economic promotion.
The Art Nouveau buildings created by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona (“Works of Antoni Gaudí” – WHL, 1984) and Victor Horta in Brussels (“Major Town Houses of the Architect Victor Horta” – WHL, 2000), as well as Josef Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet (“Stoclet House” – WHL, 2009), again in Brussels, are outstanding, unique works of art by individual artists. The work of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony on the Mathildenhöhe with its aim of an all-encompassing “life design” responded to the task of renewing both art and life itself in a programmatic and much more multifaceted manner, over four exhibitions featuring 23 artists.
The Mathildenhöhe ensemble, which had attracted international attention as early as 1901, represents a crucial point in the development of architecture towards the age of Classical Modernism. From an early design scheme still dominated by ornamentation, the focus shifted increasingly towards experimentation with modern building materials such as brick and concrete.
Between 1904 and 1911, Weimar (“Bauhaus and its Sites in Weimar and Dessau” – WHL, 1996) emerged as a centre for the renewal of architecture, fine and applied art after Henry van de Velde had been appointed as artistic consultant for industry and craftsmanship. About the same time, efforts were underway to establish another centre of art and modernism at Hagen, with Karl Ernst Osthaus as the driving force. In the end, however, neither project could be realised as rigorously and consistently as in Darmstadt.
Both at the Weißenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart (“L’oeuvre architecturale et urbaine de Le Corbusier – deux maisons du Weissenhof-Siedlung à Stuttgart” – TL, 2007) and the White City of Tel-Aviv (“White City of Tel-Aviv – the Modern Movement” – WHL, 2003), leading architects of the 1920s took up and developed innovative concepts, such as the cube as a basic element of architecture, and a functional arrangement of the windows, that had originated from the buildings of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony.
Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a project comparable to Darmstadt in the artists’ village of Abramtsevo/Russia, a colony that strove for a combination of artist-craftsmanship and active marketing with the support of a patron. At Abramtsevo the ideals of the Russian Avantgarde, with its focus on traditional folk art, were implemented in craftsmen’s workshops, in theatrical productions, and in a distinct architectural style. However, there was next to no effect on the development of International Modernism in architecture and design.
In contrast to other artists’ colonies founded around the year 1900, the Mathildenhöhe artists’ main focus was not the experience of nature as a means of renewal in painting. Instead, the exhibitions held on Mathildenhöhe between 1901 and 1914 stated an all-encompassing claim to influence the life of modern man through art. The programme of the Darmstadt Artists’ Colony aimed to consider every aspect of life, in this respect reflecting the spirit of the early 20th century life reform movement in a remarkable variety of ways. In fact its understanding of that notion was far more wide-ranging than that of other colonies of the time like, for example, that of the vegetarian community of Monte Verità at Ascona, also guided by life reform principles, which aimed at creating an ideal community dedicated to a style of living in direct opposition to everyday life in the cities.