Darmstadt may have earned the title for being the City of Arts and Sciences. The former for having being once been the centre of the German Jugendstil movement, and the latter for its particle accelerator and being home to a division of the European Space Agency. However, this smallish town located between Frankfurt and Heidelberg is off the tourist track and often forgotten about.
Darmstadt is not only home to an interesting Jugendstil artist’s quarter, but also home to an amazing example of modern, avant-garde architecture. Besides a few apartment blocks, a car park and an Aldi, Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s Waldspirale curls from the ground up in a collection of multi-coloured tiers, golden domes and vegetation growing up the spine of the spiral. Believe it or not, this surreal creation is actually a residential block of flats. So what’s the story behind Hundertwasser’s work?
An Architect with a Different Vision
As a huge fan of Modernism and Art Nouveau, after seeing Gaudí’s creations or even the coloured tiled buildings of Ödön Lechner, I mistakenly categorised Hundertwasser as being a contemporary of those movements, but turns out I was wrong by pretty much a century.
Friedensreich Hundertwasser was actually born in 1928, and most of his famous creations actually date to the latter part of the 20th century. The Austrian architect, who also worked in environmental protection, rebelled against the standardised straight lines so prevalent in modern architecture by creating unique irregular forms that blended nature with expressionist structures that were anything but square.
But it wasn’t just about aesthetics, Hundertwasser held a manifesto that buildings should also be environmentally friendly, where nature and architecture could co-exist in a world of disjointed lines and colours. For him, the cause of human misery arose from monotonous architecture, so he advocated variety and a closeness to nature. He wrote numerous manifestos about sustainable urban living, campaigning for the preservation of natural habitat and nature protection. He was a man who was ahead of his time, who developed the concept of composting toilets and the was vocal about the preservation of the oceans and rain forest. Hundertwasser might have paved the way for sustainable architecture, but his buildings are an incredible legacy in their own right.
The Hundertwasser Haus – Vienna, Austria
I remember when my old Austrian flatmate moved back to Vienna, he invited me to come and visit for a weekend. He took me around all the famous sites, and insisted we visit the Hundertwasser House. I had no idea what to expect, but fell in love with this amazing structure that played with colours and lines, bearing its own roof garden on the top.
The interior even has undulating floors, which Hundertwasser said is a “melody to the feet”. Large trees grow from the inside of its rooms, out of windows, balconies and even from the rooftop. Apparently, the architect never took payment for the house, doing it simply for the charitable reason to “prevent something ugly going up in its place”.
The house was built in the mid 1980s following Hundertwasser’s ideas and concepts, in collaboration with architects Joseph Krawina and Peter Peliakan, and has since become part of Austria’s cultural heritage and one of Vienna’s most iconic buildings.
The Waldspirale – Darmstadt, Germany
I worked in Darmstadt at its local particle accelerator in 2005 for a year and for all that time I never even visited the Waldspirale once. I didn’t even know it existed! It was only after my trip to Vienna that I was introduced to Hundertwasser and his amazing work, so when I went back to Darmstadt for a couple of months as part of my PhD research, I made sure I would make the pilgrimage – and I wasn’t disappointed.
This “Forest Spiral” was built in the 1990s, completed in 2000, named for its spiraling green roof featuring its own mini forest. Like with the Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, there are trees growing out of windows and the usual rebellion against order and straight lines. There are over 1000 unique windows, where no angle in the house is the same. The neighbourhood your just your standard German suburb, but the house itself is a work of art!
Hundertwasser brought his architecture all across the world, from Austria and Germany, going as far as the US, Japan and New Zealand! I haven’t had the chance to visit these yet, but believe me, they’re on my bucket list.
Uncredited photos are my own.