Henry Nold, the owner occupant of Haus Martinus in Mathildenhoehe, created the Vortex Garden (garten in German) in its grounds as a sanctuary. Born poor, he allows access to his garden free of charge to members of the public in the hope that they will find peace and inspiration there.
Haus Martinus is a listed, Art Nouveau-style villa, built in 1921 by Jan Hubert Pinand. Garden visitors don’t have access to the villa, but a deluxe suite of rooms can be rented, and concerts are sometimes held there. It must be a memorable place to stay.
Mathildenhoehe is in Darmstadt, not far from Frankfurt, Germany. Around the turn of the 20th century, Darmstadt was home to a colony of artists and freethinkers alienated by the politics of their age and searching for a different way of living. The stamp of their creativity has marked out many of today’s most memorable buildings and public spaces.
When Henry Nold moved in to the villa, its 1600 square metre outdoor area was dominated by a large garage, concrete slabs, and dark yew trees. It had no wildlife and seemed to him like a cemetery. Since then he has worked with craftspeople and artists to create a living landscape that celebrates philosophical and scientific ideas that fascinate him.
The first time visitor should not expect to find the classicism provided by long, elegant vistas, formal topiary and an overarching neatness. Check out the nearby Russian Chapel, Wedding Tower or the Prinz Georg Garten for a helping of that. Instead the Vortex Garden is a curious mix of high and naive art, nature, precision engineering, mysticism, kitsch and fun. Something unexpected materialises around every bend in the path: a rhinestone angel, perhaps, or an elephant’s head; a freestanding copper water funnel or an elegant glass tower.
Follies hardly seem foolish here.
The garden was laid out following the principles of permaculture recommended by Hermann Benjes and Bill Mollison. This means working with nature rather than seeing wildlife as pests, going with the flow of the garden’s microclimate, banning commercial fertilisers, conserving water and using a regenerative system for waste and sewage. Consequently, the Vortex Garden feels part wilderness, part wilderness and part garden.
The planting is an evolving, natural eco-system of woody plants, ivy, herbs, ferns, nettles, thistles, blackberries and fruit trees that pretty much take care of themselves. Visitors are welcome to share the fruit, in season.
Birds, hedgehogs, bats, dragonflies, frogs and pollinators have been lured in by providing food, water and shelter that suits their needs. As well as hives, insect hotels and bat houses, the garden includes lots of recycled wood, still with the bark: a low garden wall made by piling up two layers of slices cut from a dead tree trunk; tree trunk path edges; and several log piles.
Water gathered by gutters and cisterns is used for garden irrigation and the many water features.
The name of one of the largest, Sevenfold freeform water cascade, puzzled me as I counted eight segments to the design, but it refers to the seven patterns of motion that the form of each creek bowl creates in flowing water. Any number of bowls can be used to suit the space.
Water is funnelled clockwise and anti-clockwise through the bowls in a rocking, pulsating pattern, the flow giving rise to a series of vortices. The motion is hypnotic and perhaps has to be seen to be understood. It’s a playground for water.
Whirling is said to energise and enhance the water, keeping it fresh, and releasing more of the invigorating negative ions naturally found by the sea, river or waterfall that are believed to raise our mood and energy levels.
A sun platform and seating areas scattered through the garden encourage people to relax and meditate, while other features suggest we kick off our shoes and let our hair down. Have you visited many public gardens where a trampoline is provided for kids and grown ups to play on? Thought not!
Many of the garden’s elements have been meticulously engineered – a slatted wooden structure, for example, that could seat a dozen people or more. I liked this cascading water feature too:
Visitors can hardly help noticing the many symbols and pictograms, some referencing crop circles that have appeared overnight in British fields (whether the latter were created by human hands, winds or aliens forms no part of our discussion here).
Other obsessions given symbolic form in the Vortex Garden include The Golden Section and related Fibonacci sequence, figures of 8 or infinity, and the double helix of our DNA that give rise to the vortex theme.
Ovoid slabs of Jurassic stone run ribbon-like through the Vortex Garden, symbolising the moon. The garden also features many other egg-shapes – an insect hotel, pond, seating and large finial – plus a colourful collection of ceramic hens that may or may not be related. We are free to ponder, if we like, which came first.
Researching the thinking of any of the people credited as a source of inspiration by Henry Nold rapidly moves you into a rabbit warren of ideas. These include famous names, some that are becoming increasingly popular, and others that will most likely always remain obscure: Goethe, for example, or Antoni Gaudi; Danish writer and philosopher, Martinus, for whom the house is named; and forest warden and natural scientist Viktor Schauberger, who warned of an impending environmental crisis in the 1920s and was ridiculed for his pains.
Some of the ideas are esoteric, mystic, not exactly in tune with my normal way of looking at things. One of my favourite sayings comes to mind – this garden is a good way to try it out (the first bit, anyway):
Enter into the ruling principle of your neighbour’s mind and suffer him to enter into yours.
– Marcus Aurelius
As the evening closes in, dozens of floor lamps start to gleam through the vegetation, carrying figurative, crop circle or geometric patterns. Non-Euclidean patterns, according to the leaflet – bendy ones with hyperbolic or elliptic lines.
While the Vortex Garden’s planting style may not haunt my imagination, its gestalt will. I’ll remember its atmospheric quality, partly spooky, partly serene, and the way it mixes art, nature and mind.
These engineered pillars, for example, repeated in threes along the garden’s wall at the outer edge of the greenery, reinforcing the boundary in metaphorical way, advertising that something different is within.
If you’re intrigued to find out more, Google ‘Waldspirale’ in Darmstadt, search for ‘Sevenfold flowform’ on YouTube or visit the Vortex Garden website (it may take a while to load, but while you’re there, check out the keys and buttons).
The Vortex Garden’s address is: Haus Martinus, Prinz Christians Weg 13, 64287 Darmstadt, Germany
I’ll leave you with a quote from the garden’s leaflet:
Which alternative will govern our future? Dogmatic and nihilistic materialism – or a brand new paradigm; a global culture focused on equilibrium between humans and Nature.