The Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm is a breathtaking and absolutely unique series of parks and gardens from around 1770 with villas, pavilions and other structures scattered around these two towns in a remote part of eastern Germany, forming what is probably the world’s intact largest assemblage of neoclassical structures, gardens, and designed landscapes. Sadly, it is little know even by Germans, although the name Dessau is world-renowned as the home of the Bauhaus design school after it moved there from the town of Weimar.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, the Garden Realm is considered to be one of the earliest and most extensive introductions of Enlightenment values and neoclassical aesthetics into Germany from their origins in France and England, an early rumble in the seismic shift from baroque and rococo flamboyance to restrained interpretations of classical Greek and Roman styles.
It was about more than just aesthetics, embracing humanistic reason, scholarly curiosity, open-minded exploration, and social and educational reform. The Garden Realm was just one of a remarkable range of Enlightenment-related endeavors of the duke of Anhalt-Dessau, Leopold III, more commonly known as Fürst Franz (Prince Franz) or Friedrich Franz. He wanted to bring Enlightenment values and education to the general public, and so the parks were open to the public and included demonstration gardens and farms for agricultural education and research.
The parks are in the picturesque, naturalistic style which was developed in England in the 18th century and broke from the Baroque preference for formal, geometric flower beds and allées (more or less everything you see at palaces such as Versailles), and which Americans will recognize as it later became the standard for most U.S. city parks. The Garden Realm has all the typical English features such as sight axes, artificial lakes, belvederes, tea houses and statues nestled in the greenery, but from there it veers off in unexpected directions.
There is a synagogue, and Europe’s only artificial volcano made from boulders that “erupted” with fireworks and lava-like special effects during festivals, with a neoclassical pavilion built into the side containing Franz’s collection of volcano-related items in rooms decorated in Pompeiian style. Beneath the volcano is a stunning labyrinth of passages, arcades, chapels with skylights, and alcoves including one with an openly homoerotic Greek sculpture.
In the park, a dozen or two bridges each in a different style document the history of bridge design from the Stone Age to the Enlightenment.
Much of Prince Franz’s inspiration to rediscover the worlds of classical Greece and Rome came from his association with Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), often called the father of both modern archaeology and art history, and a more or less open homosexual in his day.
If the name Dessau sounds familiar, it’s because the Bauhaus art and design school – including the iconic Walter Gropius buildings – was located there after moving from its earlier home in the town of Weimar. They too have UNESCO World Heritage status, but even fans of architecture history may find them suprisingly lifeless in comparison to the Garden Realm. This is not the imaginative, proto-space-age, Art Deco-tinged side of the International Style of the 1920s and 30s – it’s all business, and the buildings aren’t all that different from the typical school or office building in the U.S. or Germany built between 1950 and 1970.
It says a lot that the public programming theme of the Garden Realm for 2017 was ‘tolerance’, cleverly connecting the Enlightenment openness to new, unfamiliar and foreign ideas to Germany’s current and fiercely contested immigration situation and debates about nationalism. Counterintuitively, once you look deeper than the first impressions of aristrocratic luxury and powdered wigs, the architecture of Prinz Franz’s open-minded curiosity about the wider world in 1770 turns out to be no less relevant today than the stoic functionalism of early Bauhaus circa 1920 with its refusal of ties to people, history, or place.