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ingenhoven associates — Part two

There’s little that approaches certainty in any human endeavor, but a good case can be made for the idea that what supports us in our youth — family, home, community, city — nurtures feelings of connection and affection that remain throughout life and determine the way we interact with the larger world. In the rare case of those gifted with creativity and ingenuity in architecture, the nature of the discipline has a way of extending that interaction on an international scale.

In fall of 2022 this magazine published To build so as to heal: Christoph Ingenhoven looks forward, which surveyed the work of the architect and studio behind the Business and Residential Towers of Tokyo’s Toranomon Hills, a new community locus from the Mori Building Co. that seeks to vitalize and restore integrity to adjacent neighborhoods divided postwar by imposing roadways and construction that might once have signified progress for the city, but eventually served only to diminish and degrade its sense of place.

This is the second in a series of articles that took us to Düsseldorf, where the architect grew up and continues to practice. We spoke with him about his childhood, family, his view of community, and the motivation that informs his architecture there and across the world today.

illustration by Adrian Johnson

Christoph Ingenhoven’s father was an architect who designed and built the wooden house he grew up in, and where his parents remained the entirety of their lives; a building he describes as “a sophisticated mix of typical historic German house designs. … After the war there were a lot of people coming to Germany from Eastern Europe and they had a real need for residential housing in the Bundesrepublik,” resulting in an exuberant building boom during the 50s and 60s. The home is in the city of Neuss, which faces Düsseldorf from the western bank of the Rhine. The architect explains that it was a big family, and plots of land were simply cheaper there at the time than in Düsseldorf proper. But it’s Düsseldorf that inhabited his consciousness as a boy. It’s where his personality took form, and where he practices today. Where his office has taken on the work of amending, through some of the city’s most visible architecture, many of the hasty, politically pressurized decisions builders made in the years following the war.

On this day we’re sitting together in another (partly) wooden house that Ingenhoven built for his own family, situated in a sylvan section of Düsseldorf, accessible to, but distinctly apart from the typical urban vista. Across the street from his home is a field of rapeseed, typical of the region, a blanket of yellow stretching far in all directions.

The Sanctum, the City

The builder’s garden is, “a free arrangement of forms … a purely three-dimensional experience.”

When Ingenhoven speaks of growing up the son of an architect and the wooden house he built for his large, lively family, it summons an image of two photographs side by side in a hinged frame, one side of which at first one mistakes for a mirror. He describes his father as “a very honest, straight kind of architect,” one who would be known for unwavering dedication to maintaining relationships with the small group of clients he cultivated. He attributes the differing trajectory of his own career to his verbal skills, which are prodigious, always on display, and continually support his latching onto opportunity by making a convincing, original case for the new and untried. So what did he take from his father into his own career? “What I got from him, directly and indirectly, was a kind of dedication to the job; a commitment to do very serious, very official, very close-to-the-requirement kind of work. … The ethos of a worker.”

Though it isn’t a wooden structure, it projects a wooden visage. Slim columns and light-colored sashes make for generous interior illumination.

This, in addition to a wealth of experience that put him far ahead of the field when he decided to commence his own practice. “As a child I was visiting building sites with him, which I love, even now.” When he was old enough, he joined his father at the office. “Doing draftsman’s work. Normal things like coloring drawings, putting materials in order… I was enjoying it, and he took me very seriously. I felt privileged; I was 10, 11,12 years old, and I was an accepted person in a discussion about architecture! I must have said some silly things, but they accepted me,” he laughs. “I can honestly still draw all of the buildings that he did from then on, with every detail…” So he took this basic, fundamental skill set from his father, but also, “the dedication thing! Taking it seriously, not stopping in the middle. Thinking it through to the end… In those days to draw was very different from today. Now you’re doing it with a machine, so you think ‘ah, I’ll do it bigger,’ and you just scale it. Then, every line was final. Now we have the opposite problem. Because nothing ‘counts’ anymore, there’s no value, in a way.” When everything is a possibility, uncertainty as a motivator collapses.

And this is where he took from his mother, a nonprofessional painter, devoted homemaker and possessor of the secret strength of not looking like she was exerting any. She had “an openness to things that are not the standard. A sense of beauty not written in the books.” In his description, the heart to risk artistic exploration without a fixed destination. “So I do a lot of things I’m not an absolute professional in, and I don’t want to be a professional in. I want to be a very interested amateur.”

Work in constant progress

A mix of softened and hard-edged, modern forms mark the garden.

The gardens surrounding this house that Ingenhoven built for himself and his family 18 years ago are marked by exacting interventions one can’t help connecting to the meticulous precision that typifies the architect’s professional work. Aside sculpted stands of white rhododendron, giving a reasonable impression of Donald Judd’s early work in concrete, a low, cleanly-cut circular hedge that spirals inward is abutted along its interior by an active herb garden, every variety neatly tagged. “Charles Eames said, speaking of his wife and himself, ‘we take our free time as seriously as our work,’ and that’s what I do. I care for the garden more as a designer, and I’m always going through it with a pair of scissors. I have to have them in my hand,” he says with a laugh, “and my kids always say, ‘you never enjoy the garden, you always look for the things that are not OK’.” But isn’t that another definition of enjoyment, we ask? “Absolutely, for me! That’s the work that I want to do. I call that my ‘painting’. And I ‘paint’ every day that I’m here. I’ll move this or cut that, or move the lighting further away to account for plant growth, and so on. This is a free arrangement of forms, and a purely three-dimensional experience. From every angle it has to be beautiful and right.”

An obdurate look conceals the home’s delicate herb garden.

All of the flora are extensively catalogued. Ingenhoven calls upon a Bremen professor, a foremost authority in rhododendrons, for assistance in this.

The house itself is characteristic of everything that might be considered an Ingenhoven “signature” in its design. A mix of human-made and natural, sustainable materials; tons of light traveling east to west along its broad array of windows over the course of the day; its levels seem poised to take flight thanks to the slenderness of the columns that support its open, rational plan. “I would call it a proof. Living in your own architecture could make life difficult,” he says, smiling. “It’s not. It’s a house that I enjoy every day I am here.”

Christoph Ingenhoven

Most notably it shares common qualities with the ingenhoven associates office that we’d toured earlier in the day in the way human activity is channeled, to the degree that interior architecture can determine the narrative of productivity in a space. In the office, a long line of side-by-side desks break down hierarchical distinctions, and issues of function and purpose are thrown back to the agency of individual staff members. In this house there is maximal openness and exposure — no way to avoid attention except to retreat to discrete, dedicated private spaces.

“It’s big, in that it has big spaces, but there is a very small number of them. It’s not like I’m walking empty corridors. My space is upstairs, there’s a big kitchen, a big living room, and that’s more or less it. For me it’s an absolutely livable home. When I designed the house I wanted to make sure that we see each other, and that we are living together. That if somebody wants to be alone they are able to be alone, but in a relatively small room. As soon as they leave the room they’re with the whole family. Even if I’m working in the living room over there,” …and he scarcely turns his head to take in the home’s full throw from where we sit in the large, open kitchen, “I’m at work, but I’m in the middle of everything. Or I sit here,” at this long dinner table where an extended family can comfortably dine, or an interviewer can hold an intimate conversation. “I had a lot of siblings and so I was used to having noise around me. It’s not a problem for me. I don’t have to sit somewhere to be alone.”

Of presence and purpose

The house includes furniture Ingenhoven designed, such as this semicircular sofa.

We asked about being the only ones present. “Where’s everybody today? They’re old! They’re adult, they have their own families. No, this was a family house and completely filled with life, but more or less today it’s in between a hotel, my house, and some kind of holiday house. … Today I was up at 4:30 a.m. and I tried to take a plane from St. Moritz but it wasn’t possible, so I got a car and drove to Freiburg, a five-hour drive. I had a meeting on the second phase of construction of Freiburg’s town hall.

The furnishings also favor the canon, as represented here by Mies van der Rohe Barcelona stools.

Then I went to the airport there, took a plane to Düsseldorf, had a meeting about Pier One, then I came here for this interview!

Tomorrow I’m going to Stuttgart…” He goes on to outline a dizzying schedule of occupancy over the following several weeks. Ingenhoven has five children, ranging in age from 36 to 22, spread out across Germany, Europe, and the U.S. One daughter would be spending the next day there. A son was arriving for the weekend, then the whole family had plans to meet the following week in Venice, after which his eldest daughter would return to the house for a week. “So it’s always coming and going. Sometimes I’m really alone, sometimes we’re two, or three, or twelve.”

Rationality and openness are hallmarks of the architect’s design sensibility. In his home this achieves a wholehearted apotheosis.

It was easy to see that the sanctity and serenity of this homestead were the mark on the horizon the architect had aimed for when designing it, and paralleled the interactive forces at work in the ingenhoven associates office where, not surprisingly, family remains in view — a brother and sister work for the firm, and another brother, a physician, consults on healthcare-related projects. “I’m very interested in the family, in keeping it together, keeping it as a family. I think that’s very important, especially these days, because I think you have to protect one another.”

And so Christoph Ingenhoven’s studio, owing to its position in the city’s recent history and its geographic location, sits in a pilot’s position in the development of contemporary Düsseldorf. But what of the city that lit that first, youthful fire for the architect? “The Düsseldorf that I grew up in was a little bit glamorous for a small boy from the other side of the Rhine.” He describes the area around the celebrated Königsallee, with its atmosphere of old-money, conservative, fashion-oriented retail. Düsseldorf was designated the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, a combined state created by the British that didn’t exist before the war, and Germany’s largest. There were other cities that might have served as capital, but for complex reasons Düsseldorf suited the sensibilities of the postwar power elite. Nevertheless, it was broadly disproportional. The new state was brim with natural and human resources, and positioned to grow to become the world’s 18th largest economy. It’s the equivalent of combining the global economic command of an American state like California, with its technology industries, vast farmlands, and massive population, with Oregon and Washington, and putting central control in a bucolic town near the Idaho border. But the city readily assumed the mantle of its prominence. “From a relatively small city, a regional small city, they created the capital of one of the biggest economies,” the architect explains, with due disbelief, and he goes on to describe in a subtly self-deprecative manner how Düsseldorfers like himself might be drawn to some excess in personal expression, unlike a more staid city such as its neighbor Köln. “Düsseldorf was chic — ‘new rich’ not ‘old rich’,” and the people of the Rhineland he describes as naturally at ease with a bit of exhibitionism. “They like to spend their money. Cologne is much more conservative. We are more the pretenders. It’s a very illusionary thing… There was glamour, and there were the artists. We had Beuys, we had Richter, Penck, Graubner, Baselitz… Everybody who was at the center of it was here. The Kunstakademie was really the best art school in the world for two or three decades.”

Düsseldorf in the heart

The Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus circa 1968. © Stadtarchiv Düsseldorf

His involvement with the city’s contemporary art scene is natural for a Kunstakademie alumnus whose office is responsible for the revival of the most widely-known art center on the downtown scene, the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (which will be profiled in the next part in this series), but he hasn’t just recently come to it. “I spent time at that theater. I knew it as a kid of nine or ten years old. … There’s one big advantage that Düsseldorf has. It’s a mid-sized city with a bigger city’s facilities. So you have a very good opera, a very good ballet, a very goo d theater, very good museums. And it’s commercially successful. It’s still fashion, it’s still media. It’s still spending the money. It’s pretty much administration, very much government.”

The plaza today. The firm’s Kö-Bogen II is partly seen in the foreground.

Set apart from Ingenhoven’s public arts profile is his exploration of the things he’s loved all his life — the artistic fields of play his mother’s example inspired. Where his office includes a noteworthy professional library of architecture, landscaping, and art, his home library is filled with fiction. “Literature was my ‘first love’ in a way, and I was very young when I became interested in writers like Peter Handke. Later it was people like Paul Auster, people out of the mainstream, but very talented, very interesting. I’m allied with all of them, in a way.

The lyricism of the antiheroic

Although scholarly work abounds in his home library as well, unlike the studio library, these shelves display Ingenhoven’s love of wide-ranging literature.

“My greatest love is of American literature because I think the power and the… I wouldn’t say ‘innocence’, but it’s a quality much greater than in European literature. The Americans who I love are Cormac McCarthy, Mark Twain, Roth, Updike, Richard Ford, Fitzgerald. I love Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, all of those guys … the power and the freshness, the use of all the struggles they had, in comparison to old Europe. American literature is very fresh.”

Every piece of furniture, it seems, is adorned with books.

There’s also evidence within eyeshot of a more recent preoccupation, collecting photographs. “Photographs are something that I do to balance. Having something that’s different from architecture, but is doing art in a very contemporary way.” Unlike collecting painting, for Ingenhoven photography is a “relatively new technique that’s come to special prominence in Düsseldorf. So it seemed to be natural.” This interest, he allows, comes at odds with the home he built to explore it. The cascading light from outside at all times makes it “impossible” for photography, in the words of the architect, and he’s had to have at least one piece in his collection remade. As he seeks to mitigate this, the collecting continues. “I’m not an expert in photography, but year after year you get better at it, you acquire a sharper view and better judgment; a personal, even identifiable approach to this kind of art. My perspective on this is much sharper today then it was ten years ago. Interestingly, the first photograph I ever approached was one of the best ones.” Two themes he constantly returns to are landscapes and flowers, and his interest in those subjects has taken him into collecting some of photography’s earliest artifacts. “There isn’t very much photography from the 19th century because much of it was destroyed, much lacks the quality.” Lately he’s also collected photographs of political importance that resonated in his life, including of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Russians in 1968. “I look at those photos, and in the end it’s just one or two that really represent this moment in history sharply. The [Josef Koudelka/Magnum] photograph where the young man is entering that tank is one that I own, for example.”

Dieter Blum, Wild I, 1998. Blum was the only German photographer to have work selected for the well-known Marlboro ad campaign in the 1990’s.

Though his eldest son spent only a year beneath the roof of this home before departing for university, the others passed a good many years together here.

When we asked about an abiding memory of his childhood it seemed that Ingenhoven’s seeing his father helming his architecture office, first in the family home, then a short distance away, inscribed the deepest mark. Indeed, the reverberation of that memory was likely why we were here in Düsseldorf today. In light of the openness of the house we probed for the shared influences that accrued between the architect and his growing family. Had any of them sought a career in architecture or the arts?

Mutual aspirations

Sanctity and serenity. The architect is also an ardent swimmer.

As it happens, one daughter is a fashion designer, another a midwife. His sons all thrive in the business world. In terms of taste, he avers that he’s had more of an influence on his children through music, who at some point embraced an interest in “David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, all the music that came along from about 1960 to 1990,” and which served as the soundtrack of their father’s youth. At the same time he says he regularly follows his youngest daughter into musical experiences he’d never considered, and he takes this on as part of his ongoing artistic journey. His daughters, he explained, are rather more extreme in their concern with sustainability issues, which may be a seed planted by their father, now bearing flower. “They’re into a probably extreme, healthy lifestyle regarding what they will and won’t eat, how the animals were treated, how the food is processed, the packaging. To some extent, extreme thinking about how the next level of green and sustainable living could be.” They often express their dismay, he says: “you know daddy, flying around is not as sustainable as you’d want it to be…” He tells us that he reminds them, gently no doubt, that he does it in order to be able to build structures that will add to efficiency and environmental sustenance in the world indefinitely. And once more a transactional peace prevails beneath this home’s eaves.

Christoph Ingenhoven
Born in Düsseldorf, Germany, 1960. Took time as an undergraduate at RWTH Aachen University, from which he received his degree, to pursue study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Hans Hollein and James Stirling. He has directed ingenhoven associates, recipients of numerous international awards, since 1985 and has been focused on ecological and sustainable design from its foundation.

Please note that supergreen® is a registered trademark of ingenhoven associates, and that the firm prefers its name be rendered in lower case. It is not a typographical error.