Architecture: Christoph Ingenhoven and the Beauty of Things Done Right

Christoph Ingenhoven has been leaving his mark on the cities of this world since the 1990s with architectural concepts that blend sustainability and aesthetics. In our interview, the star architect tells us, among other things, what he views critically about skyscrapers and how people can be divided into nest dwellers and cave dwellers. He himself prefers a nest, by the way.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo ingenhoven architects / HGEsch

Most people associate the name Ingenhoven with the Stuttgart 21 station redevelopment, of which he once said that he has raised five children “while this project still hasn’t made it out of puberty”. Despite all the criticism of the project, the Düsseldorf native keeps his cool. And no wonder: His many other international projects are considered pioneering in the field of ecological architecture. Ingenhoven calls his sustainability concept “supergreen”. A good example is the Kö-Bogen II project in Düsseldorf. Tasked only with building a shopping center, Ingenhoven greened his building with thirty thousand hedges. “We did many things that no one asked us to do,” he admits. He has since patented “supergreen”, which is one of the reasons we asked him to tell us more about the Ingenhoven brand.

Mr. Ingenhoven, you’re a star architect. What exactly does the Ingenhoven brand stand for?
I’ve often asked myself that exact same question. Not because I don’t know the answer, but because you always want to make sure you know what you’re capable of and what you want to be recognized for. What comes to mind for most people when they think of us – and that’s something we would completely agree with – could best be described as green building, meaning sustainable, resource-friendly construction. That is definitely one thing that defines us. But there is also a second point, and one that is no less important. And that is the way we approach an architectural project. We don’t have a certain style. Architects who always build slanted buildings or white houses are limiting themselves. We don’t do that. I believe that a specific solution emerges from analyzing the context, the briefing, the wishes – in other words, from all the circumstances surrounding a project. A former colleague of mine once put it like this: “We find seemingly simple solutions to complex projects or themes.” We’re not inclined to aesthetic simplification. But we want to contribute to making this world a better place. And we’re happy to use – I don’t want to say all, but almost any means necessary.

What role do people, or their motivations, play in this solution?
That is one of the main questions we should be asking. It has to be said that there are a lot of technical aspects to what we do, and that these things are easier for many people to deal with because they can be calculated. But, of course, there is also a psychological aspect. That becomes evident in a single-family home or in residential buildings, but also in buildings that are used by the public at large. Projects like these involve our emotions and our spatial needs. One example would be the human need to feel safe and protected. Architecture – and I think this is an important point – is actually a form of shelter. If we look at human evolution, we lost our body hair because we had clothes and a dwelling. There are still some tribes in the Amazon region that have probably never had any contact with modern civilization. Perhaps you remember that aerial photo that made the rounds a while back?

"We don’t have a certain style. Architects who always build slanted buildings or white houses are limiting themselves. We don’t do that."
Christoph Ingenhoven

The one where you can see a village from above?
Exactly. That was a very interesting photo. The people had built a beautiful communal dwelling with relatively simple means like branches and leaves. A round building covered with woven palm leaves. Wherever in the world people came together in groups, the very first questions were how to feed and protect themselves – from the weather, from wild animals, from enemies. And that’s where architecture plays a huge role.

And that’s still inside us?
Yes, and much more strongly than we sometimes realize. And that’s something architects need to think about. Where you put your chair, your workspace, a kitchen or your bed – all these considerations take into account where an enemy might come from. Even if we no longer have an enemy these days that we need to protect ourselves from, we find it difficult to feel at home if we feel vulnerable and defenseless. Did you know that you can divide people into two groups? Into cave dwellers and nest dwellers?

An interesting thought, isn’t it? Chimpanzees, for example, build nests every evening to sleep in up in the trees. Small structures woven together from branches. People still have that instinct as well – that need for a safe, comfortable platform in the trees. We instinc­tively feel safe and at home ten to twenty meters up.

Christoph Ingenhoven was born in Düsseldorf in 1960. He studied architecture and art history at RWTH Aachen University and at the Düsseldorf Arts Academy. His company, ingenhoven architects, achieved worldwide fame in 1997 with the first ecological high-rise buildings, the RWE Tower (now Westenergie Tower) in Essen. Recently completed projects include the Marina One high-rise complex in Singapore and Kö-Bogen II in Düsseldorf, a commercial and office ensemble with Europe’s largest green façade. The main station in Stuttgart is still under construction. Ingenhoven is a founding member of the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) and the Federal Foundation for Building Culture. He also is a member of the North Rhine-Westphalia Academy of Sciences and Arts.

And what about the caves?
Caves became important when we came down from the trees and started walking upright. I have a problem with caves, however, and that is that you don’t have a good line of sight. If a sabertoothed tiger comes through the opening of the cave, then you’ve got a problem. Thinking about these sorts of things is an important part of being an architect.

But are customers as aware of their evolutionary history as an architect?
You’ve got to remember that we build almost exclusively for professional clients, people who don’t build just once in their life. Building a single-family house is a completely different matter. A family home is primarily about life and the possibilities that architecture offers in this respect. What does a family expect from their life over the next twenty years? Not so much from the house, but from life itself.

How many single-family homes have you built?
Because I would only design a home for someone I like and who could put up with me, I’ve only done it once for a very good friend and twice for myself. It’s a very intense process. That’s the great thing about it, but it’s also exhausting and difficult.

And things are easier with professional clients?
We’re talking about people here who are always building something – hotels or institutions or company headquarters. We take these people very seriously. That becomes clear when you consider that we’ve won almost every competition we’ve been allowed to take part in so far. Direct orders are rather rare, so we try to secure contracts in competitions. There’s often a second stage that only three or four out of perhaps ten participants are invited to join, and whenever we’ve been invited to make our second presentation, we’ve practically always won.

Would your clients dare contradict you?
You tend to get more respect the older you are, but you’ve got to be careful that a client doesn’t accept something just for the sake of respect. I’m open to criticism. And that works. I’m not the type of architect who sits under an apple tree, makes a sketch and then hands it over to the office for someone to execute my idea. I don’t do that with clients either. I often sit down with them at the kitchen table so we can work on the design together. Or I sketch and they talk, that happens too. It’s the working together that I value so much.

"Where you put your chair, your workspace, a kitchen or your bed – all these considerations take into account where an enemy might come from."

Christoph Ingenhoven

You said that green building is a trademark of yours. Where does sustainability start?
The concept of sustainability, as you surely know, was originally applied to the field of forestry, where it meant that you shouldn’t take more wood out of a forest than will grow back. That’s actually a basic rule of life. A famous example can be found among the Inuit, whose hunting opportunities were very limited. But even if the season was good, they didn’t hunt more or throw anything away. And they used every part of the animal: for clothing, food, building materials, medicine. We’ve become out of touch with this kind of sustainable, permanent management of a habitat. When raw materials for computers are mined in Africa, we don’t notice that directly. That, roughly speaking, is the explanation for many of our problems. Our society and our economy have become so particularized that we no longer feel the impact of what we do, and in the end, everything we have done is meaningless. In this respect, what we understand by sustainable building is the attempt to intelligently incorporate these things into our actions.

As an architect, do you feel you have a special responsibility here?
It is a tremendous responsibility because the construction and operation of buildings accounts for something between forty and sixty percent of our resource use. In that sense, building is a much bigger problem than transportation. That’s something we need to come to grips with. It’s also only feasible if builders, engineers, the public authorities and municipalities all pull in the same direction.

"I’m not the type of architect who sits under an apple tree, makes a sketch and then hands it over to the office for someone to execute my idea."

Christoph Ingenhoven

Where do you see modern architecture going in the future?
Modern . . . that’s a tough one.

How’s that?
Because lots of people use the word to define a kind of style, as if there was a style to describe. There’s no distinct Bauhaus style either. I consider us to be contemporary, modern architects. Modern for me is a constant process of discovery, one that can always be falsified. Modern means that you incorporate the most correct insights from the present into your projects and that you do so in a very contemporary way, thereby giving them some form. If you ask me in which direction I think this is evolving, I would start with the positive and say that I see an opportunity for architecture that is less vain and less formal. More substantive, more social, more human. In the best case, recyclable, edible, or forever usable. I have a relatively simple rule here. There are many situations in an architect’s life where you run the risk of asking yourself how to make something beautiful. But that’s a question I never ask myself. And it’s not one I allow my employees to ask either. I always say, “We’ll get to that.” But it’s a trick, because it will never happen. We always discuss the specifics. How big is the window? How much glass can the building tolerate? Do I need more transparency because there’s a different daylight need than in the basement? And if you truly deal with the specifics like that, I believe that beauty will be the natural result. I can prove that, too. [laughs]

If you look at the history of sailing ships, there are simple ships and there are more complex ships – or those that were armed with cannons. Take the Vasa, for example. That was a Swedish warship equipped with so many cannons that it sank in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage. So they made a serious mistake, although they knew so much about sailing, and they were punished for it. [laughs] The ship wasn’t very beautiful either, by the way. But if you see a Chinese junk or a dhow sailing on Lake Victoria, that’s a boat shape that evolved over hundreds of years. The constant improvements over time resulted in a functional form that is beautiful to boot. The most beautiful things that people build today came out of sheer necessity. Take the Silver Arrows from Mercedes. Those were beautiful cars because all those people thought about was how to make the thing go faster. What does that prove? That beauty can come about when people put a lot of effort into doing only what is really necessary and consistently making the right decisions.

That’s a nice thought.
Unfortunately, when you look at Shanghai, Dubai or Abu Dhabi these days, you see very little of this beauty. The speed in which they’re building things there today can make you very skeptical about the value that these buildings will have a hundred years from now. And if those buildings aren’t sustainable, they’ll have to be torn down and rebuilt. That’s about the worst thing you can do from an ecological point of view.

"There’s a very fine line between meaningful beauty and ostentation. With skyscrapers, there’s no reason to build them half a mile high. That’s just nonsense."

Christoph Ingenhoven

But speaking of beauty and function . . . aren’t skyscrapers highly functional?
They’re not as functional as you might think. Building high-rises is a specialty that takes a lot of skill. Everything is more difficult, bigger, more challenging. You have to really know your craft to be able to do something like that and do it well. But few other building forms are so susceptible to being misused. For prestige, to show off. There’s a very fine line between meaningful beauty and ostentation. With skyscrapers, there’s no reason to build them half a mile high. That’s just nonsense.

And what about population growth and migration to the cities?
We see the most growth in Latin America and Asia in cities located near river deltas or on the coast, places that are at risk of flooding or threatened by rising sea levels. That means we have a limited amount of land to build on. Of course, you could start making plans to build over the bay, like in Tokyo. But I think the future lies in building high-density cities, with high-rises of limited height that still allow people to live with dignity. A dense city is much better in terms of energy use than a flat one with a large area. You can see that by com­­paring places like Los Angeles with cities like Copenhagen. We wouldn’t exactly consider Copenhagen to be cramped, but it is a relatively dense city. What we also need – and this is where high-rises can do their part – are mixed cities where living, working, leisure and education are all interwoven and interconnected. But when we look at the high-rise buildings that are being built or entered in competitions these days, many of them are just about having a “signature”. As if they wanted to say: the thing that counts is to make a splash. Transferred to the automotive sector, that would be an extreme form of the need for speed. [laughs]

Speaking of which: What do you think will happen to the car?
Well, I’m not really an expert on cars, but I am a fan. I still think the car is all about freedom. It gives me a private space in which I can move around anywhere I want. I know that’s not really in vogue anymore. But I’m hoping that humanity will succeed in finding a means – and this is where the pandemic actually makes me rather optimistic – to have unlimited energy. It may not be oil, but perhaps hydrogen or solar energy or something else.

And what do you think of electric cars?
I have my doubts. Obviously, we’re going to need electric cars, but we should pit several options against each other and let competition decide. We should use our innovative power to save our planet. Fear alone won’t save us.

Last question: Are you a cave dweller or a nest dweller?
I’m more of a nest person. I sleep behind large glass panes without curtains and get up when it gets light out. In a cave, I wouldn’t even know what the weather was like. That would bother me. I always find it fascinating that when people check into a hotel room, they go straight to the window, open it and look out. And when people go to see an apartment, they often go straight to the balcony. Of course, we need apartments as a place to live. But above all, we want to be outside. Because light and weather are important. I can understand that.

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