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11 February 2020

Villa Henny, geometric style icon in The Netherlands

  • The grey plinths, stress the horizontality and geometric design of the whitewashed concrete house.
  • Originally there was a pond where now the swimming pool is located.
  • The symmetrical interplay of lines is carried forward in the ceiling.
  • The east and west façade feature a series of eight colonnaded windows that are slightly projected beyond the first floor.
  • Just as in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, the fireplace is centrally positioned.
  • The grey plinths, stress the horizontality and geometric design of the whitewashed concrete house.
  • Originally there was a pond where now the swimming pool is located.
  • The symmetrical interplay of lines is carried forward in the ceiling.
  • The east and west façade feature a series of eight colonnaded windows that are slightly projected beyond the first floor.
  • Just as in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, the fireplace is centrally positioned.

Photos: Friso Keuris

Villa Henny is a style icon of 20th-century Dutch architecture: 100 years after it was built the concrete design is still solid as a rock. As soon as the current owners saw the ‘For Sale’ sign in the garden in 1979, they were sold, and so was the house. Now Villa Henny is on the market again with the aim to find the right buyer for the house.

The current owners, the Jap-A-Joe family, bought the house in 1979. 

House of Concrete
The development of new architectural styles and building materials brought about radical changes in early 20th-century Dutch architecture. The detached villa by Robert van ’t Hoff in the village of Huis ter Heide in the province of Utrecht is an outstanding example and a landmark of modern architecture. With its geometrical design, its white-plastered concrete, grey plinths and cantilevered flat roof, the house attracted attention already while it was being built in 1915. Van ’t Hoff designed the house, also known as the concrete villa, for the Amsterdam businessman A.B. Henny in 1914. It was the first time that a concrete frame construction was used in a residential building. “It was very revolutionary at the time. There was little experience of working with this technique, which is why the first frame actually collapsed,” says Rob Driessen, an expert and surveyor in the field of applied art and design in the period after 1900.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Van ’t Hoff’s design for Villa Henny – with its overlapping rectangular building volumes and repetitive patterns – was inspired by the Prairie Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American architect who also influenced architects like Berlage. Around 1910, the Dutch architecture scene was dazzled by Wright’s modern country houses, with their lightly sloping cantilevered roofs and geometric proportions that accentuated the building’s horizontality through an uninterrupted interplay of lines.
In 1914, Van ’t Hoff travelled through the United States to visit Wright’s work and meet the American architect in person. Wright had a strong influence on the young Dutchman. In Villa Henny, Van ‘t Hoff combined Wright’s style with revolutionary construction techniques. Unlike Wright, who preferred natural locally sourced materials, he used concrete. This distinguishes Villa Henny as an original design that is certainly not a copy.
The concrete house is quite unique and hard to classify in the history of modern architecture. Henny is often associated with De Stijl but the house was already under construction when the group was founded in 1917 by the artist Theo van Doesburg. “It would be easy to mistake it for a design that emanated from De Stijl, because Van ‘t Hoff was a member of this group from 1917 to 1919,” says Driessen. “Van ’t Hoff was initially attracted to De Stijl because of its ideal of achieving a synthesis of the arts: the idea that all art forms should meld into a new all-encompassing aesthetic. But Van ’t Hoff wanted equality in art as well as in society. During the construction of Villa Henny, he was up on the scaffolds with the builders and the contractor. He didn’t want any masters and servants anymore. De Stijl didn’t have such a pronounced political agenda and that is why Van ’t Hoff eventually distanced himself from the movement.”
Villa Henny is cubism rather than modernism. “The basic form is still largely symmetrical and massive,” says Driessen. “The form and layout of the plan reveal a clear affinity with Wright and his so-called prairie style. The house that Rietveld built less than ten years later for Truus Schröder is infinitely more radical: it is more open and free. But Van ’t Hoff’s design undoubtedly made a great impression on Rietveld and the other members of De Stijl. It was an important step in the development of what was later to be called the Nieuwe Bouwen movement.

‘Van ’t Hoff’s design for Villa Henny was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Houses’

The current inhabitants, the Jap-A-Joe family, have by now grown used to the visits from students, teachers and researchers from the Netherlands and abroad who want to view the house. When they saw the villa up for sale in 1979, they had no idea who the architect was. “You don’t realize that you’re going to be living in a famous design beforehand,” says Kenneth Jap-A-Joe. “When we were looking for a place in this area, this house immediately caught our attention because of its general feel. The atmosphere is not Dutch, but rather American and tropical. I was sold even before I stepped inside. It’s an evergreen and, what’s more, a wonderful house to live in. It’s spacious yet intimate. My favourite space is the veranda; you feel like you’re outside.”
Inside, the house is practically in its original state, except for a few alterations that the previous owner asked Rietveld to introduce – and which are said to have infuriated Van ’t Hoff. The original fire-guard and the grating in the drinks cabinet beside it – both with the same pattern – have also been preserved. Van ’t Hoff designed them especially for this house in which the fireplace lies at the centre of the floorplan. Jap-A-Joe: “Originally there was a pond in the garden, but the previous owners replaced it with a swimming pool made of white concrete with strong grey lines, so that it is in keeping with the style of the house.”
The name Van ’t Hoff definitely belongs in the list with Hendrik Berlage, Willem Dudok, Gerrit Rietveld and other iconic 20th-century Dutch architects. But Van ’t Hoff has gone down in history as an illustrious and mysterious figure: driven and socially engaged, but also disillusioned. He designed just a few houses, of which Villa Henny is the most important example: it is featured in almost all reference works. There is no photo of the architect himself, which is somehow what one might expect of him. After ending his architectural career prematurely, he sank into obscurity. The young communist was unable to make concessions and was therefore never able to apply his ideals in the real world. He signed the letter that he wrote to Van Doesburg in 1927 on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the magazine De Stijl with the title “ex-architect”. In his writings, he explained why he never designed anything after his early work: “The time was not yet ripe for a new society without property.”

‘In his writings, the “ex-architect” explained why he never designed anything after his early work’

Social Equality
The promising and talented Van ’t Hoff moved to the United Kingdom with his family in 1922 where he settled for good in 1937. Here he continued to encourage social equality, though no longer through architecture. Van ’t Hoff had lived in the UK before, when he trained as an architect. During his studies he had already shown an interest in the social significance of architecture and alternative social forms of living. He designed two buildings during this period that were built in the Netherlands between 1911 and 1913: the model farm De Zaaier and Villa Løvdalla in Huis ter Heide for his parents. Shortly after World War II, Van ’t Hoff briefly returned to architecture, mainly because of the idealistic nature of the assignment. He designed a commune in Conventry, an industrial town in the Midlands that had been heavily bombed. It was to be his last design.

The garage, also designed by Van ’t Hoff. 
The staircase with its flat railing accentuates the rectangular contours. 

The house has an almost entirely symmetrical floorplan in which the main axis of the ground floor lies perpendicular to that of the first floor. Just as in Wright’s designs, the fireplace is centrally positioned and the remaining spaces are laid out around the central staircase. With its flat railing that accentuates the rectangular contours, the staircase is also strongly reminiscent of Wright.

This article by Aya Langeveld was previously published in Vernis Magazine #10 in 2016. We thank Aya and photographer Friso Keuris for allowing us to publish it here again.

Posted 11 February 2020