t1me to m4rket m0dernism

- bill 7-02-2010 6:47 pm

See the light: investing in a masterpiece of modernist architecture is far cheaper than buying an artwork from the same period – and means you could call a landmark home

It always rankles with architects that their work is rarely valued.

A simple comparison of sales prices for great works of art and great works of architecture reveals an astonishing discrepancy. It is difficult to draw parallels between artists and architects but in the case of two near-contemporaries, Picasso (1881-1973) and Le Corbusier (1887-1965), a Spaniard and a Swiss who each chose to make his home in Paris and each revolutionised his respective cultures, it is, for our purposes, reasonable.

Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” sold in May for $106.5m. Two years ago, the top floor of Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, in an upmarket Parisian suburb, came on to the market. It was being touted at £775,000 ($1.1m), barely more than an equivalent apartment in a contemporary building. Yet this is one of the key buildings of the modern movement, a villa of stunning originality and exquisite proportions, a landmark in architectural history. It is also a great apartment – airy, with wonderful views. So why the disparity?

It is one of the most intriguing questions in architecture. The first is the relative youth of the market in investment architecture. There has long been an established market in art, which arguably dates back to the days of medieval nobles who travelled their domains setting up home in cavernous castles, taking their tapestries with them to add a bit of life and warmth to the stone rooms. These were moveable feasts, rolled up and moved on. Art has been mobile ever since: it can be bought in Paris or London and shipped to Manhattan or Tokyo as the ultimate social bauble. Then there is the added status of establishing an eponymous gallery, the ultimate destination of so much privately consumed art. The buyer’s name goes up in lights.

Architecture is the opposite. It is immobile; it resists being included in a collection. It demands travel and time to appreciate. And there is no established market, or at least only the beginnings of one.

Perhaps most importantly, the demands placed on architecture shift constantly. The wealthy tend to like to live in a certain style: air conditioning, dozens of bathrooms, vast amounts of space, none of which was central to the often-ascetic modernist ideal. And they tend to like to live together. The established areas of London, Paris and New York were built in the wrong period, the end of the 19th century rather than the middle of the 20th. Value resides in location rather than the building. And, of course, you can build your own residence. (As an aside, it is an anomaly that those clients buying avant-garde modernist paintings often commission the most conservative classical architects to build their new suburban villas)

< There are, however, slow signs of change. While there is hardly a huge market, collectors of architecture, particularly of iconic modernist ho>uses, have been around for some time.

The architect at the zenith of modernist purity. Mies’s Farnsworth House may belong to the National Trust but the stunning apartments in Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive can be surprisingly affordable and timelessly beautiful.

Goldfinger was a Hungarian, educated in France but resident in Britain. Again, a Goldfinger house is a rarity – his own is now owned by the British National Trust (its first modernist acquisition) but apartments in his buildings – notably the Trellick Tower on the hairier edge of North Kensington – are often on the market.

The architect of the modern west, Neutra was an Austrian émigré who brought European style to the Californian landscape and blended it with an American sense of openness. His landmark Kaufmann Desert House was up for sale for $13m.

Wright built so many houses that there are always a few coming on to the market. Each was experimental in its own way and there were countless quarrels with clients. His most famous response to one client who complained about a leaky roof was to buy a bucket. His most famous houses, the Robie and Falling Water, are national landmarks but there are plenty left, each an inventive delight.

They are known for their extraordinary galleries around the world, such as London’s Tate Modern, Minneapolis’ Walker Gallery and San Francisco’s De Young, but in their early career they designed a number of residential buildings, from minimal houses to luxurious apartment blocks. >

The preservation society also bought Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. Johnson was a one-time acolyte of Mies, and his Glass House was both a homage and riposte, as clear and crystalline as anything the German architect ever built.

That such houses are often bought by amenity societies, effectively becoming national monuments or museums, is revealing. These houses were conceived in a spirit of completeness and clarity, the ultimate expression of a kind of modernism that sought transparency and structural lightness with extreme fervour. Not being able to alter a building is often a severe disincentive for clients who want to adapt houses to today’s lifestyle, with its emphasis on comfort and technology.

One revealing recent sales was that of Austrian émigré Richard Neutra’s superb Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, California. It was commissioned by Edgar J. Kaufmann (the same client who built Falling Water), and was once owned by Barry Manilow. Marketed by Christie’s as a work of art at its prestigious Post-War and Contemporary Art sale, this modernist classic was estimated at $15m-$25m. It just struggled in at the low end of the estimate, and then the sale fell through. It was later relisted at $12m.

This highlighted a bizarre paradox – that a classic piece of architecture may actually detract from the value of a prestigious site. There was a case, a few years ago, of a Frank Lloyd Wright house for sale in which it was estimated that the prestigious Los Angeles site without the house would have been worth roughly $1m more: a house by one of the 20th century’s greatest architects had a negative value of $1m.

Wright’s houses came back in the news recently when his 1922 Ennis House in the Hollywood Hills was put up for sale. Severely damaged in the 1994 earthquake, the extraordinary, Mayan-influenced building has starred in a panoply of movies from Blade Runner to Black Rain, its cast-concrete decoration seemingly a cipher for a slightly dystopian super-modernism. It stands in ominously bad condition but you could buy a serious piece of movie, as well as architectural, history for just $15m – for a while it was rumoured that Brad Pitt, another architecture aficionado (he even worked in Frank Gehry’s office for a spell) was interested.

If the Ennis House stands for a certain monumentality, French architect Jean Prouvé’s 1954 Maison Tropicale is perhaps closer to painting in its transportability. Designed as a home for colonial officials in the tropics, it was factory-made and assembled on site. It was bought by US hotelier André Balazs for $4.7m and has been exhibited outside the Centre Pompidou and Tate Modern, its final destination yet to be confirmed.

House in Palm Springs, California, was marketed by Christie’s in a contemporary art sale but failed to meet its estimate of $15m It would be nice to report that there is competition between buyers to acquire the finest modernist houses – which should, after all, be assets with a dual value, both as dwellings and as landmarks. But it would be misleading. While a fledgling market does seem to be developing, encouraged by the big auction houses and by entrepreneurs including specialist property agency The Modern House, the marketplace itself remains severely unpredictable, even more so in an uncertain economic climate. Many of the landmarks were built on prestigious sites that are far more desirable than the architecture itself. In eastern Europe, in particular, from Moscow to Budapest, decades of uncertain ownership and neglect have left hugely influential architectural gems to rot in obscurity.

There are few discernible trends, except to say that, as each new era is rediscovered, more houses come into the cache of potentially desirable finds. Real estate websites such as AtomicIndy.com and sellModern.com showcase some wonderfully inventive mid-century modern US properties, while the best 1970s houses, long out of favour, are currently being reconsidered, their value increasing sharply.>

- bill 7-02-2010 6:55 pm [add a comment]

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