Valuing Modernist Architecture

Dan Gross has a most peculiar column about collectible architecture, something I’ve been writing about quite a bit:

Can historic Modernist homes be treasured, shown, and monetized like Warhols and Gauguins? A recent visit to one of America’s best-known and most successful Modernist houses, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and a look at its business model, suggests the answer might be no.

He then goes on to explain how the Glass House, which was left to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, doesn’t make money. He doesn’t explain why it should make money, and he also doesn’t explain how Warhols and Gaugins are regularly "monetized" by similar not-for-profit entities. (Hint: they’re not.)

As a punchline, Gross points out that Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, which was sold by Christie’s in a blaze of publicity in May, actually never got sold after all. But that was just another real-estate transaction which fell through – such things are not exactly rare these days.

I’m not a fan of selling modernist architecture at auction: I think that carefully-brokered transactions would be better for all concerned, and indeed now that the Kaufmann House sale has fallen through, both high-profile architecture auctions last month can be considered failures. (The other was Louis Kahn’s Esherick House in Philadelphia.)

I also fear that these auction failures will put a year-long crimp in the nascent and fragile market in collectible architecture: that they might well have done more harm than good.

Why is a market in collectible modernist architecture important? Because the public as a whole tends to follow the money, when it comes to taste in art and architecture. It wasn’t that long ago that avant-garde architects like Zaha Hadid were generally ridiculed in the press; nowadays, when she builds something new, the new building is welcomed by the local community. Tastes change quickly, and contemporary architecture is now as popular as it’s ever been – something evidenced by the rise of "starchitects" in recent years.

So when Ed Glaeser talks about Lucien Freud’s paintings "offending standard sensibilities," I think he’s a bit out of date. They might have done, a few years ago, but now they’ve been ratified by record sale prices, the public is used to them and rather admires them.

Glaeser wonders what is to be done about Boston’s City Hall – an architecturally important building which is unloved by locals. He suggests that "a serious campaign to teach people why City Hall is so interesting could give the structure a much more solid base of popular support". I suggest that serious campaigns rarely have any effect in terms of popular support. Much better that modernism generally is ratified by high prices – that will have a much bigger effect on popular taste. If modernist buildings fetch a premium in the market, then the taste of the market will, eventually, trickle down to the population as a whole. There are very few things which are valuable yet not generally desirable.

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