I'M GENERALLY AN UP-TEMPO GUY. But I'll admit to exhaustion, even exasperation, when it comes to the hyperactive market for contemporary and modern design. At this point, I'd rather eat lead than see another Eames prototype or Ron Arad one-off for sale, priced beyond the reach of Croesus. Does this make me a philistine?
I'd like to think not. If anything, I'm annoyingly arty, in my own low-budget way. There's a secondhand Le Corbusier chaise in my living room that guests refuse to sit on. I play Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt far too loudly for neighbors' comfort. And my father still doesn't understand why I'd rather buy an Old Master etching or pre-Columbian figurine than put my spare change into a nice one-year certificate of deposit.
So my negative feelings about the hyperactive design market are a puzzlement. Especially surprising was my spiteful, glee-filled reaction upon learning that Louis I. Kahn's Esherick House failed to sell on May 18 at the Wright auction house in Chicago (the estimate was $2 million to $3 million). Don't get me wrong: The house is beautiful. I think Kahn was a genius. And it's not as though I have some personal beef: I don't even know the owner's name, and, on the flip side, a friend of mine works at Wright.
My glee only increased when I heard two more bits of dark news about architecture at auction this spring (“Architecture for Sale,” page 18). Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., sold for $15 million at Christie's ($16.8 million with commission), but the deal later fell through. And a pavilion designed by architect Shigeru Ban for Artek, a Finnish furniture company, sold at Sotheby's for $602,500—far below the estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million.
From an economic perspective, the recent low prices and no-sales can be chalked up to the downturn. Last June, one of Jean Prouvé's three Maison Tropicale prototypes sold at Christie's for $4.97 million, and nobody thought twice about it. A year ago, the Esherick House probably would have sold in a flash. (And perhaps the sellers will have better luck trying again in a couple of years, when the downturn is behind us.)
As a personal and professional booster of architecture, shouldn't I be overjoyed when a great building can command a great price on the basis of its aesthetic merits? Doesn't that count as a victory for the home team? Certainly. But I also worry about treating architecture the same way as fine art, from a business perspective. The art world, for all its creative and intellectual value, floats in an artificial bubble of pretense. Artists, curators, collectors, and even dealers and auctioneers like to believe that art isn't a commodity, that the art market is somehow different from—better than—the market for oil and gas or agricultural products. Certainly, great art has aesthetic, even spiritual value. But when a 12-year-old painting by Lucian Freud sold at auction in May for $33 million, what do you suppose was running through the seller's mind? I'll tell you: Ka-ching! And that's OK. No judgments.
Architecture is one of humanity's great forms of cultural expression, but it also fulfills a basic human need: the need for shelter. And it comes about at great effort and expense. Architects must weigh their aesthetic impulses against the pragmatics of budget and schedule, feasibility of construction, and requirements of the end user. When architects think like artists, and when architecture is sold as art, the profession runs the risk of losing its sense of responsibility to its clientele—that is, to humanity.
Editor in Chief