The house collectors

Gathering bricks and mortar, rather than oil and canvas.

Style

20 Jun 2015

The very rich are more competitive than you and me. It’s what made them very rich in the first place.

At a smart wedding in Paris, thinking myself impressively cosmopolitan, I asked a fellow guest where he lived. He looked a bit quizzically, then quickly decided to patronise me, saying, ‘I have just flown in from Rio, but I work in New York and London where I also keep homes. I have an apartment here in Paris and another in Monte Carlo. Oh yes, a small place in Munich. But really I live in Ibiza.’ I know a developer who often teases people by asking them if they have as many as the 52 lavatories he claims as his own.

Collecting property has always been a privilege of money. And so too has architectural patronage, but in the past 20 years these two subtly different areas of acquisition and cupidity have come together in a new and more powerful way of showing off: collecting architecture itself. Nowadays, a man in possession of a fortune commissions an architect.

Or if his fortune is not a small one, several architects. At La Coste, near Bonnieux, Paddy McKillen (who until very recently owned a collection of London’s spiffiest hotels) has built an astonishing architectural theme park in a lush Provençal vineyard landscape. You immediately think ‘vulgarian bombast’ and then you find buildings by Tadao Ando and Frank Gehry, so you think again.

People have real-world portfolios of bricks and concrete. And in the case of André Balazs, the proprietor of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, metal. He bought an example of Jean Prouvé’s innovative aluminium pre-fab Maison Tropicale and, after an image-building museum tour, installed it in a Caribbean resort, making something of a mockery of the architect’s utopian and democratic intentions. But Prouvé, also found at La Coste, is currently the collectible designer darling of the New York art crowd — and logic plays no part in a stampede to acquire impressive architectural trophies.

Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, bought by Aby Rosen
Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, bought by Aby Rosen

Various factors are involved in this new practice of architectural trophy-hunting. One, the stellar price of museum-quality art puts great paintings out of the reach of mere billionaires while masterpiece architecture is still affordable, although these things are relative. Two, architecture itself has changed status recently. The art dealer Niall Hobhouse now concentrates on architectural drawings alone. In them he, quite rightly, find aesthetic value no less than in ‘fine’ art.

And architecture is no longer a trade practised by tweedy bespectacled techno-artisans. Instead, the names of the glittering leaders of a globalised profession have become, through a lot of slavish media attention, labels as aspirational and as redolent of certain values as Gucci, Hermès and Cartier once were: Gehry means dramatic shape-making for glamorous causes; Ando means smooth concrete and green walls suggesting nearly religious high-mindedness; Pawson means sophisticated cool.

Three: now that the term ‘Modern’ has become a safe historical style label and is no longer politically threatening, there is a brisk market in Modern heritage homes. A record here is that Christie’s recently sold Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs for $16 million. More modestly, the week I am writing this, a fine 1984 Frank Gehry Guest House at Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota, inspired by the compositions of Giorgio Morandi, was sold at auction for just under $1 million. For someone who can afford a plane, a Gehry is a nice collectible conversation piece.

The archaeology of the trend is interesting: the collecting of trophy architecture has tracked the rise of the architect-as-celebrity. There are several points of origin here, but one of the most significant occurred in 1989, when Sotheby’s sold its first building. This was the 1949 house on East 52nd Street which Philip Johnson designed for Blanchette Rockefeller. It was bought by Anthony d’Offay who then, in a tribal fugue of collectorism, sold it on to Ronald Lauder.

Namechecking architects, hitherto often anonymous, soon become compulsory for expensive new residential properties. In 2002, two apartments in Richard Meier’s towers in the West Village were sold to Calvin Klein and Nicole Kidman. Adroitly publicised by the developer, Meier’s own name became as lustrous as Kidman’s and Klein’s, setting up a whole culture of expectations and feverish speculation in the fashionable end of the Manhattan property market. New York magazine said this demonstrated that ‘architecture could be monetised’. Indeed it could.

While this was going on, the international Pritzker Prize and the Serpentine Gallery’s annual pavilions accelerated the new celebrity status of architects. The Pritzker is an annual prize for lifetime achievement, created by the family which established the Hyatt chain of hotels, whose own reputation was made with astonishingly exuberant designs by John Portman. This was architecture’s first dalliance with modern notions of branding, a process still continuing.

At the Serpentine since 2000, temporary summer pavilions have made stellar reputations for architects who were, before their 15 minutes in Kensington Gardens, famous for never having built in this country. The temporary nature of a Serpentine pavilion allows experimentation that would not be possible in a permanent building, but also encourages an evanescent faddishness which some find inappropriate to the mother of the arts. Still, this is good news for collectors: Serpentine pavilions are easily knocked down and inherently mobile. The 2014 pavilion by Smiljan Radic can now be found in the Somerset garden of the art dealer Iwan Wirth.

Maison Tropicale by Jean Prouvé
Maison Tropicale by Jean Prouvé

In New York, collectors of trophy architecture have ambitions beyond the garden. Aby Rosen of RFR Holdings, a property investor who already owns more than a hundred Warhols, has acquired the landmark Lever House by Gordon Bunshaft as well as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, two of the greatest Modernist masterpieces. Here’s a man who collects skyscrapers! But Rosen’s trophy-hunting is not merely antiquarian: this collector makes architectural history, too, working with hotelier Ian Schrager on the Gramercy Park Hotel with its John Pawson interiors. The Pawson name adds a premium to the price of any building it’s attached to. Rosen said ‘having a celebrity architect design a project adds a couple of hundred thousand dollars, or an additional 1 to 3 per cent’. Seems he was wrong: an LSE survey recently put that figure at 25 per cent.

Another New York firm of developers called Sumaida + Khurana is committed to what it calls ‘seminal’ architecture, apparently a synonym for very expensive. Being built is a 400ft residential tower by Alvaro Siza planned for 11th Avenue and 56th Street. This is Siza’s first work in the US and a stampede of early-adopting trophy-hunters is anticipated. Sumaida + Khurana is also building a condominium by the revered Pritzker-winning Osaka architect Tadao Ando.

It is possible that Ando will monetise even better than Meier or Pawson. Leonard Steinberg, a Sumaida + Khurana associate, recalled recently being at a pool in Capri when someone asked if he knew about the Ando project (which opens in November next year). Steinberg said, ‘All of a sudden the entire pool started talking about Ando and his magic.’ Yes. Now very rich people are becoming competitive about who designed their condo.

Smiljan Radic’s 2014 Serpentine pavilion, now in Iwan Wirth’s Somerset garden
Smiljan Radic’s 2014 Serpentine pavilion, now in Iwan Wirth’s Somerset garden

Perhaps it is not surprising that collecting was defined as a neurosis at an international medical conference in Paris in the 1950s. ‘Taste,’ as Bernard Berenson knew, ‘begins when appetite is satisfied.’ The very rich are hungry only for status, so their eternal struggle is to find an identity which, at least for the moment, they do through the acquisition of trophy architecture.

But there are problems. No one, whatever their budget, could realistically assemble an architectural portfolio including Michelangelo, Wren and Gaudí, but if aspirations are limited to the Modern period, then a new species of specialist property consultant is here to help sooth the anxieties of the neurotic rich. There is Interbau in Germany, Mossler in the US and the Modern House in this country. Right now, the Modern House can sell you an Eric Lyons ‘Span’ house in Blackheath for £800,000, Amyas Connell’s masterpiece ‘High and Over’ in Amersham for £2.8 million and a Berthold Lubetkin apartment in the City for £700,000.

Naturally, there are absurdities. I know one family of conventional tastes and high net worth who built an extreme Modernist house in a Hampstead mews and filled it with shrieking angular furniture in order to impress their friends when entertaining. Then, when the guests’ cabs had safely receded, they retreated to a neighbouring villa, conventionally flocked, deep-pile-carpeted and veloured with velvet curtains and satin tie-backs. But maybe this was not so very different to Lord Burlington, who lived on Piccadilly but built his trophy house in Chiswick.

For so long as there are celebrity architects, the rich will compete to acquire buildings with their names attached. But remember John Updike’s warning: ‘Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.’ Maybe he should have said ‘façade’.


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