Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem ‘The Palace of Art’ concerns a man who surrounds himself with beauty, believing it will enrich his soul. Who wouldn’t do the same, if they could? Yet the poem also strikes a cautionary note, with the man eventually finding glittering surroundings all too meretricious and sterile.
This poem came to me when I read about the luxury residential developments in London and across the pond that feature onsite galleries as part of their draw, where others might go with an infinity pool or exclusive health spa. Zaha Hadid’s only New York building, 520 West 28th Street, boasts 15 gallery spaces to keep art – which of course made Chelsea desirable as a neighbourhood in the first place – from being totally priced out of the area. Earlier this year Greg Gushee of the developers Related told The Art Newspaper it was ‘a completely new-to-market concept’. And in 2016, ‘the first London art gallery… within a private residential development’ opened, according to the CEO of its developer, Stephen Conway. This is The Chilterns in Marylebone, where a 3,000 square foot two-bed costs £5.4 million.
These palaces – where art is mainly gilding, there to launder cultural currency – seem to me more sterile and meretricious than Tennyson’s. Yet, private developers are increasingly commissioning art for their premises at a time when public funding is scarce. Embassy Gardens in Nine Elms along London’s South Bank has three public sculptures curated by former Royal Academy grandee Sir Norman Rosenthal. One of these is a giant shiny golden marrow by Sarah Lucas, who was, at the time its unveiling, representing the UK at the Venice Biennale. Art collective Random International have been commissioned by St James Property Developers to make installations their Albert Embankment Plaza site.
And this incoming and growing trend for eliding artistic space and commercial property has already yielded more interesting results. Five miles out of Antwerp, Belgian art and antiques dealer Axel Vervoordt and his family have reversed the concept of the ritzier projects. Kanaal is a waterside development with 98 apartments and office space, but is first and foremost the headquarters of the family’s galleries, the Vervooordt Foundation, and, now, their permanent collection. Originally a 19th century distillery, it houses permanent installations by Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramović, Tatsuo Miyajima, and James Turrell, as well as three commercial galleries, open to the public, that will show work from the collection. The site itself, far from a slick London block, has the feel of a potter’s yard meets warehouse.
Stepping into one of the apartments, you enter a very Flemish space that nonetheless has the feel of an Italian Palazzo, with an abundance of light coming in from arched windows, and the distressed walls giving the impression of plaster flaking off with age. Two bedrooms and 200 square metres of open loft-style space costs €400,000-500,000, including tax: ten times cheaper than something at The Chilterns. And though the outskirts of Antwerp is hardly a W1 address, the pedigree of the collection itself is serious, being run by art professionals rather than developers who bring in outside expertise. Kanaal buyers can choose to work with the family to kit their homes out. (They’ve designed interiors for the likes of Mick Jagger in the past.)
‘Belgium is a country of collectors,’ Dick Vervoordt, the son who handles the real estate side of the business, tells me. Kanaal spaces were locally advertised, and most buyers ended up being local. Considering the family’s overall investment thus far is €100 million, the 98 residential apartments at roughly the above price, plus around 25 office spaces, they don’t stand to make huge profits. ‘During the process, New York developers came to see it and thought the price range would never work.’ The concern of the family is more about consolidating and amalgamating the legacy. And that makes it the sort of palace of art that appeals to me.