Meet the people who collect modernist houses
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Most, if not all, collectors of houses seem to be men. Perhaps collecting is a male compulsion. The first were kings with palaces spread about their realms, partly in order to survey their kingdoms, partly in order to escape their filthy, rebellious cities. Then there were robber barons: the Citizen Kanes with their mad mansions and huge town houses. But more recently there has been a subtle move to modernism.
Just as car collectors veer towards Ferraris, Jaguars and Bugattis from the mid-20th-century high point of sleek design, collectors of houses for their own sake — as opposed to wealthy people who accumulate properties across the world for their location rather than design — go for buildings from the classic period of modernism: 1925 to 1960.
Despite it being a century old, modernism’s pioneering houses still represent an archetype of civilised living. Architects’ attempts to produce interiors that segue into the landscape or revel in the minimal means of industrial materials — unfinished, raw and real — still evoke the thrill of living at the sharp end of the avant-garde.
Ronald Burkle is a fan. A private equity billionaire and founder of The Yucaipa Companies, his best-known property is probably Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch in California (not exactly an architectural gem, though at $22m, according to The Wall Street Journal, more valuable than most modernist real estate). But for many years Burkle was also the owner of Frank Lloyd Wright’s magical Mayan-inflected Ennis House (1924) in Los Angeles, a dazzlingly original building that has featured in dozens of films and television shows, from Blade Runner to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He also owns the John Lautner-designed house in Palm Springs (1979) built for Bob Hope. Lautner had worked for Wright, but this desert spaceship was something else — sci-fi moderne of the highest and wackiest order.
Brad Pitt is certainly intrigued by architecture — he is reputed to have interned at Frank Gehry’s practice — and he funded the construction of houses for New Orleans residents made homeless after Hurricane Katrina (though many of the dwellings have not lasted well). He also bought Dutch provocateurs Atelier Van Lieshout’s Mini Capsule Hotel (2002), a black, six-bedroom portable dorm for partygoers who want to crash in situ. Otherwise, he just seems to own a lot of houses, the brilliance of their design not always, apparently, the key concern.
The most famous of the famous house collectors is a figure steeped in the industry — Lord Peter Palumbo (pictured top), a British property developer and one-time chair of the UK Arts Council. His best-known project, arguably, was an attempt to bring Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to late 1960s London, with a tower beside Mansion House. The project crashed in a reaction against modernism. In its place, James Stirling and Michael Wilford designed No 1 Poultry (1997), a more modest, postmodern work of offices and shops.
Palumbo says collecting houses was never his intention. “I just fell in love — three times,” he says. “They all came out of the blue — pure serendipity.” The first time led to him acquiring perhaps the ur-minimalist home, Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1953) in Illinois, an exquisite building with a rocky past. “It was 1968,” says Palumbo. “I was in Chicago for a meeting with Mies. I was staying at the Drake Hotel and picked up the Chicago Tribune. I was thumbing through the classifieds and there was an ad for the house.” He remembered it from his schooldays at Eton, where a teacher gave a talk on modern art and architecture.
The house, a steel and glass object of ineffable elegance and inestimable influence, was commissioned by Edith Farnsworth, a well-to-do physician in Chicago. She was an intriguing but prickly figure, who has been treated harshly by historians after her acrimonious relationship with Mies.
She blamed him for cost overruns, which he denied, showing in a subsequent court case that she had approved changes. Mies and Farnsworth have often been assumed to have had a romantic entanglement, and her lack of love for the house has been attributed to the souring of the relationship. Certainly, she was bitter about what she saw as the failings of a glass vitrine in the woods, which left her feeling exposed and vulnerable.
“She invited me to lunch at the house,” Palumbo continues. “I bought it there and then.” The house is in Plano, by the Fox river. “The house was really a bachelor pad, a place for the weekend,” Palumbo says. “But it was so beautiful, you could forgive it anything, even the mosquitoes.”
It became an expensive hobby. When the house was flooded one year, it needed complete restoration. Palumbo’s team took the opportunity to remove some of Edith’s less sympathetic additions, such as mosquito screens, and restore the damaged interior finishes. Palumbo makes the point that when things need to be repaired on a great work of architecture, you cannot just get the local builders in. It can be demanding, time-consuming and expensive.
Next, Palumbo acquired a pair of houses by Mies’s contemporary, Swiss architect Le Corbusier. The Maisons Jaoul (1954-56) were a very different proposition: a nice neighbourhood in Paris (Neuilly-sur-Seine) and works that were key to the development of Brutalism. “I was going to Paris for the weekend and a brochure landed on my desk about the Maisons Jaoul,” says Palumbo. “It was owned by the same well-to-do family who had commissioned it and they had not done anything to it at all.
“It was a bit of a wreck. We found Corb’s right-hand man and he reassembled the team who had built it. They knew everything about it — it was wonderful.” Both Farnsworth and Maisons Jaoul were later sold by Palumbo to institutions that would keep them open to the public.
Palumbo was lucky. He admits that even the greatest architects’ plans were not always executed as designed. Corners were cut on site, things went wrong. Some of the greatest houses are jerry-built. But the Le Corbusier builders knew what they were doing, even going as far as finding the sand from the local river and using it for the cement, as they had done in the 1950s when the houses were first built.
Finally in 1986, Palumbo bought Kentuck Knob (1956) by Wright, not far from Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, his greatest masterpiece. In another stroke of luck, the house — which he still owns — had just become available when Palumbo visited.
Palumbo has had the opportunity to inhabit houses by the three most influential architects of the 20th century. Which was best? “They were all so beautiful,” he says, a little disappointingly, “that the one I happened to be in always took precedence.” He talks about the houses with a kind of lyrical yearning. They are well-practised stories, but the emotion is real; he clearly adored these houses.
Palumbo was not alone in his passion. Robert M Rubin, a one-time Wall Street trader-turned-art historian and collector, owns one of the most influential modernist houses, the Maison de Verre. Built between 1928 and 1932 in a Parisian apartment block courtyard, the house was a hybrid dwelling and consulting room for gynaecologist and family planning pioneer Jean Dalsace and Annie Bernheim, his wife. She came from a wealthy, property-owning family and became an art collector and cultural patron. The pair were prominent members of the Communist party and it was Bernheim who found the architect by way of her old tutor, Louise Dorothee Dyte, who had married Pierre Chareau. Chareau never qualified as an architect, becoming known instead for his radical furniture designs, and teamed up with Bernard Bijvoet and Louis Dalbet to design the house.
Its glass-brick walls concealed a strange and beautiful space that prefigured high-tech and industrial loft architecture, by using industrial and medical elements and materials in a domestic setting. It became an irresistible salon for leading cultural figures, from Walter Benjamin and Max Ernst to Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. Rubin bought the house from the Dalsace family in 2006, to restore it and live there with his family.
“I had a place in Paris already,” Rubin says, “at the Palais Royal. But we sold that and moved into the Maison de Verre. From the very first day we owned it, we never slept anywhere else when we were in Paris. It really is our home.”
It has, he points out, a great location in the seventh arrondissement. But what is it like living in one of modernism’s greatest and most distinctive landmarks? “It takes a long time to unpackage,” he says. “People come to visit for an hour or two and they think they see it, but it’s a completely different experience to live in it. There are always new things to discover.”
Rubin, who has the brusque but friendly directness of a native New Yorker honed in finance, arrived at collecting architecture — although he protests that he only ever had three houses and donated two of those to institutions — via Jean Prouvé. Now a kind of modernist hero, Prouvé was an engineer-designer whose functional but elegant furniture and demountable buildings have inspired generations but also become artworks in their own right.
More than anyone, French gallerist Patrick Seguin has been responsible for the recent Prouvé revival and the rehabilitation of the designer’s structures, many of which were languishing unloved in unlikely places but now sit, much admired, in collections, landscapes and museums.
“Prouvé said there was no difference between building a house and building furniture,” Seguin says. “He was a visionary and he said, ‘The home of my dreams is built in a factory’.” Seguin had already been dealing in the designer’s furniture and noticed the discrepancy between the value of a table (priced as if it was art) and a house (as surplus junk). Prouvé spent his career attempting to perfect a prefabricated architecture that could respond to disaster or the postwar housing crisis and provide decent, modern housing in any climatic or cultural conditions.
Rubin “started with a Tropical House [a Prouvé design intended for easy erection in the French tropical colonies, 1949-51]”, he says. “I bought it not as an artwork but because I felt Prouvé’s reputation as a constructor and a designer was being eclipsed by his furniture and it needed to be recuperated. I wanted to restore the house and show it could be a model for industrialised social housing. I owned a golf club on Long Island and at first I wanted to put it there, but then I thought it deserves more than to become some kind of garden folly. So we exhibited it and then I donated it to the Pompidou [Centre in Paris], so the house is available and it lives on.”
Rubin’s second piece was a Fly’s Eye Dome by Buckminster Fuller, the visionary engineer. He bought it because, like the Prouvé house, it had been a prototype for an industrialised housing type. “That one ended up at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.” Fuller’s prototype was a solution that he had proposed for almost every type of shelter, including as a roof for Manhattan and a space settlement. But it also illustrated a postwar optimism in engineering and architecture that was geared towards the construction of modern ways of living.
Rubin touches on an important aspect: We might think of the acquisition of prestige houses almost as artworks, as trophy assets. But this tends not to be the case. Often they are acquired to further knowledge and preserve for the future, when institutions may struggle with the cost and difficulty of acquiring and maintaining them.
Something like a demountable Prouvé house, which was conceived as a low-cost solution to a social crisis, has become very expensive and desirable. Hotelier André Balazs bought a Prouvé house for almost $5m at auction in 2007, an irony for a low-cost construction prototype. Miuccia Prada, the billionaire Italian fashion designer, and the artist Richard Prince also both have one.
But whether, like Rubin, you see it as a “pedagogic exercise” or as an artwork or piece of design, doesn’t it lose value if left exposed to the elements? Seguin laughs. “If you have a 1956 Porsche you can put it in a garage or you can drive it. These houses have survived very harsh conditions, in the tropics, jungles, by the sea, some since 1949. They’re built of aluminium and don’t rust, resisting even an ocean climate. They will survive.”
Nevertheless some collectors have, clearly, been loath to leave their lovely Prouvé houses outside. Azzedine Alaïa, the Tunisian fashion designer who died in 2017, “used to have a Jean Prouvé petrol station installed on the top floor of his apartment in Paris”, says Seguin. “He slept in it. I think it is still there.”
Rubin also makes the car analogy, but with a different point. “I used to collect old racing cars,” he says. “When you acquire them, that’s just the price of admission. It’s an expensive obsession. It’s the same with houses: this isn’t like owning a painting, it’s a guardianship.” Would he buy another house? “I’m in my sixties,” he says. “If I was 20 years younger I might think about the Lovell House.” The Los Angeles residence, designed by Richard Neutra in 1927, was perhaps the first true modernist home in the US and certainly one of the most radical.
There is a responsibility in owning these homes. Rubin calls it “art historical advocacy”, or seeking recognition for designers he admires. His wife, Stéphane Samuel, a garden designer, explains the conflict between allowing “scholars and young architects to visit the house to be inspired” and “the need to live in it, to keep it as a private house, not a museum; we really wanted to live in it”.
“It’s quite fragile,” she says, “so we can’t have thousands of people, but on certain days we have small groups. I remember then what a privilege it is to live here. Watching some of the visitors’ impressions can be very touching — you can feel their emotions.”
This article is part of FT Wealth, a section providing in-depth coverage of philanthropy, entrepreneurs, family offices, as well as alternative and impact investment
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