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Block party? Not happening so far

The gavel isn't ringing down on prized home architecture. Maybe we don't want it to.

June 03, 2008|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Architecture Critic

As part of a high-powered campaign to promote Richard Neutra's 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, which it auctioned during its big evening sale of postwar and contemporary art two weeks ago, Christie's produced a glossy booklet on the house and its setting. Near the front was a quote from Neutra himself: "The desert is subject to an infinity of moods, some of them violent."

So, it turns out, is the real estate market, even at the highest levels. Though the house sold on May 13 in New York for $15 million plus commissions, the deal fell apart a few days later. While another buyer could soon emerge, Christie's faces some sharp second-guessing about how it handled the sale, particularly in settling with the sellers on an estimate, $15 million to $25 million, that many observers saw as hugely optimistic in such a shaky market. Just as the Kaufmann sale was disintegrating, another high-profile auction sale also foundered. Louis Kahn's 1961 Esherick House in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, up for sale May 18 at the Wright auction house in Chicago, failed to earn a bid above its minimum of $2 million. As a result of the two misfires, fresh questions are swirling about the efficacy of combining auctions and architecture, particularly as a means of preservation.

There is also some head-scratching going on about the peculiar psychology of collectors: How could a Francis Bacon triptych like the one sold last month by Sotheby's be worth $86 million while a rare example of Louis Kahn's architectural genius, in excellent condition, go on the block for $2 million to $3 million and fail to sell?

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Vulnerable buildings

Houses are not portable the way paintings are, and they require a level of upkeep that works of art do not. And the whole notion of modern-house-as-collector's-item remains an immature one, exotic to many deep-pocketed auction regulars. But still, the gap in how the market sees these two kinds of aesthetic assets is astonishingly wide, especially for anybody who has spent time inside one of Kahn's buildings.

These issues have particular relevance in Los Angeles, where such a high percentage of our iconic buildings are modern houses. Grand public buildings are, of course, far better equipped to survive a preservation battle than private ones. Their owners face more restrictions once they start thinking about knocking them down. For a while, concerns about the fate of our great stock of private houses were allayed by two factors: the soaring real estate market and the rising appeal, even trendiness, of Midcentury design. When the Wright auction house sold Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #21 in the Hollywood Hills in late 2006 for $3.18 million, including commissions, it was a symbol of both forces acting in concert.

The house, after all, measures just 1,300 square feet. Most properties of its size in that neighborhood would have sold as a tear-down. High-end buyers will hardly even look at a house with fewer than five bedrooms these days. Case Study 21 has two tiny ones. The Esherick House has only one bedroom.

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Time to rethink, perhaps

In the wake of the Koenig sale, I admit I was swayed by the idea that the market could sometimes act as a more nimble force for preservation than guardian institutions, particularly in Los Angeles. And I was hardly alone. Christy MacLear, who runs Philip Johnson's Glass House in Connecticut on behalf of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told the Wall Street Journal recently that she was a "big supporter" of the idea of selling significant 20th century architecture at auction: "It creates this unbelievable awareness about Modernism and enhances its value."

I haven't turned away from that line of thinking completely; the sad state of affairs at Neutra's VDL Research House II in Silver Lake, which is operated, if that is not too kind a word, by the Cal Poly Pomona Foundation, suggests that houses in L.A. often fare worse with public owners than with private ones. The question always seems to turn on a trade-off: Is a struggling nonprofit that will keep a famed house, whatever its state of disrepair, open to the public preferable to a wealthy private owner who restores it for his own enjoyment?

The scope of the recent economic downturn can't help but lead us to reassess all these issues. In the run-up to two auctions last month, the story seemed clear: Houses with top architectural pedigrees are immune to the problems plaguing the larger market. Now something closer to the opposite looks to be the case: Uncertainty can tear like a wildfire through the real estate market, torching even the sturdiest and best-protected deals.

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