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05.28.2008
Editorial: House Warning
With iconic modernist houses fetching top dollar, what about the rancho-style rest of us?
On May 13, Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs sold at auction for $15 million—not a bad haul. Makes me think of other architectural masterpieces attracting a pretty penny, lately. Louis Kahn’s Esherick House in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, was at press time expected to fetch around $3 million at Wright auction house in Chicago. On thevalueofarchitecture.com, an impressive site, A. Quincy Jones’ Kalmik House is on sale for $1.67 million. And on architectureforsale.com, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Cooke House is priced at $4.4 million.
 
I have mixed feelings about this sort of thing. 
 
Part of me finds it depressing that iconic modernist houses have now become symbols of luxury and wealth. The roots of the modernist movement were based in equality and simplicity, and architects like Neutra, Schindler, and Lautner were all proponents of the movement. They weren’t interested in their homes selling for outrageous prices or having their names attached like some kind of celebrity endorsement. They were more concerned with establishing a new, more simple and equitable way of living. But our nation has an unbelievable knack for turning anything into a commodity; hence, the only people who can afford to live in these houses are the richest of the rich. Those buying on the cheap are usually stuck with mass-produced rancho-style, adobe-lite, faux Tuscan villa, and so on.
 
Of course, it’s hard to argue that homes—like any commodity—shouldn’t get what they attract on the market. And it’s great to see an interest in architecture at all. As design buffs like to say, it gives credence to the relevance and popularity of modernist architecture in our society. Paying a high price for architecture is better than neglecting it or allowing its destruction. 
 
Still, the challenge is to make great architecture affordable for “the rest of us,” and it is possible. If builders and developers were convinced that the market were ripe for innovative architecture, that’s what we’d see. Meanwhile, whenever possible, we need to find ways to keep some of these masterpieces open to the public so they can be experienced by everyone, not just a few wealthy owners. At the same time as Neutra’s Kaufmann was going for top dollar, an equally important building in the history of modernism—the architect’s own home and studio, the VDL House—teeters on the brink of sale. The Silver Lake home has remained open to the public since 1990, thanks to the work of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. But just a few weeks ago, the university announced they could no longer pay to maintain the residence, and so they are seeking donations to save it and to maintain it in the future. Without some kind of endowment, they may have to sell.

So if you can’t afford to pay millions on a masterpiece, why not chip in to keep one open to the rest of us? Contact www.neutra-vdl.org and give what you can.

Sam Lubell