11/06/04 - 10:30-11:30 AM - Object and Icon: The Farnsworth House as Architectural Collectible

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Sun, 11/07/2004 - 04:09.

11/06/04 - 10:30-11:30 AM Presentation by Irene Sunwoo, Architectural Association, London
Object and Icon: The Farnsworth House as Architectural Collectible

We were fortunate to have join us, from London, England, architecture historian Irene Sunwoo, discussing an innovative concept, being a house as an art object desired by collectors and brokered as a collectible - in this case she profiled the controversial Farnsworth House of Mies Van der Rohe, 1946 - 1951, which was sold in 2003 as lot 800 in an auction at Sotheby's, for $7.5 million. The winning bidder was the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, which will now operate the house, hailed as an architectural masterwork.

Ms. Sunwoo pointed out this is the second architectural masterpiece to be commoditized and sold at auction - the first being the Rockefeller Guest House in New York, NY, which was designed by Cleveland-born International Style architect Philip Johnson - sold by Christies in 2000 for over $11 million. Fortunately, both of these houses are now held in public trusts and will be preserved for public access.

The 'Rockefeller Guest House'
Designed by Philip C. Johnson for Mrs. John D.
Rockefeller III, 1949-1950
Sold for $11,116,000
June 2000
New York, Rockefeller Center

The point of the discussion was that the process of selling these homes as objects - described in deconstructed material ways and auctioned as works of art - changed the context of the objects from real estate to by inhabited to objects to be collected - and the previous owner of the Farnsworth House, Peter Palumbo (now Lord Peter
Palumbo), is described as a London-based businessman and art dealer who collects
architecturally significant buildings... also once owning Le Corbusier's Les Maisons Jaoul houses, Paris, France, and still owning Frank Lloyd Wright's "Kentuck Knob" house, in Pennsylvania. Obviously, this is a passion that may only be pursued by the super-wealthy.

In exploring the subject, some attendees inquired on the historical precedent of this phenomenon - hadn't Kings collected houses, for example? The distinction offered by the presenter was that those houses were for living and holding court, not celebration as objects. I compared the trend to wealthy New Yorkers who are disrupting the spirit of historic Charleston, SC, by purchasing the most historically significant homes in town for their brief vacation sojourns - typically for Christmas - and leaving them uninhabited and closed to the public the majority of the time... this trend has residents there very upset.

In further conclusion, I considered our remarkable arts and economy supporter Peter Lewis, the genius behind Progressive Insurance's phenominal success and the Chairman of the Guggenheim museums, being responsible for their growing collection of architecturally astounding museums - from their Frank Lloyd Wright flagship in New York to their Gehry Bilbao museum, in Spain, and for our Gehry Weatherhead business school just a few hundred yards from where we were meeting at the CIA. Ultimately, it seems, certain people who are financially able and so inclined may collect nearly whatever they like, including remarkable architectural creations - whether as a home or as a legacy to their philanthropy. There is no judgment in this discussion that such celebration of great architecture is wrong - whether for preservation or creation, especially for public "consumption", it is clearly special and good.

Peter B. Lewis Building
10900 Euclid Avenue
Ohio 44106-7235


Gehry building in Cleveland, Ohio  

Sotheby's press release announcing auction of Farnsworth House

Chicago Sun Times article on sale of Farnsworth House

Friends of the Farnsworth House website

Christies Rockefeller Guest House page

New York City official page on landmark Rockefeller Guest House 

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