Why architecture isn’t collectible

By Felix Salmon
June 29, 2009

David Galbraith, looking at a floor of Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein on the market for €1,080,000, concludes that either “architecture is vastly under valued or painting prices are almost entirely irrational”.

I hope he’s right: architecturally-important residences should sell at a premium. It’s by far the best way to prevent them from being demolished. But it’s hardly irrational that they don’t.

The apartment in the Villa Stein, for instance, is in Garches, an undistinguished western suburb of Paris which, in the words of one website, is “mostly known for the Raymond Poincaré Hospital, which is specialized in medical treatment of road accident victims”. Not the kind of place that a rich art lover would really want to live. What’s more, it’s only 105 square meters, or 1,130 square feet: decidedly cramped if you’re the kind of person who is likely to drop millions of dollars on an artwork.

A great piece of architecture in a desirable location can sell at a premium, and a great piece of architecture which can be packed up into six containers and reconstructed anywhere in the world will sell for even more. But in general people looking to buy important architecture only want to do so if there’s a reasonable chance of them actually living in the house in question — at least for some of the year. If such people don’t want to live in Garches, then the seller of the Villa Stein flat is out of luck.

I am ultimately bearish about the prospects for collectible architecture — while it’s possible to imagine a world where it exists, it seems impossible to get there from here. But that doesn’t mean that the entire art market — a market where people get to buy unique and portable objects to savor and enjoy at their leisure — is irrational. It just means that architecture doesn’t behave in the same manner.

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