Architecture

The mod squad

For a growing band of aficionados, a Modernist home is the ultimate acquisition, combining art, design and architecture. Dominic Bradbury reveals some gems.

September 11 2009
Dominic Bradbury

Rediscovering a lost masterpiece is one of those constant and seductive dreams that have kept storytellers busy over the years. The great thing about Michael and Gabrielle Boyd’s discovery was that they not only found and saved a master­piece, but they could also live in it. The Boyds came across the only house in North America designed by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, completed in 1964 for film producer Joseph Strick. Restoring the Strick House reaffirmed the Boyds’ passion for Modernist architecture, placing them within a growing band of aficionados in the US, Britain and elsewhere who are fuelling a growing market for collecting iconic Modernist homes.

“For us, Niemeyer is the greatest living architect and so the opportunity to buy his only house in America was something we just could not pass up,” says Michael Boyd. “People are now seeing the possibilities of these kinds of houses as a total work of art, mixing architecture, design, art and landscape. They need to be historically accurate but also warm and inviting because they are also homes.”

The Strick House was threatened with demolition before the Boyds realised its unique value and stepped in. They spent three years restoring the building and documented the process in a book. Having collected modernist furniture for years, and having already renovated the Paul Rudolph town house in New York, the Boyds – who used to work in the music business – decided to launch a new company after finishing the Niemeyer house. BoydDesign now provides consultancy and design services to clients with classic Modernist homes of their own. Michael is currently working on a string of Californian pearls by Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Craig Ellwood.

“It feels great to see these houses gleaming again,” Boyd says. “People sometimes think of masterpiece Modernism as cold and clinical but then they realise that it can be warm and relaxing. At its best, it feels totally timeless and not eccentric at all. I also love the fact that what we are doing is renewing and recycling – the Niemeyer house was going to be knocked down and instead we have brought it back to life and made it beautiful again.”

In the US, Britain and other parts of the world, iconic Modernist houses are becoming increasingly sought after and collectable, benefiting from a surge of interest that has already seen original mid-century furniture soar in value. Many classic houses by big-name architects have been lost over the years to demolition by overzealous developers and buyers with different ideas for replacement houses, although this has now slowed as people wake up and realise the great value of these buildings and the preservation movement has become more involved. But it does mean that the stock of collectable classics by the great Modernist pioneers – such as Lautner, Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer and others – is very limited, like a 20th-century fine art market.

Five years ago, Albert Hill and Matt Gibberd set up The Modern House estate agency in the UK specialising in Modernist homes and contemporary architecture. They have noticed an increasing awareness among buyers about 20th-century architecture and design, while also seeing prices creeping upwards for prime examples of Modernist houses by pedigree architects.

“In the 1980s it was all about bankers buying Georgian rectories in the Cotswolds, but in the 1990s people in the creative industries especially began to want to distance themselves from that,” says Hill. “All things Modernist began to attract a much higher profile and the creative types started buying Modern. As the next generation of wealth came through – including internet entrepreneurs – Modernism was desirable, and that’s where we are at now.

“A Modernist house doesn’t always equal a premium price and it does have to be an outstanding example. As in the art world, not all Modernist homes sell for a lot, but the very best certainly do. The recognised names are usually well known because they have proved their ability and quality, so one usually can’t go wrong with an established name. But one can also find gems by unknown architects.”

In the US especially, iconic Modernist homes by figurehead architects have increasingly been sold at auction, like fine paintings. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois was famously sold for $7.5m by Sotheby’s in 2003, while Christie’s sold Philip Johnson’s Rockefeller Guest House for $11m a few years earlier. More recently, in 2007, hotelier André Balazs paid $5m at a Christie’s auction for a rare example of Jean Prouvé’s La Maison Tropicale – a small series of pre-fabricated houses designed in the late 1940s for use in Africa by French diplomats.

Auctioneer Richard Wright has been at the forefront of this recent move towards the sale of such iconic homes and buildings at auction. He sold Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21 in Los Angeles at auction in 2006 for $3.185m, a house that cost around $20,000 to build in the late 1950s (the owners of Koenig’s Case Study House #22 have been offered as much as $15m but have not yet been tempted to sell). The auction market had a wobble after Louis Kahn’s Esherick House (Wright) recently failed to reach its reserve price and Neutra’s Kaufmann House (Christie’s) sold for $16.84m, towards the lower end of its $15m-$25m estimate. But Wright suggests that fresh auctions for prize houses will continue, though perhaps without high reserves so the market can decide more freely on the value of these unique houses.

“I believe that, ultimately, these auctions do make sense, both in the States and abroad,” explains Wright, “because important works of 20th-century architecture are just too hard to assess and market through traditional real-estate channels. I believe in the idea that these important structures do need to be cared for and preserved, and part of that message is well suited to the auction houses and their audience.

“So to me the proposition works but the hard part is making sure that these properties are offered at a price that is not above the market. The multiple at which significant properties will sell is best determined by the open market and when the auction houses have tried to set that multiple in advance, then we seem to be failing.”

In Britain, architect Sean Albuquerque, principal of ABQ Studio, stumbled across a Modernist gem through more con­ventional means in the form of Serge Chermayeff’s Bentley Wood. The flamboyant Chermayeff, co-architect of the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, designed this extraordinary country home in East Sussex in 1938 for himself and his family. It was way ahead of its time in almost every sense, resembling a 1950s Californian dream house rather than something one might expect to see in rolling English countryside. But the house massively overstretched Chermayeff, who sold up soon after and left for the US.

“I was aware of Bentley Wood but just didn’t recognise it when I first saw some pictures of this house that was for sale in a magazine,” says Albuquerque. “But then it mentioned Chermayeff. Someone had given me a book on Chermayeff and I pulled it off the shelf and there was Bentley Wood on the cover, looking rather different.”

He initially looked at the house with his mother, who thought she might be interested. But it was Albuquerque and his wife Victoria (also a trained architect) who ended up falling for the house, which sits in a mesmerising countryside location. They ended up buying one of the very few examples of mid-century Modernist country houses in the UK. “The house felt airy, bright and liveable in a way that I just don’t think that many Modernist houses in Britain generally are,” Albuquerque says. “It’s very ahead of its time, rational and straightforward with an incredibly immediate relationship with the landscape. It’s not at all contrived and we didn’t feel we were competing with someone’s vision of a house that was designed specifically for them.”

There was, however, plenty of work involved in restoring the house, which had been much altered and adapted in the years since Chermayeff left the country. As architects, the Albuquerques initially felt a sense of responsibility not just to care for the house but to try and restore its original integrity. Having bought the house seven years ago, they lived in it for five years before starting work, firstly restoring the roof. The work has continued ever since.

“When we’ve finished we hope that what we have done will have really respected the building but not treated it as though it’s set in aspic or created a facsimile of what might have been,” Albuquerque says. “It does now feel more like the house it was meant to be, and I am certain that if it were in its original condition then it would be, if not the finest, then one of the top three Modernist houses of the 1930s in Britain.”

The issue of the ways in which an iconic building has been treated over the years is an important one. At Bentley Wood, the addition of extensions to the original building has rather compromised the original pavilion-like quality of the building. Thoughtless additions, extensions and refits to key mid-century buildings have not only caused great damage to the original in some cases but have also undermined the sense of authenticity, as well as their value. Restoring such houses is a specialist task, which can be time-consuming and expensive, especially where there may be structural problems or where the house is listed or closely monitored by the planning authorities. Inevitably, these are houses that require care and a tailored treatment.

As well as designing contemporary projects, John Allan, director of Avanti Architects in London, is a specialist in the conservation and restoration of classic mid-century buildings. Avanti has worked on the conservation of Erno Goldfinger’s Willow Road and Patrick Gwynne’s Homewood, both owned by the National Trust, as well as a series of iconic buildings in London and beyond.

Among them is Colin Lucas’s 66 Frognal, also from 1938, in London’s Hampstead. Again, the original building had been altered over the years with the addition of a rooftop bedroom wing and also a swimming pool on the ground floor. But the original intent of the ground-breaking house – which is rather austere to the street but opens up like the decks of an ocean liner to the rear gardens – was still very clear.

“Frognal was listed and in need of rescue because the condition of the building before we started was dire,” says Allan. “But the owners had an enormous commitment to the house and doing well by it. They were committed to its historical interest and honouring its significance. It was a real icon of the last phase of house building in 1930s London just before the war.”

Additions from the 1960s and 1970s were sensitively reordered and rebuilt so as to be more in keeping with the house. The poor condition of the building was addressed with a radical upgrade and restoration of the fabric of the house and services and the reinstatement of the original paint colours on the exterior of the house.

“The great interest for us is finding a balance between conservation and upgrade,” says Allan. “Conservation always involves changing things, and we do need to make sure that these houses have a viable future, but in doing that we must also make sure that we honour the building and its original ideals. The great appeal of these projects is how they reveal the excitement and optimism that must have existed at the time when Modernism was new. Working on these houses helps recapture their clarity and that original sense of discovery of a new way of living.”

This balancing act between restoring an original icon and making it practical and liveable for today is not always simple. But Modernist homes can prove surprisingly flexible – far more so than other period buildings, given that they were so often designed with a forward-thinking, open-plan approach to the living spaces and a strong emphasis on light and connections between outside and in. These are some of the very design qualities, of course, that attract buyers in the first place.

Ari Zaphiriou-Zarifi was drawn to just these kinds of elements when he bought the Spence House near Beaulieu, Hampshire, in 1986. Sir Basil Spence, the architect who designed Coventry Cathedral, is often thought of as a “brutalist”, but his own country retreat showed his softer side. It has a Scandinavian quality, with the main living spaces on the upper level from where best to appreciate views of the Beaulieu River, where Spence once indulged his love of sailing.

Spence himself made a number of sympathetic changes to the house. Zaphiriou-Zarifi – the former chairman of the Heritage Bank and the Beeson Gregory Group who has always been a business angel investing in young companies – has been careful to respect Spence’s intentions in his own sensitive approach to the house, developed with architect John Pardey. “I realised the significance of the house and the level of interest once I had bought it, although it was really the location and the building itself that first drew me to it,” says Zaphiriou-Zarifi. “I literally had a whole coach load of architects here at one point. But being enthusiasts, John and I were not going to damage the house in any way. John and I really took the house apart very carefully and put it back together again. It’s a living sculpture for me.”

John Pardey – who describes the house as one of the most important buildings of the period in Britain – designed a discreet addition to the house, which is set at one remove, attached by a glass bridge, from the original building so that it avoids interference with the original lines of Spence’s work. Zaphiriou-Zarifi, his wife, Heba, and their children have such a love for the house that they see it as a long-term family weekend and holiday retreat. Like many owners of such classic buildings, they see themselves as guardians.

John McIlwee, owner of the eye-catching Garcia House in Los Angeles, by John Lautner, also sees himself as a guardian. McIlwee, an entertainment business manager, and his partner Bill Damaschke – co-president of production and president of live theatrical at DreamWorks Animation – have spent the past few years involved in a loving restoration of this extraordinary hillside home from 1962. They worked with architects at Marmol Radziner – who also restored Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs – on a careful upgrade of the house, involving a highly bespoke approach to such a unique space.

“We have really put our hearts and souls into this project because these are places that represent what’s amazing about design and need to be protected,” says McIlwee. “It had to be custom fixtures, custom furniture, custom every­thing to make it feel as special and unique as it is.

“We are not purists. We didn’t want to put it back to exactly the way it was. If we found something original then we kept it, but you do see some remodelled mid-century houses that look as though they were built in 2009 because there is just no character left and we didn’t want that. But nothing is simple with a house like this. We have a window that’s just cracked and to replace it we will have to scaffold the entire front of the house.”

The rising value of such houses – along with growing appreciation within an increasingly design-educated market place – makes such work and commitment not just a labour of love but also a wise investment.

“It would not be worth all the time and trouble of restoring these houses if it didn’t make sense financially,” says Michael Boyd. “It’s a combination of art, architecture and real estate and it has to make sense. We will see a lot more interest in the future. If you look at a Picasso and then something from the same year in the style of Picasso, there is going to be a huge difference between the prices of the two. It’s the same with Modernist architecture. When it’s a Bauhaus master or a great Case Study House Program architect, then it’s a different level of quality altogether.”

See also

Modernist