It was June 2014 when a white, semi‑translucent, pebble-shaped structure – half-shell, half-spaceship – settled on rocks outside London’s Serpentine Gallery, like a fleeting visitor from another planet. Chilean architect Smiljan Radić’s pavilion was the 14th such exotic architectural creation to take up position on the lawn in Kensington Gardens, beside the charming 1930s Grade II-listed former tea pavilion. All summer, it played host to late-night conversations, early-evening rendezvous and mid‑morning congregations of pre-school children with their mothers. And then, in March last year, it turned up in a field in Somerset.
Its move was the result of a change in ownership – the pavilion had been bought by Iwan Wirth, one half of the international art dealership Hauser & Wirth. “Our relationship with Smiljan’s pavilion was pure kismet,” explains Wirth. “At the time it was exhibited at the Serpentine, Piet Oudolf, the renowned Dutch landscape designer, was building a garden for us at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, and when [my wife] Manuela and I first saw this sublime, otherworldly structure, we began to imagine the possibility of it being installed there.”
It has since been placed at the end of Oudolf’s densely flowered field, overlooking woods and farmland beyond, the huge quarry stones that carry the structure’s supports scattered on the slope. It is an urban curiosity transformed into a rural folly, representing an entirely contemporary expression of the 18th century’s obsession with marking the landscape with hunting towers, obelisks and Grecian temples. Not made for physical use, these structures were the result of an interest among a wealthy and cultivated elite “in creating experiences through architecture and in creating collections of architecture,” says architectural historian and curator Jeremy Melvin, although this interest died out in the 19th century, he suggests.
But as contemporary art grows exponentially more expensive, and the walls and warehouses of super-collectors fill to the brim, the appeal of standout examples of contemporary architecture is increasing. Today, Wirth’s impulse, however personal (his father was an architect), is by no means unique; it is indicative of a new wave of excitement about such patronage evident among a top tier of wealthy collectors. They are drawn by structures that pack a punch, both visually and conceptually, far above their value.
There is Patrick McKillen, for instance, the Belfast-born property developer who supported the creation of Frank Gehry’s explosive, spiky Pavilion de Musique for the Serpentine Gallery in 2008, which was destined for his French estate, Château la Coste. There, among other sculptures and monumental works, he has an art centre designed by Pritzker Prize-winner Tadao Ando, as well as two original Jean Prouvé prefab houses designed in 1945 in response to the French postwar refugee crisis. The three prototypes of Prouvé’s modernist aluminium prefab for west African French colonies, La Maison Tropicale, have become cult objects – one fetched $5m at Christie’s New York in 2007. Other Prouvé prefabs have been exhibited at Design Miami and Design Miami/Basel by gallerist Patrick Seguin and at Larry Gagosian’s Chelsea gallery in New York, reinforcing the idea that these once functional objects are now collectable artworks.
In 2012, the Serpentine pavilion designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was bought as a lakeside retreat for the Surrey estate of Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and his wife Usha. Then, in 2013, Sotheby’sBeyond Limits private selling exhibition in the grounds of Chatsworth House included the wonderful pavilion, with its dazzling geometry, that designer Thomas Heatherwick had created for his 1993 degree show. Pavilions are also popular with art impresario and collector Francesca von Habsburg, from the Thyssen-Bornemisza dynasty. Among others, she has commissioned Your Black Horizon, designed by the architect David Adjaye and artist Olafur Eliasson and now standing on the Croatian island of Lopud, and The Morning Line by artist Matthew Ritchie, architects Aranda\Lasch and Arup Advanced Geometry Unit.
It is little surprise, then, that Iwan and Manuela Wirth, recently voted number one in ArtReview’s Power 100 index, should be taking an interest in collectable architecture. Not only did they install the Radic´ piece in Somerset, but they celebrated its opening with an entire architectural season, which included a competition for young designers entitled The Shed Project. It was won by a team comprising Alex Bank, Sam Casswell and Tom Graham, whose concept will replace an existing structure in Bruton town centre in Somerset. “Small buildings can have a big impact and contain a lot of meaning for something so modest,” Bank said when awarded the prize.
Collector interest in exceptional showpieces of contemporary (or vintage) architecture has undoubtedly been fostered by the Serpentine’s example. Julia Peyton-Jones, who conceived the pavilions initiative in 2000, and who leaves the gallery this year, explains that her motive was primarily to find a way of exhibiting the art of architecture in its built form. The initiative meant the gallery collaborated with world-renowned architects, some of whom had previously never created structures in Britain, including revered Brazilian modernist Oscar Niemeyer, Portugal’s Alvaro Siza and Eduardo Souto de Moura and Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor. Displayed outdoors, the pavilions alerted the public to the power and beauty of great architecture. Where the architectural community can be inward looking, these pavilions were extroverted, open, celebratory.
The pavilions have not, however, been the only game in town. Not-for-profit social enterprise Living Architecture, run by founder Alain de Botton and director Mark Robinson, has been running since 2007. The organisation has commissioned outstanding examples of contemporary domestic architecture that people can then rent for a short holiday, experiencing the architecture intimately and allowing visitors to act as patrons for a weekend. The buildings include The Balancing Barn, a stainless-steel, mirror-clad building that hangs off a steep hill in Suffolk, and A Room for London, a temporary boat perched on top of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, although undoubtedly the wildest is Grayson Perry and Fat Architecture’s outrageously decorative House for Essex, a biography (albeit fictional) in brick. The houses (from £735 for two nights) are very popular and, Robinson assures me, not just with architects. Although the buildings have to function, there is no pressure, he explains, “to do a standard three-bedroom house.” Many of Living Architecture’s clients, when asked whether they would like to do something similar, have responded, “Yes, we would!”
It is not just architects who are moved by the creative challenge of their craft. Contemporary fine artists and designers, too, cross and recross the borders between installation, architecture and sculpture. The collective Los Carpinteros refuses any simple designation of what it does – and has recently installed an open circular structure in the new Europe 1600-1815 galleries at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, inspired by 18th-century ideas of the panopticon. The structure is both a symbol of the Enlightenment and a functional space for talks and events. The winner of the 2015 Turner Prize, the 18-strong collective Assemble, also works across disciplines: art, design and architecture on socially driven projects. And the work of the late poet, artist and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay was so closely allied to the stone material he loved that it found its culminating expression in his classical folly, Temple of Apollo.
Originally designed for his garden at Little Sparta, near Edinburgh, it now lives nearby in the grounds of contemporary art park and gallery Jupiter Artland. A nod to the temples created in the 18th-century landscapes of great English estates such as Stowe and Stourhead, the temple acknowledges that what you need to create such startling but strictly unnecessary structures is generous and enlightened patrons. Jupiter Artland is at Bonnington House, a Jacobean manor on 100 acres established by the collectors and philanthropists Nicky and Robert Wilson.
Since the park opened to the public in 2009, the couple have exhibited work by artists who are invited to create a piece inspired by the setting; a number are architectural structures. Andy Goldsworthy, one of Britain’s foremost land artists, has created for the Wilsons both Stone House Bonnington and Coppice Room. The former is built on exposed bedrock. “Houses are usually places of security, shelter and comfort,” Goldsworthy comments. “There is something unnerving about entering a building in which nature is the occupant. These houses become a forum in which the nature of the place and human nature meet.” Then there is Tania Kovats’ lyrical boathouse, Rivers, which houses 100 specimens of water from 100 rivers around the British Isles, collected and distilled into sealed, museum-quality jars. Nicky Wilson explains that at one time the boathouse was inaccessible from the water but can now be used, although none of these structures is for living in. “This is not urban architecture,” she says. “It is playing with architecture in a non-urban environment.”
Someone who understands the power of that play is investment banker and arts philanthropist Jacob Rothschild. Among the many architectural projects he has commissioned, the two most recent have been in the grounds of Waddesdon Estate in Buckinghamshire, which he oversees. Architect Stephen Marshall’s elegantly crafted building at Windmill Hill, housing the Rothschild family archive, overlooks the Buckinghamshire countryside. “Jacob could have built a waterproof and climate-controlled hut and put his archive there,” Marshall says, “but he is an aesthete. He likes to place things and he loves making things that look beautiful. You need a strong client to get a strong piece of work.”
Another site at Waddesdon, a ruined farm building with planning permission, offered Lord Rothschild an excuse for a further commission. London architectural practice Skene Catling de la Peña was chosen. As Charlotte Skene Catling describes it, the brief was very open. “Jacob said, ‘Just respond to the site.’ It was the middle of winter, it was quite bleak. But there was all this flint lying around, exposed by the weather and the plough. Jacob liked the idea of making the geology visible.” The resulting remarkable Flint House won RIBA House of the Year 2015. Its two flinted wedges seem to rise out of the ground, while a stream runs through the larger structure, binding it more deeply to its site, and, as Skene Catling puts it, “forming a mysterious internal space that separates the public areas from the more private, introspective parts of the building”. She says the fact that the house was not going to be lived in by Lord Rothschild was a liberation. “Usually domestic architecture is a response to the psychology of the client. Here the focus was much more on the architecture.” The house will, however, be used by visiting academics, at the Rothschild Foundation’s discretion. So not exactly a folly then, but part of what Rothschild has called “my own particular concern to raise standards in contemporary architecture”.
Another patron with a similar concern is the collector and critic Niall Hobhouse (www.drawingmatter.org), last year awarded a RIBA honorary fellowship. He owns an important collection of architectural drawings and models, which includes several thousand items of European and American origin, spanning the past 500 years. As a patron, Hobhouse has commissioned a number of buildings in London and on his agricultural property in Somerset. “My ultimate interest is in architecture and not the drawings, although you can learn things about the buildings from the drawings that you cannot understand from the buildings themselves,” he explains. “You are closer to the genius of the idea.” For Hobhouse, architecture is about context and landscape. “Whether it is an 18th-century park or an interior, it is all about the distribution of forms in space,” he says. When he asked brutalist architect Peter Smithson to create a 17m-high obelisk, they spent six months trying to decide where it would go. He also commissioned Stephen Taylor to create a cowshed and then the mannerist Hay Barn, with spiky brick pillars, which featured in RIBA’s recent exhibition, Palladian Design: The Good, the Bad and the Unexpected. “Stephen usually does very tailored, small apartment blocks in London,” says Hobhouse “This was five times the size.”
Crispin Kelly, a property developer and architect, is hoping there are more architecture-obsessed collectors out there. He is currently completing an extraordinary project in west London. Walmer Yard is a series of four buildings, grouped around a courtyard, inspired by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s cult essay on Japanese aesthetics, In Praise of Shadows. It is designed by Peter Salter, Kelly’s mentor and former tutor at the Architectural Association. The buildings cluster like a mountain village or Japanese hamlet, but off an ordinary street, the windows twisted to catch the maximum amount of light. Every detail is exquisitely thoughtful, with pod-like bathrooms and raised steps to calm bedrooms, and in each of the four dwellings, a yurt-like space serves as a dining or sitting room. They would be a challenge to live in – but what a prize for a collector.