O starchitect house blues!

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Conn. house by Rafael Viñoly costing $25 million on market now at $9.75 million. (Sotheby)

A Bloomberg article, “Having a Home by a Star Architect Is Amazing – Until You Try to Sell It,” by James Tarmy, raised the hair on the back of my neck.

Among my favorite activities when I slip into one of my rare moods of masochismo is to drive around the East Side of Providence, up and down streets chock-a-block with lovely historic homes. I stop before the thankfully rare modernist houses, trying to figure out why anyone would inflict such a monstrosity on the neighborhood they have decided to move into. Sadism is the only plausible answer. Or masochism, perhaps, if they themselves are the intended victims rather than their neighbors.

Of course, if they are out in the woods like the Rafael Viñoly-designed house in Ridgefield, Conn., who cares? Except the local animal population. In fact, I love animals, but I would encourage every modernist architect to find clients who want monstrosities in the vast American outback. That will divert these architects’ energies away from cities and towns where their work does real damage to both the beauty of the civic realm and the property value of its neighborhoods. After all, if a modernist house goes up in a forest, no one sees its ugliness (except animals). The homeowners themselves, being insensate, are of little or no account in this calculation.

Speaking of calculations, the Viñoly house, pictured on top of this post, cost $25 million to design and build, but has been sitting on the market with an asking price of $9.75 million.

Given my opinion of modernist houses, let alone those built in traditional neighborhoods, it was gratifying to have my expectations confirmed.

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Y house by Steven Holl. (Alan Koppel)

Tarmy’s article refers to a house in the Catskills designed by Steven Holl and shaped like a Y. This reminded me of an episode of the television sitcom Wings about life at a small Nantucket airport. A famous architect who is a regular visitor to the island offers a free house design as a wedding gift to a pair of engaged airport employees. When they learn that the new house will be shaped like a 7, the two fight over who will tell the architect they don’t want it. The episode is “Frank Lloyd Wrong.” It’s fall-down funny.

Tarmy reports that the Y house, which cost $1.3 million to build back in the mid-’90s, has been placed on the market for a delusional $1.6 million, which, taking inflation into account, amounts to a markdown of about 20 percent below the original cost.

“If a local realtor [valued the Y house] by square foot, that house would be $400,000 at most, which is hilarious. It’s worth far more than that, but it has to be perceived value in the eye of the buyer.”

Kumar and the owners of the property are encountering the sobering reality of selling a “starchitect”-designed home: They might have gotten what they paid for in their house’s dramatic lines, luxurious materials, and prestigious pedigree, but when it comes time to sell, the market is often unforgiving.

I would argue that the owners got what they paid for only in theory. They misinterpreted their own desires. They thought they wanted a house they could brag on and show off. When that turned out, over time, to be weak tea, they realized what they really wanted after all was a house they could live in comfortably, and part of that meant a house that looked like a house – a house that might appreciate in value over time, and sell at a profit.

Too late.

If these agents truly believe that these modernist houses are “amazing” and should sell at a price that reflects what their owners paid to build them, they are delusional and ought to relocate to another industry. I just hope nobody leaps to the conclusion that these houses would sell better if they were nearer to civilization. I say build them all in the middle of nowhere.

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Scene from Episode 129, “Frank Lloyd Wrong,” in the 1990-97 sitcom Wings. (NBC)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to O starchitect house blues!

  1. Pingback: Birds versus the glass box | Architecture Here and There

  2. John says:

    “but when it comes time to sell, the market is often unforgiving”

    This reminds me of two articles in the newspapers, one of these articles reported that on reconstruction of a site, the construction workers dumped some metal object (sort of pillar) standing outside in the metal shredder, the object actually being a work of art from an artist who was celebrated in the seventies of the twentieth century. The newspaper, a renowned liberal progressive establishment newspaper mourned the destruction.. but nobody could be blamed, nobody actually knew it was supposed to be a work of art, nobody had a catalogue of modern art at hand…

    On another occasion, on reconstruction of an interior of some institutional building, a wall with some painted decoration was over-painted, turned out that what was overpainted was actually modern art.

    When the elites are no longer around to tell and sell their stories.., the artist who designed the metal pillar already passed away, and a possible congregation of followers had been thinned out by the man with the scythe, or moved on to the next trend.., when there are no instructional labels on the objects, informing posterity and outsiders that a certain object is art, or should be considered to be so, the constructions workers, oh barbarians! not able to produce nor understand the sophisticated ideological marketing narratives of our contemporary elites, are also ‘unforgiving’.


  3. LazyReader says:

    That’s a house? I assumed fortress to halt Allied Advances on the Normandy coast.
    Bare Concrete does not age well


  4. fthurber says:

    Hi David,

    I wanted to comment on this: “Of course, if they are out in the woods like the Rafael Viñoly-designed house in Ridgefield, Conn., who cares? Except the local animal population.”

    The modern monstrosities in the woods are murder on endangered birds such as wood thrush and various warblers. Because of all the glass. One thing I notice is that the McMansions going up in the woods here are rarely occupied. A few weeks a year maybe. And then they bring me dead birds that hit the glass to ID.

    On Wed, Dec 18, 2019 at 10:56 PM Architecture Here and There wrote:

    > David Brussat posted: ” A Bloomberg article, “Having a Home by a Star > Architect Is Amazing – Until You Try to Sell It,” by James Tarmy, raised > the hair on the back of my neck. Among my favorite activities when I slip > into one of my rare moods of masochismo is to drive around ” >

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wish, Fred, that municipalities (including counties with large wooded areas) would enact legislation to force homebuilders whose house designs unduly endanger birds (that is, modernist houses) to install warning devices, such as lights or sirens, designed to ward off birds that might not perceive huge plate glass windows in their flight paths, just as tall architectural structures must have blinking lights on top to ward off low-flying airplanes. That would reduce the incentive to build modernist houses in the forest, which means that cities would also have to enact laws mandating similar devices to protect the urban avian population from such structures – designed to warn birds without disturbing neighbors, a mandate that could be quite expensive.


  5. LazyReader says:

    Today traditionalism is rejected on grounds of systemic racial oppression or male dominated patriarchy. Which is why you can take any shape or colored splat on canvas and decry the meaning of it for the suitable purpose of expressing grief, sadness or enlightenment….By explaining it to you, even when one cant interpret it.

    Before; opponents of Traditional and Classical architecture assert such buildings are too expensive to construct today. Thus it’s ironic that “scientific” Modernism has just produced some of the most costly and over-budget structures in living memory. The Marina Sands, Apple Inc’s spaceship headquarters, One World Trade Center. By this point in their career, Calatrava, Gehry, etc are at the end of their lives; they’re old or close to retiring NEVER the less; they’re still notorious for buildings that are extremely costly to build and maintain. And they fu** the taxpayer the most because alot of the buildings they’ve designed at the peak of their careers are often public ones like museums, libraries, government buildings.

    None of these buildings by conflict of their complicated and irrational geometry and complicated engineering and expensive materials is suitable for urban renewal. In the long run their destiny is the wrecking ball when the cost of maintenance and upkeep exceeds the financial value of what these structures can generate or what it costs of refurbish.


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