For Architects, Personal Archives as Gold Mines

For Architects, Personal Archives as Gold Mines


Published : July 23, 2007 / The New York Times

In reflecting on where a long career’s worth of architectural drawings and models will ultimately go, Frank Gehry is not focusing strictly on institutions that he feels close to — like the Guggenheim Museum, say, for which he designed a famous satellite branch in Bilbao, Spain. He’s trying to determine which place will pony up.

“I don’t want to give it away — it’s an asset,” Mr. Gehry said. “It’s the one thing in your life you build up, and you own it. And I’ve been spending a lot of rent to preserve it.”

Mr. Gehry, 78, is among a small but influential number of celebrity architects who are considering selling their archives — which can include tens of thousands of objects, from multiple large-scale models and reams of drawings to correspondence and other records — even as they continue to practice.

Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said he had been approached about the Gehry archive and that the price range was “in multimillion dollars.” He declined to be more specific.

“There is a huge seismic shift,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “It used to be architects would be so grateful that there was someone interested in dedicating space to their work, and they would donate it. Now architects view their designs as a kind of profit center. Architects are getting valuations of them as though they were selling the studio of Picasso.

The architect Peter Eisenman, 74, says he could not afford not to sell his archives, which he did for an undisclosed amount to the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal; the sale was made in pieces over the last 10 years. The goal was to provide for his children, he said.

“I’m not in a position to give it away,” said the architect, whose projects have included the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Currently he is negotiating with the Beinecke Library at Yale University over some of his collected books and magazines, which could go there partly as a donation.

The bargaining power of these architects is buttressed by the spike in popular appreciation for architecture as an art form. “Architecture is one of the many expressions of the culture of the time,” said Wim de Wit, the Getty Research Institute’s curator of architectural collections. “It is as important as a literary archive or the archives of artists.”

The archives of famous writers have been known to command large sums or to spur competitive bidding by individual collectors and institutions. But archives in this country are generally donated, not sold, experts say, because the institutions that covet them do not have large acquisition budgets and the priority for donors is usually simply to see that their material finds a suitable home.

“There is a relatively small number of repositories in the United States that have endowments that enable six- or seven-figure purchases,” said Mark A. Greene, vice president of the Society of American Archivists. “Most donors are gratified that their collections are of sufficient historical value that a repository wants to acquire it in the first place.”

Mary Jo Pugh, the editor of The American Archivist, the society’s journal, said that “the vast majority” of archives amassed across the nation are donated. “The exceptions are literary manuscripts,” she said. For example, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin acquired Norman Mailer’s archives in 2005 for $2.5 million.

But while dozens of institutions collect authors papers, only a handful collect architectural material, scholars say. And not one of them can easily accommodate the archives of contemporary practitioners.

In 2005 the J. Paul Getty Museum acquired the archive of the Modernist architect Pierre Koenig (1925-2004) from his widow for an undisclosed amount. It consists of more than 3,000 objects, including drawings, models, photographs, slides and documents.

Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said that architects even preserve telephone logs of calls to and from contractors and clients because they can offer an enlightening window into the creative process. Mr. Stern has donated his archives to Yale, as have architects like Kevin Roche and Cesar Pelli. The Yale architecture school collects the work of architects connected with the university.

And some in the field suggest that all of their colleagues should donate their archives to institutions rather than demand a price.

The architect Charles Gwathmey said about selling archives: “I think it’s wrong. Archives are part of the record. How do you put a value on it even?

And the tax benefits of donating archival material are limited; a 1969 law — seeking to bar former President Lyndon B. Johnson from reaping tax benefits from his private papers — abolished tax deductions for donations of archives.

Mr. Eisenman says he has received a number of queries from institutions about his archive, mentioning Princeton, Columbia, Harvard and Yale. The Museum of Modern Art was not among them.

Mr. Bergdoll of the Modern said that he would like to collect more architects’ archives — and that he gets many offers, often with “phenomenal” prices attached — but that MoMA can barely accommodate the one it has now: that of the pioneering Modernist Mies van der Rohe. “Things used primarily by researchers require all the staff one associates with a library so that they can be accessible and retrievable,” Mr. Bergdoll said. “It would require tripling the staff.

Peter B. Lewis, the philanthropist and a longtime Gehry fan, commissioned a study two years ago on the value of Mr. Gehry’s archive — he declines to disclose the results — and he continues to evaluate possible homes for it. Jennifer Frutchy, Mr. Lewis’s philanthropic adviser, said that the archive may be in its own class in terms of size, consisting of about 30,000 square feet of models, a slide library, a digital archive and more than 5,000 drawings.

Frank’s archive is a real beast,” Ms. Frutchy said. “It really serves as a basis not just for the 20th century, but for the 21st century and beyond. In terms of education and research, it is just a gold mine.” She added, “It’s incredible to see the process Frank went through.

Mr. Bergdoll said of the Gehry archive: “It would be fantastic for anybody to take it. But they will not only need to raise the money to buy it, but to store it, process it and make it available. Otherwise it’s like a time capsule operation — bury it somewhere and at least it’s not destroyed.

Mr. Gehry said the value of his collection was still being determined, but that a friend to whom he had given two of his drawings had recently sold them for $20,000 each. The Canadian Center offered Mr. Gehry $1.5 million for material related to the house he designed for Mr. Lewis, but Mr. Gehry declined to part with just one of his projects and said the center did not want all of it.

Many institutions agree that the value of such archives is diminished if the components are broken up. “We are not interested in having a few drawings, but the whole archive, because we think architecture is a much more complex process,” said Mirko Zardini, director of the Canadian Center for Architecture, whose collection includes the archives of Aldo Rossi, James Stirling, Cedric Price and John Hejduk.

To be sure, the archives of only the superstar architects are likely to be in wide demand. But others also accumulate plenty over the years.

In the Central Park South studio of Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, however, cardboard models gather dust in corners until they deteriorate or are thrown away. Ms. Tsien said she had no interest in her work being collected and studied one day.

I was hoping for a funeral pyre,” she said. “The only thing we really care about existing beyond us is the buildings.