David Jameson is enjoying it while it lasts. As the founder and owner of Chicago’s ArchiTech Gallery, he savors the privilege of surrounding himself with drawings, engravings, and copper plates that the most renowned architects of recent centuries created in the course of their work. “I’ve had [drawings by] Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright in my gallery,” he says. “In fine art terms, it’s equivalent to having Matisses and Picassos.” Eventually, Jameson believes, these architectural drawings will carry price tags that reflect the significance of their creators. “This is the last go-around for a lot of this material,” he says. “In 10 years, I will not be able to afford it.”
Architectural drawings occupy a niche in the art world. For hundreds of years, the drawings were valued primarily as professional records and architectural references. Only in the mid-20th century did the notion of viewing them as art begin to take hold.
With the rise of a new generation of celebrity architects, and with Frank Gehry’s spectacular Guggenheim Bilbao compelling museums to commission new buildings that are works of art themselves, it seems natural to view architectural drawings as worthy of framing. Max Protetch, a New York dealer who represents both artists and architects, sees clear connections between the two realms. “Architecture is one of the most creative parts of contemporary life,” he says. “It relates well to contemporary art, which has begun in many ways to emulate architectural practice. It’s more related now than it has ever been.”
Collectors can take comfort in knowing that forgeries are not much of a problem. (Not yet, anyway.) But they face obstacles. Many works by famous architects of the past, such as Palladio and Inigo Jones, were long ago given to museums, institutions, and professional organizations. It is still possible to assemble a strong collection of 20th-century masters, such as Mies van der Rohe, Walter, Gropius, and Wright, but their works likely will be the last worth collecting. Computer-aided design, or CAD, the digital tool that swept through the architectural profession during the mid-1990s, rendered the talent for drawing by hand obsolete.
The downside of collecting in an underexploited field is the fluidity of valuations. “It’s hard to generalize,” says Timothy Lingard of Gallery Lingard in London. “The more important the architect and the project, the more valuable [a drawing can be]. It’s not necessarily more valuable if it was done in [the name architect’s] own hand. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.” Renderings of structures that were never built can be worth as much, or more, than depictions of standing structures. Early works of architect Zaha Hadid, whom Protetch represents, are good examples of the former. Her flair with the pen sustained interest in her designs for years before ground broke on her first commission.
While he is loath for the art world to stampede toward his quiet corner of the market, Jameson fully understands the appeal of his wares. “Architecture is the only art I know of that merges art and science,” he says. It’s about the aesthetics of logic, which is almost a contradiction in terms. You have to have all the doors and windows open in the brain to appreciate it.”