From Medici to Marx, how patronage drives architecture and what we can learn from it today.
By John Gendall
Historians position the Renaissance’s birth in Florence, Italy around the year 1400. They give it this coordinate in place and time because of a perfect storm of conditions: a wealth of talent pouring out from several accomplished workshops (Lorenzo Ghiberti, Fra Angelico, and Filipo Brunelleschi), a thriving economy owing to bustling trade, and, importantly, an ambitious and tasteful patron of the arts, the Medici family, willing to invest in provocative new art and architecture. In the midst of the Bubonic Plague, the revelation of the Florentine patrons served as a guiding light, paving they way for the exquisite work of the high renaissance. In other words, without the Medicis, there would have been no Michelangelo.
The same relationship between patron and architect carries through architectural history, with nobility, religious leaders, business owners tapping architectural talent to give opportunity and, in many
cases, a sense of legitimacy to their achievements.
Then came Marx.
Though patrons have long been regarded as indispensible partners in the advancement of architectural ideas, they have spent decades as architecture’s whipping boy, sent out to the shed because of their complicity with Capitalism. In the 20th century, visionary patronage drove many now-iconic projects. Darwin D. Martin plucked a young Frank Lloyd Wright to design the Larkin Company Headquarters along with his own Prairie Style residential estates, in Buffalo, New York, encouraging
Wright to develop his novel approaches while simultaneously creating monuments of early 20th century design. The Savoye family, who took a risk with their villa in Poissy, France, enabled Le Corbusier to
create the definitive icon of High Modernism: a white box with ribbon windows elevated on pilotis.
A patron willing to believe in the designer’s artistic vision supported each of these architects. But the model soon changed: inspired by new industrial potential, architects, working largely with socialist states, took aim at creating social housing. In the 1960s and 70s, riding a wave of Marxist criticism, designers imagined a condition where the patron could be eliminated altogether, creating an architecture free from outside influence evident in much of Peter Eisenman’s early work, most notably his houses of cards. Others followed: Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, John Hejduk and Aldo Rossi, while the preeminent Italian critic and historian Manfredo Tafuri and Harvard professor K. Michael Hays contributed to the theoretical backbone of the movement. The Autonomy Project so called because of its aspiration to design independent from the patron.
A painter or sculptor, so the theory goes, can from his or her own studio and with his or her own materials, paint or sculpt independently, without the corrupting interference of outside influences. Therefore, the product—art—is pure form, the exclusive immanence of the artist’s thought. Architecture, on the other hand, demands a sponsor with a vision—and a pocketbook—to first hire an architect, then
realize a project. In this process, an architect becomes beholden to other interests—the Church, the State, or the Corporation, known collectively by Marxist critics as the Ideological State Apparatus. It is
within this framework that architects and critics have developed an antagonistic, even contemptuous, stance toward developers.
Now that Marx’s reign over criticism is no longer hegemonic, it is possible (and indeed necessary) to reevaluate architectural patronage. Theory aside, the current economic climate carries with it a powerful reminder about the pragmatic value of patrons. Thanks to a growing group of visionary developers, this reappraisal of the patron’s role can be made readily and convincingly.
Consider Jonathan Rose, a New York-based developer whose mission is not simply to turn a profit, but rather to profit while transforming communities in a socially responsible way. To this end, he oversees
the development of mixed-use, mixed-income, transit-accessible communities with a cultural program. Entering wealthy resort communities—the Hamptons in New York, and Frisco, Colorado—and devising comprehensive plans that reconstitute the regions so that the local, lower-income workforce that serves the weekend vacationers can afford to live in the community.
In order for patronage to serve as a catalyst of great design, the patron must learn how to successfully find an architectural match.
Meanwhile in England, Igloo, a property investment firm specializing in socially responsible projects, is at work on a diverse portfolio. In 2006, the United Nations designated the company as the “world’s first
socially responsible property fund.” Igloo normally selects a team of different architects to give the design multiple voices. The firm also works with an urban designer from beginning to end, helping to guide its effort to create cohesive and meaningful spaces. The company operates under four guiding principles: outstanding design quality, environmental sustainability, social progress for its inhabitants, and the promotion of health, happiness and wellbeing.
Citing recent research into the science of happiness, chief executive Chris Brown is convinced neighborhoods are fundamental in that pursuit. Igloo’s work, however, is no simple act of altruism. “Our projects are all commercially driven,” he says. “Our values allow us to work successfully in a market niche. ” In order for patronage to serve as a catalyst of great design, the patron must learn how to successfully find an architectural match. “Good design comes from the relationship between architect and client,” says Brown. “We work hard on the brief, we do extensive community engagement, and we select architects with a certain style. “
Rem Koolhaas, in a memorable 2006 interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, said: “Today’s architecture is subservient to the market and its terms. The market has supplanted ideology. Architecture has turned into a spectacle. It has to package itself and no longer has significance as anything but a landmark.”
True, perhaps, but if the market has appropriated some of the ideologies that once drove Modern architecture—social housing, inventive formal solutions—then architecture can reclaim its significance as something more than a mere landmark. It can once again emerge from the boudoir and get back to solving the problems that once inspired the Modernist architects.
It was a medieval Florentine banking market that unlocked the Renaissance, a soap business near the busy Erie Canal that changed the game for Wright, and a thriving Parisian insurance company that permitted Le Corbusier, in his estimation, to create for Modernism what the Parthenon created for Antiquity. “We live in markets,” says Brown.“ This is an issue about markets. At the end of the day, this is a battle for people’s investment dollars, and that’s a battle we want to win.”