Sticker Shock

The Artek Pavilion, by Shigeru Ban, is expected to sell for up to $1.2 million.

At last year’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile, in Milan, Artek debuted a Shigeru Ban–designed pavilion constructed of UPM Pro-Fi, a wood-plastic composite made, in part, from recycled sticky labels. This morning, Sotheby’s announced that the pavilion, which has since been exhibited in Helsinki and Miami, will be auctioned off in June at an expected selling price of $800,000 to $1.2 million.

If that seems like an awful lot to pay for what is essentially a glorified barn made of patio decking, consider this statement from Sotheby’s senior vice president James Zematis (aka “The Chair Man”): “How many collectors have wondered, ‘What if Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion had been saved?’ We are proud to be offering a masterwork that will be studied in future classes of 21st century architecture.”

Now, I admire Ban’s work as much as the next architecture buff, but I have to wonder: Is the Artek Pavilion really a “masterwork” comparable to Mies’s Barcelona Pavilion? (The Barcelona Pavilion, for those rusty on their design history, was designed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition; Mies’s use of glass, travertine, and marble to create a coolly elegant box is considered a key moment in the development of architectural Modernism.)

Zematis’s statement highlights Ban’s use of a recycled material, calling the pavilion “a timely symbol of sustainability”—and, indeed, the Artek Pavilion seems to capture the zeitgeist of green design and prefabricated housing sweeping through the industry right now. Undoubtedly, it’s a noteworthy example of Ban’s innovative use of weak materials like paper and cardboard to create homes, churches, and even a bridge. But is the pavilion itself great (or even good) architecture? Could such a rudimentary, minor design—with no real functional requirement other than to stand up—really be an object of future study? Or is this just the latest example of the ongoing mania for high-priced, collectible design—with an eco-friendly spin?

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