Who owns the architecture you paid for?

The Business of Work-for-Hire Architecture

The business of architecture can be as frustrating for an architect as it is for any other creative artist. The architect, like a composer or writer, is often commissioned to design a property—create a work—in exchange for a fee. Who owns the rights to that design can be a sticky part of contract negotiations.

Which poses these questions: What happens to architecture after the architect leaves? Do the design visions of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson eclipse the whims of any future owner of the building?

Let's explore a few examples.

01
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Frank Lloyd Wright at Graycliff

Graycliff, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Darwin D. Martin, is a summer home on Lake Erie
Graycliff Estate. Photo by Lonely Planet/Lonely Planet Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Graycliff, on the shores of Lake Erie, was the summer home of wealthy industrialist Darwin D. Martin and his family. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) had already built the Martin House in 1905, but Isabelle Martin wanted a retreat from their home in Buffalo, New York. In the late 1920s, Wright built the Isabelle R. Martin House (Graycliff) south of Buffalo. It's well-known that Wright's business prospered by having clients like the Martins.

That's not the end of this architectural story.

In the 1950s, an order of Hungarian Roman Catholic Priests—the Piarist Fathers—bought the property from the Martin descendents. During the end of Frank Lloyd Wright's long life, the Fathers made many alterations to accommodate their own use of the building, including adding exterior walls to create a sanctuary from Wright's long, open Prairie-style porch.

Graycliff tour guides will tell you of an elderly Wright visiting the venue in the 1950s, slamming his cane against partitions he did not design, and being led from the property, which was no longer under his control.

Which brings us to the central question: Who owns architecture?

02
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Johnson and Schuller Build Crystal Cathedral

Architect Phillip Johnson and Pastor Robert Schuller in Crystal Cathedral, 1980, Garden Grove, CA
Architect Phillip Johnson and Pastor Robert Schuller in Crystal Cathedral, 1980, Garden Grove, CA. Photo by Joan Adlen/Hulton Archive Collection/Getty Images

American architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005) lived for 98 years, leaving a legacy of 20th century skyscrapers, postmodernism, glass, and celebrity. Two of his major glass works are his own Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut and the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.

Philip Johnson donated his own New England property to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Connecticut estate is now open to the public and cared for by devotees of Johnson.

But what has happened to the cathedral, Johnson's huge masterpiece of glass, built in 1980 for Hour of Power televangelist Robert H. Schuller? It's still one of the Top 12 Architecture Sights in Los Angeles and Southern California.

03
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From Crystal Cathedral to Christ Cathedral

Aerial landscape design for Christ Cathedral by new owners of Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA
Design for Christ Cathedral by the Diocese of Orange, new owners of Crystal Cathedral. Renderings by Johnson Fain with Rios Clementi Hale Studios via Casey & Sayre

Two years after declaring bankruptcy, Dr. Schuller and Crystal Cathedral Ministries sold Philip Johnson's Crystal Cathedral and the surrounding 34-acre campus—including buildings by leading architects Richard Neutra and Richard Meier.

The new owners in 2012? The Catholic Diocese of Orange, who renamed the building complex Christ Cathedral.

The Diocese of Orange chose the southern California firm Johnson Fain to turn the interior of a protestant church designed specifically for large, mobile, television audiences into a sanctuary supporting Catholic rituals—quite a task for lead designer and partner Scott Johnson, FAIA, who is said to have worked with Philip Johnson on the original project. Rios Clementi Hale Studios (RCHS) is creating the master plan and landscape design.

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Remembering Philip Johnson

Inerior design for Christ Cathedral by the Diocese of Orange, new owners of Crystal Cathedral
Design for Christ Cathedral by the Diocese of Orange, new owners of Crystal Cathedral. Renderings by Johnson Fain with Rios Clementi Hale Studios via Casey & Sayre

“Our mandate was to honor the essence and strength of the original architecture," said Scott Johnson, design architect for transforming Philip Johnson's 1980 Crystal Cathedral into the 21st century Christ Cathedral of the Diocese of Orange, California.

Yet initial plans reveal an interior reconfigured as a traditional cruciform floor plan and centering the altar under a high-tech system of ceiling panels, which they are calling "petals." Plans call for the exterior facade—Philip Johnson's "look"—largely to remain unchanged, but the interior is being renovated.

Without legal guidelines, the line between renovation and preservation is created entirely by the architect, designer, or developer.

05
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Wright's Milwaukee Apartments

Frank Lloyd Wright designed duplex apartment, an American System-Built Home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
2731 West Burnham St., Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartment, American System-Built Homes designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1916, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

In the early 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright was experimenting with low-cost housing for the growing middle class. He thought that with superb planning, much of the construction materials could be cut offsite and more quickly assembled onsite by fewer workers. By 1916 Wright had sold this concept of American System-Built Homes to Wisconsin developer Arthur L. Richards.

This row of duplex apartments, the historic Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartments on Burnham Street in Milwaukee, is now a century old—built well before the dish antenna seen on the roof. Most of the houses have been sold and resold, modified to suit a new owner's whims and comforts. Compare this house with its neighbor, pictured below.

06
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Remembering Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright designed duplex apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin before restoration
2727 West Burnham, an unrestored Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartment designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1916, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Over the years, exterior plaster on the Arthur L. Richards Duplex Apartments has been covered with metal siding, porches have been enclosed, and exterior paint schemes are not as interesting as Frank Lloyd Wright's other Prairie Style houses.

Wright can't take a cane to Graycliff anymore, but since his death devotees have organized to systematically buy, restore, and preserve the architect's vision and designs. Restoration of these units is a goal of The Frank Lloyd Wright® Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program, Inc. Legalities for preservation can be written into the property deeds.

For those houses of less historic or cultural importance than ones designed by a famous architect like Wright, homeowners can legally make decisions about the property they own. But how long can we disregard history and ignore those who have built the environment we inhabit?

Who protects an architect's vision?