Esquire’s Big Black Book
When the largest, most expensive home in Los Angeles is finally completed at the end of this year, after five years in the making, one of its distinctive features will be an absence of books. There's a beauty salon, a cinema, a bowling alley, a nightclub, a casino, a lounge with walls constructed from tanks of jellyfish, a glass-walled library - yet, no books. Nobody really reads books, according to Nile Niami, the film producer and real estate developer behind the project (he anticipates a sale price of $500 million dollars). And so the copious rows of bookshelves will be filled with blank books: white covers, white spines, empty white sheets of paper. As though content, literature, history, have been erased from the pages. And, stylistically, this works. It’s in keeping with the monochromatic theme favoured by the architect commissioned by Niami. A Paul McClean home is composed of marble, concrete, steel and glass; retractable glazed panels erase walls; rooms are exposed to the elements, wet-edge infinity pools, and panoramic views of the Los Angeles landscape. ‘Perfect,’ McClean says. ‘This is the desert. There are no bugs.'
While Niami favours an abundance of gold, McLean pursues a minimalist palette of white, coal-black and ash-grey. Perhaps he’s more keen on books than gold. After all, it was a book that inspired him to become an architect; a book that exposed him to the architecture of Los Angeles; a book that prompted him to migrate here and build houses. He arrived from Ireland 25 years ago and launched McClean Design in 2000. Since then, the company has been responsible for some sixty new buildings in this city - several collaborations with Niami - of which the latest is that aforementioned brash behemoth currently limping towards completion. Covering 104,000-square-feet - twice the size of the White House, rumour has it - 'The One' as it is reverentially titled, has propelled the architect’s vision into the stratosphere: the ‘giga-mansion’. And it all began with a book.
McLean, 49, is reminiscent of a character from a particular book. The protagonist of the Ayn Rand novel, 'The Fountainhead'. Not in his physical appearance but perhaps a little in his aspirations. The modernist architect Howard Roark creates monolithic office buildings in New York; he embodies the objectivist philosophy of the author, with rampant capitalism and rugged individualism as its credo ('I stand at the end of no tradition,’ says Roark. 'I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.’) The scale of the residences that Paul McClean creates are almost without precedent. He's been described as ‘the king of the mega-mansion’ in Los Angeles. An accolade that elevates him above the former keeper of the crown, Richard Landry. The creation and evolution of his company coincided with the housing boom in the City of Angels that, over looking the mortgage crisis of 2007, has now reached an all-time high.
Seated in his modest office in the historic district of Orange County - where a team of men, some with Clark Kent spectacles and Superman quiffs, are silently immersed in their tasks - he assures me we are in the grip of a 'new Gilded Age'. One perhaps reminiscent of fin de siècle America in which the Vanderbilts and the Hearsts built mansions that inspired many a fictional Xanadu; chiefly the imperial fiefdoms of Jay Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane. Today teardowns fetch $30 million and completed mega-mansions sell for nine figure sums. The key players in LA real estate have coined a phrase for the territory that attracts these prices: ‘The Platinum Triangle'. It’s where Bel Air, Beverly Hills and Holmby Hills converge. The Bird Streets neighbourhood is undoubtedly the most desirable; a setting peppered with homes under construction, with builders, cranes and trucks breaking the air of tranquility and retreat in these winding hillside streets high above Sunset Boulevard. The landscape and the demographic within these wealthy enclaves is shifting. New buildings are selling for prices far beyond that of older houses, despite the celebrity status of the occupants. The homes of Jane Fonda and Matthew Perry were recently on the market for $13 million. Those that McClean has designed in recent years, bought by the likes of Calvin Klein and the late music producer Avicii, attract heftier fortunes. Last year Beyoncé and Jay-Z paid a reported $90 million for the Bel Air home designed by McLean. For this they got eight bedrooms, 11 bathrooms, four swimming pools, a basketball court, a recording studio and bulletproof windows. It’s the scarcity of available homes at the top end of the market that pumps up the value.
Glancing at these homes, as the interiors flash up on a walled screen at McLean HQ, it becomes apparent that they are not merely adding another level of wealth to the ancient Hollywood landscape, but bringing about a monumental twist to the concept of a home. ‘We are in the business of selling a fantasy’, Mclean tells me. 'With Nile, we're trying to sell a lifestyle, a sense of how people imagine they would live'. He says the original inhabitants of Hollywood spent their days acting on sets and desired the same in the homes created for them. He offers something similar. And in this, his approach chimes with one of the influential gang of four architects he mentions throughout our initial conversation - Frank Israel. Speaking two years before his death from AIDS at the age of 50, in 1990, he noted: ‘Film and architecture share the same wonderful mix of the mythical and the commonplace. They differ in the physical density of their medium and in the varied ways they try to control their audience.'
Israel, along with the other architects McClean admires - Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra, and their guru Frank Lloyd Wright - headed to Los Angeles. A setting at odds with the Americana of Orange County, an hour along the highway, where streets are lined with cladded homes; wicker chairs are perched on porches; American flags protrude from the eaves. Antique stores pack the high street where McLean Design is housed. ‘Everything I was reading about was in LA’, McLean says, recalling his college days. He graduated in 1994 from Dublin Institute of Technology, but his calling came much earlier: 'I don’t know how I ever got to do all of this. I always wanted to be an architect. Since I was four. It feels likes a vocation, like being a priest. When I was a child I used to draw houses - and my mother says the clue was I would never put the window in the corner, like other kids.'
In the local library in Coolock, a suburb of Dublin where Mclean was born, he discovered a book on Frank Lloyd Wright. Having found his vocation, he now knew the kind of homes he would like to build, and the city in which he would like to build them. Wright harboured ambitions for an architecture that was truly American, rather than European, and Los Angeles was the perfect setting. ‘This is the place of new starts’, says McClean. 'It’s a blank slate for people that want to come here and start over. The architects that arrived here did so because of the climate, because of the outdoors. They built homes for health. Architects can do things here that it would be impossible to do elsewhere. It’s 22 or 23 degrees all year. When it rains it’s an event’. Lloyd Wright's output was described as both of a time and timeless. Similar has been said of McClean’s oeuvre. Wright referred to his work as ‘organic architecture’. Schindler is said to have created 'a modern style that reflected local cultural, technological and climatic conditions’. Would McClean describe his architecture as ‘organic’? ‘To a degree’, he says. ‘I think our buildings are resting in the landscape. They’re are definitely man-made - I guess there are no no straight lines in nature. It’s a way of human consciousness being overlaid on the landscape. Our houses are a lot about observing nature. And if there isn’t a view we manufacture a view. Often by way of subtle-editing in order to remove the view of surrounding houses, in order to draw out the house in every direction’. He puts the emphasis on space; on erasing the line between the interior and the exterior; using water as a central feature. A detail perhaps inspired by the village of his birth, through which the Santry River ran. 'Water changes the atmosphere — it makes people slow down. It makes people psychologically adjust to where they are. If you’re racing home after a long day and lots of meetings, you can come home and enter a new environment.'
It’s early evening, and Paul McClean is driving me through Beverly Hills, past the half-hidden facades on the riddle of roads leading to the Bird Streets neighbourhood. Among the surviving modernist homes a touch of the Mediterranean, Cape Cod and Colonial Revival, along with the geometric compounds with which Mclean Design has become synonymous. A major criticism of the architecture of California is that, unlike that of Europe, it lacks context. Scant attention is paid to the history of the landscape and neighbouring designs. Others argue this has resulted in visionary, experimental concepts. Within the older homes that are rapidly being razed and replaced, the stories and the ghosts from another age that have become folklore, and which the wealthy locals are quick to share: they tell you where Sharon Tate was murdered; where Elvis lived; where Tina Turner once stayed.
The house we arrive at has been christened ‘Opus’. Within the courtyard, concealed behind the high wall at its entrance, the sculpture of a large golden ‘O' (it’s a Nile Niami commission). The building is on the market for $75 million. Like many on-spec houses created by the pair it's furnished, and not simply with the staples of the home: there are Damien Hirst artworks; a fleet of cars in the garage, including a Lamborghini Roadster and a gold Rolls-Royce Dawn. (For sale as fixtures and fittings.) Prospective buyers have largely been introduced to the house by a short film produced by the realtors - inspired by the Beyoncé video for ‘Partition’ - in which semi-naked women, painted gold and masked, are writhing on the various beds, marble surfaces and Roberto Cavilli floors. ‘I expected to hear Shirley Bassey singing ‘Goldfinger’ when I first saw it’, McClean tells me. Clearly, he's far too reserved, too modest for this ostentation and faux-porn. The Breuget watch and the Rolls Royce Phantom Convertible synonymous with Nile Niami - according to reports - are absent. He could be a doctor with a beside manner as serene as his designs. Bearded. Casual. Unusually balanced despite the stress and responsibility of these undertakings, and the frantic schedule that is his working week. I don’t know how I ever got to do all of this. We take in the Cristal Champagne room with its black lacquer shelves and golden ladder; a wine room, the inside and outside pool, the billiard room and obligatory beauty salon. Oddly, various screens throughout the house - apart from that in the twenty-seat cinema - are showing D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 film 'Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars’ . It adds an air of movement to the place; a personal touch. Like the hardback on Coco Chanel placed in the female dressing room, and the Hermès sofa cushions scattered across the deck beside the upstairs pool. This is not simply a building waiting for a buyer, it's a building waiting to become a home; waiting for it’s story to commence.
Taking in the view, as McClean alerts me to the various projects his company has in construction nearby, I ask if he feels a responsibility eradicating the visions of other architects. As Howard Roark says: ‘A building has integrity, just like a man. And just as seldom.’ He acknowledges that this does present an initial struggle, a certain wrestling with his conscience.
Numerous homes here were bought, razed and rebuilt by the property developer Paddy McKillen (the co-owner of Claridges), a dominant figure within the Irish contingent of builders, developers and architects in Los Angeles. Paul Mclean first heard of him as a graduate in Dublin, when McKillen built a major shopping centre in the city. Some time after moving to Los Angeles he was taken under the wing of the McKillen family, who commissioned him to design a home in Laguna Beach. Other projects swiftly followed. It was the Calvin Klein house, sold in 2015, that gave Maclean cachet among celebrities. You can see why the minimalist designer - who built an empire on fifty shades of beige - and this particular architect, with an emphasis on the sleek and the simple, would become ideal collaborators. ‘It’s not solely about having a good idea when you’re an architect’, McClean says. ‘You have to be a good businessman too. You really have to know how to sell the idea in this town’. An earlier development that put McClean’s name in the frame was the $10 million price tag for a house he designed in 2008, during the downturn. 'Now the dirt alone would sell for $10 million. The sites are bought for ten million, built for another ten million, and sold for twenty, thirty million.'
On nearby Blue Jay Way - made famous in the eponymous George Harrison song, composed when he was a resident in the 1960s - another McClean design, recently completed and up for sale. It’s opposite the house where Elvis once lived. Two German tourists inform us they make the pilgrimage each decade to be photographed beside the initials of the former inhabitant, that serve as handles on the main gate. It’s a ranch-like condo that belongs to an era of cocktails and crooners, compared to McClean's hyper-contemporary smart house, with its 13-feet high ceilings and finger print security system. A building that is but a taster for the giga-mansion currently taking shape in Bel Air in which Nile Niami hopes to include all the amenities of a city. A touch that suggests these compounds are more akin to hotels and resorts than homes. No wonder McClean often looks to palaces for inspiration during the stages of research and development. ‘They remain practical, rather than concept-driven’, he argues. 'They can’t be crazy houses that scream at you. I’m looking for stillness, and what I consider to be the biggest luxury on the planet….space. The real luxury people want is to live with space around them’.
Yet, increasingly, there is a reaction to the scale of these projects. Long-term residents fear Beverly Hills is morphing into a Dubai of the west coast. California is the fifth largest economy in the world. Extremes of wealth and relative poverty co-exist here, and the housing crisis and high cost of living further highlight the divide. Many pay lip-service to the joys of the diverse demographic: 'everyone here is from somewhere else'. But within these homes, these enclaves, these hills, this diversity is found among the uber drivers that chaperone you to these fortresses, and the staff you find when you arrive. These high-end, new builds are frequently bought by billionaire interlopers who own various homes throughout the globe. They will occupy their new abodes for short periods throughout the year, if at all, and primarily for entertaining according to Paul McClean: ‘There’s a huge influx of people from outside the region. It’s not simply that these homes are likely to be one of three or four residences, they are often purchased as a land bank. Somewhere to put money’. Meanwhile, there is now a cut-off when it comes to the size of these buildings, which means ‘The One’ is likely to live up to its name. New laws and restrictions have been introduced to prevent further residential building on this scale in Los Angeles, in a move towards curtailing what has been described, disparagingly, as ‘McMansions’. Is this a reference to McClean, McKillen or both?
Despite the nature of his output, McClean has a fondness for the relatively modest family home. Three years ago he built his own expansive glass-panelled house on the plains of Santa Ana. It’s style struck me as reminiscent of the mid-century modern 'Case Study’ homes that McClean has long been inspired by. These buildings epitomised Californian luxury in the decades following World War II; affordable homes for the moderately affluent American. Captured so perfectly for posterity in the work of architectural photographer Julius Shulman, they owe a debt to Richard Neutra and those other figures that Paul McClean so admires. Some remain; iconic relics within the neighbourhoods currently being colonised by tech-centric, 21st century compounds teetering on stilts between Sunset Strip and Heaven.
Leaving Blue Jay Way as the sky darkens and the lights go up throughout Los Angeles, we pass the home that Paul McClean designed for the Swedish DJ Avicii, who died earlier this year. He was in touch with the 28-year old by text just days before his suicide. He says that the people have an ‘emotional draw’ to these properties that is more important than the scale and the address. He often stays in touch with them, assisting with changes and amendments long after the competion and sale. Some of these homes may be large enough to house the amenities of a city, but for an architect like McClean the size, the cost, the components are not paramount. ‘A house is a beautiful place to live and enjoy your life’, he says. ‘But it’s not your life’. Howard Roark would agree.