In the Bird Streets, a tangle of roads above Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, multimillion-dollar mansions, with their angular glass facades spilling down the hillsides, look as if they have alighted fresh off another planet. Many are the work of a single architect, Paul McClean. On a September afternoon, McClean glides up Blue Jay Way in a Mercedes to meet me for a tour of one of his new creations, which he says will soon list for around $30 million. A Dublin native, his Irish accent has been rubbed down by two decades in Southern California. The Bird Streets, he says, are “ground zero” for his homes, which have become dwellings for the likes of Calvin Klein, Avicii, and the Winklevoss twins in recent years. About 40 percent of his designs are done on spec for no particular person, only a superstar. That, of course, includes Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s newly purchased 30,000-square-foot Bel-Air manse, complete with four pools and a helipad, for a record-smashing reported $120-million bid (aerial view above) on a property listed for $135 million. (Later reports had their bid closer to $90 million, which would still make it the most expensive home sale of the year.)
The new Blue Jay Way home, at 8,000 square feet, is by no means the grandest of McClean’s designs, which can come with six-digit square footages and nine-digit price tags. The style is a take on the area's iconic midcentury modern, metaphorically pumped up with steroids and silicone to a scale that would make Rudolph Schindler, a pioneer of the modernist Hollywood house, blush. Wraparound floor-to-ceiling glass walls all peel away; there are pools for each level; the views make the word panoramic seem insufficient. Here, your sight lines span from downtown L.A. to the 405.
McClean points out a white cluster in the mountains just east of the Getty Museum. “You probably can see it from space,” McClean says of the spec home he installed there. This particular one is asking an astonishing $500 million, making it the most expensive mansion in America (a title currently held by another Bel Air property not of his design, listed at a mere $350 million). Dubbed “The One,” the McClean house comes with a 30-car garage, a 5,000-square-foot master bedroom, and a casino, among other features that balloon it to nearly 100,000 square feet.
“It doesn't feel like a 100,000-square-foot house when you're inside it,” McClean explains. "It feels more like a 30,000-square-foot house."
McClean has cornered the .1% housing market by building grandiosity in the most minimal of architectural styles. Consider what a gigamansion might look like, tricked out with top-of-the-line security, staff quarters, and, in the case of Beyoncé's new home, bulletproof windows. One does not envision, say, an austere Frank Lloyd Wright house at one with the nature around it.
But for the discerning L.A. buyer—that is, if you're a celebrity or a sheik—privacy is paramount. McClean's homes come with fantastic views, and, like the classic midcentury L.A. home, elide indoor-outdoor space, but they are also hidden. The owners of these homes can certainly see you, though you can’t see them. A McClean could easily appear in leveled celebrity enclaves like barren Calabasas or the flats of Beverly Hills, but that’s not where you will find them. They are nestled in the mountains of the Hollywood Hills and Bel Air, where large-scale construction is notoriously difficult for about a hundred reasons. McClean designs for people who want both understatement and ostentatiousness—taste and tastelessness in the same package. His clients want the clean lines of Richard Neutra, but with a hair salon on site, please. These houses represent the pinnacle of the L.A. real-estate bubble, because they should be impossible.
The developer Tyrone McKillen, who has worked with McClean on a dozen luxury homes, says of McClean, “[He] has an amazing talent for creating beautiful homes on very difficult lots; he has incredible spatial awareness.” He described his floor plans as “centered around a few moments that take your breath away.” I saw a wine room encased in a ringed, transparent refrigerated cellar; condo-size closets; and a basement swimming pool that lets you swim directly from the bar to the bedroom. Couple all that with “sleek and sexy exteriors,” and it’s a recipe for record prices.
My next stop with McClean is a secluded stretch known as Billionaire’s Row, in the hillside Beverly Hills micro-neighborhood of Trousdale. Here, one is as likely to see a vintage Thunderbird or a house with a crest—or, for that matter, a McClean—as a human being. But homeowners in exclusive enclaves like these don’t like change, especially 30,000 square feet of it.
In the last few years, L.A. has passed several anti-“mansionization” ordinances, some which restrict a home’s size based on the percentage of its lot it occupies. Residents of Bel Air even formed a homeowners alliance to dissuade the development of mega-properties such as "The One," which is three times the size of the Taj Mahal. And naturally, local realtors and architects have resorted to name-calling, many referring to McClean as the dreaded developer-architect. Nevertheless, developers continue to hunger for size, and McClean delivers a stealth blockbuster, appearing to effortlessly circumvent such rules.
At “Opus,” an $85-million slab of marble and gold on Hillcrest, in Trousdale, McClean shows me how he designed a full-size, subterranean swimming pool beneath a massive skylight. McClean tends to design long, skinny pools—multiple per property, despite the fact that California has been suffering from a severe drought since 2014—that take advantage of the jagged lots he builds on. They usually have the same proportions of a ruler, with an infinity runoff. It's not so much about swimming as that the water is there. This particular so-called basement feels more like a shimmering grotto. And nearby is “the obligatory movie theater,” McClean says as we enter the plush room.
“These days, in homes like this, yes," McClean says, stealing a few jelly beans, which come pre-stocked in the theater upon purchase. "Want some candy?”
Like the exterior, nearly every room is bathed in gilding and white marble. The color scheme was not McClean’s idea, nor the candy drawers, monogrammed towels, or all-inclusive Cristal champagne room; this all came per the developer, Nile Niami, also the developer of “The One.” Niami tricks out his houses to a level beyond move-in ready. ("Opus" was formerly listed for $100 million but got reduced the day of our interview—now, the price no longer includes Damien Hirst artwork, a gold Lamborghini, a gold Rolls Royce, and other coups de grâce of the billionaire playboy starter kit.)
Niami was formerly a movie producer, and "Opus" can feel like a tentpole movie set. In a three-minute trailer on the Opus website, a woman wearing a VR headset writhes awake in the indoor-outdoor master bedroom, as glittery, gold-masked women join her for a bacchanalia of champagne, skinny dipping, and light foreplay. It’s like an ad to buy 50 Shades of Grey to be your life. For developers selling a lifestyle, McClean’s designs offer the correct canvas to play with.
Though he works on a grand scale, McClean isn’t interested in hotels or commercial projects. He grew up outside Dublin to working-class parents, in a row house around 600 square feet—about the size of many of the his-and-hers bathrooms he designs today. Around age four, he became fascinated with houses; at his local and school library he discovered Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra as well as Frank Israel. California homes made him want to become an architect.
“L.A. has been a crucible for residential design since it started, but there’s always been a fantasy component to it,” McClean says. “There’s crossover with the movie industry here. There’s so many people here imagining things, and then they go home.”
McClean landed first in Orange Country in the 1990s, not exactly the time or place for architectural innovation. In 2000, he designed a house in Laguna Beach, and began picking up local clients. He cut his teeth in an area with an active design board, where any development requires a public presentation. The experience likely prepared McClean for dealing with L.A.’s lengthy approvals processes, which can take as long as building a house, as well as its high-profile clientele.
In 2008, his first home in the Bird Streets came on the market, on Blue Jay Way. Originally designed for a client who ran into money trouble, it became an accidental spec.
“[It] came on the market right around the same time that Lehmann Brothers crashed, and it sold for a lot of money,” McClean says. The address sold in 2005 for $2.6 million; in 2009, after McClean's work, it went for $10 million. “That made people take notice of the house.” A slew of requests for projects in the area began, and they’ve never really stopped. His office of no more than a dozen people is still based in Orange County, in the retro downtown of the city of Orange, and now designs around a dozen homes a year. Nearly all are in Southern California, most between 4,000 and 12,000 square feet.
The Bel Air mansion purchased by Beyoncé and Jay-Z this summer was developed by McKillen and took approximately four years to approve and build. “Someone like Jay-Z or Beyoncé is probably going to find it very difficult to find the time to invest in that properly,” McClean explains of such an undertaking, later adding, “That’s why [these houses] often command the premium they do… The idea is that you can literally walk in here, drop your suitcase, and they’ll probably even give you a toothbrush if you need one.”
If L.A. is in the midst of an unprecedented real-estate boom, McClean is leading from the front. He has complicated feelings about the “blunt” laws put in place to curb large-scale construction: “I feel a lot of these processes stymie creativity,” he says, often reverting to talk of “play” and “exploration” when talking about spec homes. “At the price point we’re at you can let your imagination run riot and you can do all sorts of fun things,” he says. “People want you to. They’re not holding you back.”
There's a fantasy-logic McClean subscribes to in order to explain away the excess of these dream homes: At various points, he said that clients really do use all the space, that the excessive pools and fountains serve to naturally cool the homes, that a typical client's private-jet travel is much more of a burden on the environment.
I ask McClean point-blank if he thinks his homes are just too big. Or more specifically, why people want homes bigger than ever before.
“In a way, it’s new,” McClean says. “In another way, it’s as old as the pyramids, right?”