In Defense of the Persian Palace
Here, in two words, is the architecture that Los Angeles, the city that loves and hates architecture, currently loves to hate: Persian Palace. No other coinage so immediately evinces dismissal and revulsion. It is the ultimate form of “mansionization,” taking a small lot and building the largest possible box on it. A compleat Persian Palace--there are many minor variations and lesser imitations--is distinguished by its exaggerated moldings, numberless layers of cornices, elaborate grillework and columns galore. A Persian Palace brazenly combines motifs and wantonly disregards proportion and scale. A giraffe could glide through the front door without stooping, then turn around and peer out the clerestory window while grazing on a crystal chandelier. In Beverly Hills, where the Persian Palace may have originated and certainly came to prominence, the design is now banned. In Glendale, where steep ravines have been piled high with faux stone and banded entablature, it must abide by strict official architectural guidelines. Elsewhere--as in Valley Glen, where some residents have begun leafletting against encroaching mansionization--it is often unwelcome, a sign that, if nothing else, a neighborhood is in for sniping over the look and size of its homes.
Here is what Beverly Hills officially says about Persian Palaces: “The mansionization of the city’s residential neighborhoods poses a serious danger that such overbuilding will degrade and depreciate the character, image, beauty, and reputation of the city’s residential neighborhoods with adverse consequences for the quality of life of all residents. The bulk and mass of such homes, as well as their general appearances, affect the desirability of the immediate area and neighboring areas for residential purposes.” Builders and remodelers must adhere to the Residential Style Design Catalogue, a pictographic guide to the city’s “architecturally pure residential styles,” most of which, the 123-page brochure avers, “were period revival styles, some inspired by lavish film industry sets.”
Of course, neither the word Persian nor the word Palace appears anywhere in the city’s design grammar. The city planners didn’t bother. It was immediately understood that the April 2004 ordinance was aimed at all those mini-mansions on the streets south of Burton Way and north of Wilshire. What other target could there be?
Hamid Gabbay, who is a Beverly Hills architect and sits on the city’s Design Review Commission, admits as much, emphatically. He detests Persian Palaces, and here’s why: “I came here on December 9, 1978, only a few months before the shah was deposed. I would have thought that the immigrants from Iran would have learned something from the experience there. But they didn’t. They build these extravagant houses. They have no sense of humility, or how to live quietly. It’s as if exactly the opposite of what you expected happened: They exploded with ostentation.”
Gabbay’s allusion conjures an image of Reza Pahlavi garbed in white gabardine, trimmed in epaulettes and bedecked in honorary medals, parading in a horse-drawn cabriolet through the streets of Tehran. In a word, meretricious, like the houses Gabbay dislikes. And the sins of Persian Palaces--from shoddy architecture to shoddy details--are obvious.
But hardly exceptional. Money has always flaunted itself, and if you can’t flash your wad in Beverly Hills, where can you? As John Chase, the urban designer for West Hollywood, says, “If Beverly Hills is not America’s playground for the expressions of the rich, where is? It’s today’s Newport.” Ostentation, from Versailles to Vegas, exerts a powerful hold on the imagination. Visual capriciousness and ornament have always had a place in architecture. All you’ve got to do is take a moment to look at a few Persian Palaces to see that the owners love their outsized houses, with their outsized gewgaws. No one is trying to hide behind blank walls or pruned hedges. A column, a pediment, a curlicued balcony railing are like jewels around Zsa Zsa Gabor’s neck. Even if, to pursue the metaphor, they are paste . . . to have them is the point, the more of them the better.
Paste, not taste, is the issue. Los Angeles suffers from an authenticity crisis. No one has ever been sure if the city is anything but confection--a lavish film industry set or an ever-expanding sequel to Abbot Kinney’s transformation of the Del Rey marshland into Venice. The place is littered with architectural fakes, from Grauman’s Chinese to the attic of the Gamble House, about which the critic Reyner Banham (who lived in and loved the house) remarked that if you “look into the roof spaces . . . you will find that the construction of what isn’t seen, far from being carefully and lovingly wrought, tends to be the usual old US carpenter’s crudwork, trued up with odd ends of lumber and spiked together with cock-eyed six-inch nails.” The Spanish Colonial Revival, which is the L.A. vernacular, was invented by New York architect Bertram Goodhue, a devotee of the Spanish Baroque who adapted that opulent style for his design of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. Goodhue’s concoction caught on, and by the late 1920s, $50 lots were growing stucco and tile roofs.
So why not Persian Palaces? Alas, in neighborhoods with longstanding architectural traditions, they are taken as an affront. What bothers the neighbors, aside from the sunlight being blotted out, is the breach of decorum. We have settled notions of our unsettled city. We harbor illusions that our street is a pristine architectural exemplar. We may not want to abide by the burdensome restrictions of a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, but we like to think that our block deserves one. We also like to think that our house is in keeping with the nature of the place--that somehow our style of home, whether Craftsman, Spanish Revival or Modern, embraces the pueblo heritage and the parched ecology. But, as we secretly know, Los Angeles is a palimpsest--a city that is constantly stuccoing over itself. Such relentless re-imagining is the source of its energy, its inventiveness, its cultural cache. Who can deny that Persian Palaces speak to this aura of never-ending possibility?
Like the strip mall--L.A.'s last great urban innovation, maligned since its inception in the 1970s--Persian Palaces are a source of outsider cosmopolitanism. Mina Zahiri, who is building a home on Hamel Drive, on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills, says, “This is a new urban phenomenon. Beverly Hills was so quiet, and now you’ve got a mix of Middle Eastern, American, European. It’s an architectural fusion, and it’s bringing new life to the city.”
Slow your car to a crawl on, for example, Rexford Drive, cruising below the Civic Center--which, by the way, is the largest postmodern pastiche in California. The Rexford tract was developed in the 1920s, and the street is dominated by one-story Spanish Colonial Revival homes, with an occasional timbered Tudor, gabled Gingerbread or Regency restoration. There are also a number of palatial newcomers. Midway along one block is a house, completed in 2005, that is defined by a two-story arch, set deep into the facade, from which sprout six coach lamps of the kind you might find on a Baroque Spanish four-in-hand. In all, the house is a credible likeness of a plainspoken Tuscan villa. One door to the north, another relatively new home shrugs listlessly, marred by a row of empty window boxes suspended too low to be of actual use. The house is trying to be some sort of palace, but it isn’t trying hard enough. Then, one door farther north, you come upon an example so outrageous that you can walk by several times without realizing it’s a clapboard bungalow wearing a neoclassical mask. Three pilasters, oddly spaced, form a decorative scheme apparently based on a drawing of a Corinthian temple. Outsized capitals, which hold up an undersized frieze, seem to depict sacrificial rams. That’s the entire composition: nothing more than a flimsy facade, as one-dimensional as cardboard. You can almost see the original exterior through the addition. It’s as if a set builder hammered the thing together on the front lawn, tilted it into place and left it balancing there without fastening it to the building it adorns--as if someone had played backward the famous stunt from Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”
And you laugh, amused because the house unflinchingly flaunts its flippant facade. The neoclassical language--applauded in the Beverly Hills handbook when done correctly, derided when not--is so maddeningly wrong that all pretentiousness disappears. The house is whimsical, a bold declaration of independence from its staid surroundings.
The Rexford residence make-over is a starter Persian Palace, without knowing it. It presages the architectural expressionism of the genre. In the past 100 years, home-building has been largely the domain of speculators and moneylenders churning out tract houses, like GM car chassis, of undistinguished utility. For most homeowners, originality or individuality amounts to minor variations in floor plans and landscaping. There were bound to be modifications. Charles Jencks, the architectural historian, once filled a book with images of what he called “Daydream Houses of Los Angeles.” Jencks spotted a Mission-style Spanish done up like a Wedgwood plate, a stucco dingbat capped by a finial-sprouting mansard, and something he aptly called a “branch bank Parthenon,” a superlative Mulholland Drive house with a front portico formed by eight rectangular double-height columns supporting a perfectly flat roof lined with tiny dentil moldings. A smoked-glass entry, worthy of BofA, fused the image.
Before there was the Persian Palace, there was the Hollywood Regency, a style that exploded in the early 1950s, when, as West Hollywood’s urban designer John Chase notes, “a mania for transforming . . . Spanish Colonial Revival mutts into French mansarded pedigreed poodles swept into West Hollywood.” Inspired by the Beverly Hills houses of John Woolf--his most famous, owned by the rakish Hollywood producer Bob Evans, has a demi lunette entrance portico supported by chopstick-thin colonettes and flanked by urns set in oval niches--this fad affected a mannered elegance. Front doors crashed through rooflines, striped awnings with castellated fringe plunged into windowsills, and “mammoth false-front mansards were . . . used to make the little West Hollywood cottages into miniature mansions,” Chase observes.
Like Daydream Houses and Hollywood Regency homes, Persian Palaces are meant to please the eye. You can begin to grasp this fact from the sidewalk on Alpine Drive, one block away from the ur-Palace on Rexford. The corner house is entirely concerned with the application of decorative details foraged from the architectural past--or the house around the block. The entry spans two floors and is surrounded by stacked, precast concrete blocks designed to look like carved stone--a rusticated motif freely lifted from Andrea Palladio, the great Italian Renaissance architect. This frames a Beaux Arts glass door, with grillework overlay as feathery as a peacock. To either side of the doorway, pairs of windows, upstairs and downstairs, consume the remaining wall space. Thick ogee moldings and cornices surround the windows, while another set of precast cyma recta and cavetto moldings form a skyline frieze and cornice that almost squish the windows back into the ground. It looks as if someone screwed one course of a classical roof onto a modest two-story Venetian home, causing the windows to burst out of the stucco facade. So much of this side of the house is taken up with the windows and doors and moldings that there is almost no wall space left to offer some relief from these overpowering elements.
So it goes. As the house turns the corner, the upper frieze and cornice follow a zigzag setback, creating an iambic meter of light and shadow that makes the house seem to skip down the block. Distorted sufficiently through a squint, the sideyard divisions begin to look like row houses on a movie lot. The back of the house is no less fanciful. An enormous curving balcony projects into the yard, as voluptuous as a Francois Boucher derriere.
Don’t try to assemble these parts into a comprehensible whole. You cannot. At least not in conventional architectural terms. The owners of Persian Palaces aren’t striving to keep to formal rules of architecture--not Classical order, Renaissance perspective, Baroque composition or Beaux Arts historicism. There are no hidden symbols in their design choices, either. Nor do many of the owners mean to announce class status by deploying all those columns and balustrades. They merely want to enliven the street, and their own surroundings, by plucking familiar images from the glories of architectural history and turning them into a kind of gold-leafing.
As preposterous as this might sound, a Persian Palace is intended to be a palace in the way that the originals once were. Like Hasht Behesht (the “Eight Paradises”), the 17th century residential masterpiece in Isfahan, or the Taj Mahal (thought to be designed by an Indian of Persian descent), Persian homes and mosques and bazaars were built around ideas largely foreign to the West, and still unsettling to our culture. Persian architecture, like carpet weaving and the poetry of Rumi, was an effort to partake of the sublime. Sumptuousness and inutility were the qualities that found expression in elaborate mosaics, mirrored walls, finely filigreed ironwork. The imagery was abstract, the line sinuous, unending, often confusing foreground with background--and intended to evoke the infinite dimension of God. Upon entering a palace (if you were lucky enough), you would be transported to a place of affection and gentleness, the tender ecstasy of youth. These palaces, like the gilded enchantments in today’s Los Angeles, were a celebration of beauty in its own right, and in that way a direct appeal to the senses.
You cannot talk about Persian Palaces without talking to Hamid Omrani, a 55-year-old Jewish-Iranian-American immigrant who has designed hundreds of them. What you notice when you visit Omrani’s office, upstairs from a Lexus dealership on Wilshire in Beverly Hills, are not the blow-ups of images of his houses--though these are prominently on display. Rather, you find yourself staring at a color rendering that takes up the entire wall behind Omrani’s desk. This is his dream. Omrani wants to build a multibillion-dollar folly rising 23 stories above the intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica. A rooftop gallery, devoted to the Seven Arts, would float on seven Greek columns, while traffic would speed around a traffic circle below. Part Acropolis, part disco, the massive stone and titanium tower would be the culmination of an elevated promenade linking the row of parking structures that Beverly Hills has built along the old Southern Pacific right-of-way on the backside of Little Santa Monica.
“This will transform Beverly Hills,” Omrani says. “I chose the intersection because it is the busiest intersection and because from there you will be able to see all the way to the beach and all the way to downtown. You can imagine people walking here, music, it will be so crowded and busy, not dull, like the city is at night. It will be better than the Etoile, in Paris. Why? Because you can walk right into it on top.”
The enormous circle of columns (which, in terms of sheer scale, recalls the giant geometric forms by 18th century French visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullee) may be the best summary of what Omrani’s clients want, an extroverted style that goes beyond a love affair with ornament. Omrani’s work represents a challenge to the conventional American notion of the home as sanctuary from the workplace, the schoolyard, the public sphere in general. Omrani and his adherents do not make a distinction between the home and the office, between the playground and the frontyard, between daytime and nighttime. Their world is fluid, sociable, always open for business and pleasure--if the two can be distinguished.
This becomes abundantly clear one pleasantly mild November night when, long after dark, Omrani hits the road in his black Cadillac, on a whirlwind tour of some of his work. Hanging out with Omrani is like following around a prizefighter. His entourage this evening consists of his cousin (he has about 40 first cousins) Farhad Cohen, a thoughtful, Columbia-trained physicist with a wide scholarship on topics such as stochastic processes and Ludwig II, and one of his best friends, Behrouz Mehregani, an Iranian Muslim who produces extremely complex computer programs to make 3-D maps.
Omrani steers his car in the half-wild, half-lackadaisical manner of a Parisian cabby, bobbing and weaving through rush-hour traffic, slipping on and off side streets, making wide right turns around other cars, darting the wrong way down one-way alleys, all the while pointing out his houses. “Look, this is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. And this, the columns, beautiful, beautiful.” Careering through Beverly Hills, counting columns, is like what a Sunday drive used to be for suburban families simply wanting to burn some gas and take in the sights. Later, he complains that working within the new guidelines has forced him to build bastards: Italianate fronts with Persian backs. “If you look at the product, after two years, most of the city looks like tract housing, and they’ve killed the new variety of the city.”
At last, without the least regard for the appointed hour, which is long past, we reach our destination, the home of Masoud and Flora Yadegar. The house, on North Camden, was completed nearly a decade ago, and fits the definition of Persian Palace to a T. A hemispheric portico, supported by white columns, projects from a two-story facade of symmetrical windows and balconies. The two-story entry has an etched-glass clerestory, drawn by Yadegar, who combed through floral designs in books he borrowed from the Beverly Hills Public Library.
“Call me Mike, and this is my wife, Flora,” Yadegar says as he opens the door, adding, “You’re always welcome. No hour is too late.” Yadegar means what he says, and his remark reveals another feature of the Persian Palace that is expressed in the architecture. His home is about hospitality, openness, letting in the light. “I didn’t want to close it up completely,” Yadegar says. “We like light,” says Flora.
The foyer itself is modest, its white marble floor inset with a five-point black-and-gold star. The main feature of the interior is a twin swan’s neck staircase rising dramatically to a second-story curved balcony, supported on columns identical to those of the portico outside. Yadegar is 50-ish, dressed in Nike flip-flops and a wild print shirt. His stylish wrap-around glasses and baritone voice, which has a slight Continental inflection, make him look and sound like Yves Montand. “I always wanted stairs going up,” he says on a tour that includes every room in the house. The columns, he confesses, were “all Hamid’s idea. When he put them together and showed us the perspective, it grabbed us.”
Otherwise the house, surprisingly, takes its cues from Southern California Modernism. Although the decor is decidedly Rococo--gold leaf and deep swags of silk curtains abound--the downstairs is one continuous open space, and every wall consists of windows or French doors. The entire house, in effect, can be flung open to the air and sun. With the curtains drawn aside, you can see from front to back--an unobstructed view that is characteristic of most Persian Palaces.
In this way, Persian Palaces relate to the Southern California landscape as much as any Modernist steel-and-glass flattop and, to an extent that few of us care to admit, they giddily reflect an architectural heritage that is considered an American archetype. The homes are all about indoor-outdoor living as, equally, they are about community and what the New Urbanists call “front porches.” Persian Palaces are welcoming to the street. They are unabashed and uninhibited, and in their almost constant references to the human form, very nearly licentious. They radiate light and coax interest--sometimes our (offended) prurient interest. Still, if you trouble to walk the length of a block where the homes now compose the design idiom, you may be pleasantly surprised at the luxe decorative nature the block assumes. Drab, middle-class modesty is decidedly outre in these environs. It’s as if someone had invited Vargas to paint the ceiling of Beverly Hills Presbyterian on Rodeo Drive.
Pausing by the front door, Yadegar explains: “I wasn’t building a house to show off. I built it just to live in. The only crazy things are the columns and the staircase. Before I built this house, I bought a house in a different section of Beverly Hills, below Burton Way. I paid $450,000 for that house, and it was all closed off by trees, and there were no windows. I spent $30,000 to take out the trees and open up the windows. People would pass by and say, ‘Where did this house come from?’ I didn’t do it to have them see me. I did it to see them.” By which he means, he wanted to watch people the way one watches people on the streets of New York or Barcelona.
“Every night,” Yadegar says as we make our way out to the sidewalk, “I turn all the lights on. We like it to be bright. I like to see the people passing by.”
On another hillside, in the coveted Beverly Hills ZIP Code but actually within the Los Angeles city limits, is another Persian Palace, among the city’s first. Built in the late 1980s by Masoud “Jack” Eshaghian, the 7,500-square-foot house sits high in Deep Canyon. As you climb up the hill, two white cantilevered discuses, rimmed in balusters and outlined in columns, soar into view, appearing magically like an ancient ruin on an Aegean coastline. This is only the deck. Rising above is the house, a faceted and curving Grecian edifice punctuated by more columns, 12 in all, crowned with volutes, in the Ionic fashion. Iron gates open onto a driveway that can accommodate a fleet of cars. Four massive fluted columns, poised like colossal soldiers, flank a wide staircase that splits in two, cascading toward the parking-lot frontyard. Unlike the ideal of a Greek temple, which was meant to grow harmoniously from its surroundings, this house towers over the landscape like Cyclops. Amid this lumbering excess, you half expect Marlon Brando to appear, wrapped in a sarong, somnambulant beneath the portico.
Jack’s son, Claude Eshagian, a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture, lives in his father’s house with his wife, Annika Olsen, a fashion designer. “In design terms,” he says, “this is an adorned white box, and it would be nothing if it did not have these grandiose gestures. In another sense, it is Persian, because a very rich man once slept on a bed of thick piles of Persian carpets.” Excess is part of the point, just as it was in the palaces of the homeland. “My father has become more aware, after building this house, that there are correct proportions for Greek architecture, and that this house does not obey all of those rules. Still, there is something appealing about the house. No matter how critical you can be about this house, everybody loves it. Architects love it for its whimsy and the general public for its grandiosity.”
He suggests that the house mimics civic buildings. It’s big and it’s public. “You want to build a large house that isn’t necessarily well-built, but seems like a hotel--that looks good on the exterior and has room for your family.” The “more is better” aesthetic, he says, reflects a cultural “capaciousness.”
Eshagian compares his father’s sensibility to the orthodoxy of a pair of new “Neo-Spanish” villas built directly across the street--also owned by Persian families. “Those owners were very particular about how things were built. They wanted everything just right. The houses are extremely well-done. When my dad was building this house, he did it in a much more humble way. He didn’t want to be a hard-ass rich guy. I admire him for having done it that way, even if I don’t like the taste. I admire the gumption.”
Standing in the driveway, hearing Claude Eshagian talk about his dad’s house, brings to mind Adolph Loos, the austere Viennese architect and one of the fathers of Modernism (he was, for example, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra’s teacher). Loos wrote nearly a century ago that “the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects,” famously linking decoration to an overcharged sex drive. Loos’ words became the Modernist mantra “Ornament Is Crime,” but here, atop a ridge near Mulholland Drive, is a house that, for all its failings, is a spirited rebuke to Loos. The house revels in the splendors of its own superfluity. Nor does it pretend to be a perfected monument, a bronze and porphyry replica of the kind that the Getty Villa has achieved on the bluffs of Pacific Palisades. It is sloppy and clumsy. It wears its faults proudly. You find yourself becoming charitable in the face of Jack Eshagian’s overwhelming need for a beauty he cannot properly express. And you remind yourself, too, that the Greek temples, when they were new, were painted in polychrome.