New book details architect Paul McClean’s ultramodern homes

Consider the mid-century Case Study House: minimalist prototypes for the masses that were aesthetic and affordable, each now a grail venerated by the architectural cognoscenti.

Yet the homes could be noisy, frigid creations that leaked. The wind howled through crevices and banged against quarter-inch, single-pane glass.

Imagine what Case Study architects such as Pierre Koenig and Craig Ellwood could have achieved with today’s advanced glazing systems — and lots of cash. You’ll get an idea by perusing the 21 homes detailed in “McClean Design: Creating the Contemporary House,” published in April by Rizzoli Electa.

Punched with light and often perched on steep lots in the Hollywood Hills and environs, Paul McClean’s homes are perfected otherworldly spaces that achieve a severe beauty via vanished boundaries — like their Case Study forebears of the ’40s. His geometric progression of shapes is forever logical, kept from sterility by a masterful use of water, light and air.

McClean’s urbane designs house such luminaries as Calvin Klein, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and the Winklevoss twins — famous for suing Mark Zuckerberg.


And while his homes abhor high concept, the architect has occasionally teamed with spec developer Nile Niami, who’s known for postured promotions. Most notable is Niami’s McClean-designed, messianically monikered “The One.” The 20-bedroom, 100,000-square-foot Bel-Air hilltop colossus is nearing completion with an asking price of $500 million.

We spoke with Ireland-born McClean from his Orange-based office at McClean Design, founded in 2000.

Your designs draw on a deceptively simple perceptual law that Rudolph Schindler grasped in spades: What the eye doesn’t see — empty space — is correlative to what it does see.

It’s amazingly tricky to pull off. You look at things like the Farnsworth House and people say, “Oh, it’s just a glass box.” But the reality of actually getting it to work on the site in an appropriate way — utilities, making the air conditioning work and so on — all those things are competing against that.

The play of water, air and light within your homes offers a Zen-like contemplative backdrop, a route to introspection.

The house itself is not your life. It’s the background to where you live. Sometimes I think architects can be a little guilty of forgetting that. I often think there’s a problem of trying to instill too many ideas. The patterns you get from light reflected over water create beautiful shadows and textures on ceilings. We often use water like a sky mirror, or to bounce light deep into interior spaces.

You and Nile Niami are quite the odd couple.

He’s a larger-than-life character and has a huge force of will to get things done. I think we’ve done most of his homes; it’s probably about 20% of our work in the last decade. So a big, important client, but it doesn’t represent our work as a whole. What I hope to achieve with people like Nile is that the architecture reads through. Then he applies his sense of fashion, drama and theater over that.

Has “The One” turned out as you had hoped?

There’s a lot of really good things about it … and there are some elements we changed. We drew the original entry and then as we put it together and built it, none of us were quite satisfied with it. We changed the structural approach. There was a canopy and a certain type of front door and a sequence to get to it, and we radically changed that.

A 2017 revision to Los Angeles’ Baseline Mansionization Ordinance prevents such homes from being built today. Do you feel the update curbs your creativity?

I often think planning tools can be relatively blunt in their application. For example, they restrict the size of overhangs and architectural projections. That just forces people to build a square box. There’s a lot of emphasis put on grading. But by limiting the amount taken out underground, it encourages more space on top, increasing the appearance of mass and density.

You launched your career building Lego houses at age 4 — a prescient start.

My mom would tell me the clue was when I would draw my houses, like every 4-year old. But I would put the windows in the middle of the wall plane, rather than up in the corners.

The 240-page book “McClean Design: Creating the Contemporary House” is written by Philip Jodidio and includes 200 illustrations.