Once in a blue moon

By Kylie MacKenzie

How do you top a project with 42 bathrooms, 21 bedrooms, a jogging track, cigar lounge and a philanthropy wing? HF tracked down architect Paul McClean to discuss his modernistic style, why he often feels like a therapist and some of his most adventurous projects yet.

Q) You grew up in a semi-detached home in Dublin. That’s a long way from the high-end estates that you’ve been designing. What’s your story?

A) I’ve wanted to be an architect since I was four years old. As a young boy, there was nothing more enjoyable than drawing houses all day long. Early on, I became fascinated with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright through books at our local library, and later discovered the case study houses here in LA. The work of Schindler and Neutra drew me in as well.

I was lucky enough to attend architecture school at the Dublin Institute of Technology and managed to combine my training with travel. I worked for Dennis Rourke in Sydney, Australia for a year and after further study back home, worked on a project in McCullough Mulvin’s Dublin office.

I was ultimately drawn to California because I wanted to practice residential architecture and California seemed like the place to do so. As it turned out, I had friends in Laguna Beach. I met my wife there and started the firm in 2000. In the beginning, our focus was on working with homeowners, but then we quickly developed a strong portfolio with developer-led projects. This gave us bandwidth moving forward, and as a result, people noticed our work.

Q) How do you think your background has influenced your work?

A) I came from a very modest upbringing with influences such as Glenn Murcutt and Norman Foster. I have admired many architects over the years but I still remember the excitement I felt as a ten-year-old discovering the captivating beauty of Falling Water. It stunned me and I remember trying to draw it over and over again, not quite understanding how it worked. It confirmed my desire to study architecture.

For me, home is family. A place where you feel safe. Where you can be yourself. A respite from the world. When working with clients, I listen and encourage them to express their ideas using imagery and questions. Ultimately, I want to ensure my work is what they imagined.

Q) You’ve said that a good architect works a bit like a client’s therapist at times. That’s a big responsibility. How does that work?

A) Building a home can be immensely challenging, particularly for the clients. For many, they will only do this once in their lives and it’s a huge financial commitment with thousands of decisions to be made.

The process can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s quite common for people not to agree with each other or to have a different goal or direction. We listen, help manage and find ways to reach a compromise.

Q) “Ultramodern” is the way your work has been described. Would you say you have a signature style?

A) I don’t think of us as having a style per se. But I guess that’s something someone else would be more likely to recognize than me. Our buildings respond to their site, program and climate so they tend to be designed to minimize the barrier between indoors and outdoors. We use a lot of glass, exposed steel or structural components and natural materials and like to emphasize water.

Quality is more of an ambition than quantity. We strive to make each house better than the last, learn from our mistakes and create something beautiful.

Q) If you could add someone’s work to your portfolio whose would it be?

A)I am a huge fan of Norman Foster. I appreciate the way his firm looks at things critically from first principles, trying to see what really is at the heart of a client’s program, and what is necessary to make the project work on site. His practice integrates technology and sustainability to create great buildings suited for the environment.

Q) Behind the scenes, there is a lot of work that we don’t hear about but I expect you spend most of your time on the “big picture”?

A) I do enjoy the big picture part but it’s really only a small component of getting a project off the ground. There are always a lot of things such as politics, approvals, budget restrictions and discussions. It’s really important to be focused on all of it and to keep momentum going on all fronts.

Q) Which three things do you feel are the most valuable for your clients when it comes to their homes?

A) With our clients, I feel ample light, the incorporation of water and the elimination of indoor/outdoor boundaries are most valuable. We want our clients to be connected to water and nature for serenity and healing. I try and listen carefully to what our clients are hoping to achieve and then visit the sites looking for clues as to what will make a successful project. In addition to desires and aspirations, the surrounding buildings, trees, direction and orientation are all constraints.

Q) Can we talk wellness and what you see as the up-and-coming features in custom homes?

A) Wellness has definitely come to the forefront, especially during the last 18 months. I think people are hesitant about returning to gyms and spas and like the idea of creating more of a retreat at home.

Apart from the obvious things such as steam rooms and saunas, people are talking about outdoor meditation spaces, which work great in the climates in which we tend to build. I think in the past, people often made do with a spare room or a small  gym. Now, people are realizing that to get the equipment they really want, and be able to do some floor work, they need a rather large space.

Q) Do you have a favourite time of day and when are you most productive?

A) I’m definitely a morning person. I think I’m more optimistic then about what I can achieve in the day and that tends to help. That said, design ideas come at random times when you’re doing something completely different. I try and be as productive as possible during office time which means switching to other work while waiting for inspiration to strike.

Q) Is there something most people don’t know about you or a vice you’d like to give up?

A) I’m a big fan of science fiction writing. I like imagining other types of worlds and situations and the problems and challenges those may lead to. A vice I would like to give up is sweets, chocolate and pastries. I eat way too many.

Q) Can you share the three things that you’ve missed and just can’t wait to do again once the pandemic is over?

A) Travel for fun. See friends and family that I haven’t been able to for the last 18 months. Visit cities and museums again with everything open.


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