Gigamansions and the new Gilded Age

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The Gilded Age of the late 19th century produced vast estates, built by powerful families and inspired by the châteaux and mansions of Europe.

Many say we’re in a second Gilded Age, and it too is producing colossal houses. But they are often created by developers for undetermined owners, and many are gigantic versions of LA’s modernist glass and stucco, indoor-outdoor residential style.

Are they selling, who is buying them, and does the boom in huge houses make it harder to build and buy smaller houses?

A view of the unfinished The One, taken from outside the property. Photo by Frances Anderton

DNA tour The One, a 100,000-square-feet home in Bel Air being developed by Nile Niami and designed by the architect Paul McClean. Priced at $500 million, it is the most expensive house on the market in America right now. Its amenities include a nightclub and VIP lounge, a four-lane bowling alley, a lounge with walls made of jellyfish tanks, a cigar room, two wine rooms and a 40-person theater that is the same size as the AMC.

Niami has built several homes -- including the highly-publicized Opus, still on the market -- and has been criticized for tearing down modest Mediterranean houses and replacing them with much larger homes.

So what’s Niami’s response to those that say, “‘hey, this guy's coming and building these giant monstrosities!’” He is doing everyone a favor. “We are improving neighborhoods. We're making neighborhoods bigger. We are improving prices and at the same time we're helping all of the people who have bought there years ago… if these critics bought their house for $300,000 and are selling it for land value for $6 million, they shouldn't complain.”

A view of Mohamed Hadid’s famously unfinished mansion in Bel Air, taken from the construction site of The One. Photo by Frances Anderton

Niami himself started out doing Mediterranean-style houses. Then he met the architect Paul McClean and moved on to contemporary.

McClean, a Dublin-born architect who moved to Southern California in the mid-90s, has been dubbed the Megamansion King of Los Angeles. His homes have sold to Beyoncé and Jay Z, to Calvin Klein, and to the Winklevoss twins.

He is a devotee of LA’s early Modernists and has taken the language of interlocking volumes, blank walls and floor-to-ceiling glass and pumped it up, breaking down scale with reflective water and light, and landscaping.

“I was completely surprised when [Niami] called and said, ‘I want to do 100,000 square foot house. I found this lot. It's four acres on top of the hill. It's going to be great.’ We were really surprised and somewhat cautious. It was a very large project,” McClean said.

So what would McClean think his heroes, the Austrian architects Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, make of these super-sized versions of their modernist ideals?

“I think they would probably love to do the bigger projects because of the opportunity that brings for spatial exploration and they'd be absolutely thrilled at the technology level today,” McClean said.