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In Defense of the Persian Palace

They're ostentatious and ridiculous and blot out their neighbors' sun. They're also open to light and the street, and expressive of an inviting, sociable culture.

December 17, 2006|Greg Goldin | Greg Goldin is Los Angeles magazine's architecture critic.

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.

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