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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.

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."

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