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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.

On another hillside, in the coveted Beverly Hills ZIP Code but actually within the Los Angeles city limits, is another Persian Palace, among the city's first. Built in the late 1980s by Masoud "Jack" Eshaghian, the 7,500-square-foot house sits high in Deep Canyon. As you climb up the hill, two white cantilevered discuses, rimmed in balusters and outlined in columns, soar into view, appearing magically like an ancient ruin on an Aegean coastline. This is only the deck. Rising above is the house, a faceted and curving Grecian edifice punctuated by more columns, 12 in all, crowned with volutes, in the Ionic fashion. Iron gates open onto a driveway that can accommodate a fleet of cars. Four massive fluted columns, poised like colossal soldiers, flank a wide staircase that splits in two, cascading toward the parking-lot frontyard. Unlike the ideal of a Greek temple, which was meant to grow harmoniously from its surroundings, this house towers over the landscape like Cyclops. Amid this lumbering excess, you half expect Marlon Brando to appear, wrapped in a sarong, somnambulant beneath the portico.

Jack's son, Claude Eshagian, a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture, lives in his father's house with his wife, Annika Olsen, a fashion designer. "In design terms," he says, "this is an adorned white box, and it would be nothing if it did not have these grandiose gestures. In another sense, it is Persian, because a very rich man once slept on a bed of thick piles of Persian carpets." Excess is part of the point, just as it was in the palaces of the homeland. "My father has become more aware, after building this house, that there are correct proportions for Greek architecture, and that this house does not obey all of those rules. Still, there is something appealing about the house. No matter how critical you can be about this house, everybody loves it. Architects love it for its whimsy and the general public for its grandiosity."

He suggests that the house mimics civic buildings. It's big and it's public. "You want to build a large house that isn't necessarily well-built, but seems like a hotel--that looks good on the exterior and has room for your family." The "more is better" aesthetic, he says, reflects a cultural "capaciousness."

Eshagian compares his father's sensibility to the orthodoxy of a pair of new "Neo-Spanish" villas built directly across the street--also owned by Persian families. "Those owners were very particular about how things were built. They wanted everything just right. The houses are extremely well-done. When my dad was building this house, he did it in a much more humble way. He didn't want to be a hard-ass rich guy. I admire him for having done it that way, even if I don't like the taste. I admire the gumption."

Standing in the driveway, hearing Claude Eshagian talk about his dad's house, brings to mind Adolph Loos, the austere Viennese architect and one of the fathers of Modernism (he was, for example, Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra's teacher). Loos wrote nearly a century ago that "the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects," famously linking decoration to an overcharged sex drive. Loos' words became the Modernist mantra "Ornament Is Crime," but here, atop a ridge near Mulholland Drive, is a house that, for all its failings, is a spirited rebuke to Loos. The house revels in the splendors of its own superfluity. Nor does it pretend to be a perfected monument, a bronze and porphyry replica of the kind that the Getty Villa has achieved on the bluffs of Pacific Palisades. It is sloppy and clumsy. It wears its faults proudly. You find yourself becoming charitable in the face of Jack Eshagian's overwhelming need for a beauty he cannot properly express. And you remind yourself, too, that the Greek temples, when they were new, were painted in polychrome.

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