Introduction to "McClean Design: Creating the Contemporary House" I have a strong memory of Paul McClean and two models he was working on almost thirty years ago in Dublin - artists’ studios in Temple Bar and an extension to the Abbey Theatre. Paul was a brilliant model maker and models were (and still are) essential to our design process, so many hours were spent discussing and dissecting them, with Paul listening carefully, then obsessively working and reworking the pieces, meticulously counterpointing new forms against existing ones with clarity and judgment until they got across exactly the point of each scheme.

Linked Projects
  • Temple Bar Gallery + Studios
    Temple Bar Gallery + Studios

    Dublin, Ireland

  • Abbey Theatre, Dublin - Poster Boxes + Portico + Unbuilt scheme
    Abbey Theatre, Dublin - Poster Boxes + Portico + Unbuilt scheme

Architectural education at that time in Ireland—and our own work—was strongly influenced by the European-focused teachings of Aldo Rossi, texts such as Kenneth Frampton’s “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” and the canonical modernism of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, and Alvar Aalto. Their backbone of structure, light, and materials permeated all the schemes we were working on—at that time a number of city projects that reimagined urban quarters and threw focus back on living in the city. It was urban dentistry in rundown areas of town, where vitality was underpinned by an eclectic mix of uses—secondhand bookshops, vintage clothes, artists studios, music venues—all thriving on short-term rents and the threat of imminent demolition. Paul’s models became part of the arsenal of persuasion used to encourage developers to re-inhabit existing urban fabric and build on derelict sites. One project was finally built, one not, but those models—one of which still exists in the archive—translated our thinking into three-dimensional form with spirit and dexterity.

Exchanging the changeable skies of Dublin for the solid blue ones of Southern California, and working with a new palette of color, landscape, and materials, Paul—like many Irish emigrants before him full of ideas, vision, and energy—has carved out a remarkable life in a new country. He has created a strong and architectonic body of work that he modestly describes as “residential modernism.” It perhaps draws from the modernist canon of the Case Study Houses of the 1950s with their sense of private and privileged retreat from the world, hovering above—and somehow fueled by—the city below. Those houses, captured in the beautiful photography of Julius Shulman, depict the rarefied world of movie stars, swimming pools, tropical plants, and desert air, where life is frozen in the interrupted drama of leisure, where spaces exist not just to live in, but as ideal worlds within which to dream, suspended above the city, portrayed as an unfeeling grid stretching to the horizon or to the ocean.

Paul’s houses for the twenty-first century inhabit territory similar to that of the Case Study houses, in the dream world of a Southern Californian life in the hills above the grid of the city. They are buildings that create an ultimate retreat from the world where their owners can live an expansive life with family and friends, screened from the glare of publicity. 

When building within tightly controlled zones of what is probably the most rarefied real estate in the world, the architectural game requires skillfully striking a balance between creating totally private space, screening views of adjoining houses, and framing a view. Under multiple constraints, the houses manage to create a sense of calm monumentality, generated by a strong, regular beat of structure and a clear sequence of spaces. Essential to this in almost all cases is a meticulously constructed architectural promenade from screened motor court entrance, across or along the plan and section, to an edited view to the horizon from main living spaces. This is achieved via a crafted sequence that rotates you at significant moments to exploit the dimensions of the site, extending spatial drama and drawing in nature at every possible point. The common thread across these precisely modulated sequences is the use of water, whether as a threshold element crossed by a bridge; an introductory wall of spilling water reducing background noise; or still reflective pools offering calm in front of a huge view.

Planimetrically, there is great skill in creating rectilinear geometries across these irregular plot shapes, and the resultant edge conditions sometimes allow another geometry to come into play. Hence, circles resolve odd corners, create generous arrival spaces, and make platforms around which to gather communal activity, and helical stairs dramatically float you from floor to floor.

In section, a sandwich of horizontal planes, in the tradition of twentieth-century International Style modernism, creates intimacy for each floor level while delivering large, interconnected spaces for life to flow. These comparatively compressed floor-to-ceiling heights are released by the remarkable views achieved with carefully controlled placement of major rooms. Usually one entire wall of a living space is framed out to dramatic views of landscape and ocean—the infinite, the sky and sea, one dimension always open and free. The selection of these curated viewing points achieves for each house something unique and individually true about each site, and the lateral extension across stepped terraces—requiring great architectonic skill—creates a receding series of planes that expand the sense of spatial complexity. In a similar way, internally staircases and solid planes generate areas of dynamic movement through the section, counterpointing the calm of living spaces with dynamic views.

Palettes of materials are precious and fine throughout and include classic marbles and figured stone and timber. Planes of glass offer views or create reflections that dissolve boundaries; floor plates of the same material link spaces and float out toward the horizon, extending spatial enjoyment. These materials are revealed through the joyous play of light on their surfaces, interrupted by flashes of nature that relax the eye and open to the infinite.

These are houses where space itself and the materials that define its boundaries are finely crafted and thoroughly understood as the background to the Southern Californian dream. 

—Valerie Mulvin

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