Lake Sherwood is a guard-gated golf club community 40 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Developed in the 1980s by David Murdock, the chairman and CEO of Dole Food Company, the enclave is known for its meandering, man-made lake, the imposing period revival houses that front the lake, and the famous people who live in some of the houses. Paul Anka, Sylvester Stallone, and Britney Spears are a few locals.
Just outside the gates, on the west side of the lake, a long, curving driveway lined with pines ascends to Villa del Lago, a 23,000-square-foot Tuscan-style pile shaded by oaks and cypress and ringed by a trio of ponds, complete with a storybook bridge and waterfall. For the most part the house, with its rustic stone facade, pair of towers, and century-old roof tiles, is a convincing approximation of an Italian farmhouse.
In fact, it was built six years ago by the Los Angeles architect Richard Landry. His clients, Bob Byers, who ran a medical equipment supply company until he sold it in 2008, and his wife, Audrey, wanted a home that reminded them of their travels through central Italy. On a warm afternoon last September, I met Landry at Villa del Lago for a house tour. The architect, who at 59 has the gym-sculpted body, year-round tan, and very white teeth of a motivational speaker, greeted me with a hug—“I’m a hugger,” he said—and introduced me to Audrey Byers before we went inside.
From the entrance hall, which is 28 feet tall and has 200-year-old wood beams and floors, we proceeded to the great room, a soaring two-story space overlooked by a picturesque mezzanine—the perfect spot, Landry observed, for a quartet to play at a party. Byers confessed that she and her husband had yet to hire a quartet but said they would like to sometime. “At the same time there are lots of fun, contemporary features,” Landry went on, accordioning a set of folding glass doors to open the room to a crescent-shaped swimming pool whose gray-blue surface echoed the lake beyond (“our little Lake Como,” Byers called it).
The architect pointed out the interplay of classical and contemporary elements in other parts of the house. The dining room has waxy Venetian plaster walls, artisan-carved wood columns, and a barrel-vaulted brick ceiling. It also has a wine room with a tequila bar. In the middle of the wine racks, a backlit acrylic display studded with bottle fragments showcases shelves of vintage tequilas. “Bob likes wine, Audrey likes tequila, so we made them both happy,” said Landry. “We wanted something unexpected, but we’re also creating art.”
The architect led us down the hall to the home theater, which features—in addition to a 14-foot screen and 12 subwoofers—a glass floor and an undulating ceiling of walnut and illuminated onyx. But the house’s real revelation lies below the glass floor: a 7,500-square-foot subterranean room that accommodates Bob Byers’s “man cave” and his extensive collection of classic cars. We took an elevator down to the cavernous space. Under the same vaulted ceiling and old trusses that appear in other parts of the house, a bar with a 20-foot-long counter and five television sets (Bob Byers likes football as well as wine) holds a poker table, a player piano, and a jukebox. At the other end of the room, displayed in ten bays and kept sparkling by a car wash on the premises that uses purified well water, are the cars. They include a 2005 Maserati Quattroporte, a 2012 Tesla Model S Signature, and a Humvee golf cart with an American flag paint job. (“I always wanted a Hummer, so my husband got me that,” said Audrey Byers, feigning a sulk. He also got her a Ferrari, a Porsche, and a Bentley.)
Unlike many architects of his stature, Richard Landry does not have a signature style. He does French provincial, Polynesian revival, and California contemporary with equal aplomb. But there are common denominators. If the house is traditional, it will reliably be, in his words, “adapted to today’s lifestyle” with generous amounts of glass (skylights, floor-to-ceiling windows, glass floors). Prominent covered loggias, fanciful water features, and custom “hobby rooms” are trademarks. Some other typical amenities: conference rooms, ballrooms, safe rooms, theaters, bowling alleys, indoor basketball courts, separate kitchens for family and staff, gyms with yoga and Pilates wings, spas with massage rooms and indoor pools.
The houses Landry designs are, by all measures, huge. He estimates that the 40 or so projects his firm juggles at any given time average between 10,000 and 15,000 square feet. Some are smaller and some are bigger—much bigger. The largest residence he is working on is a compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, whose square footage stretches well into the six figures. Landry has been called “the king of the megamansion” (by The New York Times) and “L.A.’s very own Jules Hardouin-Mansart” (the real estate blog Curbed, invoking the architect of Versailles). But he bristles at these labels. “My goal,” he says, “is to dismiss the misperception of me as the architect who only does megahouses. We’re about how we service our client and have fun together.” (Fun happens to be Landry’s favorite word.)
Call him, instead, the architect of desire. Landry faithfully translates the outsize fantasies of his often larger-than-life clients. Recently he designed an “eco-château” in Brentwood (moatlike koi pond, solar panels) for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his wife, model Gisele Bündchen; an Andalusian-style villa with an underground discotheque overlooking the skyline of Kuala Lumpur for a Malaysian businessman; and a Michigan lake house fusing Cape Cod elements (shingle siding) and Dutch touches (steep gables) for the private equity billionaire Alec Gores.
His clients are intensely loyal. “Richard is just one of those people I would describe as a hundred percenter,” says Gores, for whom Landry also built a 31,000-square-foot French château in Beverly Hills and a Spanish-style beach house in Malibu (a modern ski house in Mammoth Lakes is on the drawing board). “He’ll go down as one of the greatest architects, ever, in the world.”
Landry’s detractors are equally unrestrained in their assessment of his contri bution. When Tom Brady’s eco-manse appeared on the cover of Architectural Digest, not a few online commenters questioned why, if the football star was intent on reducing the carbon footprint of his house, he didn’t simply shrink its actual footprint (the residence measures 14,000 square feet). As house sizes in Los Angeles (and other cities) balloon, so, in some quarters, does the enmity toward them: In the view of Curbed, Landry’s projects are “so enormous, so ugly, so unnecessarily over-the-top that we believe he could start a populist revolution if only more people knew about him.”
The rich have been commissioning monuments to themselves since the days of the pharaohs. The grandest residence in this country, Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, North Carolina, was designed by Richard Morris Hunt for George Washington Vanderbilt II more than 100 years ago. Today’s starchitects regularly take gigs from private clients who covet their very own Richard Meier, say, or Robert A.M. Stern. Less celebrated talents—Peter Pennoyer on the East Coast, Richard Manion on the West—have fashioned careers building trophy houses for the one percent. Richard Landry falls into the latter camp, even if the pleasure domes he creates are one of a kind.
Lately, Landry estimates, half of his jobs have been modern designs—or modern traditional hybrids. The offices of Landry Design Group, located in a former veterinary hospital in West Los Angeles, have a rough-edged urban loft vibe. The architect purchased the three-story, 14,000-square-foot space in 2014 and renovated the building with recycled materials: overrun stock glass for the windows on the front of the building (carefully laid out to suggest a random pattern), old scaffolding planks for the stairs, stone-yard scraps for countertops. For all its rawness, the interior is typically eclectic. Ancient-looking olive jars soften the hard edges; there are a lot of mirrors.
Landry and his business partner, Brian Pinkett, are the principals of the 50-person firm. Pinkett oversees project coordination and scheduling, allowing Landry to focus on design matters. Under them five associates work with teams headed by a project manager and a job captain. Once a month, at lunchtime, the entire staff convenes in the reclaimed-wood-paneled lounge to review current and potential projects. The meetings, led by Landry, are part briefing, part pep talk.
He not long ago opened one of them by running through a few prospective jobs—a spec house in the Trousdale Estates neighborhood of Beverly Hills, another commission in Riyadh, a boutique hotel in Toronto. Then he cued a slide show of photographs and renderings of ongoing projects. These included Alec Gores’s house on Lake Michigan (recently completed), a Polynesian-themed compound on the Big Island (awaiting approval), and a swooping contemporary remodel of a Malibu beach house (just finished).
The final slides showed drawings of a project in West L.A. that the firm is planning for a developer named Jeff Appel. A butterfly-shaped complex of cast concrete pierced with elliptical windows, it looked a little like the home of JP Gottrockets on The Jetsons. The project represents LDG’s first mixed-use commission. It will house a Whole Foods, retail shops, and a five-story, 168-unit apartment building. Encompassing four city blocks, it is not an unassuming structure, but Landry called attention to “the great natural light and view corridors” afforded by its curvy form. The room broke into applause.
“And that’s it for the pretty pictures. You want to talk about haul routes, Suzanne?”
Suzanne Shepela, an associate, reminded the group that the City of Los Angeles requires permits to haul more than 1,000 cubic yards of dirt excavated from hillside construction sites. She said that the city had begun monitoring large hauls more strictly, and as a result permit applications could take as long as a year to process.
“Is this just for L.A.?” Landry asked. “What about Beverly Hills?”
“Beverly Hills is sensitive, too,” Shepela said. “Because of the police who were hit.” (In 2014, in separate incidents, two police officers were struck and killed by out-of-control construction trucks in Beverly Hills.)
“Hmm,” Landry mused. “So we’ve got to be careful with new projects in talking about schedules. And there’s risk involved also. Because the client says, ‘Let’s get the working drawings going while we’re waiting that ten months,’ and then the city says, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ This is a real issue.”
Someone in the room pointed out that hauling trucks must now display the job contractor’s contact information, in case of neighbor complaints. “But not the architect’s,” Landry quipped. Laughter, more applause.
It’s telling that haul routes consumed the major part of the office meeting. In the years since the recession, residential construction has exploded in Los Angeles. While boxy speculator-built McMansions are replacing modest bungalows in L.A.’s “flats,” the boom is turning some of the city’s wealthiest precincts into dusty enclaves of half-built houses the size of hotels. One of the few steps that officials have taken in response is to clamp down on dirt hauling. “Sometimes the biggest problem has not been the size of the homes being built but the hundreds and hundreds of construction vehicles they require,” says Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz, who sponsored the tighter hauling measures.
But to many residents the houses themselves are problematic, too. “People have always come to L.A. and shown off their status by building the great, big—excuse my French—fuck-off house,” says Frances Anderton, host and producer of the KCRW broadcast DnA: Design and Architecture. “But we’re in a really strange time when even Angelenos are being jolted by these absurdly overscale hodgepodges.” The backlash has ranged from fed-up neighbors hanging bags of dog feces on construction fences to community alliances lobbying the city to rein in the development.
The Los Angeles City Council is considering amendments to earlier anti-mansionization ordinances that, among other things, would cap the square footage of residential structures at 40 percent of lot size and eliminate some of the exemptions granted to mansionizers of every magnitude. (A brief taxonomy of the Los Angeles mansion: The term “McMansion” may refer to a large tract house or to an oversize replacement of a smaller house [see also: Beverly Grove]; a “megamansion” is a relative designation that in Southern California generally applies to structures in the 20,000-square-foot range [see also: Beverly Hills]; a “gigamansion,” an expression coined by local bloggers, describes recent constructions exceeding 50,000 square feet [see also: Bel-Air].)
Speculators trolling for international buyers tend to be responsible for most of the gigamansions. (A modern steel-and-glass compound currently being built on a Bel-Air hilltop spans more than 100,000 square feet and boasts, among other frills, five swimming pools, a casino, and a lounge with jellyfish tanks for the walls and ceiling.) But if any architect is known for the Los Angeles statement house, it would be Richard Landry. “There’s a certain degree of excess in all of Richard’s houses,” says Paul Goldberger, the former architecture critic of The New Yorker, who wrote the foreword to one of Landry’s tombsize coffee-table books. “And that makes people uncomfortable.”
A few days after the office meeting, I sent Landry an e-mail asking him how, apart from observing the new hauling rules, LDG was responding to the problem of overbuilding on the Westside of Los Angeles. His reply was prompt, polite, and as carefully worded as a stump speech. “This is an important issue and it needs to be addressed with environmentally sensitive solutions in mind,” he wrote. “I support zoning regulations that would prevent overdevelopment while assessing projects on a case-by-case basis given the unique nature of each property.”
Landry grew up in Berthierville, a rural town of 5,000 outside Montreal, one of four children born to French-speaking parents. Cattle strolled through the backyard. His father, a carpenter, built their home, a ranch house of yellow brick, redwood, and granite with a modishly canted roof. Landry spent two or three summers working for him, sanding wood until his fingertips bled, swearing he’d never do menial labor when he grew up. Before Landry even knew what an architect was, he announced to his family that he wanted to “design buildings.”
After high school, he enrolled in the School of Architecture at the University of Montreal. He was first in his class three years out of four, and in his final semester won a grant to study at the University of Copenhagen. Landry spent the summer traveling around Europe, sketching castles and churches in the time-honored fashion, polishing his English along the way (he retains a French accent that renders “Malibu” as “Maleeboo”). When Landry returned to Canada, Alberta was booming, and he signed on at a commercial firm in Edmonton. For three years he applied his freshly honed skills to designing hospitals, schools, and shopping centers.
By 1984, the economy had soured in Alberta. L.A., on the other hand, was having a moment. It hosted the Olympics that summer. Local architects like Frank Gehry and Eric Owen Moss were shaking up the old guard with their radically fragmented designs. Los Angeles “sounded like fun,” says Landry, who drove south with everything he owned in the back of a battered Honda Civic. When he reached Santa Monica, he went to the library to look up architecture firms in the phone book; the librarian informed him there were 13 directories for the area. Landry called the offices of Gehry and Charles Moore, among others, but couldn’t get a foot in the door.
“Richard was young and hungry and had a really shitty apartment right off Santa Monica Boulevard,” says Bill Adams, a former racquetball partner of Landry’s for whom the architect would later design one of his first residential projects. “But did he know what he wanted? He did.”
Landry started by taking a job at R. Duell & Associates, a large firm that specialized in planning theme parks like Magic Mountain and Lion Country Safari. His primary responsibility there was the development of Tivoli Pier, an amusement park at the Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City with attractions like a roller coaster, a fun house, and a four-story Ferris wheel. Although he downplays the experience—he left R. Duell after nine months, eager for wider recognition—it would seem to be useful training for someone who’d become known for residential fantasias with see-through floors and swim-up bars.
In the 1980s, a pair of Los Angeles developers carved up a scrubby hilltop above Beverly Hills to create Beverly Park, a guard-gated neighborhood of palatial new homes that would strike a chord with paparazzi-phobic sports stars and Hollywood potentates. The firm responsible for the master plan for South Beverly Park, as the first phase of the development was called, recruited Landry in 1985. He was put in charge of projects averaging 15,000 square feet—the biggest houses he’d seen, he says—for clients like Kenny Rogers and Joan Collins. Five years later North Beverly Park heralded bigger houses on bigger lots. Landry’s first major commission there was a 23,000-square-foot French manor for Haim Saban, creator of the Power Rangers franchise.
In 1987, Landry opened his own firm. Over the years Beverly Park would be very good to Landry Design Group. There was the 28,000-square-foot French château he built for Rod Stewart, the 40,000-square-foot Italianate manse for Eddie Murphy (the master closet purportedly contains a stripper pole), Alec Gores’s 42,000-square-foot nest. Then came a high-visibility job outside Beverly Park—an English manor house in Seattle for Kenny G, a stately beaux arts mansion in Holmby Hills for former MGM head Frank Mancuso Sr.—many of them commemorated in lavish spreads in glossies like Architectural Digest and the Robb Report.
These days Landry’s press relations are managed by a publicist. He also employs a personal chef. Like many of his clients, he owns several homes: a condominium in Century City, a ski chalet in Mammoth Lakes, a lake house in Quebec, and his main residence, a three-story modern aerie on the ocean in Malibu. The architect shares the house with his teenage daughter, Samantha, when she is not staying with his ex-partner. (He recently got engaged to a 31-year-old lawyer named Chris Drugan and has listed the properties in Malibu and Century City in anticipation of building a house for himself and his future husband in Brentwood.)
Even in anything-goes Malibu, Landry’s home stands out from the neighbors’. Lined with palms and clad in a swirling pattern of silver-and-black granite slabs with sections of powder-coated enamel in Easter egg colors, the driveway leads to a pristine white box of a house. Inside, the place is sleek, spare, and mostly colorless—as bleached and futuristic as the interiors in the Woody Allen movie Sleeper. There’s no Orgasmatron, but the rooms are full of high-tech fun. “When I want color, I change the lighting,” Landry said one evening, leading me into the dining room. “Sometimes I’ll have a dinner and say, ‘OK, for the salad course we’ll do green.’ ” He tapped his iPhone a couple of times and hidden LED lights cast an emerald sheen on countertops of nanoglass (a material made of glass and white marble).
We moved to a deck overlooking the pounding waves, where Landry’s chef had set out a cheese platter and a bottle of pinot noir. “My whole life has been a series of, knock-on-wood, good-luck [opportunities],” the architect said, pouring the wine. There was no wood in sight—Landry built the deck with panels of compressed porcelain—but his success probably has less to do with luck, in any case, than savvy. For example: Two years before the recession hit the United States, Landry shifted his attention to China, where LDG currently oversees some 8 million square feet of construction. The work is concentrated in eight subdivisions the firm is designing, but individual dream homes account for a good chunk, too. Landry is in the process of building a tripartite French-style house on 30 lakeside acres outside Shanghai that is so big, construction workers navigate the site on motorcycles.
“Now China’s more quiet, and we’ve been pushing the Middle East,” the architect said—the residence in Riyadh, for instance, a hypermodern compound of eight buildings. If the details remain a little vague (like, say, who’s planning to live there), it’s because the contract Landry signed, along with others he negotiates in Saudi Arabia and China, contains strict nondisclosure clauses. “Some of the most incredible projects we’ve done I will never be able to talk about,” Landry said. “Stuff that would blow your mind. We can’t discuss them, we can’t take pictures, you’ll see no renderings in the office.”
Since the American economy has rebounded, the firm is again focused on the United States. Landry is renovating the Brentwood eco-château for Dr. Dre, who recently bought the house from Brady and Bündchen, and built the couple a traditional redbrick manse in Boston. He also recently completed a 34,000-square-foot French château in Beverly Park for Mark Wahlberg (it comes with a putting green, two Jacuzzis, and a pool with a diving rock and waterfall). I asked Landry how someone like Mark Wahlberg ended up commissioning a 34,000-square-foot French château. “You have to look at where that comes from,” he said. “It could have to do with their background, their childhood, with something they wanted that was important to them.”
Something they wanted that was important to them. If Landry owes his career to a mingling of talent, acumen, and timing, there is also this: He knows his clients. In some essential way, Landry—the boy who didn’t want to spend another summer sandpapering, the starry-eyed immigrant who saw his first big house in L.A., the seasoned architect whose go-to adjective is fun—is his clients.
The town of Atherton, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was once known as Fair Oaks, for its profusion of native Quercus species. Settled in the 19th century by a handful of old San Francisco families, it is now flush with tech money—and humming with construction projects that dwarf the older homes. Last year Forbes proclaimed Atherton the most expensive zip code in the country. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman and former CEO of Google parent company Alphabet, lives here. So do Meg Whitman, president and CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. In another year, give or take, they will be joined by Tony Bates, president of GoPro, who three years ago commissioned Landry to build a 20,000-square-foot châteauesque estate with art deco interiors for himself, his wife, Cori, and their four young children.
After a year of design development and two years of construction, the house is framed out and waterproofed, sealed in a membrane of mint green Perm-A-Barrier. On a recent rain-washed afternoon, wispy clouds hovered over the trailer where Landry and his clients, along with the project architect, contractor, and interior designer, began one of their monthly site meetings. Mood boards displaying finish samples for every room of the house covered the walls. There were also digital renderings of the completed exterior that looked like actual photographs. With its limestone skin, mansard roof, and high oval windows, the house might have been erected 300 years ago amid the vineyards of the Loire Valley.
After Landry distributed hugs and Cori Bates passed around espressos and chocolate cigars, the group turned to reviewing a floor sample for the upstairs. The solid oak slab was scored with “microbevel” joints that the couple weren’t sure they liked. What’s more, they thought it might be nice to add a pattern to the floors, like the black border they were using downstairs. Landry said they could lose the microbevel and suggested going with a border on either side of the U-shaped gallery at the top of the stairs. “Feature creep,” Tony Bates said. “Happens everywhere in a big project.”
Upstairs flooring resolved, it was off to the house for the job walk. Landry was in his element, juggling the disparate roles that most successful architects manage to master—engineer, artist, shrink. When the concern was raised that the color of the limestone stacks for the exterior trim did not match the color of the limestone stacks for the exterior body, Landry hosed down the stone and rubbed some dirt into it to demonstrate that pigment could be added to the sealer. When the couple had trouble picturing the three-story-high crystal chandelier Landry wanted to hang in the entry stairwell, he dashed off a sketch that had the attenuated elegance of a Giacometti sculpture. When the conversation turned to beefing up the crown moldings in the kids’ bedrooms, each of which has a different theme, Landry observed that heavy moldings didn’t make a lot of sense for the Star Wars room.
Like Bob Byers, Tony Bates will soon have the garage of his dreams—a huge round cavern with radial parking spaces for his cars and a “turntable” in the center for his car of the moment. Other custom touches: a stone family crest over the front door (courtesy of a company in San Diego that fabricates such heraldry), two kitchens, two pools (one with a bar), a two-story wine cellar with a see-through glass floor/ceiling, a massage room and a game room and a stage (for family band practice and karaoke nights). Cori Bates wanted to install a miniature train track in back to ferry towels between the house and the main pool, but Landry nixed the train.
It was not mentioned in Forbes, but two years ago a group of vandals spray-painted graffiti on cars, gates, and garage doors in the Lindenwood neighborhood of Atherton. According to local news sources, the writing consisted largely of “anti-wealth” slogans like “Fuck the 1%.” Atherton police, suspecting the involvement of activists like the Occupy demonstrators, consulted the FBI during the investigation (the case remains unsolved). Were the Curbed bloggers’ predictions of class warfare coming true? Might the attack in Atherton, together with the construction site sabotage in L.A., portend a broader-based pushback?
A few days after the site meeting, I mentioned the vandalism to Landry. I asked him whether he thought, at a time when income inequality was a political catchphrase, houses with two kitchens and two pools could at least be seen as sending the wrong message. “It’s always been unequal,” he said. “Back to the Vanderbilts, back to slavery. I’ll tell you that when you get to know them, my clients are some of the most generous people. They donate millions and millions to charity. They open their houses for fundraisers. Who am I to say ‘Why does someone live in a large house in Beverly Park?’ I’m here to build the best possible house for them.”
This terse mission statement brought to mind another question: Didn’t his houses embody a larger aspiration? Something like timelessness? “What is timelessness?” he parried. “Can you look at Monticello and say it’s timeless? Are its floor plans functional for today? I think it’s pretentious for an architect to look at their own work and say what they’re doing is timeless.” Later I posed the same question to Paul Goldberger. “Richard is part of what I think of as a great, long American tradition of reusing historical styles in new ways,” he said. “Will he be remembered as a John Russell Pope or a Cass Gilbert? Let’s just say the jury is still out.”
Landry’s not losing sleep over the verdict. “My job,” he told me the last time we talked, “has always been to get to understand what my clients want, to educate them and raise the bar along the way, and to give them something better than anything they ever dreamed of.” He thought for a moment. “And to make it beautiful,” he added. “Although beauty is subjective.”
Peter Haldeman is a regular contributor to The New York Times. His stories have also appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Travel & Leisure, among other publications.