An early introduction to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright at his local library was all it took for Paul McClean to realize his career path was that of becoming an architect. For the past two decades, McClean Design has been at the forefront of contemporary residential design while connecting clients to the beauty of their natural surrounding environment.
Tell us a bit about yourself (formative years, schooling, etc.)
I grew up in Dublin, Ireland and I was interested in architecture from a very young age. I was lucky enough to be able to attend architecture school at the Dublin Institute of Technology. I always wanted to travel and managed to combine that with my architectural education. I worked for the architect Dennis Rourke in Sydney, Australia for a year and after further study back home, took another year off from school and worked on a project in McCullough Mulvin’s Dublin office. It was an exciting time and the project involved knitting a quarter of the city back together with new streets and civic plazas as well as buildings, so it was a wonderful experience.
When and how did your journey as an architect begin?
It began with Legos in front of the living room window :). Also, I had an early introduction to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright at our local public library and a fascination with mid-century residential architecture in California later on. Two important architects for me growing up were Glenn Murcutt, an Australian architect, with elegant homes in the bush and Norman Foster, who came from such a modest upbringing in Manchester. I admire how Norman rethinks things but in a very contemporary way.
What / who do you draw your inspiration from?
I have many influences from Yvonne Farrell, Shelley McNamara, and McCullough Mulvin (all Irish architects) to the incredible case study houses of Craig Ellwood and MacKay-Lyons. Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright have always inspired me. Currently, I admire Olson Kundig, Thomas Phifer, Steven Holl, Studio Arthur Casas in Brazil, and Richard Meier. I also appreciate the work of Aidlin Darling Design in San Francisco; they are great about placemaking to their locality.
What are / have been your biggest challenges in your creative process?
Factors outside of our control, such as construction limitations, neighbors, site restrictions, etc. People are generally very reasonable. We did have one client whose desire was to create an intimate home but also to entertain groups of 200 to 300. It was very challenging to marry those two disparate ideas. We identified programmatically where the clients would spend most of their time, so we designed those spaces closer together and orchestrated the rest of the program around it.
What inspires you to work on a specific project?
A client who comes to us open and flexible inspires us, as well as the opportunity to work on a compelling site, but the client is more important. As mentioned above, there are many factors outside of our control. Someone who comes to us without a lot of preconceived ideas and is open to exploring all aspects of their perfect home together is an ideal client to work with.
What does your creative / work process involve?
Working through a program with the client is a very important starting point. We try and delve deep into what makes sense for the project and separate that from any preconceived ideas they might have. People nearly always describe their new house as something similar to where they currently live with a few tweaks; we try and get much deeper than that. In terms of overarching concepts, I strive to ensure that our projects are connected to water and nature for serenity and healing.
Incorporating water and eliminating the barriers between indoors and outdoors are concepts that have been with me since childhood. In our busy lives, we have become disconnected from the environment around us. Connecting back to nature is one of the things that grew out of the iron and steel-laden architecture during the Industrial Revolution. I think these principles apply today and everywhere. Also, for me, beauty is proportion and light. Successful architecture, at its core, is about making spaces work with light. So, I always aim to give our clients a warm, light-filled contemporary space. I try to remember to let beauty lead. A building should be the background of our lives.
Have you ever turned down any projects and if yes, why?
Certain clients can pose a challenge. Someone who brings up the budget in the first sentence can be a red flag. Building a custom one-of-a-kind project means that it is hard to accurately predict exact costs. You need to have a realistic budget, and someone who doesn’t understand what things cost and is convinced otherwise can be problematic. Also, someone who has a solid preconceived idea of what he/she wants before all the facts about the property are presented can be an issue. Often those preconceived ideas don’t translate as well as we all hope.
Important lessons along the way?
Try and listen as much as you can; be very straightforward; don’t hesitate to be fully open and transparent, even if you are delivering bad news. We have sometimes advised people out of doing a project because it did not make sense for whatever reason. It’s hard to talk yourself out of work, but in the long run, honesty is best and people remember it.
The favorite part of your job?
Wonderful clients. The people all over the world we work with are typically quite successful in their own right. Having the privilege of meeting such interesting people, spending time with them, and hearing their stories is fantastic.
What do you think sets your designs apart?
Volume and transparency. Connection with the environment. Seamless boundaries between indoors and outdoors. A clean aesthetic. Rigorous modernism. A palette of materials that is warm and inviting. Finally, we always incorporate ample light and water.
What has been your favorite home to design? I know, it’s like asking who is your favorite child, but there must be a special one?
A home we recently worked on in San Francisco is a favorite of mine because we took something very much in need of renovation and completely reenergized it. This home has stood the test of time. It survived the 1906 earthquake and now, since the renovation, we can see someone living there for another 100 years. Generally, it’s hard to pick one. Each home has its own unique aspects. Sometimes, it can be a favorite just because of the client with whom we are working.
Talk us through your latest projects.
We have some inspiring projects coming up in Canada, rural England, on a Caribbean Island, and in Dubai. We are also working on an urban compound in Thailand. We have a project underway in Hawaii. It’s thrilling to have the opportunity to work in such different places, exploring how our design ideas can respond to such varied sites, climates, and cultures. Being out of your local environment is the most exciting part because it expands your horizons and makes you think more. How do you fit in different environments? What translates and what doesn’t translate? The locations and beautiful vistas are lovely, but above that, it’s really about the people. It is a lot of fun and very exciting trying to navigate all the small, subtle cultural differences around the world.
You published a book in 2019, ‘Creating the Contemporary House’. Who should add this to their collection?
I would say anyone who enjoys contemporary architecture. I hope it is full of ideas that people can enjoy; perhaps dream about. Because our projects are by their nature private, I think the book is a way for people to experience some of the houses we design. Perhaps they can gather ideas for their projects.
Describe your designs in three words.
Space, water, light.
If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you have become?
There is a life that does not involve being an architect?…
What other exciting projects are in the pipeline?
In addition to the international projects mentioned above, we are also working on a cool new house in the Hollywood Hills. This will have a palette of very rich materials and go further than before in terms of breaking down the barrier between indoors and outside.