In a world far removed from cuts or recession, the super rich are spending like never before – investing their millions in mansions and art. ‘I don’t think there is a higher end,” says John Lees of his work as architect to the super rich. A distinction must be made, he says, between the merely vulgarly rich (ie, footballers of the Cheshire belt or the mere-millionaires of The Bishops Avenue) and the world of obscene wealth that Lees inhabits.
“I don’t think there is a high end”
He creates homes for the Russian oligarchs and Chinese business moguls who run the global economy and who continue to inhabit a land untouched by cuts and recession. In fact, their extreme wealth is buoying the fine-art market: Andy Warhol’s Coke Bottle sold for a record $35m in New York in November, the same month a Chinese vase sold in London for an unprecedented £48m to a Chinese businessman.
billionaires are currently spending “without restraint”
Sources in the art and property markets say these billionaires are currently spending “without restraint”. In response, developers in London are creating a new crop of luxury homes, dripping with original Picassos and swimming pools, to cater for this profligate class, including a vast development in Cornwall Terrace being sold for £29m upwards. Likewise for Lees, business is booming.
“Our big-scale jobs are £40m-£125m,” he says. “I work for private individuals and I’ll be doing their country house, their London house, one in Hong Kong and another in, say, the south of France. We recently did a dacha outside Moscow for £174m, for someone who entertains Putin.”
“On our current job, the accessories budget is £2m,”
Which makes it all the stranger that Lees is sitting in the scruffy offices of Lees Associates, near Borough Market in south London. The stairs are rough concrete, the shelves dusty, but the computer screens rotate with virtual tours of excessive luxury. “On our current job, the accessories budget is £2m,” he says. “That’s teaspoons, glasses, plates. Towels and linen is a separate budget. Each bed costs £20,000. We are a very specialised market at the very highest end.”
So what does an oligarch require in his home? Not the classic markers, such as banks of TVs (“We put some televisions in, but we hide them”), gold-plated taps or swimming pools shaped like a shell. Wealth at the hard-to-imagine end of the spectrum is “subtle”. Creating a truly, deeply wealthy home becomes more about rarity and materials: imported stone, works of art, grand pianos and libraries.
At Cornwall Terrace, Lansdowne’s development of eight mansions, two show homes have just reached the market, luring the super rich with original Francis Bacons, Murano glassware and furniture from Portofino. Everything is bespoke: the paints specially mixed; the hardback books handpicked. Lees is similarly aware of the hunger for provenance. “At that level, your bathrooms will be made of heated, solid stone carved in Brac, an island off the coast of Split in Croatia, which produces a particularly white limestone.”
A spokesman for Knight Frank, an agent operating at the top end of the market, says the super rich “have moved their money away from bank deposits and stock markets into alternative investments such as luxury property and art.
It is increasingly normal for Christie’s to deliver a painting to a potential buyer’s house so the owner can see it on the walls.” These gliding swans of houses, occupying only the best London addresses, have layer upon layer of service floors from the basement down. The traditional family kitchen might be above ground, for coffee or a snack, but below ground there are catering kitchens with a dozen chefs ready to entertain a party of 100. Lees says these subterranean floors “contain all sorts of service departments, catering kitchens, gymnasiums, collections of cars. We’ve made swimming pools where the floors come up to become ballrooms. There’s no noise in the pools and no smell of chlorine. We have projected dolphins on to gymnasium walls – hologram images behind glass. We put a bowling alley in one house.”
Bathrooms have become the most expensive rooms, he says, with their requisite body jet showers, warmed toilet seats and timed bathwater heaters that maintain supply at a specific temperature.
But wealth and power create problems of their own. A house full of staff means no privacy. Owning homes all over the world means a fragmented family life. Lees is asked to, if not solve these problems, then at least mitigate them. “The family kitchen is incredibly important, because they all live dissociated lives. You want to find a home, don’t you? The fundamental thing is the family.”
Children have suites, dressing rooms and all the latest toys. And Lees adds “secrets” for the children to discover: a doll’s house full of make-up or stepping stones in the garden that set off a fountain. “There is a sense of loneliness these children have, and that’s a great shame.”
Does he ever feel contaminated by these monuments to consumption? Or envious? Isn’t it odd to return to life as a working London architect? “Happiness isn’t driven by anything you’ve got. It’s inward. I’m not sure I want all those things myself. It’s the sheer hard work in having them. They need these tools in order to play the public persona. I find it’s bad enough having just one house.”
Super rich must-haves
• Direct access from road to underground parking complex, with lift directly into the residence.
• James Bond-level security including CCTV, infrared scanners, panic room, bomb-proof garage doors, bomb-resistant lift and bulletproof windows.
• A home office complete with a communications system that would please a Royal Navy destroyer.
• A master suite the size of a one-bed flat with his-and-hers ensuites, walk-in dressing rooms, day rooms, exercise area and TV lounge.
• A subterranean basement containing bar, nightclub, hairdressing salon, gymnasium, sauna, spa, swimming pool and private 3D cinema (with seats that move with the movie).
• Staff quarters, separate from the main residence.
• A show kitchen above ground and a basement industrial kitchen that can cater for up to 300.