Dermot Bannon: I thought the McMansion would be obnoxious but it was really cool

City observing is my thing, says the architect about his new TV show 'Dermot Bannon's New York and LA Homes'


Even Dermot Bannon, the most enthusiast extension architect in Ireland, gets jaded by the prospect of another glass-walled, open-plan living space. So to keep the design thrills coming and the inspiration fresh, Bannon heads to cities such as London, Barcelona or Paris for long weekends with the family.

“I just walk around taking in the buildings, the people, the cultural hot spots, the energy of a city and seeing how all the pieces fit together,” says Bannon. “Some people go to football matches, some go on cycling holidays – but city observing – well that’s my thing.” Which is fortuitous, as that’s pretty much the blueprint for his upcoming two-part television special, Dermot Bannon’s New York and LA Homes, which kicks off next week.

The first of the shows sees Bannon head to New York, where he checks out trophy properties and soaks up the colour of New York, visiting some of his favourite sights, including the famous Flatiron building and the High Line. One of the must-sees on his New York itinerary is the Jenga building, a skyscraper designed by renowned Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron, which Bannon says was more than just a highlight of the show, but probably one of the nicest places he has ever been.

The 4,000sq ft Tribeca apartment block, with a 360-degree panorama of the Manhattan skyline (and a $17,750,000 price tag) “actually made you feel like you were God, sitting there above the clouds, surrounded by the most magnificent design on the earth. I actually wanted to hug the building it was so incredible,” says Bannon of the heavenly skyscraper.

Fun design

The show also sees Bannon journey up to the Hamptons for a snoop around a Mac mansion, as they are referred to by local Manhattanites. “When the producers said we were going to a $35 million new-build home, with an indoor basketball court, gym, spa, entertainment lounge and a rooftop putting green, I thought to myself, Well, this is going to be obnoxious. But it was actually really cool, with brilliant gadgets and inventions at every turn. It was the living embodiment of fun and that’s what I love about American design, they just run with whatever their hearts desire.”

The show also visits a tiny studio apartment on the Upper West Side, an alternative farmhouse in New Jersey where architect Adam Kalkin has built a hangar around a 19th-century farmhouse.

“It’s a home inside a home made of three parts – an airplane hangar, a newly built concrete-glass structure with several rooms and, of course, the old farmhouse itself.”

Kalkin wanted to reimagine the idea of a family home and did not stipulate what any of the three buildings were to be used for, rather he let their purpose evolve naturally so that after a few seasons one area emerged as the main living room, another as the sleeping zone and so forth. “It sounds bonkers, but it worked and has to be seen to be believed,” says Bannon.

The second part of the show sees Bannon begin the LA leg of his adventure gliding along the freeway in a Mustang when he hooks up with a bevvy of Irish builders and architects whom the Hollywood heavyweights call upon when they need a home that’s a cut above your average celebrity crib. Builders James and John Corr, originally from Kilkenny, show Bannon around a 16,000sq ft mega-mansion on Billionaire’s Row in Bel Air built by James, who considers 4,000sq ft to be a small house. Typically, his clients look for extra features, which can include anything from igloos to Botox rooms.

Irish-American architect Lorcan O’Herlihy takes Bannon on a rare tour around Jai House in Calabasas, hometown of the Kardashians, a show Bannon admits to watching late at night “when my brain is fried”. O’Herlihy designed the house for Julie Piatt – a yoga and meditation teacher who travels the world giving workshops and has worked with The Happy Pear twins, Dave and Steve Flynn.

Hydraulic lift

Bannon is also left speechless when Irish architect Paul McClean, takes him to a cliff-top mansion overlooking Laguna Beach that features a garage where a hydraulic lift lowers a $2 million yellow McLaren down into an art gallery space “just so the client can sit and admire the view of the beach on one side and his car on the other”. Closer to home, Bannon has had some strange design requests of his own. “I once had a client who asked me to put an Aga in their good front room as they had fond memories of the one in their grandmother’s kitchen,” he says. “That was the maddest thing I’ve ever been asked to do. After seeing the car lift, the Aga seems painfully tame.

“What I both love and hate about the architecture over in LA is the lack of context. When we design a building in Europe we tend to take the environment, the history, the surrounding houses, the local stone and materials into the design, so the building respects its context, but on the west coast, they just run with these crazy visions and experiments – regardless of the surrounds. Their planning laws are a lot laxer in LA and often it’s artists building the houses, not architects, which is why you get so much more diversity and so many brilliant builds too,” feels Bannon.

The other take-home lesson Bannon garnered from his busman’s holiday was to loosen up on our definition of how a house should flow. “We tend to stick with the same floor plan in Irish houses – with lots of medium-sized rooms and corridors, many of which are unused for most of the year, it’s a template rooted in history and in the practicality of only be able to heat one room at a time, but how we live has moved on, yet how we build is slow to change. If you look at the workplace, we’ve gone from cubbyholes with chairs and desks, to people having meetings on swings and beanbags. How we live in our homes needs to mirror the changes in our lifestyles more, too. I think we can learn a lot from how the Americans use every inch of floor space to maximum effect and not to be afraid of pushing design boundaries further.”

We vote Bannon brings the local Irish planning authorities on his next trip and see if he can convince them of just that.

Dermot Bannon’s New York Homes airs on RTÉ on December 10th; LA Homes, on December 17th