Alternative Abodes: Unusual and Unique Homes for the Ultra-Wealthy

Posted in How the One Percent Live

A home is part of our self-image. It partly explains the way we decorate our houses or gravitate towards specific architecture and styles. No surprise, then, that the French fashion designer and entrepreneur Pierre Cardin, who was famed for his love of geometric shapes, bought a cluster of round residences in Cannes in the early 1990s, nicknamed the Bubble Palace.

The oddball complex, which is said to be worth almost US$500 million, comprises 10 interconnected pink terra cotta domes with 28 spherical rooms, three swimming pools, a 500-seat amphitheatre and several gardens. Of the futuristic yet primitive property, the 97-year-old Cardin says, “It is a place where I feel good — and round shapes have always inspired me.” He compares it to a woman’s body, because “everything is absolutely sensual”.

Spherical and organically shaped homes — specifically Flintstones-themed houses — seem especially popular these days. In San Francisco, retired media mogul Florence Fang fashioned her Hillsborough home like a colourful, larger-than-life set for Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty and Dino, and even has statues of them on her lawn. In Malaysia, the Sultan of Johor constructed his own Flintstone house, though his version is especially ornate, decorated with shiny tiles and strewn with rich, organic-shaped wooden furniture.

There are, however, some who prefer modern luxury to the stone age — even to the extent of being able to transport their residences around the world. Instead of settling down in one place, a community of 150 families from 19 countries jointly own The World, a residential ocean liner that circumnavigates the globe every two or three years. Many of them live on the ship year-round, while others continue to be active in their professional lives, using the vessel as a second home and going aboard for three to four months at a time. 

All residents of The World enjoy a luxurious combination of luxurious accommodation and enriching travel, as well as facilities that include a 7,000-square-foot spa, six restaurants, a library, cinema, personal chefs and trainers, and a virtual golf centre that enables them to “play” on some of the world’s leading courses. Although the original inventory of residential units sold out in June 2006, some are now up for sale, including an Ocean Penthouse located in the desirable bow area of Deck 11, the highest residential level on the ship. 

Back on dry land, some super-wealthy individuals choose to live and travel in their own apartment on wheels, with luxury recreational vehicles (RVs) a growing trend. “Full-time RVing is freedom,” writes Michelle Schroeder-Gardner of the personal-finance blog Making Sense of Cents, who for several years crisscrossed the US with her husband and their dogs. “We can chase good weather, we can visit friends and families all over the country, we can wake up one morning by the ocean, and spend the night next to a snow-capped mountain.”

For the squillionaire seeking ultimate mobility and freedom, Marchi Mobile‘s US$3-million, German-built eleMMent Palazzo Superior is among the world’s most expensive and luxurious RVs, with features that include a rooftop terrace or “sky lounge,” accessed via an integrated staircase, a huge kitchen, a built-in cocktail bar, a king-size bed, a rain shower, a 40-inch TV and a fully functioning fireplace.

For those who prefer a more settled existence, there’s always the alternative of moving in semi-permanently to a luxury hotel or resort. Coco Chanel famously found one such pied-à-terre at The Ritz Paris, while Howard Hughes bought several bungalows at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, into which he moved for lengthy periods from time to time.

While the indefinite use of in-suite service and top-notch amenities is clearly an attraction, some long-staying hotel guests check in for other reasons — health being one of them. At Thailand’s leading wellness destination, Chiva-Som, sustainable weight management is clearly one goal, with some guests submitting to a daily routine of cardio workouts and weight training for as long as nine months. According to the resort’s head of communications, Kewalin Sukumjittanon, “We still strive to recreate familiarity, comfort and a safe haven, because these are the defining features of a home.”

And then there are those who care little for the personalised comforts of a traditional domestic existence. When many business leaders relocate these days, they check into a long-stay apartment-hotel. And usually, after a 12-month tenure or more, they move out again — at short notice and with very little hassle.“I didn’t have to return a cable box or cancel the electricity,” says finance executive Robert Wolfangel on leaving Philadelphia’s Roost Apartment Hotel, where he’d lived for more than a year. “It was painless.”

Mei Anne Foo