A Tale of Two Londons
Who really lives at One Hyde Park, called the world’s most expensive residential building? Its mostly absentee owners, hiding behind offshore corporations based in tax havens, provide a portrait of the new global super-wealthy.
By Nicholas ShaxsonPhotograph by Dylan Thomas
MODERN LIVING One Hyde Park’s towers, designed by Richard Rogers, are a shock amid the Victorian surroundings.
Up until the 18th century, Knightsbridge, which borders genteel Kensington, was a lawless zone roamed by predatory monks and assorted cutthroats. It didn’t come of age until the Victorian building boom, which left a charming legacy of mostly large and beautiful Victorian houses, with their trademark white or cream paint, black iron railings, high ceilings, and short, elegant stone steps up to the front door.
This will not be the impression a visitor now gets as he emerges from the Knightsbridge subway station’s south exit. He will be met by four hulking joined-up towers of glass, metal, and concrete, sandwiched between the Victorian splendors of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, to the east, and a pretty five-story residential block, to the west. This is One Hyde Park, which its developers insist is the world’s most exclusive address and the most expensive residential development ever built anywhere on earth. With apartments selling for up to $214 million, the building began to smash world per-square-foot price records when sales opened, in 2007. After quickly shrugging off the global financial crisis the complex has come to embody the central-London real-estate market, where, as high-end property consultant Charles McDowell put it, “prices have gone bonkers.”
From the Hyde Park side, One Hyde Park protrudes aggressively into the skyline like a visiting spaceship, a head above its red-brick and gray-stone Victorian surroundings. Inside, on the ground floor, a large, glassy lobby offers what you’d expect from any luxury intercontinental hotel: gleaming steel statues, thick gray carpets, gray marble, and extravagant chandeliers with radiant sprays of glass. Not that the building’s inhabitants need venture into any of these public spaces: they can drive their Maybachs into a glass-and-steel elevator that takes them down to the basement garage, from which they can zip up to their apartments.
The largest of the original 86 apartments (following some mergers, there are now around 80) are pierced by 213-foot-long mirrored corridors of glass, anodized aluminum, and padded silk. The living spaces feature dark European-oak floors, Wenge furniture, bronze and steel statues, ebony, and plenty more marble. For added privacy, slanted vertical slats on the windows prevent outsiders from peering into the apartments.
In fact, the emphasis everywhere is on secrecy and security, provided by advanced-technology panic rooms, bulletproof glass, and bowler-hatted guards trained by British Special Forces. Inhabitants’ mail is X-rayed before being delivered.
The secrecy extends to the media, many of whose members, including myself and the London Sunday Times’s and Vanity Fair’s A. A. Gill, have tried but failed to gain entry to the building. “The vibe is junior Arab dictator,” says Peter York, co-author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, the riotous 1982 style guide documenting the shopping and mating rituals of a certain striving class of Brits, who claimed Knightsbridge’s high-end shopping area, which stretches from Harrods to Sloane Square, as their urban heartland.
One Hyde Park was built by two British brothers, Nick and Christian Candy, together with Waterknights, the international property-development company owned by Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani. Christian, 38, a lanky former commodities trader, is the duo’s discreet number cruncher, while his stockier, tousled-haired brother, Nick, 40, is its flashy, name-dropping, celebrity-loving public face. The Candys don’t go in for small gestures. In October, Nick married the Australian actress Holly Valance in Beverly Hills, after she had announced their engagement by tweeting a photo of Nick down on one knee proposing on a beach in the Maldives. In flaming torches behind the happy couple, will you marry me was written, without the usual question mark.
Designed by the architect Lord Richard Rogers, who also designed London’s iconic Lloyd’s building, One Hyde Park has divided Britain. Gary Hersham, managing director of the high-end real-estate agency Beauchamp Estates, says it is “the finest building in England, whether you like the style or you don’t,” while investment banker David Charters, who works in Mayfair, says, “One Hyde Park is a symbol of the times, a symbol of the disconnect. There is almost a sense of ‘the Martians have landed.’ Who are they? Where are they from? What are they doing?” Professor Gavin Stamp, of Cambridge University, an architectural historian, called it “a vulgar symbol of the hegemony of excessive wealth, an over-sized gated community for people with more money than sense, arrogantly plonked down in the heart of London.”
The really curious aspect of One Hyde Park can be appreciated only at night. Walk past the complex then and you notice nearly every window is dark. As John Arlidge wrote in The Sunday Times, “It’s dark. Not just a bit dark—darker, say, than the surrounding buildings—but black dark. Only the odd light is on. . . . Seems like nobody’s home.”
That’s not because the apartments haven’t sold. London land-registry records say that 76 had been by January 2013 for a total of $2.7 billion—but, of these, only 12 were registered in the names of warm-blooded humans, including Christian Candy, in a sixth-floor penthouse. The remaining 64 are held in the names of unfamiliar corporations: three based in London; one, called One Unique L.L.C., in California; and one, Smooth E Co., in Thailand. The other 59—with such names as Giant Bloom International Limited, Rose of Sharon 7 Limited, and Stag Holdings Limited—belong to corporations registered in well-known offshore tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Liechtenstein, and the Isle of Man.
From this we can conclude at least two things with certainty about the tenants of One Hyde Park: they are extremely wealthy, and most of them don’t want you to know who they are and how they got their money.
Trevor Abrahmsohn, a U.K. real-estate agent, remembers London before the modern property boom began. “London was as Paris is today: an interesting, quirky souvenir town. We had the Tower of London, the Queen, the palace, and the Changing of the Guard,” he says, adding Scotch whisky as an afterthought. “That is what we stood for. London was not a tax haven.”
Starting in the 1960s, new buyers began to fire up the market: crises of the Greek monarchy brought a significant influx of Greeks, pockets of which endure today. Next came the first wave of Americans, a trickle of bankers lured by London’s unregulated Euro-markets, and West Coast buyers, often from Hollywood. “They swarmed in,” remembers veteran London real-estate agent Andrew Langton, of Aylesford International. “They turned Chester Square into Little L.A. and tidied up all these properties, at enormous expense, with American kitchens, bathrooms, and showers.”
The OPEC oil crisis, of the 1970s, lit the big fire under this market. Arab money surged into the so-called golden triangle of Knightsbridge, Belgravia, and nearby Mayfair, to buy high-end properties. Real-estate agents remember it as a tidal wave: “They came as a force,” says Hersham. “When they wanted to buy, there were no hysterics or reticence.” The fall of the Shah of Iran brought a surge of Iranian money, followed by buyers from the biggest African ex-colony, newly oil-rich Nigeria.
The market paused for breath in the 1980s, with Britain’s economy in the doldrums and as sagging world oil prices sapped wealthy foreign buyers’ demand. But Margaret Thatcher’s financial reforms, notably her “Big Bang” of Wild West financial deregulation, in 1986, caused the stream of bankers to turn into a river, then a deluge. “We would wait for those e-mails ending in ‘gs.com’ to come rolling in,” remembers Jeremy Davidson, a Belgravia-based property consultant. “Goldman [Sachs] partners, Morgan [Stanley] partners: they were the top of the market, and we had lots of them.”
The fall of the Soviet Union, in 1989, and the vast, corrupt post-Soviet privatizations, brought the biggest, most reckless wave of foreign buyers London had ever seen, with often questionable money sluicing in via the secretive British-linked stepping-stone tax havens of Cyprus and Gibraltar. “There is no real accountability of these guys coming in—the cops don’t really investigate them,” says Mark Hollingsworth, co-author of Londongrad, a 2009 book about the Russian invasion. “They see the capital as the most secure, fairest, most honest place to park their cash, and the judges here would never extradite them.”