The Secretly Stylish Interiors of Undercover Luxury Homes

The basic white siding and burnt-orange, louvered shutters on this Los Angeles house plainly say “American 1950s residential traditional,” says homeowner Dan Brunn, an architect.

But step inside to find a two-story living room with bleached wood floors and white walls punctuated with bold, contemporary artwork. The sleek, minimalist interiors satisfy Mr. Brunn’s modern aesthetic, while the nondescript exterior lets his home fit into the small, older Brookside neighborhood of Los Angeles. “I thought, ‘Why mess with something…

The Secluded Island Hideaways for America’s Rich and Famous

Wendy Paulson has been drawn to the sea islands of Georgia since her seventh-grade English teacher introduced her to “The Marshes of Glynn,” the Sidney Lanier poem depicting the open saltwater marshes and braided live oak trees of the state’s coastal Glynn County.

Today, she and her husband, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, own a large swath of that land. In 2015, they paid almost $33 million to buy Little St. Simons Island, a roughly 11,000-acre barrier island that’s accessible only by boat. The island remains among the least developed of Georgia’s Golden Isles and has just a small eco-lodge that can accommodate 32 overnight guests.

Rather than build a sprawling new house, they converted a small existing cottage into a simple two-bedroom home with a metal roof, and put the entire island into a conservation easement, preventing future development.

“It’s not a mansion, but the island is our ‘Green Mansion,’” says Ms. Paulson, referencing William Henry Hudson’s book about a traveler visiting the tropical forests of Venezuela. “It’s more about the live oaks, the Spanish moss, the solitude. And the opportunity to experience a relatively pristine ecosystem in this country.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many of the wealthiest homeowners on the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina, where the wild, dreamy landscape of the Low Country is often what draws buyers. Some of the priciest homes are on large estates, typically former plantations, with easements precluding development. Other wealthy homeowners are donating millions of dollars to local preservation groups that buy up land to keep it from builders.

The desire to protect the land has gained more urgency recently as soaring luxury-home prices are making developers eager to build. In Glynn County, which includes part of the mainland as well as Little St. Simons and Sea Island, luxury-home prices—for the top 5% of the market—were up 21% for first four months of the year compared with the year-earlier period, according to

That makes it one of the fastest-growing luxury markets in the country, according to a spokeswoman for the listings portal. (News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates under license from the National Association of Realtors.) A roughly 4,000-acre property known as the Hampton Island Preserve, on the market for about $50 million, has drawn interest from developers who want to build approximately 500 homes on the site, as well as a wealthy Saudi investor who would keep the land for himself, says the listing agent.

The Paulsons and other local homeowners were among those who ponied up $25 million to buy a roughly 600-acre parcel of land known as Cannon’s Point across from Little St. Simons, on the north end of nearby St. Simons Island. The parcel remains open to the public.

Billionaire Philip Anschutz, an owner of the L.A. Kings hockey team, recently purchased nearby Sea Island and plans to keep portions of it undeveloped. He and other wealthy homeowners also contribute to the St. Simons Land Trust, an organization that has bought about 1,000 acres of St. Simons through local contributions in order to preserve it, according to the land trust.

“Selfishly, the people who live on the island don’t want it to change too much,” said Davis Love III, a champion golfer who lives on St. Simons surrounded by more than 100 acres of undeveloped land. “We’re 2.5 miles from the grocery store but we feel like we’re 100 miles away.”

Some of the largest estates in the region are owned by major figures in sports, finance and show business, who flee to the islands for peace and quiet as well as the saltwater fishing, shrimp boils, horse riding and hunting. On St. Simons, folks in the know can tell who is in town from the different colored tails of the private jets lined up on the tarmac at the local airport, said David Pope, executive director of the land trust.

Among the Hollywood types who have put down roots on the islands is actor Ben Affleck, who paid $7.11 million in 2003 for a compound on Hampton Island Preserve. Mr. Affleck said he fell in love with Georgia while filming the movie “Forces of Nature” with actress Sandra Bullock in the 1990s.

“I come there to write and I often take a little boat down the river to the ocean and visit some of the small islands on the sea,” Mr. Affleck said in an email. “Usually dolphins come along and I love jumping in the water to swim along with them. There is a kind of quiet, soft low breeze [that] comes through the countryside and it makes long walks wonderful through the live oaks and the loblolly pines.”

He says with his three children getting older, he doesn’t get out there as often as he would like, so he is putting the home up for sale and may build a smaller one nearby. The estate spans roughly 87 acres; at the center sits a Southern antebellum Greek Revival Plantation home with sprawling rear verandas overlooking the North Newport River. A path from the main house leads to the so-called Oyster House, a 10,000-square-foot rustic barn with bunk beds salvaged from marine vessels, according to Dicky Mopper of Engel & Völkers Savannah, a real-estate agent who is listing Mr. Affleck’s property for $8.9 million.

For Congressman Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, the islands offer a similar sense of peace. He shares ownership of Coosaw Plantation, a sprawling island property of more than 3,000 acres about an hour’s drive from Charleston, with his siblings. Their father bought it several decades ago and, in 2009, the family put about half into a conservation easement, protecting it from future development.

“My siblings and I have become very attached emotionally to this piece of land and we wanted to leave our kids this legacy,” Mr. Sanford said, noting the increasing demand from developers. “A lot of places where I grew up hunting as a boy are now developments,” he said.

He sees the property as a refuge from politics. “It’s been a place I could go and just be,” he said, recalling a recent night spent lying on a dock with his sons watching meteor showers. “There’s a component to needing private space if one is in public life.”

Taylor Glover, an Atlanta businessman who owns a 7-acre parcel on the edge of Cannon’s Point Nature Preserve on St. Simons, one of less than half a dozen homes surrounding the 600-acre parcel, said he was lured by the privacy of the home when he purchased it. Public records show he paid $5.1 million for the home in 2016.

“I don’t like traffic, I don’t like hearing blowers next door, I like the seclusion,” he said. “The marsh houses all kinds of things, so I can watch the birds and other wildlife.”

On a recent tour of Mr. Glover’s estate, small black crabs scuttled out from under the leaves on the driveway and an armadillo darted from behind a tree. Mr. Glover’s staff grows peaches and figs. Not a single other home can be seen from the 120-foot screen porch in the back.

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Living on a large remote estate does have its challenges. For Christina Bates, who owns a former plantation known as Huspa in Sheldon, S.C., maintaining the property is hard work. It takes around 45 minutes to traverse the bulk of the 325-acre estate, which is surrounded by water on three sides, on an all-terrain vehicle that looks like a sturdier version of a golf cart. Since her husband died last year, she must rely on her sons, both local tug boat captains, to tend to the long grass and remove fallen trees.

A half-mile avenue of moss-draped oaks leads up to her roughly 4,500-square-foot main home, which was designed in “Frank Lloyd Wright-style” by her late husband. Her estate includes two grass airstrips and hangars because her husband was a racing pilot, as well as two small additional islands.

Ms. Bates recently decided to put the home up for sale for $5.9 million, says Susan Whitfield of Daniel Ravenel Sotheby’s International Realty. She plans to search for a family retreat in North Carolina. But she cherishes the memories from the property. “My husband and I used to take out horses out and ride through Huspa every morning,” she says. “Every day was a new discovery for us.”

Write to Katherine Clarke at

Appeared in the August 24, 2018, print edition as ‘Low Country Luxury.’

Wealthy Parents Help Child Athletes Go Pro in Their Own Backyards

Sam Schoensee, a 14-year-old in Cape Coral, Fla., has a hectic soccer schedule packed with club practices, tournaments, and one-on-one coaching. But his thrice-weekly, 7:30 a.m. training sessions before school are a breeze.

That’s because they take place in his backyard, where his parents, Kevin and Nicole Schoensee, spent roughly $120,000 to build a 93-by-40-foot professional-quality turf soccer pitch behind their 8,135-square-foot home, purchased in 2013 for $713,000 and renovated for another $700,000. There, a professional youth soccer coach leads Sam and about five other players his age in drills and other training.

For the Schoensees, the turf field has not only helped Sam become “a ridiculously talented soccer player,” according to his dad, it has become a cornerstone of their social life. After training, Sam and his friends all walk to school together. In the evening, “the parents have cocktails while the kids play on the field,” said Mr. Schoensee, the 55-year-old owner of an equipment-repair company and commercial real-estate investor.

The Schoensees are part of a trend in youth sports in which wealthy parents build quasi-professional sports facilities at their homes—in some cases because they believe their children have the potential to become college or professional players and they want to do everything they can to help them get there. While tennis courts and swimming pools have long been de rigueur in high-end real estate, more families are building gyms, rinks and courts to help advance their child-athlete’s aspirations. Parents say their backyard training facilities cut down on driving young athletes around and give them the extra opportunities for development they need to be on top of their game.

It’s happening at a time when celebrities, executives and pro athletes are increasingly vocal about their ambitions for their children in sports. Technology executive Scott McNealy listed his Palo Alto, Calif., estate for nearly $100 million in June, touting the home’s enclosed ice-hockey rink, 110-yard golf green and indoor gym that he says helped develop his four sons into top college and professional athletes.

Rod Brind’Amour, head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes who played 20 seasons in the NHL, spent roughly $80,000 to install a volleyball/basketball/hockey facility—with a baseball batting cage and small putting green—in the backyard of his custom home in Raleigh, N.C., about 10 years ago.

The volleyball court was intended for his daughter, Briley, who is now 20 and plays volleyball at James Madison University. A hockey portion has synthetic ice—no freezing arenas here—and allows Mr. Brind’Amour’s oldest son, Skyler, to practice shooting when he is home. (Skyler Brind’Amour, 19, was selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2017 NHL draft.) The youngest child, 6-year-old Brooks, horses around on all the equipment. Only 17-year-old Reece is not into sports, said Mr. Brind’Amour, who is 47.

The Brind’Amours are looking to downsize as the older children leave home, and they listed the 11,884-square-foot house in May for $3 million. In their next home, Mr. Brind’Amour said “100% we will do a facility like this again,” geared to whatever sports Brooks becomes interested in.

Youth sports facilities spending in the U.S. and Canada hit $3.6 billion in 2017, with $320 million of that spent on private facilities in private homes and residential communities, according to WinterGreen Research, a market-research firm in Lexington, Mass.

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“This is a huge, huge thing for rich people to build for their kids,” said WinterGreen’s president Susan Eustis.

Demand for at-home practice facilities has created a lucrative niche for brands like UltraBaseSystems in St. Petersburg, Fla. These permeable, interlocking panels create a shock-absorbing base under turf. President David Barlow said in the past couple of years, he has provided panels for roughly 12 private homeowners building soccer or lacrosse pitches. One of his designers, Joe DeShayes, owner of DeShayes Dream Courts in Cherry Hill, N.J., builds about 55 courts and 12 golf greens a year. Another designer built a $150,000, 2,000-square-foot golf green for a client’s 12-year-old son, he said.

Custom Ice in Burlington, Ontario, said some customers have spent $2.5 million to $4 million to build enclosed, regulation-size hockey rinks at their homes. “I call sports today ‘high-school pro,’ ” said vice president Glenn Winder.

Real-estate agents often say that owners who put highly individualized or specialty features in their homes risk losing money when it comes time to sell. Abby and Mason Phelps thought about this while including a basketball gym in their roughly 12,000-square-foot home in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

“We made sure the dimensions of the court are bigger than a racquetball or squash court so it can be reformatted,” said Mr. Phelps, 39, a derivatives trader who played volleyball in college.

Jill Silverstein, a real-estate agent who specializes in luxury homes with Dream Town Realty, said that a family friendly feature like the gym could actually help at resale in this neighborhood. Elissa Morgante and Fred Wilson, the architects who designed the Phelps home, said the gym accounted for roughly $350,000 of construction costs in 2014. Ms. Silverstein, who has not been inside the Phelps house, estimated that a comparable home could sell for roughly $6.5 million and $7 million if it were listed today.

The couple didn’t even have children when they began designing the home, but today they have three. Ms. Phelps, 38, who owns two Pilates studios, said sports are important to both her and her husband, but it remains to be seen if their children will embrace them.

“When we first put our 2-year-old down there, she walked to the free-throw line and read a book,” said Mr. Phelps with a chuckle. “But we’re still hoping that they grow into athletes.”

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Write to Katy McLaughlin at

Appeared in the August 17, 2018, print edition as ‘Homes for Future MVPs.’

A Day in the Life of Silicon Valley Power Player Kirsten Green

The bustling commercial stretch of Hayes Street between Franklin and Gough in San Francisco is a testament to Kirsten Green’s instincts. First, there’s the Warby Parker store—the 45-year-old venture capitalist was an early investor in the now ubiquitous eyewear company in 2010. Then there are the offices of another of her investments, the prescription acne treatment start-up Curology, which sit just above what’s soon to be an Away store (Green’s partner, Eurie Kim, led the seed deal for the purveyor of suitcases in 2015).

Although Green formalized her venture capital firm Forerunner Ventures with its first institutional fund only five years ago, she has already built one of the most recognizable portfolios in the tech world. And with the sale of two of her early investments last year— to Walmart for $3.3 billion and Dollar Shave Club to Unilever for $1 billion—she’s become one of the most prominent players in venture capital, an industry dominated by men.

Born in Moraga, California, Green studied business economics at UCLA but never attended business school. She worked as a retail auditor at Deloitte and then became a retail stock analyst at the investment bank Montgomery Securities (now Banc of America Securities). In 2003 she left Montgomery to found a hedge fund specializing in consumer stocks, but, she recalls, “I sat in an investor meeting, and I thought, I can’t do this…swapping virtual money around companies. It’s not about people. It’s about next month’s sales prediction.” Within two weeks, she returned her investors’ money and began learning about venture capital, an enterprise focused on guiding and supporting others. In 2008, she invested in a company started by two Stanford business grad students: Bonobos. She liked the founders, and they agreed to share their insights with her. “I couldn’t lose other people’s money, but I could invest in my own learning,” she says.

Bonobos grew as Forerunner grew. And Green, who continued to bet on people, found her reputation preceded her. Glossier CEO Emily Weiss came to Green in 2013 before she had settled on launching a beauty line. Even so, Green minimizes her role: “I do not want Forerunner to be about me,” she says. “I love coming into the office and there are seven other people. That is my proudest moment. There are more people who care about Forerunner than just me.”

Green by the Numbers

53 companies The active ventures in Forerunner’s portfolio.

$240 million The value of assets under Forerunner management.

34 percent The portion of companies invested in by Forerunner that are run by women. The industry average is 2 percent.

5,000+ The number of deals Forerunner has reviewed to date.

0 discount codes The number of coupons Forerunner investors get toward companies in their portfolios. “If your investors won’t buy the product, who will?” Green says.

$5 million The size of Green’s first angel fund, which she used to invest in Warby Parker and Birchbox in 2010.

33 meetings The average number Green takes per week.

5,000 subscribers The number of people who are signed up to the Forerunner commerce newsletter.

75 percent The percentage of female employees at Forerunner.

A Visionary Photographer Reaches a Career Pinnacle

Among people who know him well, the German photographer Thomas Struth is renowned for the intense focus he brings to every detail of his work, starting with the way he creates a single photograph. In some cases, he waits for hours under the hood of a large-format camera for the right moment to take a shot, then sits there longer still for the next right moments. Later, he carefully examines each image and, before making his selects, often ventures to the site to shoot again. He’s likely to have spent weeks beforehand studying visual and art historical source material.

Recently Struth has taken a similarly obsessive approach to his exhibitions, designing the architecture and refining each hanging in situ. When he walks into his career survey, which opened in May at Munich’s Haus der Kunst, he immediately begins talking about the building’s disquieting origins. Although the gallery has been an avant-garde stronghold for decades, it was initially constructed to promote Adolf Hitler’s vision of great Teutonic art, opening in 1937 the day before the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, which was just down the street. As a 62-year-old German artist, Struth needed to make sure his show had “a correct relationship to German history,” he explains. “Everybody says, ‘This space has really good proportions.’ I think, Yeah, that’s true, but is that the first thing you would say about the atmosphere?”

Struth could have opened the show with one of the lush, monumentally sized museum photographs for which he’s best known. Made between 1989 and 2005, they depict visitors gathering before artworks in the halls of the Louvre, London’s National Gallery and other major institutions. He considered using one of his newer, wow-inducing science pictures, taken in nuclear fusion laboratories, factories, hospitals and the like, shot in such intensely rendered detail that it’s hard to figure out exactly what you’re seeing. He also experimented with something more playful: a gorgeous portrait of adults and children clustered before a giant aquarium full of fish.

Instead, Struth opened with something far grittier: the urban streetscapes that he first began making in the 1970s as a student at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and has continued in cities around the world for four decades. Shot with a large-format camera placed squarely in the center of the street, they aim to convey something essential about each locale. Struth calls the series Unconscious Places, because of his belief, he explains, in “the undercurrent of a shared, unconscious energy that evokes some kind of atmosphere in the architecture.”

When viewers enter the Munich show, they’re confronted with a row of East Berlin streetscapes, captured soon after the wall came down. In his blunt fashion, Struth says, “In a way, what you see is what you got because of this,” nodding toward the gallery’s spare, neoclassically proportioned central hallway, where Hitler once spoke before rapt crowds.

As for the main gallery, he bisected it with a different sort of wall: a vitrine filled with selections from his personal archives, like the big band records he obsessed over as a teenager, when he played alto sax in his high school jazz band, and the surrealistic paintings and oil stick drawings he made before turning to photography in his early 20s. He also includes the long-ago project that unconsciously steered him toward his well-known series of intimate family portraits: a 1982 collaboration with a Düsseldorf psychoanalyst who used family photos in treatment.

“I hope it expresses the reasons for my work,” Struth says of the archive. “And also a bit of vulnerability.”

One of Germany’s most highly regarded photographers, Struth can afford to be somewhat vulnerable: He’s at the peak of his career—and at a new stage in his life. Ten years ago, he married the Hawaii-born writer Tara Bray Smith, and soon after they moved away from Düsseldorf, the place where Struth spent much of his childhood and later made his career, to build a life together in Berlin. They now have a child, Alexej, who’s 7. Struth works from a glorious Berlin studio, and his career has clearly reached a new level. The Munich show, Thomas Struth: Figure Ground, which is his largest survey to date, has been extended through January 7—and it’s just one highlight of several current and upcoming Struth shows.

On November 5, his exhibition Nature & Politics opens at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the final leg of a tour that began in March 2016 at Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany, and traveled to Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art and Houston’s Moody Center for the Arts, all in very different configurations that Struth designed himself.

“Thomas constructed the architecture, which meant he also constructed the narrative,” says Tobia Bezzola, the Folkwang’s director. “He had a lot of fun creating various juxtapositions and confrontations.”

Nature & Politics focuses on Struth’s science photographs, made over the past decade or so, which touch on society’s many uses for technology, whether it be energy production, robotics or the machines that keep bodies tethered to life during surgery. Alongside urban landscapes shot in places like Israel, South Korea and Argentina, and fantasy landscapes shot in Disneyland, the pictures seem to explore the reach and limits of human progress.

“He’s navigating this delicate line between the chaotic nature of the subject matter and what looks good as a beautiful, precise, meticulously composed photograph,” Eric Lutz, a photography curator at Saint Louis, says of the science photos. Every time you look, Lutz adds, you see something different: “I think that’s a courageous thing for a photographer to do, not to want to define the meaning of a photograph.”

Struth is also in a reflective mood, judging from the work in his upcoming New York solo show, opening November 14 at Marian Goodman Gallery, which has represented him since 1989. As well as showing new science photos, of subjects like a Siemens switchgear plant, captured from a perspective that suggests a giant, ominous playground, he will unveil a brand-new series that owes a clear debt to Renaissance painting: still lifes of deceased animals, including a ram, a tiny wildcat and a group of birds. Shot in available light in a way that brings out the soft drifts of feathers and tender tufts of fur, the creatures seem halfway between death and life, reminiscent of medieval memento mori while also appearing strangely new.

A few days after visiting the Munich exhibition, Struth shows off these pictures in his Berlin studio, a sunny space overlooking the Spree, and speaks of his desire to depict the creatures in a beautiful, dignified fashion. “I’m interested in the idea of surrender,” he says. “Once you die, all the circus that you proactively design, the theater, comes to a full stop.”

In some sense, when Struth speaks of the circus, he’s referring to his own life. Over the past 10 years, the number of shows he’s been asked to participate in has tripled, and his studio staff has grown to keep up with the demands on his time, as well as his constantly expanding range of interests. “He’s always been led by his curiosity,” says gallerist Marian Goodman, who has known Struth for nearly three decades. “He doesn’t have the desire to do the same thing over and over again.” As Struth’s installations have grown more elaborate, so have his catalogs, and he has recently begun doing all but his largest prints in-house. (“That’s the fun part,” says his longtime studio manager, Anne Caroline Müller.) Yet to make an artwork, Struth often says, one must stop the carousel and sit still. “That’s when you see or hear something.”

In this way and in others, the memento mori are clearly somewhat personal. Struth’s parents died some years ago—his father, a lawyer, judge and bank manager, in 2003 and his mother, a potter, in 2009—and he finds himself reflecting upon them frequently, especially now that he has a child himself. “It becomes clearer what they were for me,” he says.

Struth has also been considering his own mortality. “Once the [Marian Goodman] exhibition opens, I will be 63,” he says later, while going through the new pictures on his computer. “I will be in the last quarter of my life.” As he talks about the images, it’s clear that he is thinking of the memento mori’s traditional roots: as a reminder of death that encourages one to savor life. Struth intends the pictures to be “like punches,” he says. “Death as a wake-up call.”

Together with Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Ruff, Struth is considered a protégé of the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their pictures of German industrial architecture. In fact, he was part of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf’s first official photography class, which the Bechers taught. Okwui Enwezor, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, feels that Struth diverges from his cohort in a crucial sense. “He’s different from, say, Thomas Ruff or Andreas Gursky, in his analytical approach to image making,” he says. “In some ways he comes closer to the Bechers but also goes much further away from them.”

The first photographs Struth became known for were his Manhattan streetscapes, shot during a 1978 residency at P.S. 1. Because of this work, he has something of a reputation in architectural circles, too. British architect David Chipperfield, a good friend, says he used Struth’s Unconscious Places series in his lectures long before they met. And he is now designing a four-building compound for Struth and his family, in the countryside outside Berlin. “Architecture is always about spectacular single buildings,” Chipperfield says, “but Thomas’s photography is about the qualities that come out of the normal streets and normal buildings and places where we live.”

Struth actually entered the Kunstakademie in 1973 intent on becoming a painter. His first teacher there was Gerhard Richter, and some point to that legacy in his work today. (Although the two aren’t especially close, Struth has photographed Richter’s family twice.) “Richter was the other crucial early influence,” says Bezzola, who also co-curated Struth’s last retrospective, which toured Europe for three years. “Each of Thomas’s photographs is very much about the construction of the image, about design, about drawing. It’s more like an old master painting.”

That’s obvious when Struth sits down at his computer to explain how he creates the memento mori. He arrived at the subject through his science photographs, when a contact at a Berlin hospital introduced him to a zoological institute that examines dead animals. Now Struth is notified whenever a creature arrives there. He usually has a few hours to take photographs before the autopsy starts.

To prepare for the series, which he began last fall, Struth researched the subject intensively, combing the internet to see “what pictorial material exists already,” he says, asking himself, “Is that the sort of picture that I would like to make or work with? Then I reject it and say, This would appear in a veterinary magazine. This is something I’ve seen already.”

Illustrating his point, Struth flips through a vast number of images on his monitor: X-rays, MRIs, old master paintings, BBC nature photographs. His interest in the subject may have been sparked, he says, by an Albrecht Dürer watercolor of a bird’s wing he saw at Madrid’s Museo del Prado in 2005. “It was very small but so extremely arresting,” he recalls. “It says something about respect, for the animal and for life, about spending the time to make this and studying this phenomenon.”

Although Struth often uses large-format cameras and film, about five years ago he switched to medium-format digital cameras for more intimate situations, which means he can study the images he takes on a monitor. When using film, he makes his selection with contact sheets, choosing which pictures to print and then picking one to be used and numbered for his catalogue raisonné. He keeps banks of file drawers filled with these images, all listed by category—“portraits,” “landscapes,” “museums” and so on.

The day after showing off the photos in his studio, Struth and one of his assistants, Vanessa Enders, pay one of their periodic visits to the zoological institute to work out details for the next shoot. They need to figure out how to handle larger animals and revisit how best to work within the parameters of the space and its lighting.

It’s hard to believe that the white-tiled, wet-floored autopsy room, lit with overhead halogen lights and lined with white rubber robes on hooks, could produce any image that wasn’t depressingly clinical. But Struth’s eyes see it differently.

“That’s the best natural light,” he says, indicating the long windows unobstructed by trees at the far end of the room, likening their effect to a softbox, a photographic lighting device that creates a diffuse glow. “You can see the shadows are not sharp,” he explains. He and Enders decide to shoot there next time.

Then, just as he’s leaving, Struth pulls out his iPhone to capture that light. As he gestures Enders to the side and scoots a bucket out of the way, the room turns quiet. In that instant, it’s clear that this is the key ingredient Struth requires to make a photograph: slowing down the circus of the world long enough to find that perfect moment of stillness. There’s a click, and he smiles broadly. “Gut,” he says. “Danke schön.”

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The Rise of the Fashionable Concrete Home

Step inside Sudnya Shroff’s cast-concrete home in Los Altos Hills, Calif., and you will find glossy kitchen countertops, also made of concrete, sculptural bathroom sinks and staircases—concrete—and floors with fossils and tiny semiprecious stones embedded in, yes, concrete.

“There’s a very strong emotional draw for me toward concrete—it’s the one material that accepts imperfections,” said Ms. Shroff, a 44-year-old painter and fashion designer whose 7,000-square-foot home, completed in 2013, cost over $5 million to create. Her husband, Nickhil Jakatdar, a 46-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur, had his doubts during the 4½ years it took to design and build the house. “He said, ‘Is it going to look like one of those homes in India, where they run out of money and don’t paint?’” she recalled.

Unfazed by associations with cellblocks and parking garages, more homeowners are discovering that concrete is the chameleon of construction. It can take on the texture of wood or glass, an artist’s palette of color beyond drab gray and, with the addition of structural fibers and plasticizers, is less prone to cracking.

“It’s pretty much the standard concrete that’s always been used, but upgraded with new additives,” said Fu-Tung Cheng, whose Berkeley, Calif.-based firm Cheng Design created Ms. Shroff’s home. “Most people’s immediate response about concrete is to think of freeways and parking lots—but if you use it properly, it’s like stone was in the old days, sculptural with a real feeling of timelessness.”

Concrete has been around since ancient times, when Roman builders mixed lime, sand and rubble with volcanic ash to create the Pantheon dome. Modern concrete swaps out the volcanic ash for portland cement. Concrete homes can be poured in place into forms made of plywood or steel plate and lined with everything from pine boards to mirror-smooth plastic laminate. Or they can be erected using precast concrete walls or blocks. The sturdiest concrete homes are reinforced with steel, making them strong enough to withstand fires, floods and hurricanes.

For the Shroff-Jakatdar home, Mr. Cheng created a cantilevered staircase with concrete treads that seem to float in midair; each tread can support over 900 pounds. Elliptical circular “cutouts” throughout the house bring in natural light. The concrete floor of Ms. Shroff’s studio was stamped with traditional Indian and Chinese blocks used for textile printing.

And her deep-red kitchen counter, tinted with powdered iron oxide, was poured in place and then buffed to a high polish to resemble terrazzo.

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Concrete homes are typically more expensive to build than conventional homes, but they’re less expensive to maintain and more durable over time. Concrete affects the bottom line in other ways, lowering heating and cooling costs and even insurance premiums.

“Reinforced-concrete building systems are more disaster resistant, more insect resistant, more mold resistant—also one of the most energy-efficient systems available,” said Ed Hudson, director of marketing research for Home Innovation Research Labs, a subsidiary of the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group.

According to Home Innovation surveys, poured and precast concrete is most popular in the luxury sector—accounting for 4.1% of high-end homes built last year. That marks a steady increase in the demand for luxury concrete since the recession low in 2012, when such homes accounted for just 1.9% of new construction.

Investing in concrete construction with high-end finishes may pay off in resale value.

“If the home is luxurious with lots of windows, we can sell those easily,” said Gwen Banta, a real-estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty in Los Angeles. “Polished concrete floors are a very popular design element. Concrete, when imprinted with a pattern, can be a dramatic design element.”

In New York, Tod Greenfield spent over $2 million to build a 5,000-square-foot concrete house that was poured in place on his family’s 3¾-acre property on the North Shore of Long Island in 2013.

“We didn’t want to use Sheetrock, we didn’t want to use paint—because every few years you have to repaint,” said Mr. Greenfield, who is 58 and the co-owner of Martin Greenfield Clothiers, a custom-suit manufacturer.

“Concrete has a natural appeal to us. It’s interesting to look at.”

Custom wooden forms were created to cast the concrete walls, floors and ceilings. Pine boards were used to give the concrete walls a wood-grain finish, which harmonize with the home’s black-locust siding (milled from trees on the property felled during Hurricane Irene).

The smooth concrete ceilings were created with fine-planed plywood forms. Large windows and translucent polycarbonate wall panels bring in plenty of light.

The exposed concrete ceilings posed a challenge: Where to hide some of the home’s wiring and other elements. Narofsky Architecture, which designed the house, created a series of wood-framed “clouds” that float just below the ceiling, to house cove lights, speakers, air-conditioning vents and venting for the kitchen cooktop. Each cloud is lined with a sound panel made of polypropylene material, “to balance out the echo and soften the audio feel of the house,” said principal Stuart Narofsky.

The concrete roof is strong enough to support a 150-square-foot rooftop vegetable garden in raised beds planted with a foot of soil, and a 1,000-square-foot green roof of alpine plants.

Concrete Facts

  • Modern concrete is mixed with portland cement, a material produced by firing clay and limestone. It is named after stone quarried on England’s Isle of Portland.
  • It takes about 66.5 cubic yards of concrete—over 134 tons—to build a 1,500-square-foot, single-story house with concrete walls.
  • Ready-mix trucks, which use revolving drums to combine cement with water and aggregate like sand and gravel, can produce a single load of concrete weighing about 17 tons.
  • Once it leaves the truck, concrete mix has about 90 minutes before it begins to set, becoming unusable

“Structurally, the house is super solid,” said Mr. Greenfield, who rode out superstorm Sandy there in 2012, when work was nearly complete. “I saw this giant oak tree keel over and hit the corner of the roof—it just snapped. House: 1, Tree: 0.”

But not all concrete is built to last. In the Los Altos Hills, Calif., home, Mr. Cheng designed a wall that has been engineered to partially erode over time; the concrete, which was mixed with soil and organic matter to encourage the growth of lichen and moss, is also embedded with hidden objects, such as stones, machine parts and a doll belonging to Ms. Shroff.

“Some are starting to show up now,” she said. “Some of the things won’t show up even in my lifetime.”

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Appeared in the August 10, 2018, print edition as ‘Concrete’s Sexy Side.’