Bespoke aquaria may have the wow factor, but they can be as high maintenance as their celebrity owners, by Zoe Dare Hall
Thierry Henry wanted a four-storey one that would require a complete rebuild of his London home (a project that’s still on hold), fellow footballer Stephen Ireland commissioned one with an in-built computer and Fijian reef, while other celebrities – the late Alexander McQueen was one – favour those that double up as headboards for their beds.
Bespoke, super-sized aquaria are becoming a popular feature in the homes of the rich and famous and some will pay up to £1m for one that is truly unique, such as the 18-metre long “shark tank” requested by one Knightsbridge-based client of Aquarium Architecture, a specialist in such matters.
“Fish tanks famously have a therapeutic quality. They are also an emotional investment, rather like fine wine, with a direct correlation between fish rarity and value”, says Adrian Black, director of YOUHome estate agency.
But for Roland Horne, Aquarium Architecture’s co-founder whose clients include sports stars (cricketer Kevin Pietersen has just commissioned one “with sea horses and a real wow factor” for his latest venture, a children’s hairdressers), Emirati royal families and the former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg, having a huge, exotic aquarium in your living room is all about “power and control”, says Horne. “There’s partly the luxury travel association – a lot of people have been diving in the Maldives or own a home there and want to recreate the feel. But I think a lot of the psychology of aquaria stems from a fascination for growing and controlling something from scratch. It’s a very male thing – although Russian women also seem to like them too.”
In the US, big is best – and if it hugs the bed or frames a few TV screens, even better. “The Americans like fake plastic corals and big predatory fish. They can look impressive, but the fish don’t look very happy,” says Horne. In Dubai, designer Daniel Kostuic of Intarya designed a jellyfish aquarium that wrapped around an awkwardly-placed pillar. Europeans, on the other hand, prefer a more authentic aquascape, “replicating what is found out there in the wild and generally set more discreetly against a wall,” says Horne.
Saltwater aquaria have traditionally been most popular, “as everyone wants a few ‘Nemo’ fish, which means having saltwater coral,” says Horne, whose clients typically spend £80,000-£100,000 on an aquarium. But the Japanese art of “iwagumi”,, which focuses on artistically-cut stones and plants, rather than the fish, has persuaded more people to look at the freshwater option – which cost about half the price to install and maintain.
While pretty to look at, a home aquarium – especially of the scale and exoticness that wealthy buyers are demanding – requires constant attention, with some specialist designers offering 24-hour maintenance services and the average big tank needing about three visits a week at £100 a pop. And while the tank itself may be beautiful, the mechanics behind it, including huge tanks of water, cables and pumps, are a less desirable addition to the interior design.
Done well, an aquarium can look like a stylish addition to a home. The upmarket home-builders Octagon, for example, have installed a few super-sized aquaria in their custom-built properties recently, including one set within a specially-commissioned tinted mirror. Done badly, though, and “it can all look a bit James Bond,” says Alec Watt, CEO of Accouter Design, who mentions one client who wanted an underfloor aquarium populated by small sharks.
Having a one-off aquarium won’t add value to your home, according to David Adams, MD of John Taylor London, but it will spark buyers’ interest and look pretty in your sales brochure. Be aware that its presence can also deter prospective buyers, though, if it visibly requires a lot of maintenance and your property is likely to be a little-used second home.
“I saw one example in Belgrave Square where the floor had been reinforced to contain one of the most extravagant aquaria ever seen. The owner had staff who checked on the property every few weeks and got it ready for his returns from international travels. Each time, he had to restock the aquaria at huge expense as all the fish had died,” says Ed Tryon from Lichfields buying agency, who adds that while these fancy fish tanks are increasing in popularity, “they certainly polarise buyers”.
“Avoid them. Modern art is a much better alternative,” advises Camilla Dell from Black Brick buying agency. But a large clutch of fish-loving celebrities, including the Beckhams and Madonna, and top-end developers such as Candy & Candy and Finchatton would disagree.