By Noam Dvir | Haaretz
About a half-dozen years ago, architects Shalom Davidovich and Hanan Peri received a rare offer to participate in a unique construction project in the heart of the Nigerian savannah. An Israeli businessman who had been working for years in the West African country wanted to introduce them to a local tycoon who had decided to build himself a luxurious summer home near his native village.
A few weeks later, Davidovich and Peri were in Nigeria, meeting with the mogul and his wife. They were asked to prepare a detailed proposal for designing and furnishing a "palace" - from the chandelier in the entrance to the carpets in the smoking room, from the water purification mechanisms and the security system to the gilded faucets in the bathrooms. Two additional foreign firms had been invited to compete over the commission to plan the project.
At the start Davidovich and Peri made a strategic decision to accompany the plans with a simulation clip (created by the 3-D animation firm Totem Imaging and Animation), which would illustrate the size and richness of the proposed building, both inside and out. Over the course of seven months, a simulation of all the spaces in the palace was constructed, down to the level of lighting solutions, the color of the marble and the design of the armchairs. When the architects presented the clip to the client, he and his family gave them an immediate yes.
"That film is our achievement, but in effect it was an 'own goal,'" says Davidovich, using the soccer term. "The simulation films that we prepare are usually based on libraries of modern items and furnishings. Here we had no place from which to take the furniture [designs]. We had to construct all the chandeliers and the details in 3-D."
"We took swatches of small carpets and turned them into large samples, we took elements that we found in all kinds of magazines of antique sofas and duplicated them in the film," adds Peri. "The moment [the client] saw the film and realized what he was going to get, he started to say that he wanted everything 'the same as in the movie.' Now go find that carpet and that curtain! Fortunately we found a factory in Italy that agreed to take the simulations and make real copies. It was like assembling a 5,000-piece puzzle."
After six years, the palace - or at least its external structure - is now a reality in Nigeria. It is situated on a 35-dunam (roughly 10-acre ) plot near the village of Issele-Uko in the Delta state, and covers an area of 12,000 square meters. These are divided (in the main structure ) between a basement, an entrance floor and a residential floor, and among a large number of buildings, including a servants' house and an entry pavilion used by the security guards ("In Nigeria even the simplest villa needs security guards," says Peri. ) It's the largest private home ever designed by Israelis. And, apparently, size does matter.
The client and his wife already had houses in the cities of Lagos and Abuja in Nigeria, as well as in Europe and the Persian Gulf. The new house is meant to be used for family vacations and on holidays, as well as serving as a luxurious residence in which to host - and impress - guests. In accordance with the clients' express request, the style of the palace is neoclassical and borrows from the design world of luxury hotels and Parisian guest rooms. "They are greatly influenced by Europe, and their dream in effect is to be like Europe," remarks Peri.
"The clients dictated to us exactly what they wanted," adds Davidovich. "First of all, large guest rooms, separated from one another, because he [the owner] likes to maintain distance between the guests. There are corridors that make it possible to pass among the spaces without being seen, there's a smoking room ... There's an indoor pool and there were supposed to be another two outdoor pools, but it was decided to forgo them for reasons of security."
The capacious premises also house a cinema, discotheque, hair salon, bowling alley and separate 350-square-meter suites for the couple, as well as a selection of guest suites. It also has its own water-purification system and electrical generator, since large parts of Nigeria - a country with a population of 150 million - lack a basic infrastructure network.
How does one begin to design such a house?
"Like any other building, from the inside out," says Peri.
Sometimes the clients' demands seemed exaggerated, even in light of the already extravagant atmosphere of the structure being planned.
"I sat with the mistress of the house to design the kitchen, and I suggested that we install a professional kitchen with all the stainless steel and appliances necessary for this kind of house," says Davidovich. "She told me that she disagreed, because when she comes home she wants to feel that she's in the village and not in a factory. So what they designed is a kitchen for a private home - but huge, with seven refrigerators and seven ovens, because she likes to cook with her friends from the village. Next to the kitchen, there is a cooling room where the chicken or goats are slaughtered, because there is no supermarket to buy meat from. When you get into these details, you understand that although you're designing a palace you're still in Africa."
'Paraphrasing a palazzo'
Peri-Davidovich is one of the leading firms in Israel for private residential construction - which is to say, for design of luxury apartments and private homes for the upper class. One can find examples of their work in Savyon, Tzahala, Herzliya Pituah and on many moshavim in the Sharon region. In recent years they have also been involved in residential projects abroad, as well as commercial projects such as the new Ferrari-Maserati showroom in Tel Aviv. A recent proposal for the new home of Jerusalem's Natural History Museum came in third in the design competition.
Even the firm's largest projects in Israel have been far smaller than the Nigerian palace. Locally, a particularly large and luxurious villa planned by them will cover some 1,000 square meters, while spacious apartments in high-rises are 400-500 square meters in size. This is one reason the firm saw the African project as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - although they are aware of the criticism of the kitschy neoclassical style, the gargantuan size of the mansion and the clients' obsessive preoccupation with luxury items whose cost could support an entire district in Nigeria.
Isn't it a little unreasonable to construct such a building in the heart of the Nigerian savannah?
"It's like paraphrasing an Italian palazzo that sits on a hill in Tuscany, and dropping it in Africa," says Davidovich, making a pincer movement, as though dropping the imaginary building from his fingers. "In terms of topography, this palace does not suit the flat locale, but it's what the client wanted, and in a way it was a challenge for us, because we've never worked with this type of architecture."
"We had to learn this language from scratch, and for us it was extremely interesting to deal with things that in the past I would have called kitschy or useless," says Peri. "In the final analysis, our sources of inspiration were not cheap places, but villas by [Renaissance architect Andrea] Palladio. In my opinion, the house is not ostentatious. It's not like the taste of the oligarchs who want to show that, 'Look, we invested lots of money.'"
Israeli architects have a glorious legacy of involvement in Africa. The export of architecture to countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America went on from the 1950s until the early 1970s, as part of a declared diplomatic policy of the government. During her years as foreign minister (1956-1966 ), Golda Meir believed that Israel should try to overcome its geographical and economic isolation, and that a strategic partnership should be found among countries of the so-called second circle. Israel helped with the process of modernization and advanced technologies, and with building infrastructure in agriculture, water and security. As byproducts, the developing nations formed business relations with Israeli companies as well as ties in the greater international arena.
The planning and architectural assistance that Israel contributed in Africa included the preparation of master plans and the planning of infrastructure, schools and universities, public buildings, government institutions, residential neighborhoods and hotel complexes. Vestiges of Israeli architectural involvement can be found in almost every country in sub-Saharan Africa, and many of the buildings continue to function to this day.
The present-day involvement of Israeli architects in Africa is of an entirely different nature. First and foremost it is based on global business ties rather than on a sense of mission or service to the state. (Golda Meir has been cited as telling the directors of the Solel Boneh construction company about their work in Africa: "I don't want you to lose there, but for God's sake, no big profits, please." )
In addition, in the past Israeli architects focused on designing projects on a municipal and district scale in Africa, rather than designing large homes. The Peri-Davidovich project can be seen as a direct reflection of the rise of a small and very wealthy (and sometimes corrupt ) class of Africans who have worldwide businesses and want to import Western luxury goods to their country. Sometimes it's cars, sometimes Paris fashions - in this case, it was an Italian palazzo.
"Nigeria really is a country of contrasts," says Davidovich. "There are very wealthy people and servants. So presumably you could come and ask how such gaps were created. But when such a person builds his home in his native village, I think that he's also contributing to the village. He employs laborers from the region, contributes to their economy and also builds a church in the town. You could call it a type of tithe."
As work got under way, an Israeli architect representing the firm was on-site in Nigeria, supervising the work on a day-to-day basis. Afterward, there was a change in contractors and the construction halted for a while. Today, the relationship with the clients is conducted through a series of consultants, and through visits by the architects to Nigeria every two to three months.
The architects have many complaints about the quality of the construction and the finish.
"If we came as architects, today we are also in charge of the plumbing and the electricity. We have turned into teachers and mentors because the local planning teams have never been involved in a house of this size," says Davidovich. "It's like being a village doctor. You have to know everything: how to deliver a baby and how to do surgery and to take care of anything that comes up."
The exterior of the mansion has been completed, but the interior spaces still have a long way to go. Furnishing has begun, but only of a limited number of rooms, because every carpet, curtain and armchair is handmade and the costs are enormous. The intention now is to complete only a few wings of the palace, so that the owner can begun to use it, with completion of the project being postponed until a later stage.
Although the initial enthusiasm and esprit de corps have gradually been replaced by great frustration, Davidovich and Peri are still optimistic. "We can also put it positively," says Davidovich. "We're working there today in the hope that the situation will improve and we'll be able to complete the project exactly as we imagined it."