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November 18, 2006

Airplane House


It may the strangest house in Abuja — or all of Nigeria, for that matter.

Craig Timberg wrote about this architectural landmark (above) in a story which appears in today's Washington Post, and follows.

    Airplane House Keeps Marriage Grounded, if Not Wife

    A Monument to Love Is Landmark in Abuja

    Abuja's airplane house, as it has come to be known by its inhabitants and amazed passersby, has emerged haphazardly over the years as a rare triumph of architectural whimsy in this sleek, modernistic West African capital.

    Looking like a jetliner settled atop the two-story concrete home of Said and Liza Jammal, it was born not of an urban planner's cold logic but of something more elemental: a man's love for his wife, and a selfish desire that she spend more time at home.

    In a country that has experienced four major air disasters in little more than a year, including a fatal crash last month near Abuja's airport, the effect at first glance can be startling, even frightening. But to those who have watched its gradual emergence — fuselage, nose, tail, engines — the plane has become a pleasant symbol of aesthetic mirth in a city dominated by hulking, '70s-style hotels and an ever-growing supply of bland concrete-and-glass office towers.

    "It's beautiful," said Ponsak Luka Kudor, 20, a student waiting at a bus stop nearby. "This is the only star we have in Abuja."

    The city of 2.5 million residents was founded in 1976 to become the new, orderly capital of a hectic nation that often seems on the verge of breaking apart along ethnic and religious lines.

    Abuja became the official capital in 1991, taking over for the rambunctious southwestern port city of Lagos, and has emerged, for Nigerians, as everyone's city and no one's. On Friday afternoons, the wide, flawlessly paved streets empty as politicians and civil servants speed home, which means almost anywhere else.

    The airplane house grew from a long-neglected marital promise between the Jammals, members of Nigeria's prosperous Lebanese immigrant community that long has run hotels, restaurants and other businesses here.

    When the Jammals married in 1980, Said, now 48, taciturn and mustachioed, with a deep cleft in his chin, was a civil engineer with his own construction company. And Liza, now 42, chatty and dark-haired, was a devoted traveler.

    Liza asked her new husband to someday build a house for her in the shape of an airplane as a symbol of her hobby. In the flush of young love, he agreed.

    "That was my wife's dream," Said Jammal said, smiling sheepishly as he puffed a cigarette at the end of a dark plastic holder. "You know, she likes to travel a lot, fly a lot."

    The vow went unfulfilled for the first two decades of their marriage, as the demands of seven children and a fast-growing business consumed the Jammals. But in 1999, they spotted a piece of land on a rise alongside the main highway heading north out of Abuja.

    The neighborhood was nice, with the Nigerian presidential villa, Aso Rock, next door, but what clinched the deal was the view. For more than a mile, pedestrians and motorists approaching from the south would be able to see the house and whatever the Jammals put on top of it.

    The work on the airplane began in 2002 and has moved slowly because Said Jammal insists on doing each phase by himself, despite a work schedule that keeps him frequently on the road. And though the airplane's interior remains unfinished, the exterior is nearing completion.

    The plane is about 100 feet long and, at its highest point at the top of the tail, 20 feet tall. Eventually, the plane will have a 50-foot wingspan, Said Jammal said. Each wing already has two mounted engines and sits atop an unfinished bedroom and a small bathroom.

    Inside the white fuselage, Said Jammal plans to build a kitchen and in a closed-off cockpit overlooking the city, a computer room.

    Completion remains at least several months off.

    "It's my personal house," he said. "I'm not in a hurry."

    The Jammals have also built a two-story guard post in the shape of a control tower, and they plan to add a smaller replica of the plane on a guest cottage. On another plot of land on a nearby hill, they are contemplating building another house, this one in the shape of a yacht.

    Though unfinished, the airplane house attracts a steady flow of unexpected visitors who knock at the Jammals' gate several times a month. The property's extravagance, meanwhile, has provoked some grumbling in a city where most houses are small.

    "Some people will feel they are wasting cement," said James Ojobo, 43, who is unemployed.

    But many passersby express affection for the project, even if they cannot fathom who would attempt it. The conventional wisdom along Murtala Mohammed Way, the four-lane highway that runs along the front of the airplane house a bit like a forsaken runway, is that a pilot owns it.

    "Very strange, but nice. Very nice," said Adamma Mercy Pius, 23, who came here six months ago in search of work. "When I first came to Abuja, this building attracted me. I thought, 'Is this a real plane?' "

    The Jammals say they have received inquiries from an airline interested in turning the plane into a giant winged billboard. For the right price, both said, they would be willing to sell.

    After all, despite the attention it has generated, the airplane house has failed at one of its missions. Said Jammal revealed that when he decided to go ahead with the project, he had a secret motive to clip his wife's wings: "Let me build the airplane so that I can keep her in all the time."

    To this, Liza Jammal smiled the kind of patient, indulgent smile that many wives save for their husbands' curmudgeonly moments. "It doesn't work," she said, thinking ahead to a planned trip to Singapore. "I'm going this weekend."

November 18, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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