The Crazy House

A Tel Aviv building is as 'out-there' as it gets.

baubuilding 88 298 (photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
baubuilding 88 298
(photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
It's known as the Crazy House, and anyone driving along Derech Namir into Tel Aviv cannot fail to see its extraordinary fa ade with the wavy lines of its fantasy balconies facing the sea. The front of the building is on Hayarkon and is quite different, with a painted fresco running down its entire length and trees growing out of the wall's orifices in what the architect calls a vertical garden. I met Leon Gaignebet at the entrance and was privileged to have the Syrian-born non-Jewish architect explain his concept to me. "You are standing next to the foundation stone," he said, pointing to a massive knobby piece of masonry set into the wall. "This is the stone which inspired me. The whole building should have looked like this if I had had the courage." I found this comment surprising in view of the fact that the building as it is arouses strong feelings - you either love it or hate it - and because of its unconventional style it took seven years to extract a building permit from the municipality. When the building finally went up in 1985, there were howls of criticism. "Oh yes, I got very bad reviews from newspapers and other architects," says the French-speaking Gaignebet cheerfully. "Among other comments, people complained it did not fit in with the overall look of the town. In Venice you can have eclectic, but not in Tel Aviv, apparently." In turn, he has harsh words for the dominance of the Bauhaus style in Tel Aviv. "Bauhaus made a lot of damage to Tel Aviv," he says. "I like it, but not when it takes power and dictates fake unity." While Gaignebet's creation is certainly the antithesis of Bauhaus style, he also refuses to accept comparisons to Gaudi, to whose work his building has been compared. "Gaudi was a genius, while I have perhaps a little talent," he says modestly." We are not on the same level." His inspiration, he maintains, came more from the French 19th-century architects responsible for the ornamental entrances to the Metro stations in Paris. He also makes use of fractals which my 10-year-old granddaughter explained to me were shapes to which the designer returns again and again in different dimensions. A building as eloquent as this one is capable of expressing many ideas. Gaignebet elucidates some of them. "There are two distinct sides to the building; you have the sea on one side, and hence the balconies which look like waves, while at the front you have the desert with the fresco depicting a wadi flowing through the desert. You have other delineations, east and west, masculine and feminine, mineral and natural. Inside the apartment you have the massive pillars which hold up the building and each represents the different civilizations that existed once in this part of the world." Finally we get to look at one of the apartments, the one belonging to the Bollags, who commissioned the building. Shlomit is an artist and Yisrael a builder. It is on the basement level and the pillars are an integral part of the home. The interior is just as unconventional as the rest of the building. Very colorful, most of the ceramic tiling is the work of Shlomit, as are many of the decorations - leaves, flowers and fruit - lying around. The bathroom is a good example of her style, with its black marble pillar around a triangular black bath with yellow, green and turquoise tiling. Much of the painting simulating wood or rocks, as in the kitchen, is also her work. The long living room is below street level, so one looks out through the private garden and sees the legs of people walking along the main road through the hedge. With so much space available, the owners have provided several seating corners. In addition to the conventional biscuit leather three-piece suite around a coffee table, a curtained off corner where the family watches television is decorated as a Beduin encampment, and the TV itself set into a banded wood frame. Another corner has Damascus inlaid chairs and the walls are painted mirrors. Around the room runs a gallery, where the master bedroom is located, doorless and separated only by a rich velvet curtain. The bed is set on a dais carpeted in deep turquoise, clearly a favorite color. The huge light fittings match the room's proportions. Gaignebet was immensely pleased when his building turned up in mini-Israel, although it had already been featured in Amsterdam's Madurodam. "I never did another like this," he says. "It takes too much energy." Do you feel you own one of Israel's most beautiful homes? Please e-mail