Special to The Globe and Mail
Nygård Cay, Bahamas
Shmatte tycoon Peter Nygård looks every bit a Viking version of Col. Kurts from the film Apocalypse Now as he looms over the unfinished bar of the world's biggest living room murmuring, "The tower, the tower".
Wearing a faded U.S. marine camouflage jacket with the name Scott sewn in black thread over the right breast pocket, he's talking to a Greco Bahamian contractor named Theo about air conditioners.
"I'm not putting up a goddamn tower that will ruin my beautiful building, not even for you," Nygård tells the burly guy who has just suggested his two-storey, 2780-square-metre grand hall needs a minor monument to control climate . Mike Moore, a Yorkshire native who has managed the construction of Nygård's multimillion-dollar, castaway fantasy park since it first began six years ago, looks on somberly. It is obvious the answer to this problem, like most on the project, will not be simple.
The conversation next turns to removing some humidity from the glass walled, octagonal hall--- no point in having guests spend most of the evening mopping their faces with cocktail napkins. But he also wants to leave part of the structure—crowned by a 3,716-square-metre, star-shaped roof extra terrestrials are sure to notice if they if they pass this way—exposed to the cool Atlantic breezes that sweep across his two-hectare peninsula on the western tip of New Providence. The contractor has his heart set on a hotel-style habitat for penguins.
For a moment Nygård, Chairman and controlling shareholder of Winnipeg-based Nygård International Ltd. a multinational garment company approaching $300-million in annual revenue, is considering his options. Then he says something about locating the air conditioners under the concrete planters and disappears down a ladder to tackle the next problem. There are still hundreds of details to sort out before this building --- center piece of a residence that resembles a big-budget Hollywood set for Robinson Crusoe meets Swiss Family Robinson – is ready for an upcoming New Year's Eve bash. (Fortunately the invitations have not yet gone out and privately Nygård admits the approaching fete will likely end up being a dress rehearsal for the mother of all parties --- the hosting in two years time to celebrate the new millennium. When the hall's interior is finished it will feature a $2-million shark pool.
Nygård is particularly keen on getting at least one Hammerhead in there—a dining table for 32 that will sit beneath the main floor when not in use, and white Bengal tigers restrained by glass. There will also be a discotheque, a home theatre and a see-through swimming pool with waterslides. Dr. No from the Bond movie of the same name would have gladly given his back teeth for something of this calibre.
The fact is that Finnish-born Nygård puts his talent into the garments he makes for a slew of retailers from Sears to Saks Fifth Avenue, but he pours his art and creative genius into building. In the 30 years he has been at it, the 50 something entrepreneur's list of credits include his Toronto headquarters in the city's fashion district. "In another life I would have probably been an architect," says Nygård, whose devotion to the project at hand is Wagnerian. "I love being out there drawing lines and getting my hands dirty."
What's the cost of this privilege? "I don't want to know ," he says, noting his 75-year-old mother Hilkka takes care of the bills, which run into the millions every year. "If I thought too much about price it might stop me from doing something. I know I'm not pissing money away. I'm probably spending 50 cents on the dollar compared to what other people would. Part of the thrill for me is getting good value.
So far Nygård has built a replica of a 15 metre Mayan pyramid excavated in Tikal, Guatemala, flanked by a pair of monumental lions. At the moment one does not look intense enough and Chris, a Gen-X sculptor from Boston, is redoing the face. The interior of the pyramid holds double doors that resemble a Babylonian City gate, the main entrance to Nygård Cay. "I want guests to be able to slide down the interior in a harness," Nygård remarks casually. He likes to get a reaction from visitors by telling them the structure is held together by chewing gum.
Opposite the pyramid stands a palm bouquet – the Nygård property has some 300 Golden and Jamaican palms in all ---surrounded by stelae: gigantic Mayan warriors and serpents supporting coffee-table sized braziers. "It took four months to build the first warrior," explains Nygård. "Then a mould was cast and the other seven were produced in a day."
Next to the pyramid stands the base of a 24-metre-tall, man made mountain with snarling tropical vines and bulging overhangs. The mountain is home to a colony of peacocks, a few rare white ones among them. It shelters 16 guest cabanas and conceals a parking lot decorated with stalactites and back-lit reliefs of Mayan battles. Nygård keeps his treasured Hummer here. "This is by far the wildest thing I've ever been involved with," says Craig Worley, who was making zoo and aquarium exhibits in the United States before Nygård flew him over to move heaven and earth.
What are all the echoes of Mayan civilization? "The Mayans were the closest ancient culture to this island." Nygård explains as we stand atop his pyramid, surveying the tennis court and dock below. "Some of the houses around here look like they are air lifted from Beverly Hills." Nygård is referring to the posh mansions of Lyford Cay, an adjoining gated community who's super rich residents include Sir John Templeton, Ted Rogers and John Bassett." Sean comes for a visit," Nygård continues. By Sean he means shaken but not stirred Connery, who lives down the road, and by Steven, he means Mr. Jurassic Park.
"My worst days here are when I sit in my office without getting out, "muses Nygård, who spends about six months of each year in the Bahamas, one or two weeks at a time. Since he has to keep his finger on the pulse of Nygård International while here, Nygård follows a daily regimen of working from 7a.m to 7 p.m. At a stage in life when most people would be happy to consider early retirement, Nygård is running around like a highly energized teenager. If anything suffers it's E-mail.—Nygård admits some 600 messages are parked on his laptop waiting to be read. After the climb, I return to my cabana to change the film in my camera and have a siesta. A four digit entry code activates a barn size door made of Bahamian pine that automatically rolls up like a venetian blind. The interior is a careful study in rustic luxury. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels and mosquito screens cover the north face. There's ocean in every direction --- opulent cobalt vistas stretch out to the horizon. With the flick of a switch the mosquito screens roll up to create an outdoor feeling indoors--- a motif that repeats itself through Nygård Cay.
Another series of switches lowers wooden panels over the glass and mesh to protect the cabana against gale-force winds. The patio has no railing. The only thing to catch me if I should fall out of my hammock are two-dug out canoes attached to the side, beyond them is the eight meter drop to the pale jade shallows below.
The furniture is primitive-modern designed by Nygård and made on site mainly from local wood. The octagonal bed with a jungle pattern and bank of matching pillows is enclosed by a glass shell that juts out from the cabana. A tiny Zen garden and outdoor shower is perched atop a rocky ledge to a sunken Jacuzzi inside a hut. The Jacuzzi might be made of stone, but it's not. It's made from the same materials as the mountain, pyramid and stelae – a combination of steel rods, fiberglass and concrete.
Nygård Methods of construction are unorthodox. He does not use architects and he does not work from a blue print. Instead he makes rough sketches of what he wants and spray paints the dimensions directly onto the ground. It is Moore's job to translate his boss's vision to a crew of about 30 North American expatriots and Bahamians. This technique is painstakingly slow but it gives Nygård the control he needs to tweak everything until it's perfect. "You can't employ a lot of people or the project would run away on you," says Moore, whose background is building airports. At the moment Nygård is busy designing a bridge and colonnade, for pedestrians and electric cars, that will connect his hall to the height of the Mayan-esque columns going in and asks a worker to raise a dummy pillar off the ground. "How high is that?" he asks. When Nygård gets his answer he checks it against the private movie playing in his head. " Let's see what it looks like if we add another foot," says Nygård.
The special effects and wonder-giz-mos Nygård surrounds himself with hide the fact that he's also something of a self-styled environmentalist. He may not be fighting to save the Brazilian rain forest, but he is talking to the Bahama National Trust about turning his property into a sanctuary for the white Cay iguana, an endangered reptile native to nearby Acklins Island. Also Nygård wants the reef around the property, located near the edge of a 1,830-metre ocean wall, to be designated a marine park.
Following a few hours of competitive late-night doubles with his guests and a stocky tennis pro named Al, who likes to tell stories about the late Hollywood director John Ford spitting chewing tobacco in his friend's cab. Nygård towels off on a bench. He's a tennis fanatic who hates to lose and tonight he hasn't been making his best shot, an overhead smash from the baseline. In the background, flames from the braziers lick at the edges of night and Tiki torches burning on the pyramid steps give the air a light citronella fragrance.
I choose this moment to pop the question: When will all this be finished? "Two years," Nygård replies impishly, Coors Light in hand, he then adds: "One of these years I'll be right." Something tells me the old lion never wants this to end.
Peter Nygård opens his Bahamas home to the public once a year to raise money for the environmental group Ocean Watch. The cost of admission is $50 per person and proceeds go toward preserving surrounding coral reefs. Organized activities include basketball, beach volleyball and jet skiing. The next open house is scheduled for late March or early April 1998.
Nygård Cay is located on the western tip of New Providence next to the gated community of Lyford Cay and is 20 minutes by taxi from Nassau International airport. Air Canada, Canada 3000 and Skyservice operate direct flights between Toronto and Nassau. For further flight information contact your Travel Agent.