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April 23, 2012

Jean Pigozzi’s Panama

The art collector’s private island art retreat.

“You won’t see a single light tonight,” promises Jean Pigozzi, surveying a swath of Panama’s west coast from his new house on an island just offshore. And it’s true—as the sun goes down, the stars begin to twinkle overhead, but not one light appears on the coast as far as Pigozzi, or any of his guests, can see.

It is a sight—or the absence of a sight—that even the most seasoned travelers may never experience. It results from Pigozzi’s foresight, mixed with large doses of chutzpah, in buying 18 miles of Pacific coastline, plus the mountainous island on which he built his house, near Panama’s Bahía Honda region, and arranging the other buildings he needed so that none would be visible from his aerie. “Everything you see,” he says, “I own.”

But Pigozzi (known to his friends as Johnny) isn’t exactly living in the dark. As the sun goes down, thousands of LEDs embedded in the house’s translucent walls begin to glow red, blue and green. A diesel-burning generator, out of sight and earshot, produces enough power to keep the place glowing like a discotheque that somehow landed in the jungle.

“It’s a high-tech version of Cuixmala,” Pigozzi says, referring to the legendary estate that Sir James Goldsmith built on the west coast of Mexico, and which Goldsmith’s daughter, Alix, now operates as a luxury resort. Pigozzi remembers visiting Goldsmith at Cuixmala in the pre-Internet days; if they wanted to find out what was happening in the world, they sent an employee on a three-hour drive to Puerto Vallarta for a newspaper. Now Pigozzi is in constant contact with the world, commanding his empire—including a 220-foot yacht anchored just off the island, as well as houses in places like Cap d’Antibes and Paris—with just a few taps on his iPad. Which, in a way, makes this kind of jungle hideaway, while an indulgence, less of one. Thanks to technology, Pigozzi, a wildly successful investor and heir to a French automotive fortune, can be away from his office far longer than the previous generation of moguls, like Goldsmith, could be away from theirs.

And who wouldn’t want to trade the office for this tropical paradise? The attractions on what he calls Simca Island (for the car company founded by his father) include a pair of oversized pools. Why two? “One is Perrier, the other Pellegrino,” jokes Pigozzi before revealing the (almost as extravagant) truth: one is for saltwater; the other, fresh. Inside, the main pavilion includes a living room where friends can lounge on plush sofas beneath Murano-glass chandeliers and a dining room with a gold-leaf table set for 30. Just below the house, surrounding it like flower petals, are guest suites for Pigozzi’s intimates, who include Martha Stewart, Mick Jagger, Bono, director Brett Ratner (who gave him a role in the movie Tower Heist), and Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg.

The buildings’ white terrazzo floors are all uncarpeted, in a concession to the island’s fauna. “You want to know, when you walk into a room, if there are any creepy crawlers on the floor,” Pigozzi says. (The island’s crickets, iguanas and land crabs are as oversized as Pigozzi’s hospitality.) Though the floors are bare, the walls are covered with elaborate artworks, including several monumental canvases from sub-Saharan Africa. For the past 20 years, Pigozzi has been assembling what is now one of the world’s greatest collections of contemporary African art. Some of it involves appropriation of mainstream images: There’s a black Mona Lisa and several recognizable Chinese propaganda posters, with Mao rendered as a black man. Appropriation is part of the game for Pigozzi, who volunteers that the glowing walls of his house are based on those of the Laban center, a dance complex in London designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. “I don’t think they’re going to sue,” he says.

Architecturally, Pigozzi’s greatest influence was his friend and mentor Ettore Sottsass, who died in 2007. Sottsass commanded an Italian design group called Memphis, which brought riotous colors and mismatched patterns to interiors in America and Europe. Marco Zanini, a Sottsass protégé, helped design Pigozzi’s island house, as did Simón Vélez, a Colombian architect who creates elaborate structures from bamboo. Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect known for his cardboard structures, is going to build a new shade structure for the roof deck.

But Pigozzi’s ambitions extend far beyond the house itself. There are miles of roads on which his guests pilot a fleet of quad bikes (heavy-duty ATVs). There’s a floating pool attached to the yacht and more than a dozen small boats for trips to nearby beaches. (Pigozzi’s favorite launch, a 32-foot Munson Packcat, is named Limo.)

But it’s not all fun and games on Simca Island. The property is also home to the Liquid Jungle Lab, a research station established by Pigozzi and used by scientists from institutions like the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Projects include taking unusually detailed measurements of underwater currents. “If we can anticipate these tidal movements, we can eventually use machines to make electricity, or predict weather patterns,” Pigozzi told Departures in 2007, adding, “Perhaps then I’ll get a knock on the door with a request to test a new type of rain gear or a less-polluting engine or a new shampoo based on monkey’s hair. That would make me very happy.” Another fringe benefit to having the lab is the direct access he gets to the scientists. “If you walk 100 yards alone, it takes about two minutes. If you walk that same 100 yards with a scientist, it could take up to four hours,” he says. He relishes their detailed explanations of the ecosystem.

For all of Pigozzi’s devotion to natural habitats, though, Simca’s carbon footprint is huge. It’s not hard to see why. Building the house involved moving materials (including 1,500 tons of steel from Houston, thousands of tiles from Italy, mountains of bamboo from Medellín, Colombia) by boat to his private harbor, then on a narrow-gauge railroad that climbs the steep hillsides below the house. The project recalled the hardships of constructing the Panama Canal, 150 miles south, a century ago. “It was a crazy idea to put the house on top of the hill; the beach would have been a lot easier,” he concedes. But easier isn’t his way. “I have to be doing a lot of things at once or I go crazy.”

It’s why he plans to start a foundation that will be modeled, in part, on the MacArthur “genius” grant, but for African artists. And it’s why he takes dozens of photos a day, which fill books like his 2010 volume Catalogue Déraisonné. And it’s why he has plans to turn honey produced by Panamanian bees into a gourmet brand.

And it’s why he founded LimoLand, a clothing line for large men. (Pigozzi, who is a hefty six feet three inches, once complained to Tom Ford when he couldn’t find anything that fit him in his store. And the designer responded that he didn’t care about fat guys, or so Pigozzi says.) The New York Times’s Critical Shopper provided a perfect description of the person who might wear LimoLand: “It helps to be rich enough to be willing to explode conventional ideas about fit, style and color palette. It helps to be rich enough that failure doesn’t matter.” This describes Pigozzi to a tee, but are there enough other customers like him? He has one LimoLand store in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, where a photo of Jagger and L’Wren Scott on Pigozzi’s yacht greets visitors. He is talking with an Asian company about opening hundreds of additional locations. “We’re getting ready to invade the world,” he says.

If so, it will be an invasion by water. Pigozzi transformed an Italian fishing vessel into Amazon Express, a candy-colored pleasure palace. The ship’s captain, Mark Hancock, and his crew of more than a dozen, can position it anywhere in the world in advance of Pigozzi’s arrival; the boat has been his home in places as far-flung as Greenland and New Guinea.

It was from his yacht that Pigozzi first spied the land on Panama’s west coast that came to be his Eden. Altogether, he says, he made some 100 purchases to assemble his 13,546 acres.

Pigozzi’s world isn’t for the 99 percent, but it may become a bit more accessible. He is talking to a South African company about building a high-end ecolodge on the mainland portion of his estate. His goal isn’t to make money so much as to strengthen his claim to the property. The reality of owning a large parcel of land, he says, is that “people want to burn it, farm it, live on it. Unless you want to have barbed wire and machine guns, you have to be proactive; you have to have at least a little something going on.” In the meantime, he is building security outposts to fend off interlopers.

Pigozzi is also toying with the idea of renting out the island house (following the lead of other private-island owners like Sir Richard Branson and David Copperfield). “It’d be a great fat farm,” he says, “because you can’t run away to McDonald’s. And it’s perfect for a celebrity wedding. The paparazzi couldn’t get here.”

But it would be almost as hard for the guests to get there—Pigozzi’s private airstrip is too short for even the smallest jets, and it lacks lights for nighttime or inclement weather landings. There are also several helipads. The other way on and off the island is a small boat that makes the two-hour trip to Puerto Mutis—a minuscule fishing village linked by road to Panama City—three times a week. Who said heaven was easy to get to?

Another problem for potential renters: The house is a lot less fun without Pigozzi. The moment he left on a short jaunt to Los Angeles, this reporter, who was scheduled to depart the next morning, felt like someone had turned out the lights. Pigozzi’s presence is what animates the island; he glows as brightly as the house’s LEDs.

Jean Pigozzi: The Details

Pigozzi’s extensive contemporary African art collection can be viewed at caacart.com, which includes information about the artists. For more details on Pigozzi’s other projects, go to jeanpigozzi.com.