Minnesota architect Dean Dovolis got the inspiration for his firm's first overseas development project when he witnessed a wedding one night at his hotel in the small East African nation of Djibouti.
"I saw the dress and the dancing and the culture," Dovolis said.
That night Dovolis began to sketch a redesign of the country's international airport made to resemble a traditional necklace and a reimagined ministry building that had cascading rooflines meant to invoke the look of arm bracelets. For another design, Dovolis traced his hand for the footprint of a large residential development with villas and sea canals that would stretch out to the ocean.
Dovolis and the Minneapolis-based DJR Architecture firm that he leads has begun to design an elaborate series of development projects in collaboration with the government of the Republic of Djibouti that, when completed, could amount to more than $1 billion in private and public investment.
The projects include a new international airport with passenger terminal and air cargo facilities, the construction of a consolidated government ministry building, the buildout of indoor hydroponic agriculture facilities and the creation of a massive residential and hospitality development on an artificial island similar to the Palm Islands in Dubai.
The unlikely joint venture is a large departure from DJR's portfolio of Twin Cities development projects, which have ranged from office buildings and beer taprooms to bank branches and a wide assortment of apartment developments.
"This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I had no idea was going to show up," Dovolis said.
DJR was founded in 1985 and has its roots in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis where the firm worked early on with local nonprofits to create affordable housing and stimulate community development. The firm has grown to 35 architects who are led by Dovolis and firm principals Scott Nelson, Scott England and Sheldon Berg.
DJR became involved with the Djibouti projects when Dovolis and entrepreneur Diraneh Robleh met through a contact in Minnesota's East African community. Robleh — who grew up in Djibouti and now operates his own real estate firm, Universal Realty USA in the Twin Cities — had the desire to apply his real estate expertise in his homeland.
Through personal connections, Robleh was asked by Djibouti officials for assistance in helping to modernize developments in the country including renovation of the existing Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport and planning for a future international passenger and cargo terminal airport, as well as helping to create urban residential planning for the city and its burgeoning middle and upper class, among other goals.
"Right now, Africa doesn't need help, it needs partners," Robleh said.
Dovolis said the projects intrigued him, and he decided to visit Djibouti in September with Robleh to meet with government officials and discuss preliminary designs.
"I realized they were very appreciative of the ideas we were trying to do," Dovolis said.
The projects, which are being developed by Robleh's newly formed Universal Construction Firm and designed by DJR, are part of a long-term strategy Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh has proposed to help position the country as a regional hub for trade and commerce by the year 2035. The strategy includes making improvements to infrastructure such as the airport.
The partnership came at a good time for the country, especially after the recent opening of the Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ), the largest of its kind in Africa, said Amareh Ali Said, Djibouti's commissioner of planning and former minister of budget, in a translated interview with the Star Tribune.
"It came at the right time because of Djibouti's economic development rise," he said.
He said that Djibouti officials were also pleasantly surprised about the incorporation of Djibouti culture in the DJR designs and were happy about the exchange of knowledge that happened between the American team and Djibouti officials. Much of the actual construction labor for the projects will be done by Djibouti workers, which was an important aspect of the partnership, he said.
Djibouti is a small but strategically located country bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea with access to the Gulf of Aden and beyond that the Indian Ocean. The country serves as a gateway to the Horn of Africa and the wider region of East Africa. But with an area around 8,900 square miles, about the size of New Jersey, the country has limited natural resources.
The country also has limited rainfall; Djibouti City, the capital of Djibouti, is recognized as one of the driest cities in the world. The heat and dryness has limited Djibouti's agricultural potential and made it highly dependent on imports.
Last month, Robleh, Dovolis and a team of designers and investors toured parts of the country and met with Djibouti officials including the heads of the budget, housing, transport and agriculture ministries. President Guelleh signed off on the project proposals.
One of the first phases of the projects has been dubbed the Sea Flower, which when fully built out would likely cost close to $1 billion, planners have projected. The Sea Flower would be an artificial island in the shape of a hand constructed right off the northeastern tip of the capital city. The site would be developed in phases with plans for an outdoor market, hospitality venues and an array of villas and condos jutting out on the "fingers" with sea canals in between to allow small boats to dock.
The president has already signed off on the sale of the nearly 200 acres of space that would become the Sea Flower for an undisclosed price that is in the millions of U.S. dollars. A ribbon cutting is scheduled for mid-February for the beginning of the Sea Flower development, which would need to take stone and volcanic earth from inland to form the island. The Sea Flower will likely take five to seven years to develop.
One of the main initial private investors in the Sea Flower project is Minnesota-based Cohesion Group, led by investor Christopher Bock. Bock said he has long dreamed to develop a casino and hotel, and he found the Sea Flower project to be a rare opportunity to build one in a still-underdeveloped area.
"It is something that wasn't on the radar," Bock said, about the potential growth of the tourism industry of Djibouti.
Another large project that Universal and DJR are working on is the redevelopment of the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, which has a single terminal building and is in need of major updates to make it acceptable for an influx of international tourists. Dovolis recounted how the limited infrastructure leaves flight passengers exposed to the elements as they try to board their planes.
The old airport is being repurposed for mostly military use, so the plan is to build a new $450 million airport with curved sun-shading screens for the passenger terminal inspired by the Djibouti wedding necklaces. Another design element would be the national emblem of Djibouti incorporated into the steel frames of the building.
The consolidated ministry building would allow the ministries and departments that make up the federal government in Djibouti to be in one main structure in the capital city. The building's gradually declining roofs and curved shape was inspired by traditional arm bracelets, Dovolis said. The building is envisioned to be clad with a high-tech fabric that provides solar shading while also generating energy.
In addition, officials have asked DJR to design a second smaller administrative building for the district of Balbala, where the government hopes to showcase sustainable design strategies including passive and active solar design, evaporative cooling and a rainwater capture system.
The final piece of the DJR and Universal Construction-led series of projects is an agriculture village that would harness indoor hydroponic growing technology to produce lettuce, tomatoes and other crops. The campus is expected to grow to about 1 million square feet but will first begin with about 50,000 square feet to be built near the recently completed Ambouli Friendship Dam outside of the capital city, which holds a reservoir of surface water and charges a large groundwater aquifer.
Because of its arid conditions, Djibouti is mostly dependent on imports for food. The agricultural village is seen as a way to make the country more self-sufficient, Robleh said. The project is being led by entrepreneur Mark Erjavec of agricultural investment fund Agro Fund One.
"We are literally trying to farm in a place where farming hasn't been done," Erjavec said.
Throughout the designs that DJR has put forth for Djibouti, the firm has tried to allow the country's culture to shine as well as use sustainable design methods to create buildings that function better in the extremely hot and dry climate. For example, across all of the projects, building rooflines are shaped to collect water for storage in underground cisterns, said Ahti Westphal, a project manager at DJR.
"It's almost like the perfect location in the world to test sustainable design because you have to," he said.