Dream Ma­chine

He has de­signed deca­dent ho­tels on all four cor­ners of the globe. Melissa Twigg meets Jean-michel Gathy, the vi­sion­ary ar­chi­tect be­hind your next hol­i­day head­quar­ters

Hong Kong Tatler - - Life -

The first time i try to speak to Jean-michel Gathy, he’s on a plane at Sin­ga­pore’s Changi Air­port and I can hear the dis­tressed flight at­ten­dants in the back­ground beg­ging him to turn off his phone. The next day, he’s sup­posed to call me from Geneva, but the high-speed train he’s on has no sig­nal. Four days later, he emails me from Gabon in West Africa, where he’s about to em­bark on a 20-hour jour­ney back to his home on the out­skirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Ap­par­ently this is an av­er­age week for Asia’s top ho­tel de­signer. Gathy’s im­pres­sively packed travel sched­ule is a mark of his in­cred­i­ble suc­cess—he is cur­rently de­sign­ing 35 ho­tels around the globe and turns down new com­mis­sions on a daily ba­sis. Sleep is not high on his agenda. The em­i­nent Bel­gian ar­chi­tect is famed for cap­tur­ing the lo­ca­tion of his ho­tels through the ma­te­ri­als he uses and the dec­o­ra­tive ref­er­ences he in­cludes, which means he needs to visit ev­ery site in or­der to get a feel for the sur­round­ing area.

“Luck­ily I’m tal­ented at un­der­stand­ing the essence of a place, so I don’t need as much time on the ground as other de­sign­ers would,” he says in his smooth French ac­cent. “I have been cre­at­ing ho­tels for more than 30 years and my mind is au­to­mat­i­cally at­tuned

to cer­tain mes­sages, from the be­hav­iour of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion and the food they eat to the dom­i­nant colours and the gen­eral ar­chi­tec­tural style of a place. It’s like if you hear bag­pipes, you im­me­di­ately think of Scot­land—it’s a re­flex. Well, I have that re­flex for every­where I go. I’m sen­si­tive to so­cial mes­sages and phys­i­cal mes­sages, and I’ve honed this skill with 45 years of trav­el­ling.”

Since the 1993 open­ing of his first ho­tel, Aman­vana in In­done­sia, Gathy has been highly sought af­ter by the world’s top-tier hos­pi­tal­ity brands; he now counts Aman Re­sorts, Shangri-la Ho­tels and Re­sorts, the Man­darin Oriental Ho­tel Group and Park Hy­att Ho­tels among his many clients. His ar­chi­tec­tural firm, Den­nis­ton, is based in Kuala Lumpur; it em­ploys 150 of the bright­est and best de­sign­ers in the world. “The united knowl­edge of my staff is in­cred­i­ble,” he says. “Ev­ery­one has a skill at some­thing—one is good for ren­o­va­tions, one for tech­ni­cal de­tails, one for interiors.”

His team may be tal­ented, but Gathy is savvy enough to know that when ho­tels hire Den­nis­ton, they want the star of the show on-site. “Of course, I’ll al­ways go to ev­ery lo­ca­tion—it’s one of my favourite parts of the en­tire process,” he says. “I’m like a kid in a candy store when I walk around the site. I get up at dawn and an­a­lyse the light and the winds, and how they change through­out the day. I look at the view, I look at the veg­e­ta­tion—ev­ery­thing. I’m ex­tremely thor­ough in my in­ves­ti­ga­tion and this is good, be­cause by the sec­ond day, I al­ready know what the ho­tel will look like.”

Part of Gathy’s suc­cess is due to his pro­found un­der­stand­ing of the lux­ury mar­ket—he knows ex­actly what the in­ter­na­tional elite are look­ing to get out of their hol­i­days. “Peo­ple want charm, peo­ple want soul. It’s about more than just lux­ury. It’s about feel­ing a con­nec­tion with a place—which is why we’re more than just ar­chi­tects. We’re life­style prod­uct de­sign­ers. De­sign is about be­ing brave and break­ing rules. I know what peo­ple like and I know what peo­ple like to talk about. I al­ways say that it’s more im­por­tant to please the heart than the eye.”

Gathy’s heart-pleas­ing de­signs en­sure his ho­tels have an un­usu­ally high num­ber of re­peat visi­tors. “It’s true that once peo­ple stay in one of my ho­tels, they usu­ally want to come back. I know I do,” he adds with a laugh. And who could re­sist some of his more ro­man­tic con­cepts? Af­ter all, he’s the man who in­vented bask­ing nets—dou­ble-per­son ham­mocks that hang over the trop­i­cal seas in ho­tels such as the One&only Reethi Rah in the Mal­dives. He’s also a great be­liever in “naughty bath­rooms” and ev­ery year dreams up big­ger, bet­ter bath­rooms with vast free-stand­ing tubs, out­door show­ers and in­door steam rooms. His bath­rooms at the Che­val Blanc Rand­heli in the Mal­dives are around 700sqft—big­ger than most apart­ments in his child­hood home of Brussels. How­ever, Gathy’s most fa­mous (and most im­i­tated) de­sign fea­ture must be his show­stop­ping pools. He was one of the pi­o­neers of pri­vate plunge pools and the re­flec­tive pools at his Aman prop­er­ties have be­come some of the ho­tel group’s most iconic de­signs. Some of his creations are al­most too beau­ti­ful to swim in—the pool in St Regis Lhasa in Ti­bet is lined in glazed gold plate and shim­mers in the light; the Aman­yara pool in Turks and Caicos is

“PEO­PLE WANT CHARM, PEO­PLE WANT SOUL. IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN JUST LUX­URY. IT’S ABOUT FEEL­ING A CON­NEC­TION WITH A PLACE”

made from black vol­canic rock; The Se­tai in Miami Beach has three par­al­lel 30-me­tre lakes; and ev­ery­body knows Sin­ga­pore’s In­sta­gram favourite—the rooftop pool of the Ma­rina Bay Sands.

“I’m ob­sessed with wa­ter,” he says. “The rea­son I like wa­ter in ho­tel de­signs is that it’s so peace­ful and re­lax­ing. Think how you feel when you’re by a lake or river—calmer, right? Well, that’s why I try to in­cor­po­rate wa­ter into all my de­signs. It soothes the mind. For me, a ho­tel with­out wa­ter is bor­ing. Of course, I’m talk­ing about re­sort ho­tels—but if I can put wa­ter in a busi­ness ho­tel, I do. It’s the most pow­er­ful el­e­ment in a ho­tel.”

Gathy moved from Bel­gium to Hong Kong in 1982 and then to Malaysia in 1992, where he now lives with his wife and son in a leafy sub­urb nine kilo­me­tres from the cen­tre of Kuala Lumpur. Sur­pris­ingly, he didn’t de­sign the 12,000sqft house he lives in. “I fell in love with the space and the gar­den, and of course I added an infinity pool—but I ended up do­ing so many ren­o­va­tions my wife said it would have been eas­ier to start from scratch,” he says with a chuckle.

The three decades Gathy has spent in Asia are re­flected in many of his ho­tel de­signs. He was one of the first mod­ern de­sign­ers to use Bud­dha sculp­tures as dec­o­ra­tion, and he has in­cor­po­rated Ba­li­nese, Chi­nese, Viet­namese and Ja­panese ar­chi­tec­ture and de­sign con­cepts into most of his in­ter­na­tional ho­tels. “From Asia, I learned peace­ful­ness. In the room, peo­ple want to re­lax, so I make it as sooth­ing as pos­si­ble. You want to step into the ho­tel and feel the pres­sures of your life fall away.”

So where does the man be­hind the most glam­orous ho­tels on earth go on hol­i­day? “I like to travel to the ho­tels I have de­signed— I’m not say­ing they’re al­ways su­pe­rior, but if I want to go to the Mal­dives, I have de­signed the two best ho­tels there, so where else should I stay? Of my ho­tels, I par­tic­u­larly love the Aman in Venice. But my great­est plea­sure is go­ing on sa­fari in Africa. Botswana is the best coun­try in the world, and I go there or to Zam­bia or South Africa at least once a year— I must have been to about 50 camps in to­tal. There’s noth­ing on earth like be­ing out in the wilder­ness, sur­rounded by wildlife.”

Gathy is cur­rently work­ing in Africa for the first time, de­sign­ing three Aman Re­sorts in Gabon. He is also about to launch two new Aman Re­sorts in Rio de Janeiro and Viet­nam; a One&only Ho­tel and a Park Hy­att in Sanya; a new Man­darin Oriental in Bali; and re­vamps of the Metropol in Moscow and the Four Sea­sons in Bangkok.

“Yes, I’m very busy—but it’s a beau­ti­ful process,” he says. “Making a beau­ti­ful ho­tel is about or­ches­trat­ing a dance be­tween the land­scape, the ar­chi­tec­ture and the interiors. There’s this won­der­ful chem­istry when it fi­nally works.”

watch this space Clock­wise from far left: The lobby of the Park Hy­att Sanya; Jean-michel Gathy; a bath­room at Che­val Blanc Rand­heli in the Mal­dives; the break­fast room of the Aman Venice

the net set Gathy de­signed the bask­ing nets at the One&only Reethi Rah in the Mal­dives

golden touch From left: The pool at the St Regis Lhasa in Ti­bet is lined in glazed gold plate; a bed­room at the Four Sea­sons in Bangkok

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