An Intangible Luxury
Lim Sio Hui speaks to renowned architect Jean-Michel Gathy and finds out that when it comes to the creation of the world’s most stunning luxury hotels, comfort comes first.
Rolls-Royce Motor Cars Regional Director Paul Harris talks about the importance of time.
“Is the Rolls-Royce about the headlights, or the seat you’re driving in?”
Architect Jean-Michel Gathy is musing about hotel design, or more specifically, about the secret behind his firm’s award-winning projects.
“It’s the whole thing,” the Belgian replies. “A hotel is like a Rolls-Royce – it has to be all-rounded and seamless.”
Based in Asia for most of his professional life, the 57-year-old is the brains behind Denniston, an architecture firm responsible for designing some of the world’s most renowned luxury hotels. Whether it’s his Aman-branded retreats in exotic destinations such as India’s Rajasthan National Park or LVMH Moet Hennessy - Louis Vuitton’s upcoming Cheval Blanc Randheli resort in the Maldives, he believes that the success of his hotels is derived from the way every element of the design is in harmony with the others.
“All our contracts state that we will do the architecture, interior, and landscape,” explains Gathy. “You will never feel that the conformation of the windows does not match the facade, or that the swimming pool is not easy to access from the bedroom. We seamlessly relate things.”
Looking at his stilted villas, strung discreetly along the coral atolls, lagoons and private beaches of One&Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives, or the magnificently perched monastic design of the St Regis Lhasa Resort, you begin to understand Gathy’s magic, which stems from a respect for the site. “If you’re on the lake, I’ll give you the view of the lake. If you’re on the mountain, I’ll face the sun, because it’s cold,” he shares. “The most fundamental point is to be appropriate to the site and make the guest comfortable.”
Gathy recently launched two Aman hotels – the Aman Canal Grande, a heritage-listed restored palazzo on Venice’s prime waterway, and Amanoi, a massive project spanning 40 hectares in the mountains close to the sea in Vinh Hy, Vietnam. While the two projects are on opposite ends of the style spectrum, there’s one signature trait that is easily recognisable – a carefully orchestrated balance in each space.
“I believe that being intentionally chaotic in a design is unpleasant.You see a geometry, an axis, a physical balance: like the Champs-Elysees, the Egyptian pyramids, or the Taj Mahal – my projects are like that.
“Often, when somebody says, ‘this is beautiful,’ you don’t know why – it just looks good,” proposes Gathy. “Actually, it’s because it’s balanced. When something is balanced, it is always more pleasant and peaceful.”
Gathy would know. After all, he has 50 years of experience in the study of travel and architecture. At the age of seven, he was already saving up his weekly allowance to indulge his passion for seeing the world, albeit through the study of maps.
He says, “I would study a country from an atlas all week – the names of the cities, the number
of people living in the cities, the highest mountains, the roads; the names of the harbours, rivers and gorges. Then on Friday, I would take the money I have saved, and buy ‘blind’ maps of the world, and test myself by filling in the blanks.”
Later, after his parents found out about his secret hobby, Gathy was tasked to organise family holidays. At just 10 years of age, he became the family’s navigator and tour guide for the first time. He studied road maps and organised visits to a cathedral, a castle and other heritage buildings, and recounted each location’s history to his family. “That’s what gave me the love of architecture and travelling,” recalls Gathy. Powered by Gathy’s love for his job, it is no wonder that Denniston is a world leader in hotel design today.
“We win every famous commission, not because we’re smarter or better,” he shares. “Basically, I have been accumulating knowledge since I was seven years old. It has been my life.”
03 01 The living room of a villa at the Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives.
05 02 & 03 There is a sense of serenity at the St Regis Lhasa Resor t, built high in the mountains of Tibet. 04 Jean-Michel Gathy says his love for travelling and architecture has been a life-long affair. 05 Enjoy a super-exclusive getaway at One&Only Reethi Rah in the Maldives.