His name may not be immediately familiar to some, but his client list reads like a who’s who of the hospitality industry. Architect Jean-Michel Gathy is the man behind some of the world’s most iconic resort designs, such as the One&Only Reethi Rah and the Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives; The St Regis Lhasa Resort in Tibet; The Setai in Miami Beach, Florida; and the Aman Venice in Italy.
Gathy boasts three decades of experience in high-end hotel design that’s all-inclusive: exteriors, interiors and landscaping. “We are the spoilt kids of the hotel industry,” he says. “Whenever a first-class hotel wants to open somewhere, they always contact us. We get two or three offers a day. We have done so many… The more we live within that context, the more we appreciate the lifestyle, the more we understand it and the more we get a kick out of it.”
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Always one step ahead of the competition, the principal designer of Malaysia-based Denniston International Architects & Planners has revolutionised the hospitality sector with his inspired designs, which showcase a profusion of swimming pools and water features, sustainability and local cultural elements. Denniston Architects is currently working on more than 40 projects globally, including those for Jumeirah in Bali, Aman in New York and Rio de Janeiro, and a hotly anticipated green project with Leonardo DiCaprio in Belize. Although the firm didn’t handle any hotel work last year, it expects to launch about 15 hotels over the next three years.
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What makes good hotel architecture great?
Jean-Michel Gathy (JMG) An architect can be very good, but if the interior designer doesn’t fit the same theme, it will look strange. We were one of the very first to start the trend of doing architecture, interiors and landscape because we believe that for the hospitality industry, this seamless design process best serves the purpose of a hotel. So when you do the architecture, interiors and landscape, you address all these components in a synergetic way. You don’t say, ‘I’m stopping here. We’ll see later about somebody else who’s going to do that.’
Tell us about your design philosophy.
JMG You have two types of architects. First, you have technical architects who like construction details, codes, regulations and technical aspects—that’s the people who design high-rise buildings in town. And then you have design architects, who design the product because they like the creative part of it—and I’m one of these guys. Creativity is emotion. I want to design something that gives me the chance for creativity and for articulating architecture, interiors, landscape—I want this all to dance together. I want holistic creativity.
Could you describe your creative process?
JMG When I design a hotel, I first design the guest room. I design from the inside out. I determine the unit and then multiply it. Then I have to work out vertical circulations, the public areas, the back of house. When everything is finished, I make the facade look good. So many architects who only design the building and not the interiors design a beautiful facade, but they don’t know how it works inside. So when you do architecture, interiors and landscape, you actually solve everything from the inside first. And when everything works from the inside, then you do the decoration of the exterior.
Dramatic water features have become a defining feature of your work. Why do these create such a lasting impression?
JMG Water at night is paramount in a resort because you have lost the effect of the day—the view. You close the curtains and live in your room, so what scenery can I give you? The best way to create scenery is by using water. First, it’s cheap, and second, it creates reflective surfaces, which means it increases space and creates drama. Then you can use it for noise. When you’re on a terrace with people dining next to you, all you need is a fountain to cut the conversation so you have privacy. Water creates privacy, drama and decor—and doubles the space.
What are the key traits of a well-designed hotel room?
JMG If I have to qualify a good hotel, I would only use one word: comfort. If it’s not comfortable, it’s not a good hotel. It can be gorgeous but if it’s not comfortable, it’s not well-designed. Privacy is good, but when I’m in my bed, I want to sleep properly. I like to stay in hotels where I feel good. I want comfort. When you design a hotel, it’s a home away from home. You want to feel comfortable. But you never question why it’s nice. You like the place, but you don’t know why. Actually it’s because the architect addressed all the components that fulfil your feelings and sensations. Noise, light control, spacing—everything is important.
What keeps you inspired?
JMG I’m the one who designs. I actually see or design every project—not the construction details of course, as I’m not the one who does the window details—but I design every plan of every hotel. I make all the strategic decisions, I do the entire concept design, I choose the colour scheme, I review the production. Every day, I comment on drawings and redesign things. I work 18 hours a day. I’m an absolute maniac—I never stop. I love what I do.