Home Is Where The Hotel Is
If you’ve stayed in any of the world’s best hotels on your travels, chances are Jean-Michel Gathy has had something to do with them. The Belgian- born, Malaysia-based architect has a host of luxury hotel projects under his belt, including multiple Aman Resorts and Prince William and Kate Middleton’s recent crash pad, Cheval Blanc in the Maldives. LOFT caught up with him over a chamomile tea as he took a break from his next projects which includes Park Hyatt, Sanya, which has recently been completed, and Mandarin Oriental, Bali.
Do you think you were always destined to be an architect?
I am by nature an entrepreneur. I’ve always liked to build things. I’m a dreamer too, but I like to make my dreams happen. I’ve also always been someone who worships art, the outdoors, beauty – I love aesthetic and design. I like things Cheval Blanc Randheli to have a frame, which is what separates me from an artist. So when you want a frame, have a love of art and beauty and the desire to build I guess you end up in this profession. Whether I was born to do it, I cannot say for sure.
Did you always intend to specialise in architecture for travel or did it happen by accident?
I’ve always loved travelling, ever since I was a child. When you put travelling together with my love of beauty and building things, you end up with hotels. It was not coincidental – I’ve never dreamed of building an office in the middle of a city – that just doesn’t turn me on. It’s not sexy.
What are the components of luxury that you have to consider in your hotel design?
The ultimate purpose is to make sure you design a place where people will be comfortable and want to come back to. Return guests are the essence of a first-class hotel. If you manage that, then you’re successful. So this is the ultimate target when we design – whether we achieve that via construction materials, technology, space, volume, privacy – we have to make it as appealing as possible to the customer.
Your first resort was Aman Resorts’ Amanwana on the Indonesian island of Moyo. Would you change anything about that design now?
It wasn’t the first resort I designed, but it was the first that actually got built. I guess there are new technologies now that weren’t part of the world when we were designing back then. But fundamentally the vision of a remote ‘camping site’ remains – I’ve been back a lot and still like it. In fact, I am still designing things with similarities. Some of my clients specifically request it.
Do you think luxury design is becoming homogenised?
Before a few years ago there were very few exclusive resorts. Aman was really the first – although some may claim otherwise.There may have been luxury stand- alone hotels before but Aman was the first one to say they wanted super exclusivity but also to be a chain. I will avoid the word ‘copy’ but let’s say many have been inspired by Aman. As a result, I guess you may find that resorts start to look more and more alike.We have started to readdress this as you can see in hotels like Cheval Blanc. It has a different touch – but all the same elements.You can probably see it’s the same person behind the design but it doesn’t look like an Aman at all.
Is it true that you invented the private plunge pool?
No. Nobody can say they invented it, but when Aman started we glorified the idea of upgrading a plunge pool into a small swimming pool.They keep getting bigger and bigger now too – we have pushed the envelope. I am uncomfortable with saying I invented anything – I create ideas, re-question materials for certain functions, but I didn’t invent these things.
You were behind the infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands. How did you come up with such an idea and did people think you were being overly ambitious?
Yes I did. The Marina building was designed by Moshe Safdie. He put the ‘boat’ on top but had no idea what else to put up there. So I designed the roof, the swimming pool and the restaurants. Singapore uses the building as an iconic statement all over but it’s always the pool that they show.
You designed nine hotels across the world in a single year last year – which has been the biggest challenge?
Well, nine hotels that we designed opened last year – so that’s a bit different to designing nine hotels in a year – designing takes a long time! But still, I’ve never heard of another company who’s had so much activity in so little time.We had hotels opening everywhere from Mexico to Shanghai, Switzerland to Vietnam. Imagine how much work this is – different currencies, different time zones, different languages. The nine hotels themselves had about 25 restaurants alone. When someone opens one restaurant, and gets all excited, I’m like, so what? I opened 25 last week! We will soon open the Park Hyatt in Sanya, but with this comes an Andaz Hotel, an Andaz Village, a complete spa village, 65 homes, three private residences – yet when you tell people, it just sounds like a hotel.There are 17 restaurants in the project!
How do you relax, seeing as most of your working days revolve around travel…
I still travel to relax. I go to New Zealand, or Chile or on safari. I love it. I also love ski holidays and beach holidays with my family. I go on safari every year with my wife in Botswana, Kenya, Zambia – I’ve been to 49 different camps! Any animal life I just love. I also relax with art. That’s an absolute passion of mine. I don’t really collect for value, I just collect what I like. I have very eclectic tastes – everything from 16th century paintings to sculptures from Burma. I like old books, maps, photographs, even jewellery – not to wear, just because it’s so beautiful. Lotus Arts de Vivre is one of my favourites.
When you go to other hotels designed by your competitors are you able to relax, or can you not help but pick faults?
I relax a hundred times better in hotels I haven’t designed. I criticise everything when it’s my own. My wife refuses to go to my hotels – she hates it. People talk to me, ask to go for lunch, tell me what they like, what they hate – I’m never free! I like it when I go somewhere else, I book under my wife’s name so that nobody is expecting me and I really enoy it.
What are your favourite hotels in the world?
The Huka Lodge in New Zealand. I love safari lodges too. Places like Mombo in Botswana, or the Zarafa Camp are both beautifully designed. I also love Belmond Hotel Monasterio in Cusco, Peru.
What project are you most proud of?
I will never tell you! You never answer that question. They are all my kids, I love them all.
Is something still on your wish list architecture wise?
I love extreme mountains or extreme beaches – places with a strong identity.Whether they are in the deserts of Oman or in the mountains of Peru with the Incas, the dream for me is always an inspiring project with identity.