By Lauren Jade Hill
As the principle designer of leading architectural firm Denniston, Jean-Michel Gathy is one of the world’s most revered architects of luxury hotels and resorts. With Aman Resorts, Cheval Blanc and One&Only hotels within its extensive portfolio, Denniston is behind a staggering array of extraordinary properties. We speak to Jean-Michel Gathy about the secret behind successful architectural design and his aspirations for the future.
How would you describe your style of architecture?
I’m someone who designs from the heart so my style is one that’s charismatic. It’s not an ego trip like the architects who design for themselves. I design elements which are a composition of dramatic effect; I create large and dramatic space, in opposition to intimate areas, so the space is always dynamic.
Secondly, I design for the sensation you get out of it. I want every space in the hotel to be comfortable and for my clients to come back and say, I like this space. Sometimes they don’t know why they like it, but if they walk in and feel good, I know I’ve succeeded.
What elements are integral to the architectural success of your projects?
Geometry is fundamental in the composition of architecture because the human mind is programmed to like it. Our minds like it when something is balanced, with logic between the proportions and elements; geometry should guide the design, and then that should be backed up by proper lighting. Lighting emphasizes geometry because it creates shadows. It’s the same with scenery, which looks best at sunset because of the long shadows the sun casts. I design in such a way that the lighting dances with the architecture.
How does the setting affect the design?
The first thing I do when I design a resort is go to see the site, as this is what inspires me the most. It’s the emotions, perception and chemistry of the site that gives me an idea of what angle I can emphasize or which direction to look in for the best views or privacy. The site guides the design and essentially tells me everything I need to know.
What defines a first class property?
Ultimately, a first class property is one with comfort, but comfort is a language that applies to each individual; everybody has a different definition. If you take Bentley as an example though, you’ll see that despite the fact it isn’t the fastest car in the world, it is fast, while it isn’t the biggest car in the world, it is big, and even though it isn’t the most understated car in the world, it is understated compared to something like a Lamborghini, so when you ask someone what their ultimate car would be in terms of comfort, many people would say a Bentley. The art of creating a first class resort is in creating a product like a Bentley that everyone will like and feel comfortable in. It has to be the best summary of comfort, privacy, acoustics, technology and service, and a place of understated elegance that performs in every way.
Are there any other architects or designers you’ve been particularly inspired by?
I would say I’ve been most inspired by the architect from Sri Lanka, Geoffrey Bawa. He made known what we call tropical architecture; he created the style of architecture you see at Aman Resorts. I like that design philosophy, and the person who allowed me to it myself is Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman and an absolute fan of Geoffrey Bawa’s work. Adrian was my mentor professionally, but philosophically I was inspired by Geoffrey Bawa.
What are you working on now?
We’re working on around 30 hotels at the moment. We are doing a Mandarin Oriental hotel in Bali, a new Aman property and Only&Only Resorts in Dubai and China, as well as Chiva-Som in Indonesia and Four Seasons in Tokyo and Bangkok. And there are many more that we can’t talk about yet.
What future aspirations do you have?
I’d love to do a hotel in Antarctica. There’s an ice hotel in Sweden, but that’s only open four months a year, so I want to do one that remains as ice all the time.