As an architect who specialises in designing swimming pools for some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, counting the likes of the Aman, Six Senses and Mandarin Oriental groups among his clients, not only does Jean-Michel Gathy have a dream job, his designs are the stuff dreams are made of.
With water’s reflective qualities implying a connection between the heavens and the earth, the natural element has been an indispensable element of paradise since time immemorial. The Romans, for whom water was a symbol of life, health and civilisation, even installed fountains in remote rural areas and in the middle of forests for the needs of travellers.
As the pioneer behind the private plunge pool, and the style of risqué outdoor bathrooms that have become de rigeur among those 5-star resorts offering overwater villas in the Maldives and French Polynesia, no one has been more influential than Jean-Michel Gathy and his consulting firm Denniston, in sculpting the ultimate image of paradise in the minds of today’s high-end travellers. Creating spaces as spectacular as the interiors of the Aman Canal Grande in Venice, the St Regis Lhasa’s 24-carat-gold-plated indoor swimming pool, and the rooftop infinity pool of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands complex, Gathy’s USP is designing the photogenic deal-clinchers that prove irresistible to potential hotel guests.
Here we catch up with the Belgian-born, Kuala Lumpur-based architect to discuss the nuances of designing for eastern and western audiences, working with LVMH’s Cheval Blanc hotel group and his own idea of luxury – at home and abroad.
Xerxes Cook: How does one come to specialise in designing swimming pools?
Jean-Michel Gathy: I think it’s a matter of designing what you like – you like something, you do it well. I like swimming, and I like swimming pools. I feel that swimming pools are, in a resort context, at the core of the life of the property. The pool is like the church in a village. T he pool very often provides the mood of a property. If you come up with an organic pool, blending into a landscape of plants and rocks, it will create a certain mood. If you have a pool that is more dramatic, it will give a certain edge. So I think the pool is really the soul of a resort and they have enormous power, marketing wise. If you send a picture of a resort, a picture with something dramatic to talk about, it will be of the pool. For example, I designed the pool on the roof of Marina Bay Sands in Singapore – and nobody talks about the casino.
XC: Marina Bay Sands is perhaps the world’s most sought-after selfie spot. What kind of brief were you given when you began work on that project?
JMG: Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed the whole complex, asked me to design the public areas, the lobby, restaurants, the rooms etc. But I wasn’t attracted to doing the rooms, so I said no to them, and to the restaurants. But I said yes to the lobby and to the roof. Moshe had the idea of that bold rooftop bridge that links the three towers, but to be honest, he had designed a really small pool on the roof. And when I say small - it was a little thing, so I came up with a pool idea. The first time we discussed it, Moshe wanted to turn the whole view from the roof towards the sea. And I said, 'no Moshe. That's a mistake.' The attraction of the location (of the rooftop and the casino) is obviously the Singapore skyline. So I designed the pool to reflect the city. Actually, I designed it a little bit bigger, but the operator decided to increase the amount of day beds and lounges so they shortened the pool by 30 metres. But yes, it was my idea for the pool, which I sketched by hand – it took me one minute to design it.
XC: That's an interesting insight into how you work. It seems that you are able to cherry pick which elements of a project that you wish to get involved with?
JMG: Yes, I belong to the lucky few who can choose. We have a lot of work, we get offers every single day – at least two hotels a day, in fact. I say no to 95 per cent, and yes to the ones we find really attractive. Often, we only choose to work on one or two elements, like the rooms or the swimming pool. I like working with other people and designers – though an architect should not work in collaboration, they design the building and those designs should be respected – but I think when you isolate certain components of a project, such as a specialty restaurant downstairs in the basement for example, it has nothing to do with the room, so you can have a lot of freedom.
XC: You’ve lived in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur for more than half of your life now, and you’ve designed for hotels across Europe, the Middle East, China and Southeast Asia. Do you take a different approach when designing for different regions?
JMG: You will see that, even in Buckingham Palace or Versailles, European interiors take the form of a series of rooms, with doors opening out to one another. As a Belgian, I was brought up with this tradition, with a classical Eu ropean education and values, an understanding of the need for high quality materials and craftsmanship . But having lived in Asia for the past 35 years, I have developed a feel for how people live here - their aesthetic sensibilities, how people appreciate and enjoy a space, and this has permeated my designs. A simple example is that in Asia we use screens. It’s an interruption to the room, but with a feeling of vistas, of layered spaces with one another. You can still have two rooms, but the use of screens gives a sense of luxury through size. Everything I do is about layering – from the interiors and the views to the outside spaces, the furniture and the gardens, where I might, for example, mix palm trees and hibiscus with the kind of straight-edged hedge that would not look out of place in an English garden.
XC: How did you come to work with the LVMH-owned Cheval Blanc hotel group?
JMG: Aqsa Rafiq, Danilo Capellini and I are the three musketeers of Aman hotels, having worked on the designs of their resorts across the world over the past 20 years. When LVMH ventured into hotels, (they attempted to buy the Aman Hotel Group in 2013), and with their own hotels, they have to maintain a certain level of course, which is why they approached me. The Randheli, the resort in the Maldives I designed for Cheval Blanc, has been an enormous success. Apart from the Maldives being a great destination, LVMH spared no effort in bringing in the best management team possible. To be honest, the resort is exceptional, but it is a specific product, with 45 first class rooms that are very generous, with total privacy, and an enormous sense of space. Yet it is elegant - not showy or loud - and understated. And that is, in our European culture, what 'first class' means.
XC: As someone who is immersed in the world of five-star hotels, and spends a great deal of time travelling to and from them, what is your personal definition of luxury?
JMG: I think luxury has several meanings. For me, in a hotel, luxury is purely comfort. The comfort of knowing that you can do what you want, that the shower works well, and the lighting is well organised. It's a space you can go to at the end of the day, throw your keys on the commode, go to the fridge and grab a beer, sit down and watch TV, then have a shower and crash out in bed. That is luxury – that peace of mind. In a hotel, there are many ways these elements work together, yet it all comes down to three things - space, time and comfort.