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Chedi Muscat, spa relaxation room

Choreography of architecture, saving the planet with Leo DiCaprio, and the romantic

Laura Elliott speaks to Jean-Michel Gathy Principal Designer at Denniston

Great design is not an addition of elements but rather a juxtaposition of elements.

Laura Elliott speaks to Jean-Michel Gathy Principal Designer at Denniston

I spend a good deal of my recreational time on the water. In my sailboat I sense all the different personalities of the Pacific, her seasons and her mysteries. So when the world-renown designer of luxury hotels and master of water-feature design, Jean-Michael Gathy, had an opportunity to speak with me we began our conversation over our mutual love of water.

Jean Michel Gathy
Jean Michel Gathy

I wondered if water had been a lifestyle for him, like it is for me, and what inspired his water features. He laughed saying this was a good question and perhaps best talked about over a glass of whiskey. When I reminded him sailors drink rum, he heartily laughed and had this to say.

“I am fascinated by water,” he said. “Why am I fascinated by water? It is the same for the sailor. Why do you enjoy the sea? For me, water gives me a feeling of space, the feeling of freedom, the feeling of flowing. On top of the water for you, you have the wind, you have that feeling of infinite lines or specific island approach or big rock approach. It is the same for me.”

He went on to say that he enjoys including water in luxury resort design because it emphasises the control of space. During the day people are off doing what they love to do at the beach, on the water, in the mountains or wherever. But at night, the water sparkles. At night at the resort all is dark and the water is reflective. It is at once dramatic and soothing, inspiring and tranquil. The water can illuminate like a chandelier, something grand to liven up the darkness, giving a beautiful focal point that eases body, mind and spirit.

At once a lively and yet totally calming component, he pointed out there is an absolute fascination when a person sits at a restaurant, bar or lounge and views a fountain or water feature. “Have you ever witnessed yourself sitting beside a fountain doing nothing? Now, would you sit in the garden doing nothing for three hours? No. You would last twenty minutes. But sit in front of a fireplace or fountain, and you can do nothing for three hours.”

Aman New York spa pool
Aman New York spa pool

Symmetry provides one of the fundamental elements of relaxation, he says adding that this is a scientific fact. People have a fundamental psychological need to create balance in their mind. That’s why when people see something symmetrical like Borobudur and the Taj Mahal they are instantly relaxed and calm. Our eyes and mind love symmetry.

“The word for comfort is balance,” he said. I had read that he likened a beautiful hotel to a dance. So I asked him which of his projects is his most memorable dance. After lamenting that answering is like asking him to pick a favourite child, he said, “An architect is a choreographer.”
Gathy believes it doesn’t matter if you design a brick, or a tree or fabric––what counts is when they have to dance together. He said that he tries to design a seamless product similar to a ballet’s holistic performance, and not defined by any one specific piece.

Great design is not an addition of elements but rather a juxtaposition of elements.

Chedi Muscat Pool side

Gathy said that one example where this seamless dance has been perfected is the Chedi Muscat, Oman. Designed in 2000, the architecture, interior and landscape design work together smoothly. The Cheval Blanc, Randheli, Maldives; The Setai, Miami Beach; and the Amanyara in Turks and Caicos he said are other wonderful examples of this well-balanced holistic approach.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the Amanyara faired in the aftermath of Irma and Maria––two punishing Cat 5 hurricanes that furiously pounded the Caribbean last September, just two weeks apart. He laughed a bit and thanked me for asking, saying he had some bragging rights.

“Unbelievable, we had virtually no damage. Of course we had landscape damage all the trees were uprooted, etc. but architecturally we only had two 18-foot high doors in the bar that sustained a bit of damage and a few pagodas around the pool were a bit broken. But we didn’t even have a window blown out,” he said.

As long as we were talking Caribbean, I asked about his much-anticipated project with Leonardo DiCaprio in Belize. I wanted to know the most exciting aspect of the green project design there and what one thing he really looked forward to developing.

Cheval Blanc Randheli villa interior
Cheval Blanc Randheli villa interior

He said the project is significant and why he admires Leonardo DiCaprio so much, explaining that while people talk about all kinds of problems we face like wars and North Korea, the most fundamental of all problems today is the environment. He said it’s like a cancer that keeps growing and growing and you don’t realise it, but one day it will be too late.

DiCaprio is a good ambassador of the cause, he said, because of his fame and because he is articulate, extremely intelligent and because of his impressive analysis. He looks at things very pragmatically––brilliant, actually.

“But fundamentally, the cause needs everyone. Because it’s everybody doing small things that will save the planet, not a few people doing big things.”

I became intrigued by the idea of the small things. Gathy replied by giving the example of when we use the small button on the toilet instead of the big button. The large button uses 10 litres of water and the small button only uses 4 litres. Every time we can save 6 litres multiplied by twenty-million people, we save 120 million litres of water.

Also, the treatment of water is a player. Every time a guest takes a shower, it is operation water now, instead of wasted. All the water is reused for the landscape. Not used for your next shower, he said, but don’t worry he assured me that will happen, it is only a matter of time.

“It is the small creek which makes big rivers. We must be responsible, all of us, for the future of our planet. We must make an effort in our own world––teaching our children making small impacts ourselves, every day. You can say whatever you want but in 20 or 30 or 50 years we will have big problems. Big. And it is irreversible. You can’t go back.”

He impassionately spoke, warning that the other concerns in the world are battles, but saving the environment is the war. He implored that we cannot afford to lose this war. We have to win.

At the resort in Belize Gathy and DiCaprio are going to battle by incorporating all technology that is available today to this effect. They are hoping to make the resort entirely self-sufficient in terms of energy. Examples include recycling all the waste, using all necessary materials to absorb the heat of the sun to produce electricity like solar roof tiles, and building with recycled timber.

Inspired by his passion for green design, I rounded out our time together by asking if he could share his passionate picks for the most romantic destinations in the world. Some of his choices surprised.

Cheval Blanc Randheli Island Villa

“Actually I am a fan of the American Northeast––Western Massachusetts, and rural Vermont. I am an absolute fan of safaris in Africa. Africa is magic. It isn’t romance, it is magic. Bhutan, in the Himalayas I would say is one of the most romantic places because it is really the life there that enchants.”

Other picks included Venice, Petit Martinique, St. Vincent, Trinidad & Tobago, New Zealand’s South Island and Tuscany.

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