Splendor In Escape: The Designs Of Jean-Michel Gathy

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor / Jul 2 2018 / 18:02 PM

Iconic architect Jean-Michel Gathy has designed some of the world’s most luxurious hotel brands, from Aman and Mandarin Oriental to Cheval Blanc Randheli. Here he reflects of the philosophy of luxury today and the Asian references evoked in his designs

Splendor In Escape: The Designs Of Jean-Michel Gathy
Courtesy of Jean Michel-Gathy
One & Only Reethi Rah, Maldives

Belgian architect Jean-Michel Gathy has often described himself as the “spoiled kid of the hotel industry.” Spoiled in the sense that he has gotten to design some of the world’s finest structures – super luxury hotels where guests go to escape and relish in the fine life. These are places where visitors get a brief taste of paradisiacal living, and they are located in marvellous, otherworldly locations such as the Maldives, Venice, Vietnam, and Malaysia, and biggest cities like New York. “I think that a hotel is a home away from home – whether you are on business or on a family location, a honeymoon or away with your wife on holiday – it needs to be a home away from home,” says the architect. “Therefore you must feel a feeling of the place where you are. Every time you live somewhere you imprint that place where you live with the characteristics or at least the vibrations of where you are and it shouldn’t be different for a hotel.”

Jean Michel-Gathy

Jean Michel-Gathy

Gathy’s hotels have often been noted for their particular Asian qualities – lots of water features, architectural layering, and big meditative spaces. “The feeling in my hotels is intangible – you don’t know what it is that makes them feel Asian but you think they have this characteristic,” says Gathy. “Whether the hotel is in Japan, Argentina or Thailand, the hotel needs to have a feel of the place where it is. If the hotel is in the Arab world then it needs to have this touch but it must be subtle.”

No other architect today can claim to be as far-reaching as Gathy. His designs have revolutionised the hotel industry. Ever since he worked on the opening of Aman Resorts’ Amanwana hotel for its 1993 debut on the Indonesian island of Moyo – his first design to be built – he’s been commissioned to create hotels like Hotel Bora Bora in French Polynesia, the Viceroy in Snowmass, Colorado, as well as for top-tier hotel brands like Jumeirah, Park Hyatt, Banyan Tree and Shangri-La, among many others. This year he will collaborate with Mandarin Oriental in Bali, Andaz on the Chinese island of Hainan, One&Only in Montenegro, and the forthcoming Aman New York, an 83-room hotel and 20-condominium development complete with a five-storey penthouse in the city’s 1921 Beaux Art-style Crown Building on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street. It’s an impressive list.

Aman New York

Exterior view of Aman New York

Yet what is the signature touch that links all of Gathy’s hotels? There are the reflecting pools and water features, the big bathrooms and the ample spaces that endow each hotel with a meditative feel. And then there is this perceived sense of Asianness – a quality that Gathy questions. “You think you have the feeling that my hotels are Asian, but they are not!” he exclaims. “I have been influenced by the 40 years I have spent in Asia and so unconsciously I refer to things that I feel and see every day. The characteristics of Asia are that things are peaceful, normally horizontal, indirect lighting and space – volumes and design in Asia are layered.”


Aman Sveti Stefan, Montenegro

In Asia, Gathy says, spaces have various layers of elements whether they be rooms or furniture. “It allows you to go from one space to another without actually realising it and that is Asian – that feeling of layered interiors and architecture,” he says. “Linked to this is my incorporation of water because it has this feeling of peacefulness.” From Amanoi in Vietnam to Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives – water features define the structure of the hotel. They offer a sense of calm and contemplation as well as define the perspective and proportion of each place. “These are all qualities of my work but they don’t make my hotels Asia – just look at the Aman in Venice – there is nothing Asian about it! It is Italian!” says Gathy. “It’s Italian Renaissance with 15th and 16th-century paintings and Italian design pieces, but still people think it is Asian. Why? Because of the layering that I give to each space. The way we have laid the furniture, the way we have made each space peaceful and the way we have not challenged the beauty of the original palace.”

Cheval Blanc

A bathroom at Cheval Blanc Randheli, Maldives

Thus, key to Gathy’s iconic design is this sense of serenity that one experiences. And it is a serenity that is married to the local visual culture. Gathy clearly doesn’t rob his spaces from their previous history or artistic heritage – he gracefully layers them like a palimpsest. And this philosophy, and way of working, is akin to his beliefs on luxury. “Today when people travel they are looking for something else,” he says. “It’s about being in a place that does good for your soul. If your hotel is not comfortable then you will crumble. It must give you an experience of peace. Then there is excitement. A hotel must make you excited. Every single element in a hotel must work in harmonious unison and that’s luxury.”