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The Starriest of Starchitects

Cheval Blanc Randheli

Cheval Blanc Randheli


[UPDATE: Jean-Michel Gathy’s newly designed Four Seasons Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya river near the Peninsula, is now accepting bookings for early 2020.]

A conversation with Jean-Michel Gathy, probably the world’s top architect of exclusive hotel resorts, is an entertaining reel of anecdotes, ideas and design history delivered at lightening pace. At the start of the interview, over the telephone from Gathy’s Kuala Lumpur office (he’s lived in Asia for 33 years), he asks: “Are you taking notes or recording? It determines what speed I talk at.”

Think of an iconic hotel – The Setai Miami perhaps, or maybe the Chedi Oman or the Aman at the Summer Palace – and chances are Gathy designed it. Last year his nine hotel openings included the Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives, Point Yamu by Como Shambhala on Phuket and two Amans (a brand he has become synonymous with) including the Canal Grande Venice, venue of the much hyped George Clooney wedding. With over 40 years in the industry, the luxury hotel market is Gathy’s oyster, so how does he go about choosing?

“First of all it’s gut feeling. I just feel that I would like that project. Secondly I have to feel good about the hotel operator. That’s fundamentally important.” He reels off a list of five star-plus hotel groups as fitting the bill. “Thirdly, I have to feel that it’s a client who is passionate, that it’s not just a business.”

What about a client who may want to hire Gathy just for his name? “I have this situation often. When that’s the case we always say no.”

LVMH, Cheval Blanc, Randheli

His company – Denniston, formed in 1983 – currently has 13 hotels in construction. An impressive seven out of 10 pitches come to fruition. “That is unreal,” Gathy says. “Most people get one out of ten.” He thinks his three point pre selection is part of the success as he rejects what he’s not sure of. “And because we’re not newcomers, the people who contact us are a certain section of the market. You’re British?” I reply affirmative. “Well, If I’m [Wayne] Rooney I’m only going to get calls from Real Madrid and Barcelona – top class teams.”

How it usually works is that the land owner will contact Gathy and he’ll ask which hotels they are pitching to. “If they tell me that they’re negotiating with five star hotels, that’s fine. If they say [names a number of mid market hotel chains] I’m not interested.”

And if you hire Denniston, you get Jean-Michel Gathy himself. “I’m the one person who will go and see the site. I’m like Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel, I design I’m not doing management,” he says. “When I visit the site, I’m like a little boy in a toy shop. I just walk about, look at the view, what the prevailing winds are… I’m extremely thorough in my investigation of the site. Within the first day I have decided. I know how it’s going to look, which way it’s going to face and know the organizational circulation…“People ask me how do you see this? And I say I have no idea! I love geography, I love maps, always have since I was a child. And I love nature, so did my father. It’s just inside me. Like a musician or an artist. It’s my strength. And so far it works!”

LVMH, Cheval Blanc, Randheli

He pin points the upcoming Mandarin Oriental in Bali, one of three projects along with Raffles and Fairmont he has on the go on the Indonesian island. “We had the ground breaking ceremony today and they said out of 250 hectares why did you choose this specific spot for the hotel? No one would choose it. They were just stunned.”

Gathy is particularly excited about this project as he is about Bali itself, a place where he’s lived along with Hong Kong and Singapore, before Malaysia. “Everything has been done in Bali. You have the most beautiful and disgusting architecture.”

The Mandarin won’t be a pastiche of Balinese design: “There won’t be thatched roofs, the Mandarin will be nothing to do with Balinese architecture but everything to do with Balinese culture. We’ve translated Balinese values and respected the materials.”

LVMH, Cheval Blanc, Randheli

His newest project, a One & Only in Montenegro, invokes similar emotions of fear and excitement. “I thought, Jean-Michel, what the hell are you doing to yourself?” he says. Based on the hotel’s location and the history of the Silk Route he’s combined Ottoman, Balkan and Venetian ideas. “Yesterday, I submitted the presentation and I was so excited.” He gives a little chuckle, “I think we just nailed it.”

At least four hotels are in the works in mainland China and with the growing Chinese market comes differing needs. “You must have retail in a hotel in China otherwise you’re wasting your time,” says Gathy. “The Chinese don’t like the sun so you need a swimming pool with shade and huge TVs in the bedrooms.”

As for his own holidays he likes active ones – previously skiing but these days safaris which he is passionate about, “I love and worship those times in the jeep. I must have been to 50 camps”. On a city break he likes to get out and explore. “I don’t spend time in the hotel as then I critique and that tires me.”

LVMH, Cheval Blanc, Randheli

Having started several trends from over-water hammocks to statement swimming pools and spa like bathrooms how does he feel about seeing his vision replicated in hotels around the world? “It flatters me. It’s good for the ego,” he says. “One day the guy who copies me will beat me and good for him but that day is not here yet.”

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