Peace of mind
Architect Ed Tuttle is responsible for some of the most luxurious and eco-friendly hotels in the world. He tells Jason Gagliardi why tranquillity is at the heart of his designs.
Ed Tuttle strides into the salon of Bangkok's Sukhothai hotel, sinks into a plush chair and looks about approvingly. 'I always love coming here,' he says in a soft voice. 'It's very much my baby, you know.' The sprawling, low-set, elegantly minimal hotel oozes Zen-like calm. Labyrinthine corridors meander to vanishing point, offering up glimpses of beauty: formal courtyards, lotus ponds, green spaces. There's a poetry and rhythm at play here, as indeed there is in each of Tuttle's designs, most notably the Aman resorts he has created for Indonesian businessman Adrian Zecha. To the coterie of well-heeled Zecha groupies - call them Amanites - the Seattle-born, Paris-based Tuttle is no less than a demi-god, creating perfect pockets of eco-friendly, understated luxury.
Tuttle's gaze wanders across the ceiling and out to the garden, as though he is taking some kind of inventory. A cloud of concern creases his features and he darts an annoyed glance at a string quartet that is droning away like angry wasps. If he seems distracted, it's understandable. As usual, he has a lot on his plate: he's about to preside over a facelift for the Sukhothai's rooms, as well as design a new spa.
It has also just been announced that Amanresorts and Natural Park have closed a deal to transform the crumbling 115-year-old Customs House, perched on a prime plot on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, into a five-star deluxe hotel, which, of course, demands the Tuttle touch. Called the Aman Resort Bangkok, the one billion baht ($193 million), 33-room, ultra-luxury property is expected to be completed by late 2007.
He'd prefer not to comment on this project and considers it bad form to discuss upcoming works.
'I'd rather be left alone to get on with the job and let the buildings speak for themselves when they're finished,' he says.
Tuttle is happy, though, to continue his architec-tural lecture. 'The Sukhothai period was a very classical period. I love the colonnades, the verticality of the architecture, and that was the inspiration for the hotel. The idea was to create a place with a certain tranquillity, an elegance and classicism, mixing Thai and European elements. Something that's solid, simple and elegant.'
Solid, simple and elegant: words that would do nicely for Tuttle's epitaph. And also words that describe his abode, an apartment in a converted 18th-century house in Paris' St Germain des Pres, which he shares with his partner, Christian Monges.
'It's just a stroll from the Louvre and I can walk to my office, which is in a nearby building,' he says. 'It's been a real labour of love. I've made many changes to the apartment but kept the spirit of what its creator intended. I've respected the 18th-century quality, the proportions. I've been there for many, many years. How many? Let's just say more than 30. Of course, it's still a work in progress, but then, life's a work in progress, isn't it? It's many years since we renovated it, but there are always little things to be done.'
Naturally, Tuttle travels a great deal but when he's at home, he considers himself a creature of habit. 'I'm usually up by about 8am. I've got a little gym set up at home, so I do a workout, have a light breakfast and I'm generally in the office around 9.30am.'
Tuttle says inspiration can strike at any time and he is an inveterate sketcher. 'On any new project, I sketch a lot. I might be sitting in the office, on a plane or by a pool. I'll scribble on scraps of paper, drink coasters. It's my way of getting a theme going; you get the rhythm going and eventually it all starts to come together. I also like to immerse myself in the culture of the place where I'm working, to be stimulated and inspired.'
When in Paris, his mornings are spent reviewing current and pending projects with his 12 staff. A leisurely lunch, almost always taken at home, precedes a spot of pottering about the apartment. Then he returns to the office and the real work begins. 'When I'm working on something intensely, I find I don't get going until late afternoon. Between 5pm and 9pm is my most creative time. I have a drafting table that I've had forever and I work off that. I do sketches, then proper designs on tracing paper, then that gets fed into the computer.'
Tuttle says his ideal projects involve being able to design the whole venture from the ground up, which has been the case for many of his Amanresorts work.
His first job for Zecha was the original Aman, the Amanpuri in Phuket, which opened in 1988. It was a stunning vision of contemporary tropical chic, which has been variously aped and pillaged countless times since. Philippe Starck - who has designed hotels in Miami, New York and London, as well as Jia in Hong Kong - calls it one of the top three hotels in the world for service, while other fans include Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei.
The Amanpuri is by no means cutting edge these days, but it has aged gracefully, and Tuttle says he still spends a great deal of time there at his private villa. 'Phuket is a bit of a home away from home. I always get a great sense of peace there,' he says. 'Adrian Zecha has been wonderful, in that any renovations or adjustments made to the property, or any of the properties I worked on, are always passed by me first. I like to stay involved to keep a continuity, a unity. The design of a resort and its operation are not two separate things to me, I believe they very much have to flow together.'
Other stand-out resorts created by Tuttle under the Aman name include the Amanjiwo, just outside Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a majestic resort inspired by the Buddhist temples of Borobodur; the Amangani in Wyoming, in the United States, which manages to be both opulent and almost spartan, drawing extensively on native materials; and the Amanjena in Marrakech, Morocco, built entirely from ochre pise (red earth pounded with straw) in the midst of an olive grove, and inspired by Berber nomad culture and traditional Moorish architecture.
He has also worked on more conventional hotel projects in the past couple of years: the Park Hyatt Milan and the Park Hyatt Vendome Paris, which are both garnering rave reviews and generating a buzz among the luxury cognoscenti. The former is a boutique hotel just steps away from the Piazza del Duomo and Teatro alla Scala opera house; a vision in travertine and silk, with soaring ceilings and clean, sharp lines. The latter, a modern palace on the Rue de la Paix, consists of five belle epoque houses combined into one glorious vision of contemporary grandeur.
Inspiration comes from many places, Tuttle says, but he often gets his best ideas when looking at - or immersed in - water. 'I love being on the water. I love swimming. Water is a very important part of my designs. It's the essence of tranquillity.'
As a young man, Tuttle says he was influenced by the work of Bauhaus bigwig and maestro of glass and steel, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, especially designs such as Farnsworth House, a study in radical minimalism just outside Chicago, and the Seagram Building in New York.
'He was terribly important in my life,' says Tuttle. 'So was Frank Lloyd Wright. I grew up among his structures; that was the basis of my architectural studies before I came to Asia. Fallingwater [a home cantilevered from a rock over a waterfall at Bear Run, in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania, and considered one of Lloyd Wright's masterpieces] was actually built by friends of mine who have passed away now. I've lived there, dined there. So things like that had a great influence on my life.
'Do I have a philosophy of design? Well, I believe very much in tranquillity and order. Comfort and lifestyle mean an enormous amount to me. They may sound like funny things to base your architecture on, but they are extremely important. A sense of classicism and proportion is also vital and, of course, beauty. Outside of classicism, rhythm is what makes something beautiful.'
The drone of the string quartet has intensified and Tuttle suggests we adjourn to the sanctuary of his suite. It's a spacious ground-floor room overlooking lotus ponds. With the exception of a clunky swivelling box for the television at the foot of the bed, it doesn't look dated despite being almost 12 years old. 'The television will go when we renovate,' he says, 'although I love the idea of being able to watch it from the bed and from the living space. I'll keep the idea but we'll change it for a sexy flat-screen model.'
There's a knock on the door and a heavyset Frenchman arrives, with longish silver hair swept back from a high forehead. 'This is Christian,' says Tuttle. Is he an architect too? 'My goodness, no,' he says. 'Christian is a lawyer. He's the brains of the business. He makes sure people pay up when the work is done.'
I ask about their life in Paris. 'Well, it's fairly domestic,' says Tuttle. 'After work, mostly we dine out with friends or sometimes they'll come over to the house to eat. Or Christian and I just have dinner together, like normal people do. There are some terrific restaurants in Paris. Voltaire has always been a favourite. I like Le Duc, it's always good. And Delices de Szechuan has great Chinese food. The owner knows us well and will do special menus with whatever's in season, things she knows we'll appreciate.'
Is he much of a night owl? 'I love the night - but I also love the morning. And I do have to get up and work. We go out sometimes, visit some nice bars and that sort of thing. I do what I'm capable of. But at my age, I've certainly got to get my beauty sleep.'
Monges has immersed himself in some paper-work at a capacious desk and Tuttle's attention is starting to wander. He has a pencil in one hand that he keeps jiggling and he's looking about the room.
A storm is gathering outside and there's a crackle of electricity in the air. As I take my leave, I can't help thinking that inspiration is about to strike. Soon, the sketching will begin.