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'Hong Kong is built on greed': leading Asian architect's harsh words for his former home

Jean-Michel Gathy, the man behind some of the world's most exclusive retreats, finds no room for romantic buildings or charming old neighbourhoods in profit-hungry Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 6:55am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 July, 2015, 10:21am

With more than three decades in the business, Belgian architect Jean-Michel Gathy has become the man luxury resort operators often turn to when they are mapping out a new project. He's the creative mind behind some of the most elegant and exclusive retreats around the world, from the Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives to The Setai in Miami and various Aman resorts.

The principal designer of Kuala Lumpur-based consultancy Denniston Architects, Gathy has pioneered many elements that became associated with indulgent escapes - personal spas in the bedroom and enormous water features, for example. He is also credited with starting several trends, including basking nets (a kind of over-water hammock) and private plunge pools (the golden pool at the St Regis Lhasa in Tibet, for example).

The romantic colonial buildings are nice, but the government does not see money in these. Sadly, there is no room for romantic buildings in Hong Kong … it's all about money

A number of ideas have since been adopted by other hotels, but Gathy isn't bothered that he's being copied.

"It's good for the ego," he says.

Another hallmark is his ability to tastefully incorporate local culture into his layouts. And since Gathy has lived in the region for 34 years - initially in Hong Kong - Asian influences feature prominently. This can be seen in his recent projects in China such as the Aman at the Summer Palace.

The size of the market and potential for further growth makes it vital for hotel groups to have a presence in China; "otherwise you're wasting your time", he says.

As always, culture and lifestyle must be taken into consideration. For example, "Chinese people don't tend to be big sun worshippers so you need a pool with shade and huge TVs in the bedrooms."

More recently, he completed two Banyan Tree projects in Shanghai but the openings have been delayed because of planning issues.

"It had something to do with getting official authorisation for access roads through the villages," he says. "It's very frustrating because they are ready to go. It's like reaching full term of your pregnancy and then the doctor says you have to wait to give birth."

Although he lived in Hong Kong between 1981 and 1992, Gathy has few nice things to say about where the city is heading. "I adored Hong Kong but it was so expensive to live there."

Many problems, he says, stem from the fact "Hong Kong is built on greed; it's that simple".

Because the profit motive has become the primary driving force in virtually all urban development, there is little effort to protect heritage buildings from the wrecking ball or to maintain the distinctive charm of some older neighbourhoods.

"The romantic colonial buildings are nice, but the government does not see money in these. Sadly, there is no room for romantic buildings in Hong Kong … it's all about money."

Hong Kong planners "could learn a few lessons from Singapore", he says.

Decades ago the Lion City put into place a conservation programme to preserve and upgrade its older districts, and this has turned areas from Clarke Quay to Little India into popular destinations for visitors and residents alike. In more recent years, Singapore has done "fabulous" work, he says, to transform its waterfront, especially in the Marina Bay area with expansive parks, performance venues, hotels and other leisure facilities.

"Hong Kong could have done that - developed the harbourfront area for biking, running and eating," he says.

It's hard to keep up with Gathy as he speaks quickly and passionately about ideas that permeate his work.

Sustainability is a crucial consideration, he says, although this is often driven more by legal requirements than the architect's or client's priorities.

"We have no choice but to think about sustainability when designing a hotel because it's in the government rules and codes, so we have to consider its environmental impact."

Gathy also suggests luxury resorts may become increasingly specialised as the number of travellers from emerging markets swell. Because of the large numbers, some hotels will focus on particular types of holidays; for example, yoga retreats or scuba diving.

Work has him criss-crossing the planet for nearly two-thirds of his time, so it's fortunate Gathy was already bitten by wanderlust as a young boy.

"I have loved geography and maps since I was a child," he says.

It's a story he has told many times: when he was seven, his mother would give him money to buy milk to drink but instead he spent it on atlases. "At that time the world comprised 168 countries … I'd study them obsessively, getting to know every mountain and river as well as read up on its industries and then I'd test myself," he says.

By the age of nine, he was organising itineraries for family holidays in Europe.

Whether checking into hotels for business or pleasure, Gathy believes the best ones should feel like a home away from home. "You must feel relaxed and be able to take off your shoes and walk around barefooted and watch stupid TV."

His own holidays, however, seldom involve sitting on the beach or lounging by the pool; the self-confessed action man cites running and sailing as his favourite ways to chill out.

For all his peripatetic ways, Gathy is happy to be based in Malaysia, where he has lived since 1992.

"There is this fantastic mix of races - Malay, Chinese, Indian and Eurasian - so you don't feel like an alien. And everyone is friendly."

SUITE SPOTS: FIVE OF GATHY'S CHINA RETREATS

A-list hoteliers are rolling out a number of projects that tap into China's huge pool of well-heeled travellers who enjoy holidaying at home as well as abroad. And Jean-Michel Gathy has had a hand in some of the finest.

Fuchun Resort, Hangzhou Ocuppying 150 hectares in the Fuyang district, Fuchun Resort is inspired by a long scroll painting of the surrounding landscape by Yuan dynasty master Huang Gongwang. Gathy and his team spent seven years designing the complex, which weaves through misty mountains and tea plantations. Each of the 110 villas, suites and guest rooms combines Song architecture with modern techniques. The natural materials used in the decor reflect the beauty outdoors. Highlights include a heated, indoor pool pavilion with traditional wood-bracket vaulted ceilings, lacquered columns, black mosaic tiles, and scenic views to the mountains beyond.

Aman at Summer Palace, Beijing Adjacent to the east gate of the palace, the hotel echoes its imperial style. It features serene courtyards, formal gardens and pavilions once used by dignitaries awaiting an audience with the emperor. Traditional touches are evident in design and decor: period-style furniture, polished Jin clay tiles, high exposed wooden beam ceilings, carved wooden screens, lanterns, and bamboo blinds. It has 51 rooms and suites, reflection and music pavilions, library and cinema. Those seeking the stateliest of stays can select the Imperial Suite, which comprises three separate pavilions.

St Regis Lhasa, Tibet One of the highest hotels in the world at 3,600 metres above sea level, the St Regis Lhasa overlooks Potala Palace with spectacular views of Lhasa valley and the Himalayas. Inspired by the nearby 15th century Sera Monastery, the hotel combines the drama of huge scale with more intimate spaces. A large, central reflective pool provides a focus for the 150 rooms, 12 suites, multiple dining venues and a grand spa. Channelling the magic and mystery of Tibet, the pillared buildings with dark shale pagoda-style roofs reveal splendid vaulted interiors adorned with intricate carvings, locally woven carpets, Tibetan paintings and traditional artefacts.

Park Hyatt Sanya Sunny Bay, Hainan Surrounded by mountains (yang) and sea (yin), the hotel has been created to balance these different energies and ensure good fung shui. The Sunny Bay resort, which occcupies a private inlet on the southern tip of Hainan Island, evokes the grandeur of a mansion by the sea. It is designed with the flexibility and freedom of a home in mind, ust on a grander scale, with five swimming pools, including a 100-metre lap pool, eight dining venues and facilities for water sports and eco-adventures.

One&Only Sanya, Haitang Bay, Hainan (opening in 2016) The first resort in China run by the One&Only group, it curves through 11 hectares of coconut palms and rosewood trees on its own stretch of the coast. Dramatic water gardens link the various spaces, from its restaurants to spa treatment villas and a Turkish bath. Apart from guest rooms, accommodation choices include five mansions, six villas with private pools and a manor house incorporating some of the largest suites in Sanya.