Jean-Michel Gathy, the revered Brussels-born architect behind some of the world’s most fabulous hotels, on the changing meaning of architecture.
It’s interesting that Jean-Michel Gathy, the principal designer at architectural practice Denniston, describes himself as “incredibly casual”. As arguably the most revered architect of the luxury hospitality world, his designs and creations are anything but. His clientele reads like a who’s who of the hotel world; including Cheval Blanc, Aman Resorts, Four Seasons, St Regis, Mandarin Oriental, One & Only and many more. He also designs for private clients, who number among the richest and most powerful individuals on the planet.
Here, he describes the philosophy behind his work.
What is the philosophy of architecture?
Fundamentally, architecture is the expression of the way we live and what we need. For example, a peasant who lives in the countryside builds a house, not to look beautiful, but to fulfil needs. He needs a roof; he needs protection against the elements; and he builds with the means that are available in his direct environment, whether leaves, wood, rocks, whatever.
That’s the most basic. Then comes, on top of that, elements of ego. People tend to have an ego and want the best house, mansion, castle, in the village. They want to be better than their neighbour; that’s the mind coming into play as opposed to the need. It could also be a need to celebrate God, such as Angkor Wat or the pyramids.
Then comes the notion of business. What is a hotel? It’s a business vehicle. No one designs a hotel for pleasure, it is to make money. Then comes the notion of sales, marketing, which uses aesthetics as a vehicle.
Aesthetics is the cherry on the cake — you don’t need the hotel to be gorgeous, but it is what makes it more successful than the others. Like a car. Why do you sell a Bentley more than a Toyota? It does the same job; it just looks better.
How has a wealthier society changed the meaning of design?
Now we have a lot of redundant elements in our lives, as people have got richer. We don’t need a private jet, we don’t need a beautiful hotel. But they are nice to have! Architects today, such as me, are benefitting from ego trips; marketing positions; the race for being better and better to beat the neighbours. To be page one of the magazines. It’s a race for success.
Before, hotels were accommodation, where you sleep. Now, hotels are a lifestyle destination. Before, rooms were 30m squared and there were 500 of them. Nowadays, the rooms are 60m squared, there’s 200 rooms and they charge five times as much. The ultimate purpose now is to be the lifestyle destination everyone wants to be seen at.
In today’s architecture there are so many materials, so many different techniques and variety. This is because we’re spoiled kids; we don’t need all these beautiful things, but they are necessary now to make money.
You sound very cynical about your job!
It’s funny I say that because I am certainly someone who is most concerned about looks, so am I shooting myself in the foot? No, I am being realistic. I know what we’re doing and why people want a beautiful hotel. I know why they will be successful. I am on the wagon, but I am not naive. I am a businessman. For me, it’s more fun to design a Bentley than a Toyota. Do I get tired of it? No. I know that a hotel, before anything else, is design for your guests, not your design. The reason why we are successful is because we don’t design for us; we don’t have an ego trip. We know how to serve the needs of our clientele; ultimately that’s the purpose of the business. Ultimately, I’m a pure creative. I only do design in the office. I design every project and each one is a challenge, so I enjoy it. I'll never retire. I will die of a heart attack on site when I’m 85 years old. Don’t worry about it, I’m here to stay.
What is your signature style?
Our work is sometimes dramatic, sometimes intimate, but always charismatic. It’s exactly my personality. I’m a true romantic in the old-fashioned way. I like drama such as big parties, but I’m also very private. I have a wife and four kids, and a very normal life, but my staff don’t know where I go on holiday. My architecture is a succession of emotions. I’ll have something dramatic such as the lobby; then a layered passage to an intimate emotion, say, part of the bar. All my designs are based on successions of spaces, separated by layers of lighting, screens, courtyards, between two emotions. And it’s human-sized and seamless — you never know where the architecture stops, where the interior design starts, and the landscape starts. If I wrote a book, which I've been asked to do many times, it would be called ‘Seamless’. That’s classy.
What’s your personal taste like?
My house is very eclectic. It’s full of things I love: a carpet from Morocco; a table from Jordan; something else from Bali; but it’s all the same feeling even though they’re very different. I’m a very casual guy and that is reflected in the things I like. I like objects, painting, fabric, it’s an organised chaos. And I have hundreds of them. It’s not messy; I do like geometry and my house has a lot of geometrical balance, it’s comfortable to the eye. I prefer the Roman to the Gothic style: something that’s more peaceful and not too flamboyant. Nothing too crazy. I love my home. I go home and I’m calm.
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Journey Issue, September 2018. To subscribe contact