The Datai Langkawi, Malaysia: How Architect Kerry Hill is changing the shape of Asia's resorts

I'm floating in a crescent-shaped bay, its tropical south-east Asian Andaman Sea waters so deliciously tepid that you could safely bathe a new-born infant in them. On shore, a lone macaque scampers, with the stealth of a cat burglar, in and out of the adjacent jungle as it hunts for crabs on the largely deserted low-season beach. 

From my watery vantage point, while I can spot the monkey, and for that matter the distant southern coast of Thailand, I can barely make out the actual resort I'm staying at just beyond the beach.  But it's not that I've somehow drifted too far out into the bay.  

It's just that the resort, the Datai, located on Langkawi Island, off the top north-west tip of Malaysia, has been so skilfully designed to be enveloped by the rainforest that cascades from the mountains to the ocean that you can only make out parts of it through the densest of vegetation. 

A small beach club near the water's edge is visible but unobtrusive, with the main public areas of the resort set a  good 300 metres or so uphill from the beach. It's proof, were it needed, that sometimes the best architecture is that which you cannot always see.

Whereas some resorts, design-wise, shout at you, the Datai Langkawi whispers its presence. The Datai was designed by Kerry Hill, one of the most acclaimed and yet lesser known of Australian architects, brainchild of some of the finest hotels and resorts there, including several projects for the exclusive Aman brand. 

He's acquired that certain level of notoriety – at least in Asia where he has spent the better part of his adult life – to enable himself to eschew publicity, conveniently preferring his work to speak for itself.

Over the years I've either stayed in or visited a number of Hill's resorts and, while I'm more architectural dilettante than architectural scholar, I've become an admirer of his work. As a result, I relished the opportunity to stay at the Datai, one of his crowning achievements and the recipient of the 2001 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. 

Hill's original proposal to locate the resort's main building far from the beach was initially met with "bewilderment" by those concerned that guests could feel too divorced from the sea. He persisted with his vision for a resort that both preserved the "pristine beauty of the coastline" while at the same time underscoring the "hidden treasures of the rainforest". 

Instead of employing heavy machinery to fell what trees needed to be removed to make way for the resort, Hill, who is now in his early 70s,  with offices in both Singapore and Perth, used more traditional south-east Asian building methods in the form of trained elephants, with any leftover timber reused in construction.

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Hill has been lauded for his "abstract modernism overlaid with powerful yet superbly sensitive local cultural references". Even though the Datai is over 20 years old, you'd hardly know it since Hill's designs avoid architectural trends, preferring to embrace tradition without entirely sacrificing modernity and respecting  local cultures and locations.

In awarding Hill its prestigious gold medal in 2006, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects stated that  he is "known internationally for developing an Asian resort architecture that is both climate and site specific, drawing on indigenous forms of tropical building to produce high quality hotels and resorts across the region in extraordinarily exotic locations". 

The RAIA said these projects represented some of the "most architecturally ambitious and resolved hotel work to be found in south-east Asia, work which robustly resists the developing universalism of the theme park found in many other resorts". Indeed, compared with the flashy resorts that increasingly populate destinations like Bali and Phuket, Hill's designs, typified by the 110-room Datai, are a model of restraint, clearly designed not to rapidly date aesthetically. 

Hill's most recent work is the Aman Tokyo Resort, described in today's hotel industry parlance as an "urban sanctuary", occupying the top six floors of the 38-storey Otemachi Tower, located between the Imperial Palace Park and Tokyo Station. It's Aman's first true urban resort, if you exclude its prototype Delhi property, also designed by Hill, and despite its skyscraping location it's been praised for subtly fusing traditional Japanese interior design techniques and material with modern interior design sensibilities.

Although architecture and design have become an integral part of the resort and hotel experience, it's easy for us to forget, seduced by the luxuries and indulgences that are the staple of such places, that they are the product of the imagination of an architect.  Many hotels and resorts consciously or unconsciously fail to acknowledge their architects, denying their properties another point of interest.

Hill's works ooze interest, with the operators of the Datai commendably acknowledging and celebrating him as the resort's architect. His early designs are said to have been influenced by his friendship with Geoffrey Bawa, the legendary Sri Lankan resort architect who was one of the first architects to recognise that resorts could be as one with nature, allowing the location and local culture to determine the architecture rather than architecture dictating its own terms.

Hill's decision to locate the Datai's main building atop a hill rather than near the beach forces guests like me to commune with the resort's jungle location, home to abundant wildlife – dusky leaf monkeys, hornbills, frogs, owls and flyer squirrels – which has been largely preserved in the design.  It's no surprise that nature tours, largely focused on the resort's own site, are an integral aspect of a stay at the Datai. 

One of The Datai's most impressive buildings is the pavilion housing a Thai restaurant, opened in honour of the fact that you can see Thailand's southern extremities from all parts of the resort. It's built on the side of a hill above the resort pool, and suspended on massive timber stilts recycled from trees cleared during construction.

During my stay at The Datai there's just one disappointment and that is to discover that the new and luxurious beach villas in which I've been accommodated were designed not by Hill but by his 1960s Perth contemporaries and rivals in Grounds Kent, a firm that's made its own architectural mark on the design of hotel and resort design in south-east Asia.

It's difficult to establish why the Datai was unable to entice Hill back two decades after the resort's opening to design the new villas, with speculation being that he'd either become too expensive or had objected to the construction of the accommodation close to the beach, even though Grounds Kent's villas are set well back from the ocean and virtually invisible from it and the beach. Even a curmudgeonly Kerry Hill would surely have to approve.

FIVE MORE KERRY HILL-DESIGNED HOTELS AND RESORTS 

THE LALU HOTEL, SUN MOON LAKE, TAIWAN 

Situated on the site of Chiang Kai-shek's summer lakeside retreat, the imposing, luxurious and elegant design of this villa hotel was influenced by Zen and symbolises Taiwanese modernity and sophistication. See www.thelalu.com.tw/en/

THE ANANTARA CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

Formerly The Chedi, this hotel in Thailand's second city exudes calm. Built on the site of the former British consulate, it references aspects of traditional Thai architecture and contemporary influences. See www.chiang-mai.anantara.com 

AMAN TOKYO

Hill's latest high-profile project draws its inspiration from the design of traditional Japanese residences, with the use of classic materials such as timber, paper and stone – all  at 33 storeys above the Japanese capital. See www.amanresorts.com 

ONE & ONLY ESTATES, HAYMAN ISLAND, QUEENSLAND

These sleek, ultra-modern, ultra-luxurious residences overlooking the Whitsunday Island chain represent one of Hill's curiously few Australian resort-based commissions. See www.hayman.oneandonlyresorts.com 

ALILA UBUD, BALI

Famed for its infinity pool that appears to reach out into jungle, this understated resort overlooking the picturesque Ayung River Valley deftly blends contemporary and Balinese design. See www.alilahotels.com 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.tourismmalaysia.com.au 

GETTING THERE

Qantas operates regular flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore with connecting flights to Kuala Lumpur with Qantas Group affiliate Jetstar Asia.  From KL there are frequent daily flights to Langkawi with low-fare carriers such as Air Asia. A number of carriers also operate direct flights to Langkawi from Singapore. See www.qantas.com; www.airasia.com/au/

STAYING THERE

Deluxe king rooms in the main wing start from Malaysian ringgit 1350.00 with beach villas starting from Malaysian ringgit 3681.00. Phone +60 4 9500 500; see www.thedatai.com

WHAT TO READ

Kerry Hill: Crafting Modernism, edited by Oscar Riera Ojeda, is available for purchase from The Datai's gift shop and online through www.amazon.com

The writer was a guest of The Datai Langkawi and Qantas.

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