Three Arizona architects collaborated with Adrian Zecha, a hotelier of impeccable taste, to create Amangiri, the latest in a growing family of sybaritic resorts. What marks Aman off from other luxury brands in Asia, and more recently in Europe and the United States, is the understated architecture and interior design, integrated with settings of great natural beauty. Observes Andrew Thomson, one of the Aman’s directors, “Our resorts are very masculine—nothing chi-chi. Natural wood and stone, dark slate and plain fabrics, screens rather than curtains. Nothing to detract from raw nature.”
Amangiri is located in the rocky wonderland of southern Utah, a short drive from Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park. The project began 10 years ago when an idealistic Austrian developer, Bernt Kuhlmann, first conceived of a luxury resort in the middle of nowhere. Star architects didn’t take him seriously, so he enlisted three local talents: Marwan Al-Sayed and Wendell Burnette from Phoenix, plus Rick Joy from Tucson. “Initially it was speculative, so we pretended we were still architectural students and had the freedom to sketch whatever we wanted,” recalls Joy. When Aman became involved, the team sharpened its focus. Zecha insisted that the buildings be relocated away from a road, and he took the architects to his resorts in Thailand and Bali to show them what he was looking for. Al-Sayed describes Zecha as a catalyst, who gave the trio unlimited creative freedom.
It helped that all three architects had hiked in this country and knew it well. Joy builds houses of rammed earth that become a part of the natural landscape. Al-Sayed’s family is Iraqi and lived for a time in Morocco, so the desert is in his blood. “We decided to wrap the 34 suites around a rock formation, so that every room faces desert or mesa and guests have the feeling they are camping out,” he says. “The architecture is strong but reticent, and it is inspired by the quality of light and the purity of water. It’s like a fort, establishing a sharp division between culture and nature.”
In contrast to most Western resorts, there is no water-guzzling golf course or lawn. A pool encircles the escarpment, and a pavilion containing communal spaces and the dining room is contained within the V formation of guest wings. The spa occupies five small pavilions that tumble out like rocks from the Mesa Wing.
The blocky forms are cast from concrete that was mixed from sand on the site and a pigment that warms the gray of the cement. The plywood forms impart a surface sheen that catches the light and reflections of the mesas, while offering a silky texture to the touch. It was a challenge to achieve refined finishes and details in such a remote location, but the purity of the architecture demanded a consistently high standard. The suites are accessed from narrow walled lanes that evoke slot canyons, and these mysterious passages are infused with the sound of running water and the dampness of verdant moss. Each suite has a screened courtyard entered through a rock arch, and the end wall of glass frames a breathtaking vista. Open terraces with fire pits allow guests to sit out beneath a night sky that city dwellers can only dream of.
The same elemental simplicity is carried through the interiors. A raised stone island in the center of each suite incorporates a bed, a desk, and a sofa. Bathing and dressing areas appear to be carved out of green stone and are softened by filtered light that contrasts with the luminous expanses beyond. Large suites at the end of either wing have lap pools and sky terraces. In the spa, the wet treatment areas seem to have been hollowed out by water and have a subterranean quality, while the dry treatment rooms are lined with wood and bathed in soft natural light.
“We designed every detail, down to the coat-hooks and staff uniforms,” says Joy. And most of their concepts were executed. Al-Sayed observes that “in contrast to Bali and Morocco, there is no living culture to shape the design, and our allusions to Native American and cowboy traditions are subtle and indirect. Landscape and light were our principal sources of inspiration.”