Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Datai Hotel

Malaysia, Pulau Langkawi

Datai Hotel, 1993
Teluk Datai Resorts Sdn Bhd
Architects: Kerry Hill Architects

All too often, investors disregard the opportunity to marry luxury tourism to ecological sensitivity, opting instead for easier, more cost-effective or more sensational developments. Occasionally, however, a project is ambitious enough to accommodate the needs of the most demanding clients and the most fragile environment. The Datai, a 5-star hotel on a popular resort island in northern Malaysia, is an example of how far developer and architect can go to achieve a symbiosis between terrain and built form, tradition and tourism, vernacular styles and modernism.

The Australian architect, Kerry Hill, was involved from the outset in selecting the 750-hectare site, which includes a beach, untouched rainforest and a sensitive ecosystem of swamps, streams and wildlife. A further distinctive element of the terrain is a ridge that drops sharply to the waterfront. Hill sited the hotel away from the beach, to minimize its impact on the waterfront, placing the complex on the ridge to provide spectacular views and leave more of the forest undisturbed. Another significant decision was to fragment the hotel into free-standing buildings, pavilions and isolated villas, reducing the mass of the complex and allowing flexibility in sitting to minimize the felling of trees.

The hotel contains 84 rooms, broken into 4 blocks, linked by open walkways and arranged around a swimming pool, and 43-standing villas, located on the lower slopes of the site between the ridge and the beach. Common areas such as restaurant, a spa and a beach house are distributed around the site in pavilions, a form drawn from the local building vernacular. The various elements of the complex also follow local traditions in being built on either slits or heavy stone bases to protect them from ground dampness, and in the use of generous overhangs to keep off rain. Local building materials, notably timber harvested from the forest are used extensively throughout.

When trees in a tropical rainforest are cleared to make way for construction, species on the perimeter that are not resistant to ultraviolet rays begin to burn out. This "festering wound" effect can be mitigated by planning trees that grow very fast, blocking the ultraviolet rays and allowing slower-growing species to survive. The architect took amount of this process and carefully positioned buildings to reduce tree felling. Trained elephants rather than bulldozers were used to fell the trees because they cause less damage to the forest, and trees cleared from the site were used within the structures.

The construction is an elegant synthesis of traditional and contemporary building methods. Alignments, finishing, joinery and materials coalesce to create a sophisticated structural vocabulary; the level of finished achieved is unusual in Malaysia and has set a new precedent for the region's construction. Though finely wrought, the complex was designed to weather naturally. A pleasing patina is already evident on railing and exposed wooden members, which are not painted or polished but allowed to age gracefully. Creepers grow over the stone bases of buildings, which are hardy in terms of weathering. The open pavilions and walkways admit cooling breezes and generous shaft of light, while enhancing a sense of interaction with nature.

Didier Lefort, interior designer, was involved from the inception of the design and created some of the architectural details, such as the railing that forms a motif throughout the hotel. Because the local woods, used for the interiors, are also the predominant building material, the hotel offers a seamless integration between interior and exterior.

The popularity of the hotel with its clients is a testament to the responsible and sensitive approach adopted by the architect, who has provided a sense of luxury and sophistication, while respecting a remote natural environment.


Aga Khan Award for Architecture
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