Place and Placelessness

Collecting exceptional experiences has become a key driver in the design and marketing of hotels, says Jestico & Whiles’ James Dilley


James Dilley


On a trip to the temples of Angkor Wat some years ago, I happened across an elderly nun, dressed in white with a shaven head, praying in the shade of some rubbled ruins, and burning incense sticks, with the swirling smoke highlighted by the Cambodian sun pouring dappled light onto the scene. Highly atmospheric and serendipitous, I was proud of my beautiful photograph.

When I returned home, I showed the photograph to a friend who had visited some years before, and he replied, “Is she still there?” He shuffled some files and showed me an almost identical photograph of the same lady from his visit. The reality dawned that the qualification for the word ‘remote’ is entirely different to what it was even ten years ago. In turn, the definitions of ‘exploration’ and ‘discovery’ have evolved, but remain central to the romantic aspiration for travel, and of course without a sense of place, there can be nothing to discover.

Since the end of days of true indulgence and the passing of the likes of actor Richard Harris, who spent his final years in the Savoy Hotel in London, most of us do not, regrettably, take up residence in hotels. As such, the hotel affords fulsome opportunities in our search for unusual experiences, which nowadays are mainly validated via social media. This negates the value of the mundane, the familiar and the banal in lieu of the specific, the memorable and the exciting.


W Hotel Edinburgh by Jestico & Whiles with Allan Murray Architects will form the centrepiece of the £850m Edinburgh St James development

In this competitive world, the hunting and collecting of exceptional experiences has become a key driver in how hotels are designed and marketed, and how we as designers create those ‘Instagram moments’ which can influence the reputation of a hotel. By definition, the aspirational experiences must not be known or accessible to all, hence the current proliferation of the ‘speak easy’ as a notion (and not only for bars). The feeling of being an insider in an exclusive environment coupled with the perception that it is somehow covert and illicit can provide the sense of discovery that we crave.

It is telling that W Hotels, one of the leading lifestyle hoteliers, deploys the title ‘Insider’ for a key member of its team, who holds all current intelligence on every covert and less well known venue in the locale. Jestico & Whiles is both the architect and interior designer for the new hotel W Edinburgh. This combined appointment for total design is surprisingly rare, as it seems there is industry-wide scepticism that a designer can do both jobs well, but for this unique building it makes perfect sense.

The central building, playfully called the ‘ribbon hotel’, was conceived as a new marker for Edinburgh and its role as a leading global location for theatre, spectacle and performance. This spirit of celebration is expressed through a fluttering, coiled ribbon facade, conceived in burnished, forged bronze to evoke the volcanic history of Edinburgh, and the role of fire in the ancient festivals. The interior continues these references with burnished bronze and charred timber, along with volcanic stone and molten glass evoking lava. This is overlaid with covert reference to Edinburgh’s role as a crucible for mythology and folklore and the tradition of storytelling.


Currently on site, the Zuri Zanzibar Hotel & Resort in Tanzania by Jestico & Whiles is a self-contained village with 60 individual cabanas and five larger villas, together with restaurants, bars, yoga and meditation spaces

The spirals of the ribbon culminate in a high- level Living Room, an internal landscape of 200 seats, with a ribbon ramp rising the final storey to the open roof terrace ‘sitooterie’ with panoramic views to the iconic Firth of Forth, Edinburgh Castle and Arthur’s Seat. The implied exclusivity and opportunity for discovery increases with altitude, like an inverted game of snakes and ladders. The ascent also reveals unlimited set-piece Instagram moments with a choice of more backdrops than you can snapchat on any given Hogmanay.

The drive for exclusive, aspirational spaces and the need for a metaphorical (or indeed real) velvet rope, pervades the wider realm of leisure facilities, whether restaurants, cinemas, retail or, in its most literal realisation, the private member’s club, which has been evolved beyond even the Soho House model.


Zuri Zanzibar Hotel & Resort in Tanzania by Jestico & Whiles 

Intriguingly, there is a polar opposite to this drive for exclusivity  – an extraordinary push for democratic spaces, where all are welcome and where travellers are united by their connectivity to others in the digital space while remaining happily unconnected to those in the same physical space, or indeed with the outside world at all. These spaces have been designed to be homogeneous and reliable, while presenting designed credentials. Interestingly, it is not the standardisation of these inclusive spaces spaces which is in question, but rather their basic commerciality, with comfortable, heated rooms with speedy wifi, where visitors can work all day for the price of a coffee.

However, it is not the spaces that are off the peg, however ingenious, that are of greatest interest, but the proliferation of ‘lifestyle’ hotel brands that respond to the specifics of place, rather than applying a set of rules for interpretation by the guest. And it is these lifestyle hotels that provide the most exciting and endless challenges for designers. An example is Jestico & Whiles’ Hyatt Place in Melbourne, Australia, which opened earlier this year. Sited on the historic Essendon Fields – ‘Melbourne’s second airport’, famous for welcoming the Queen  and the Beatles to Australia in the golden age of commercial aviation – the building employs two bowed wings of brass panels to evoke the spirit of aeroplane construction and catch the city’s extraordinary light.

As I ponder exploration and discovery, the mundane and the exciting, I weigh two possible books to take on my next journey, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Kevin Beresford’s stunning book, Roundabouts of Great Britain. I will take them both.


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