Movie maker

Heidar Sadeki is a filmmaker at heart. Prone to statements like “film is very rich and architecture is very boring” and “I’m a complete sucker for 1970s French new wave cinema”, Sadeki has a fascination with film that deeply influences his interior design schemes.

The Iranian-American designer is the co-founder of Richardson Sadeki, a New York-headquartered architecture studio with a knack for creating critically-acclaimed projects. The multi-disciplinary studio has proven particularly adept at designing high-end spas such as The Bathhouse at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort and Bliss 57 in New York City.

The company’s ethos is perhaps best summed up by Sadeki’s insistence that “we don’t think about who likes and who doesn’t like what we do. We do what we do because we like doing what we do. If we looked at what people like and then did what we did, we’d be politicians, not designers.”

Sadeki is a man who knows what he wants and says what he thinks. He is almost obsessively protective of the integrity of his designs – and admits to including a clause in his contracts that allows him to pull his name from a project if changes are made without his approval. But it is this acute sense of ownership that results in truly groundbreaking projects.

Espa, the newly-opened spa at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Hotel, is one such project. It is a rare and intelligent example of how contemporary and Islamic design can be successfully juxtaposed, and is interspersed with subtle strokes of design genius.

The spa is heavily influenced by the traditional hammam, but also drew inspiration from the mosque. The design of Espa speaks of a journey towards enlightenment – a central promise of both the mosque and the hammam.

At the entrance to the spa, Sadeki has introduced hints of Carrara marble, a whisper of what’s to come. It is only once guests have emerged from their treatments and move into the cylindrical ‘tepid’ relaxation room that the design expands on this promise, and enlightenment comes. Here, sculpted furniture made from single blocks of Carrara marble is set against walls and floors in the same stone.

“The design folds back on itself and creates a narration,” said Sadeki. “I do believe that this kind of thing affects people subconsciously. The tepid room is a spiritual, sculptural space.”

In the middle of the room, a central column topped by a halo of light has been hollowed out to create a hidden alcove, where a shower of colour-changing fibre optic lights hang over a day bed, inviting guests to lie and linger. “I want to take you through an experience that cuts out the outside world, so you can recalibrate your senses,” said Sadeki.

Elements such as this are indicative of the level of thought that has gone into the design of Espa. Every detail has been deliberated and dissected. As such, there are toilets and showers at every turn (because nobody wants to be wandering around half-naked searching for a loo); spaces are preceded by a small foyer area, “so you have a place to recompose yourself”; mirrors have been carefully placed, because “we are at a time when people are incredibly self-conscious and self-critical of their bodies”; and, with their monochromatic colour scheme and hard angular surfaces, the ladies toilets are decidedly masculine, “which creates a wonderful sense of femininity for a woman because you become the most feminine element in the space”.

CID met with Sadeki to find out more about this project, and to learn about his unique approach to design.

Tell us about your career so far.

I founded the Richardson Sadeki studio with my partner Clarissa Richardson around ten years ago, after coming out of Princeton University, which is where Clarissa and I met. We’ve had a very alternative studio from the very beginning. We don’t really consider ourselves as architects with a capital A; we consider ourselves as creative directors. As such, we direct all creative disciplines within our projects. I think that is one of the differentiating points between us and similar practices.

It’s a very holistic approach and perhaps a part of it comes from the fact that my background is more in cinematic studies and film than in architecture. Consequently, a reference to other disciplines is quite prevalent in our work.

How did you fall into design?

I’m an untalented and defeated filmmaker! Architecture was my second choice.

What makes you a bad filmmaker but a good designer?

The age at which I graduated from film school and the age at which I graduated from architecture school. In both cases you need to be older and a little more mature to be able to pull it off!

How does your cinematic background impact how you approach an interior?

We basically approach an interior as if we were making a movie. We create a spatial narrative. If you have a silent movie, in which there is not much of a story line, how a camera moves from space to space can have a narration of its own. You can see that in some of Fellini’s movies, where there are long pauses with absolutely no storyline or dialogue but, nevertheless, the appearance of spaces one after the other carries a special narrative.

We think of all our interiors within that construct. There is much less concentration on architectural forms, so to speak. That’s something that is evident in the design of Espa. When you watch a movie, your mind does not say, I liked that movie because the third shot was only 42 seconds long – rather, the movie leaves an impression which enables you quite simply to know that you liked it.

I believe spaces do the same.

How does that tie into the Espa project?

Our design language is very modern and minimalistic. I have always wanted to design a mosque, not only because I find Islamic culture to be extremely rich but because I have very rarely seen Islamic culture depicted in a modern and minimal language in architecture. I think that within this spa, this is what I have done, to some extent.

Although this is not a mosque, I do believe that I have looked at Islamic architecture, especially as it pertains to the hammam, which has a lot of similarities to the mosque, and have tried to articulate that within a very minimalistic language. So, for example, I have taken the Islamic motif on the walls of the entrance area, but the articulation of
the motif is very modern. There is cut brass and cut aluminium installed on layers of glass.

Is this quite a unique way of approaching the spa experience? Is there still a tendency to have spas that are very Asia-orientated in their design?

Absolutely. There are very few spas that I know of right now in the world that have taken this approach. Most spas go down the traditional route of creating a very quaint space. And while I think those spas are quite wonderful, it’s not what we do.

Did the architecture of the Yas Hotel, which is quite iconic, impact the design of Espa?

Not in the spa itself, but in other programmes in the hotel. Just as we expect architects to be respectful of the cultural context that they are working in, the interior architect should be respectful of the architectural context they are working in. The other programmes that I have designed for this hotel, such as the two roof decks and the Rush Bar, are much more permeable in their relationship with the rest of the hotel. They are much more in harmony, linguistically.

The spa is a very different thing because we looked at the traditional hammam, and the defining feature of the hamman is privacy. If you look at the entrance of Espa, I have covered all of the windows entirely, and except for the tepid relaxation room and the retail area, there is no access to the exterior from the spa. I closed it off. In that sense, I created a rather excessive interiority, similar to the Islamic hammam. In the hammam, the only means of light coming through is in the form of small, rather gothic windows in the ceiling.

With the spa we went into a language that is completely different to the architectural language of the rest of the hotel.

What are your main areas of focus when you are designing a spa?

The three major experiences that have to do with clothing are: fully clothed, robed and naked. It is important to make sure that people are comfortable in all three of these stages, within a very small space.

Even if you have a situation where you only have one gender, for example in the women’s locker room, women may not be comfortable being naked in the proximity of other women, whether that comes from a sense of shyness or privacy or being insecure about one’s body. That is the technical aspect of designing a spa. You can basically lose the whole game if a client is made to feel even a little uncomfortable in any of those situations.

I believe that spa programmes, alongside hospital programmes, are some of the most difficult to design.

Also, I don’t want you to just remember that you were comfortable. I want you to be comfortable enough to remember what you experienced. So, if I succeed in making you feel comfortable, then the next step is creating an experience that is memorable.

How do you achieve that?

You need a very in-depth knowledge of how a spa operates. The first spa that I designed was the Bliss Spa in New York City. I asked the spa owner to allow me to work in the spa anonymously for five days and I really got an idea for how a spa functions.

You want to make sure that as your guest is walking half-naked from the treatment room to the lounge, they won’t run into someone with a mop.

Going beyond that, what we want to do is come up with a strong concept and stick with it across the whole spa.

What is your favourite part of Espa?

The tepid room. When I talk about the influence of the Islamic hammam and mosque in this project, I mean that the architecture itself carries out a critique of the Islamic hammam – in the same way that Godard’s cinema is a critique of Hollywood.


the Middle East a part of the world that you’d like to do more work in?

There is something about this part of the world that makes working here as an architect very exciting. There is almost a genesis of society happening here. We are seeing cities being built out of nothing. There is a new model in the making and it creates incredible opportunities for architects and designers.

Do you think that designers are taking that responsibility seriously?

All of the new and ambitious projects that you are seeing in Abu Dhabi, such as the Yas Hotel and the museums that are coming up, have been done by architects that have considered the social context very carefully. We’re looking at a very different trend in architecture here in Abu Dhabi compared to what we’ve seen in Dubai.

While Dubai is built like a cowboy village, with one central street and the entire village built around it, you see more urban sophistication in Abu Dhabi. This is also true compared to other parts of the world, such as China, where massive development is underway.

What are the greatest challenges facing designers at present?

The economy, and the fact that the western hemisphere, which is where our offices are located, is in economic crisis. A lot of designers like myself are trying to develop opportunities in the Middle East and Far East. As part of that, we have to reinvent ourselves, to a certain extent. It’s a bittersweet challenge.

When we emerge from this crisis, will the way people design be different? Will this be an era of design in itself?

I wish! You are too optimistic about architecture. Architecture is perhaps the dumbest and slowest industry around. It moves about one inch every 100 years!

I think that there are certainly changes that will take place but since architecture is tied into so many different industries and since we are stuck with this terrible thing called gravity, the changes are never going to be very dramatic.

Where do you find inspiration?

The concept of a spa usually comes from a novel or a movie. It never has anything to do with architecture. And when I say a novel, I don’t mean 300-odd pages. It can be three sentences on a page that capture a feeling. We recently designed a spa for the City Centre in Las Vegas for Harmon Hotel. The hotel itself is designed by Norman Foster and the concept came from a page of a novel called The Lover by Marguerite Duras.

The entire spa for me can be encapsulated in the phrase ‘2pm Saigon’. It was all about the light and the room in which Marguerite Duras awaits her lover.

When it comes to cinema, what inspires you most?

I am a complete sucker for 1970s French new wave cinema, when Godard, Truffaut and the entire gang started making all those great movies.

What else are you working on now?

We are finishing up a very ambitious project in Shenzen, China, which is a number of luxurious seaside villas and apartments, and a small hotel. We are preparing for the opening of Milk Studio, which could be the most prominent fashion studio in Los Angeles. We just opened up Lapis in Miami and at Yas Island, we’ve done the spa, the venues on both rooftops and the Rush Bar.

You opened an office in Hong Kong about a year ago. What is your experience of Asia and how does it differ to the Middle East?

I find the Chinese market somewhat reckless and irresponsible. I find some of the Chinese projects that I’ve come across to be politically troubling, in terms of how they deal with the context and the everyday lives of people. That is different to Hong Kong. I find Hong Kong to be quite responsible and rather democratic with regards to architecture. I’m not sure that I can say the same of China. In contrast, I find the relationship between the governmental bodies in the UAE and its people to be admirable.

Moving forward, you will be spending more of your time back in New York. Do you think that New York is still at the forefront of design?

It’s been quite a few years since New York was at the forefront of architectural design. In fact, New York itself is one of the cities where you see the least amount of radical architecture. Simply because, as a city and as a cultural magnet, it has so much pull that you could build any kind of hotel and people would still check in. For us as architects and artists, New York has never really offered us work; instead it has offered us an environment where a lot of intellectual stimulation takes place.

Is there any type of space that you haven’t designed but would like to?

Hospitals. I cannot believe that over 98% of hospitals in the world are places that, unless I was ambulanced in, they would have to pay me to step into. And you have to pay $800 for the privilege. There is incredible possibility for a major movement in the healthcare sector.

What’s your favourite interior space?

I have two spa projects that I think are extremely powerful. The Espa is one of them and The Bath House in Las Vegas is another. The Bath House is a spa in which I looked at baroque architecture and tried to rearticulate it in a very minimal language. Combining these two languages is like combining chocolate and vodka – you really have to be good to make it work!

In the case of Espa, I am combining Islamic architecture and minimalism, which is almost a contradiction in terms. One is all about verbage and the other is about being quiet.

I think that Islamic interiors and architecture have been bastardised. It has really lost its pull. It is a very rich architectural language but it has been Disney-fied and cheapened.


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