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Marcos Cain of stickman design writes about creating experiential outdoor journey

Marcos Cain of stickman design writes about creating experiential outdoor journey

As a designer, if you’re lucky, you get a dream assignment, possessing the right combination of location, budget and energised clients to pour your ideas and ambitions into. For me that project was Zaya Nurai Island Resort, a fertile slice of tropical heaven just 10 minutes from Abu Dhabi. However before I could embark on this project, I had to take a moment to question what I’ve learned about designing outdoors and ask: What do spaces like this really require? And how could I put these ideas into action.

1. Fortune favours the brave

There’s an old Hollywood expression – give the audience what they want, but never how they expect it – and it’s just as appropriate for designers. There are certain things you must have in a resort – beaches, pools, restaurants and bars for instance, but who says that bar can’t move? Taking pleasant childhood memories of an icecream van arriving on a hot summers day as my starting point, I incorporated its adult contemporary; a cocktail trailer, towed around the island by golf cart, complete with skilled mixologist dispensing spirit coolers.

Likewise there’s barely a resort in the world that doesn’t offer a boat trip to a secluded beach, but instead of settling for the obvious, we created a jetty that doubles as a pontoon barge, taking the entire venue with you for lunch or dinner at a windward beach or hidden cove. Likewise beaches and BBQs go hand in hand, but we created a world BBQ sporting every style imaginable, changing and adapting day to day, from Churrasco to Polynesian– the meat slow cooked for hours, the aroma drifting across the island, creating an inescapable expectation of dinner.

2. Love the interruptions

Every truly successful design is an exercise in layers; the more layers, the bigger the experience. However, there’s usually an essence you want to focus on. In a resort it’s probably the ocean, so maintaining visibility and sightlines is imperative. However many resorts take this to mean uninterrupted views of the ocean. Imagine taking a photograph of an uninterrupted view of the ocean. What you have is basically a large patch of blue and a bit of gold. Smart interruptions can be wonderful; lush vegetation with keyhole openings offering tantalising glimpses of the water, encouraging every guest to market the project through an impromptu Instagram post. No path should be straight; you never want to see where you’re going until you get there.

3. Show what you want to show, hide what you don’t

There are always areas that are unchangeable and usually unappealing. Guests, much like the audience at a magic show, want the sourcery but don’t want to see how the trick is done, no matter how artfully conceived your drainage solution may be. The use of architectural elements, vegetation and shading structures serve to conceal these unwanted vistas and add a potent visual element. In Nurai, a ribbed shading structure with hanging bougainvillea was used to cloak raw infrastructure, turning a physical necessity into an engaging visual highlight.

4. One use is no use

Space is always a major limitation, so making clever use of it is vital. For instance that under-utilised arrival jetty, something that always seems to look the same on every island resort, which can be transformed into an architectural art piece that will have guests immediately reaching for their smartphones. The ubiquitous hidden service jetty meanwhile converts during the day into a market selling fresh produce, or local crafts, or, as with Nurai’s Smokin’ Pineapple venue, daybeds vanish as the sun slowly sets, the space becoming a beach club, its lights playing over the ocean. And what about the pool? An absolute necessity sure, but a large expenditure of premium space.

Advanced hydraulics by AGOR cause the timber appearance at the floor to rise seamlessly through the water, creating a space perfect for evening events or morning yoga. Whilst on the islands’ pathways, kerb detailing and outdoor shower recesses use advanced UV aggregate to capture the sun’s rays during the day, before releasing them through the night, creating a fairy-tale landscape of coloured pathways weaving off into the jungle.

5. Variety really is the spice of life

When guests are on an island for seven days or more there’s always the risk that they’ll get ‘eye bored’, gradually becoming immune to its charms no matter how clever and quirky they might be. Luckily what something looks like at 9am is wildly different to how it will appear at 3pm and by combining framing structures with varying materials and angles you can create different static impressions. To capitalise on this, we also made good use of levels, with rooms placed highest with a sunken pool and lounge allowing the guest to enjoy beautiful views of the ocean, whilst the outside was drawn in through stylish window treatments – sky-folds, bi-folds and large glass sliding doors, creating fractures of light, morphing at different times, turning one view into an ever-changing one.

6. Make it an experiential journey

This is where is all comes together. Guests know the ocean awaits them, they’ve been dreaming about it since they booked the trip, but what lies between it and the room can be unique and defining. Everywhere they navigate there should be a new experience; some large, or small, some simple, others wonderfully luxurious, but always something fresh and surprising around the next bend; oversized sunglasses on the beach as if abandoned by a stylish avatar, stand-alone massage pods, a running track peppered with outdoor gym equipment, a viewing frame at the entrance to the decadent infinity edge pool.

Memory is a potent force but it needs a little help and features such as these can serve to make even navigation memorable. Instead of ‘turn left at the pool’, you get, ‘turn left at the giant sunglasses and follow the path until you reach the massive clothes peg’.

Then there are the island’s hyper destinations, such as the climbing wall and zip line, transporting guests from one atoll to the other, or the signature tree house restaurant, only open for sunset, offering diners the horizon on a platter, glimpsed across a lush canopy of green.

Marcos Cain is co-founder of stickman design. 

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