Kasiiya’s architect and designer, Reda Amalou of AW², spoke with Conscious Traveler podcast cohosts Kathryn Romeyn and Eric Rosen for their episode titled “Letting Nature Shine—Environmentally Sensitive Architecture in the World’s Most Beautiful Places.” Here is a truncated version of that illuminating conversation:
Eric: Kathryn and I were keen to dig deeper into the theme of environmentally sensitive design, and learn about places where the buildings follow the topography instead of changing it. Where everything is designed to leave as light a footprint as possible in order to foreground nature, rather than distract from it.
Kathryn: I experienced just that in Costa Rica where a French-Moroccan entrepreneur named Mehdi Rheljari has spent years thoughtfully creating a unique and intimate property called Kasiiya Papagayo. What Mehdi dreamed up is a place where you’re not only immersed in the wild but embraced by it. Monkeys might be looking down from the trees as you shower or bathe outside on your private deck, and activities include climbing a giant ceiba tree. Mehdi wanted guests to slow down, take in nature, and choose their own adventure. It happened naturally to me: I used all my senses and felt so wonderfully present.
Eric: To bring this vision to fruition, Mehdi worked with French architect Reda Amalou.
Kathryn: Reda, Mehdi told us that “the wild is what creates the moment.” When you heard this concept, where did your imagination go?
Reda: The first thing that came to mind was also something Mehdi had pointed out. He wanted everything to stay exactly as it was when we first visited the site. The extremely strong experience of that first visit was something we wanted to nurture and maintain so that the guests would discover and feel the same thing—the feeling of being the first one to be there for the first time.
“Sense of place” is very commonly used in hotels, but in this case, it permeates through everything. The idea that you could be nowhere else when you’re there. As designers, what we had to face as a challenge was to create architecture and buildings and spaces that would relate to the story and not go against the grain. It was exciting.
Kathryn: Mehdi also didn’t want any of the buildings seen from the water and he even asked you to swim out into the ocean to ensure that!
Reda: That’s not usually part of our scope of work, but in this case it was! We looked at this eco-resort project as something that needed to challenge everything we had done before. We had to question everything that was done before so we could say, OK, this is really about the place and this really can be only here.
So it was designing an architecture that has a sense of non-permanence, designing an architecture that chooses where it’s located rather than pushing things around in order to be sitting at the best place. So we don’t grab our space. We try and find in the most delicate way how we sit within nature itself as it is in order to have this sense of full respect towards that nature.
Eric: I think that’s so interesting because a lot of times when we talk about architecture we tend to focus on the manmade building itself. But at Kasiiya, architecture is meant to be that prism through which the place, the nature is really focused and the architecture draws the eye to the outside and to the surroundings rather than distracting from it.
Reda: Exactly. What we create is manmade and we assert it as such—we don’t try and hide the fact that it is manmade. And all of our projects are very, very much designed in every aspect. But at the same time, we’re trying to complement what’s already there.
So the way we approach it is to look at the overall contextual position of a particular site. And when we speak about context, we speak about geography, topography, but we also speak about culture and know-how, locally available materials and climate. All these things create layers through which we have to read and understand our design in an eco-resort with such a philosophy. By informing our design through those layers we create something which has a stronger meaning and relates more strongly to the site itself. So I think this is the relationship we’re trying to create between manmade and nature.
Kathryn: I was enchanted by the wooden walkway that snakes through the trees instead of going straight to the restaurant. It caused me to move more slowly and spend time noticing things and added to the magic. Tell us about the design of the tents and structures, and how you sought to increase the connection between guests and nature.
Reda: First was to address the idea of taking your time, which is the essence of Kasiiya. That pace came through the notion of having time to understand and take in what’s around you. As you said, the paths are swerving around the trees because we moved no trees—zero—when we built Kasiiya. We had to find clearings where we could actually put a tent. If there’s no clearing, there’s no tent.
It was challenging, also, because we need to find not only the clearing but the right clearing with the right relationship to nature, to the view, to the surroundings. It’s also about the tent itself. Pace, we felt, was about the horizontal line. We designed all our elements in the tent with a linear feel to give a more relaxed feel to the space.
Eric: How do you balance that sustainability, designing around the place, with creating a sense of luxury?
Reda: I think if you take luxury as something which has codes and you need to tick the boxes of those codes, it doesn’t work. What’s interesting and really exciting about sustainability is that it’s offering us a new way to look at things. Creating a unique experience of a unique site somewhere on this planet is something that is of the highest luxury because it’s so rare. So you’re already starting with an edge on others by just using what’s already there.
I feel that the idea of sustainability and luxury are completely joined together because luxury for me is, of course, about space. Building so little over such a big site gives you quite a lot of space. It’s about unique elements and experiences—being able to walk on the beach and see the nature around you and flora evolving in completely natural ways if untouched. What we define as luxury is what we’re doing here.
Kathryn: There are so many different ways to experience Kasiiya, it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. Mehdi also said he didn’t want specific Instagram moments where everyone would take the same picture.
Reda: It’s about creating possibilities. As designers, it’s writing as many different scripts as possible in our head of what can happen, and then people go beyond that making it their own. The opportunity to be inside or open up the tent completely with the breeze or go up on the hill and see the whales—it’s all part of the opportunities we give.
Eric: One of the other elements about Kasiiya that’s so fascinating is that you didn’t use concrete in the foundations. Do you think that sense of impermanence adds something to the guest experience? To me, knowing that this is all here now but could be gone tomorrow would make me, I hope, try to savor the experience even more.
Reda: I didn’t think of it this way! Our thinking was more about not pushing nature around and being so respectful that we accept the idea that nature will take over again. That this eco-resort will not last longer than nature. It’s an almost philosophical approach: We accept our status as being just passengers here. But definitely, designing with this idea that you could actually take it all out is something fascinating for an architect because we’re trained to build something that will last for years and years and years. So it’s completely opposite of what we’ve been taught and what we usually do.
Kathryn: I know you set up a workshop and trained locals to build some of the furniture onsite. Obviously, everything is solar-powered, very sustainable, ethical and eco-friendly. Is there anything you were able to do at Kasiiya that you could not have done elsewhere, and something you believe could be replicated?
Reda: It is very rare that we get so much land and are able to leave so much of it untouched. It’s rarely possible for many different reasons, the first being the economics of the thing. But, I mean, giving clients torch lights and headlamps and telling them that you can talk to room service over a talkie walkie is not typical. And I think this is where the experience becomes so strong: It’s actually real. It’s not fake. It’s the real thing—you’re in a tent and there’s no going around it.
I think one thing that should serve as an example is the ability to build temporary structures in areas that are sensitive and can’t sustain permanent buildings. This gives the unique opportunity to discover areas, regions, nature in a way that is linked to time, like, we’re going to set up camp for six months and then we disappear.
It’s an interesting concept because it’s a way to discover the world in a manner that we’re not consuming it. We’re going there, taking the full experience of that nature around us, but we’re not consuming any of it. And this is very new.
Kathryn: I love that idea of not consuming our environment. It’s living alongside it, appreciating it and not subtracting in a way that is going to change what it’s like in the future for others.
Reda: And hopefully you go beyond that, such as the social aspect with the local people and workers and training. This is also a sort of giving back.
Eric: The old model of enjoyment involves consumption, whereas the mindset now, especially in terms of travel, is seeking a richer, more well-rounded experience where perhaps we’re able to give back and our enjoyment is not based solely on consumption.
Reda: I totally agree. We also have to strike the right balance—a world of no consumption and all frustration wouldn’t work. we need to find the balancing element that will create this level of satisfaction, so that you’ll go back filled with emotions and memories and experiences and souvenirs. We need to make sure that this is fulfilled, and also make sure we’re not consuming the whole planet at the same time.
Kathryn: From my experience, Kasiiya balanced these elements perfectly. I have so many precious memories—and I was actually there alone! I was on this adventure, really, with Mother Nature and the wildlife and the flora. And I didn’t take anything away physically, but I took away so much energetically and emotionally. I think you did a beautiful job of encouraging that through the design. So, Reda, thank you.