The Datai Architecture

More than two decades have passed since The Datai Langkawi was born. And there she is. Proud and beautiful. A timeless icon casting her spell on anybody who sets foot on her grounds. A homage to the breathtaking natural landscapes and a living testimony to the visionary work of the architect Kerry Hill.

It all started with the discovery of the Datai Bay: a crescent of a white sandy beach, a steep hill covered by a pristine rainforest and a magnificent backdrop of primordial mountains with marbled craggy peaks. A view so breathtaking, Kerry Hill fell instantly in love! Shielded by a massive mountain range and accessible only from the sea or by a strenuous mountain trek of multiple days, the site would certainly present a major construction challenge. But whatever obstacles had to be overcome, the effort was worth it!

The magic of the Datai Bay was both – inspiring and intimidating. Entering a 10-million year old wilderness with white-bellied eagles circling above one’s head, anxiously guarding their territory, one instinctively lowers the voice, walking as lightly as possible. Secretly wondering whether moving one single stone may be a blasphemy, realizing that the only way to build a resort in this mesmerizing setting is by honoring the nature! And so Kerry Hill embarked on an emotional discovery journey – letting the rocks, ancient trees and purling creeks guide his hand as he began to make the first sketch.

His proposal to set the main building on a forest ridge 40 meters above the sea level and 300 meters back from the ocean was initially met with bewilderment. Surely, a seafront resort with a direct ocean view would attract many more visitors?! But Kerry Hill stood his ground, determined to preserve the pristine beauty of the coastline and to unveil the hidden treasures of the rainforest.

To keep the jungle as intact as possible, the architect decided to limit the size of the main building and add 40 individual villas spread over the extensive grounds, with dining outlets and Spa configured as airy pavilions that seamlessly blend into the surroundings. Rather than employing heavy machinery, trees were felled by trained elephants and the wood re-used in the construction. And where a clearing had to be made, new trees were planted immediately afterward to protect the exposed older species not accustomed to direct sunlight. A truly visionary approach at a time when environmental considerations, green initiatives and sustainability were not even part of our vocabulary!

But following his vision, Kerry Hill went far beyond preserving the magnificent site. By carefully positioning each of the individual structures, he created a remarkable piece of architectural theater! The top floor of the multi-level complex enchants with an epic cyclorama of ever-changing sea with dreamy silhouettes of Tarutao islands on the horizon. And the grand staircase opens up into small courtyards that make one pause, bringing into focus a prehistoric tree trunk in a tight embrace of a strangler fig or a divine jungle plant in bloom.

The choice of construction materials was aligned with the architecture’s vision to give the resort a primary sense of belonging to the jungle. Left in their natural state, large tree trunks were used as columns for The Pavilion, a dining outlet that resembles a giant bird nest elevated in the rainforest canopy. Not painted or polished in any way, the hardwood railings have been designed to weather with a graceful patina of age. And the retaining walls made of black shale rocks were built to invite wild creepers and velvety cushions of moss. And so the distinction between the natural and man-made slowly fades and the life in the rainforest follows its natural rhythm just as for the past 10-million years.
A brilliant strategy that makes The Datai Langkawi a paradise of nature lovers! Thoughtfully orchestrated, the journey from the main building throughout the jungle all the way to the sea, is one of discovery. The space echoes with the mysterious laughter of a hornbill, from underneath a prehistoric fern crawls a giant monitor lizard, a group of dusky leaf monkeys gathers around the alpha male to plot their next foray, and reaching the coastline, one may spot otters basking in the sun and white dolphins jumping above the glistening surface of the Andaman Sea.

But that’s not where the discovery journey ends. While defined by her physical environment, The Datai Langkawi is also deeply rooted in history, celebrating the Malay cultural heritage. Semi-consumed by the jungle, the horizontal walls rising out of the forest bring back memories of a long lost empire whose legacy becomes alive in the resort’s interior.

Illuminated by antique torches, the entrance is guarded by two giant horses, the heralds of the glorious warrior time of the 15th century. Massive spears in the lobby point triumphantly towards the sky. And inspired by the intricate design of horse-drawn carriages, the pillars are adorned with iron brackets and the chairs along the walkways depict the shape of chaise seats as though inviting those who pass by to embark on a voyage back in time.

Crafting a multi-layered design by blending a traditional and contemporary style and by using a sophisticated architectural vocabulary rich in symbolism, Kerry Hill anchored The Datai Langkawi in space and time, creating a masterpiece!

Featured in a myriad of lifestyle publications and coffee table books, the iconic property received in 2001 the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, inspiring the work of fellow architects worldwide. But those who truly appreciate The Datai Langkawi’s breathtaking beauty are the guests who keep returning year after year, unable to resist her eternal charm.