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Amangiri’s Architecture is a Study in Light, Shadows and Environmentally Sensitive Design

Capturing the spirit of Southern Utah’s desert landscape, Amangiri remains a foremost example of environmentally sensitive design.

By Lauren Tyda | Photography by Joe Fletcher

Hidden among the painterly sandstone formations of the Canyon Point desert near Lake Powell, covered in a preternatural blanket of cobalt-blue sky and dapples of sagebrush, Amangiri appears to rise from the ground as though molded by two giant hands. 

But it was not some cosmic ceramist who crafted this five-star luxury resort. Nearly 23 years ago, three architects and an artist/interior designer converged on a one-time project that would see the creation of one of the world’s most iconic modernist desert retreats.

Set on 900 acres of unfettered desert terrain, the exclusive 34-suite hideaway has become a mecca for wealthy jet-setters and bucket-listers alike. “The site has a silence that none of us on the team had ever experienced,” says interior designer Mies Anderson, on the early days of collaborating on Amangiri with architects Marwan Al-Sayed, Rick Joy and Wendell Burnette. “It is so confronting on an inner level. Your ears are almost ringing from the silence. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, there is nothing here,’ and yet the energy is so palpable.” 

That raw, visceral connection with the outdoors is exactly what the architects intended. “Ultimately, the real allure of this place is that it recalls what is pure and wild about the American West,” Joy explains. “It is a privilege to be up-close and personal with this kind of environment, to climb on the rocks, have the property be almost part of the sandstone and to focus on the present and pure experiences of light, water, mass and translucency.”

“The contrast with raw nature and the cultivated spaces people occupy was really conscious.”

— Marwan Al-Sayed, partner architect

1. An astonishing feat of architecture, the pool wraps around a rock escarpment to meet a hot tub at the base of the formation. “There is an incredible spiritual element to it,” says interior designer Mies Anderson. “Our daughter once put her hand on that rock and said, ‘If you ask the rock a question, you’ll get the answer.’” 2. Loungers and built-in fire pits on the guest room patios were designed close to the desert floor and horizon to evoke sophisticated camping. 3. “Instead of having a painting, we framed the landscape as the work of art at the end of the outdoor lobby as you walk up the stairs from the arrival court,” says partner architect Wendell Burnette. 4. Al-Sayed says the idea for the pool was partially inspired by his childhood days hiking in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. “We would come across these bodies of water from the rains surrounding the rocks and jump off for a swim,” he recalls. “As we were designing Amangiri, we spent many hours, day and night, on that particular rock, drawn to its energy and wanting to capture something special by surrounding it with water and making it the heart of the resort.” 5. A trip to North Africa influenced Al-Sayed’s implementation of shade in places such as the entry: “I saw how they used and mitigated light. There are a lot of massive, thick walls and shade structures, so the light is fractured, with bends and twists.” 6. To reflect how rainwater seeps from the canyon rocks after it rains, Al-Sayed suggested staggering trickling holes on what they now call the “Weeping Walls.” Moss formations created a unique and unexpected pattern over time. “It’s beautiful because it’s imperfect,” says partner architect Rick Joy. “It turned into one of the most spectacular art projects that I have ever been involved in.”

The Vision Amangiri, which translates to “peaceful mountain” in Sanskrit, is a study in blending design with nature. “Clearly, the site is magical because of the scale and energy of the 165-million-year-old rocks,” Al-Sayed says. “As architects, we knew we needed to accentuate, intensify and work with the landscape, not impose something on it.”

The answer came in the form of a poem by Mexican poet Octavio Paz, entitled “Wind, Water and Stone,” which Al-Sayed serendipitously found while distracting himself one day from the drafting table. “I realized this is what the site is about—erosion,” he says, referencing the three elements that compose the geological recipe for the land’s striated rock and undulating cliffs. “It’s how wind, water and light move through the spaces, the cracks and the fissures. Once we tapped into that, we felt like we were in sync with the place.” 

After a trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, including a visit to the ancient Mayan structures of Uxmal, the three architects envisioned the resort as an interpretation of a mass ruin, a man-made form that recedes into the cliff and serves as an extension of—and a gateway to—the extraordinary terrain. “Yet, when you’re an architect, you don’t just make buildings and reference other kinds of buildings in history,” Joy says. “You can actually be a dreamer and reach much further beyond.”

The Materials The team decided concrete would be the most true-to-form expression of the rock formations—with a special twist. “We were trying a few mixes and couldn’t get the color right,” Anderson remembers. “When the idea arose to use sand from the site, everything clicked into place. It was a magical moment.”

The minerals, mixed with recycled fly ash from a coal plant, would reflect light and mimic the changes in color of the rocks from yellow to ochre throughout the day. “The casting of the walls is a beautiful story about how they work with the light,” Burnette notes. “The concrete is cast in a way that was reflective, so the walls communicate the changing qualities of light similar to the pieces of glass—or silica—in the sandstone cliffs.”

1. Aman Spa at Amangiri mirrors the surrounding rock formations of Canyon Point near the border of Utah and Arizona. 2. “I’ve always been fascinated by walls,” says partner architect Marwan Al-Sayed. Cast concrete reflects the changing colors of the landscape throughout the day and serves as a canvas for an everlasting light show of shifting illumination and shadows. 3. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame the vistas from the guest suites. “Instead of a TV being your focal point, the windows and the views are your screen,” Al-Sayed explains.

The Layout As guests arrive at Amangiri, they traverse up to a breezeway punctuated by a large picture window. “A lot of the Aman resorts have a beautiful sculpture or piece of art at the end of their entryway,” Al-Sayed says. “With this site, we realized we don’t really need art—the view of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a painting in and of itself, and that view is changing constantly with the light and the time of day.” 

The hub of the resort that comprises the check-in, dining room and kitchen was conceived as the living room of an estate house. The pool around the rock would serve as a piazza for people to gather. Walkways that lead to the guest rooms in two separate wings are outside experiences, so guests can be immersed in nature. “We knew that some of the most memorable experiences would be walking in the spaces between, which I learned going to Taliesin West at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture,” Burnette says. “So essentially you’re always walking in the landscape.”

Wrapped around a rock formation that juts into a sparkling basin of turquoise water, the pool resembles a natural spring among the canyonlands. “The first designs were more out in the desert,” explains Al-Sayed. “But then we started to bring it back toward the rock, using the architecture as a way to interact with it more directly, absorbing the energy of that rock in the heart of the resort so that you are always coming back to it.” 

The Legacy Nearly 13 years after the Amangiri opened, Al-Sayed, Anderson, Burnette and Joy are amazed at how it has evolved with the landscape. “The building has sort of aged and weathered to blend in even more with the eroded mesas,” says Al-Sayed. “It’s actually changed in the 10-plus years it has been there to look even more integrated with the environment.” 

In fact, a water feature in the Desert Wing of the property that started as an abstract representation of scarce rainwater dripping down a canyon wall began to grow moss over time, creating a beguiling natural work of art. “The thing that surprised me later ,” says Al-Sayed, “was when you look at the water shapes that the seeping has created, they’re in pairs of two or three, and they’re a bit random. They almost look like veiled figures. And recently we came across a painting by R.C. Gorman of three Navajo women that looks almost exactly like the same shapes and colors. It wasn’t our intent, but sometimes you get those kinds of resonances and synchronicities when you key into the energy of a place. You almost get these weeping figures that are overseeing and protecting, and it just has this calming effect.”

Looking back, Burnette says one of the most rewarding aspects of the project has been the lasting impression the design leaves on guests: “At Amangiri, it’s not just about the amenities. The amenity is the site and the way the architecture allows you to experience it. I think the human psyche needs to be connected to wind, water, nature, birdsong and different weather and light. We require that emotionally—and hopefully it makes us realize how special and ultimately fragile our planet is.”

SOURCES Architects: Marwan Al-Sayed, Masastudio, Wendell Burnette, Wendell Burnette Architects, Phoenix, Rick Joy, Studio Rick Joy, Tucson, Interior concepts: Mies Anderson, Landscape architect: Michael Boucher,


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