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As hotels around the world become increasingly permeable to their surroundings, hyper-contextualised design is growing in popularity. Local materials, openness and inclusion are some ways architects and designers are achieving this, but what Jestico + Whiles has built with Zuri Zanzibar is an entire legacy for the local community.
Spread across 14ha on the west shores of Zanzibar on the Indian Ocean, the Zuri Zanzibar resort is an ode to the coastal land it sits in. Once an important trading centre for spices, Zanzibar’s disruptive past caused the stripping of its jungles and the entire island became a farm.
“Part of the process was to bring local fauna and flora back to the resort,” says Jestico + Whiles director Sean Clifton, who headed up the project. In collaboration with the village, the architects first organised a cleaning session to clear the island of its plastic waste. “We then gathered seeds, and anything that was natural to Zanzibar, we propagated.”
The island’s spice trade heritage also informed the design of a spice garden. Tended by trained local gardeners, it is also home to an outdoor jungle gym. And for the overall feel and layout of the resort, the architects have drawn from the island’s outdoor culture and designed the resort so that every cabana has a garden for privacy and both an indoor and outdoor bathroom. “It’s very much about being connected to the environment,” says Clifton, likening the local garden to the concept of a shared living room.
In line with the outdoor focus, Zuri includes a newly built diving centre on the beach, a yoga area with open vistas of the Indian Ocean, a wellness centre in the heart of the resort, a local vegetable garden as well as 4ha of land nearby, used for farming and growing food for the resort. And for the foodies who want to get stuck in, Zuri also offers a series of cooking and dining experiences with freshly caught fish.
“You can live the Zanzibar experience,” says Clifton. “This means you’re getting touch points with the authenticity of the local.” To enhance the visitors’ experience and engage with the community, the architects also partnered with NGOs and local women’s groups – a collaboration that is evident throughout the space. The back of the reception is made from recycled boats, the curtain tassels in the cabana bathrooms are made by a local women’s group who cut triangles from magazines and rolled them into different-coloured beads. Lighting fixtures and traditional baskets are made by locals too, and the restaurant was designed around a true tribal crocodile table made of 400-year old wood.
“It’s a way of supporting the community in a place that does have a limited number of raw materials,” says James Dilley, head of interior design and hospitality and a director at the practice. “You can either fight that and ship everything in, or you can go with what’s there.”
What was there was coral rock, an entire island of it. So the architects put together a team of 100 local people who gathered rocks and stacked them into different sizes. Jestico + Whiles had its own grinding machine on site, which was then used to make coral sand to build the foundations and the irrigation systems.
This hands-on approach is a clear reflection of the island’s heritage but, as Clifton points out, years of political unrest haven’t helped preserve the local craft. “Through generations, they’ve lost the knowledge of how to make thatch waterproof, so a lot of people have leaky roofs,” he explains. The team set up a training programme to help locals relearn their craft, as well as an English school and hospitality training centre for people to be able to work in resorts, at Zuri and elsewhere on the island.
Jestico + Whiles’ authentic proposal and approach to the local environment is what won the team the design competition, explains Clifton. And with a developer who is also an anti-corruption activist, honesty was a key driving factor, both contractually and by design. “That was the starting point for communication,” says Clifton. “From the very beginning, we engaged with the local people, we met the local Sheha [head of the village] on many occasions.”
Unlike other back-to-back beach resorts that cut off local access to the sea – where fishing is the main source of subsistence – Zuri, once again, caters for the local community. As Clifton explains: “The first thing we did is creating a separation between us and the neighbour and built a new road for the village to allow them to get fishing boats from the village all the way to the sea.”
In a similar fashion, the team refused to tap into the local water supply, which is just as well because there wasn’t any. Indeed, the only source of water on the island was poorly filtered well water, so the team installed a German system that uses osmosis to desalinate seawater. “It’s exactly how it works on the International Space Station,” says Clifton.
The architects were therefore able to provide water for all toilet and shower facilities, swimming pool and irrigation systems on the resort without depriving locals of their water supply. Quite the opposite in fact, since they added a tap for the nearby village to have its own fresh supply of water, and built a tank for firefighting to address the problems associated with a missing fire brigade on the island.
By building a sympathetic resort – two words rarely seen rubbing shoulders – Jestico + Whiles has also built a strong legacy for an island that was both the context and the inspiration. To borrow Dilley’s words, it has built a hotel “driven by a reflection of its location and its context”.