Marcos Cain of stickman design writes about creating experiential outdoor journey

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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.

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1. Fortune favours the brave

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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