Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Al Faya Lodge: the Sharjah retreat like nowhere you've been in the UAE

Dubai architect Jonathan Ashmore explains the natural inspiration behind the hotel's stark yet stunning design

The journey from Dubai to Al Faya Lodge in Sharjah only takes about 45 minutes but it feels endless – and I mean that in the best possible way. It is like driving through Death Valley in California, scarcely another soul around for miles in any direction. Sand dunes are framed by distant mountain ranges; dust storms and tumbleweed swirl across the road. It’s the sort of place you might expect to find a sun-bleached goat’s skull or Georgia O’Keeffe standing in front of an easel.

It’s also the sort of place you might expect to find a run-down motel offering rooms for 15 bucks a night. But this, thankfully, is where the comparisons with Death Valley fall down, for Al Faya Lodge is about as far removed from your average roadhouse as it’s possible to imagine. The lodge, which consists of five bedrooms, a spa and a saltwater pool, with a restaurant across the road, combines luxury with bold, innovative architecture. Most striking, though, is the sense of isolation.

Sharjah, August, 18, 2019: General view of the Al Faya Lodge in Sharjah. Satish Kumar/ For the National / Story by Rupert Hawksley
The isolated Al Faya Lodge in Sharjah. Satish Kumar / The National

“It brings out the relaxed, calm person inside you,” says Jonathan Ashmore, the founder and director of Anarchitect, the Dubai firm behind this project. “You’ve got the environment, the dark sky, the stars, the quiet.”

Al Faya Lodge has been designed to enhance, rather than compete with, the natural world. Each room has a skylight for stargazing; the master suite also has a roof terrace. Firepits replace intrusive outdoor lights. One wall at the open-air pool has been fitted with large steel doors, which open to reveal a view of the desert, transforming an enclosed space into something altogether more invigorating.

“It’s not an indoor pool that doesn’t connect with the landscape,” Ashmore says. “I didn’t want to block it off. It feels like it was always here.”

Perhaps that’s not surprising, because Al Faya Lodge is a restoration project, part of the Sharjah Collection, an initiative that seeks to reveal the natural beauty of the emirate and also includes Kingfisher Lodge and Al Badayer Oasis Lodge. The buildings at Al Faya Lodge date back to the 1960s and originally housed a grocery store and medical clinic.

When Ashmore first visited the site, both were derelict, full of broken glass and the remnants of campfires. There is also a very retro-looking BP petrol pump – possibly the earliest one in the UAE – which juts out of the ground next to the car park, like a shard of jagged bone.

He was determined to incorporate these older elements into Al Faya Lodge and, wherever possible, maintain the original structures, such as the fossilised stone wall of the clinic. “A lot of people would have wanted to overdevelop it and make another Anantara or Bab Al Shams,” he says. “Al Faya Lodge has an urbanity to it, which is cinematic. You embrace it, rather than deny it. You do feel like you’ve entered the desert.”

Sure enough, in the mornings and evenings, you still see camels being herded to and from the dunes. Corten steel cemented that elemental feel at Al Faya Lodge, Ashmore explains. This material is present throughout the buildings, lining walls and pillars, and works particularly well in the desert because it reacts and responds to the harsh conditions. When covered in saltwater, it begins to rust, forming a protective skin. The wind and dust then alter its colour, causing myriad shades of red, orange and brown that streak its walls. These subtle changes in tone help Al Faya Lodge blend into its surroundings.

“It’s a man-made material that becomes very natural,” Ashmore says.

Al Faya Lodge has quickly gained recognition as an exciting architectural achievement. It was nominated in two categories – Hospitality Building and Rebirth Project – for the Dezeen Awards held by the eponymous design website, shortlisted in the Guestrooms category of the Ahead Awards, which celebrate hospitality design, and won the Commercial Interior Design Award last month in the Interior Design of the Year: Hotels category. This prize was particularly pleasing for Ashmore, who had insisted on designing the furniture for Al Faya Lodge. Using materials such as Burmese teak and abaca leaf, Ashmore created a symbiosis between the rugged outdoors and the furniture within.

Sharjah, August, 18, 2019: General view of the restaurant at the Al Faya Lodge in Sharjah. Satish Kumar/ For the National / Story by Rupert Hawksley
Anarchitect took full control of Al Faya Lodge project. Satish Kumar / The National

“Al Faya Lodge is probably our most complete project to date, where we’ve done all aspects of design,” he says. It is this attention to detail that has marked Anarchitect out as one of the most forward-thinking practices in the region. Founded in 2013, the company now consists of 10 staff in its offices in the UAE and the UK. So what’s the secret of its success?

“We focus on projects where we can add value through our own personal interest in the design process,” says Ashmore. “We like to work with clients who have visions we can share with. We want to get to the end of a project and see the look on a client’s face.”

Recent Anarchitect projects in Dubai include penthouses at The Palm Jumeirah, the bar Cocktail Kitchen and Akin Barber & Shop, where Ashmore and his team only had 35 square metres to play with but managed to maximise the opportunities of every inch, thinking about what men see in the mirror and on the ceiling when they lean back in the barber’s chair.

“I always like being able to change or add a new perception to any project,” he says.

Ashmore is now working on developments in Sri Lanka and Kenya, as he seeks to turn Anarchitect into a global force.

“Being based in Dubai has allowed us to have an understanding of many different places,” he says. “Projects should be really relevant to their context. We have to know how things are made on that beach in Sri Lanka – so long as our architecture is connected with the place, whether it be through the materials or through the people who are operating it, then that project will last and embed itself into the environment.”

Architect Jonathan Ashmore at Al Faya Lodge in Sharjah
Architect Jonathan Ashmore at Al Faya Lodge in Sharjah

Ashmore might have lived in Dubai for more than a decade, but the place he remains most connected to is Sheffield, where he was born and raised. You can see the influence of the Yorkshire city’s Brutalist buildings in the defiant blocks and steel of Al Faya Lodge. And it was his father, an engineer, who inspired him to study architecture in the first place; technical drawings were left all over the house. “I began to understand the importance of drawing in relation to making,” Ashmore says. “I always felt the need to problem-solve through drawing.”

This is what led him to study for a degree in architecture at the University of Liverpool, then enrol, in 2002, at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture for the postgraduate diploma needed to practise. He spent a number of years working at a firm in London before he was headhunted by a company in Dubai a decade ago. Ashmore, however, felt constrained when working within a big team, unable to really put his mark on a project. “I was craving the ‘making’, the delivering of an idea,” he says. “And I wanted to further develop relationships with clients, which you don’t get to do with large-scale projects.” So he took a risk, left the firm and started Anarchitect.

“If I’d given it more thought, I would never have done it,” he admits. By this point in the conversation, we are getting in the car to drive away from Al Faya Lodge, as the sun begins to set over the mountains. A last look in the rear-view mirror at the award-nominated building he designed confirms he made the right decision.

More information is available at www.sharjahcollection.ae

Updated: October 10, 2019 12:14 PM

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