The 12 of us packed into our 12-passenger van, we rounded the hoodoo (the name for a large, freestanding sandstone monument in the desert), the first traces of a man-made structure coming into view. The road swung around the outside of the cliff and a long, concrete slab abour four feet high and maybe even a hundred feet long came into view. This was the entrance to the untra-luxury Amangiri spa, though we didn’t quite know it yet.
Parking in a large crushed red gravel lot, the huge blue desert skies above us and all around us, we squeezed ourselves out of the van and took a look at our new surroundings. Without the windows and bobbing heads blocking my view, it was clear that this was a sensible, minimally classy design that fit in perfectly with the surrounding blanket of desert sand, bordered by high sandstone cliffs and the aforementioned hoodoos. A series of wide, long concrete steps led up to the entrance of the resort, situated against and seemingly carved out of the rock of the hoodoo. The entire resort, now in view after we had ascended the low steps, radiated away from the base of the hoodoo, each room looking out onto the desert expanse on its own. How we didn’t see this layout until now, I was not entirely sure, other than the fact that we had been ascending from below on our approach.
But this isn’t the Amangiri.
It’s a description, in some way, of how I wish the entry to the ultra-luxury resort would be. The entrance to the real Amangiri is softened and the epicness lessened by numerous structures along the entrance road, including an out-of-place wood cabin and an industrial plant. The Amangiri comes fully into view, finally, as a high wall shields the entire complex from view. You never get a sense of the full form or even of more than one room at a time, until you hike far enough away from the resort to be able to view it from a distance. Why would the viewer want to feel enclosed in a land of open skies and limitless views? Is this to give a sense of comfort to those who don’t belong here in the first place?
The Amangiri resort purports itself to be one of the only spas in the world that uses its sense of place in the high desert as a central motivating point for all design. But for the most part, the resort succeeds only in taking inspiration from the landscape in which it occupies. That is not enough. The cinematic frames of the desert are quite beautiful, I must admit, but they serve only to further separate the viewer from the landscape. There’s an border between the desert and the Amangiri, and it’s an unspoken one, a written rule, and a designed one. The guest rooms are open to the desert for all practical purposes, but they are not allowed to set foot in the desert at their feet lest they accidentally step within view of another guest’s open room. The resort’s design does focus outward at every turn, so that you are constantly viewing the landscape through a different lens, but that’s where the connection with the landscape ends. You can look, but you cannot touch.
The Amangiri ultra-luxury resort is a piece of architecture that looks out at a landscape. It is not a seamless combination of the two, as one would hope it would be.
At the end of our day at the resort, we sat down in the desert room, a broad concrete patio with a low wall to sit on and endless views of the mesa beyond, and reflected on our day while being served with hot cider and cookies (which were delicious by the way). Everyone enjoyed the view and it was incredibly peaceful to view the last remnants of sun on the sandstone cliffs and rockslides in the distance. It was a fantastic room, three walls of which were the mesa, the last wall being the large concrete structure at our back. Yet, this was a room that I could not fully explore. I could travel anywhere I wanted to, as long as I stayed on the patio, the wide swath of concrete. The rest of the room, the desert bordered by the mesa walls, would be left unexplored, and that’s a shame.