Genius Loci

Louis Thompson explains how he captures what makes a place ‘biologically special’ in his work creating glamping developments worldwide.

The masterplan for Wild Coast Tented Lodge which mirrors a leopard’s paw prints

“This song of the waters is audible to every ear, but there is other music in these hills, by no means audible to all. On a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it – a vast pulsing harmony – its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and the centuries.”

Aldo Leopold

Over recent years we have heard a barrage of buzzwords used to describe our work – biophilic, organic, regenerative, biomorphic, sustainable – each of the concepts is, in its own way, relevant and useful; but in reality these terms have all been coined by the design press to try to capture an unconventional approach to hospitality design that is in many ways, intangible. What we truly aspire to is a timeless way of building that offers guests an opportunity to tune into the vast pulsing harmony so elegantly evoked by Aldo Leopold.

Nomadic Resorts’ design approach is inspired by the Genius Loci or the protective spirit of the place. We strive to identify the physical characteristics, geological features, native vegetation, natural energy flows and traditional migration patterns particular to an area, to gain an understanding of what makes that place biologically special and identify how we can celebrate its natural features.

In parallel, we look at the wider context of the project to understand the historical land use, indigenous culture, local art, vernacular architecture and traditional building materials of the area to examine the dynamic interactions between man and nature. This data basically serves as an initial blueprint for the development which guides our design decisions from concept through to technical design.

During our appraisal phase we use an integrated design process to uncover the needs, aspirations, dreams and concerns of the stakeholders. We consider the term stakeholder in the broadest possible sense – obviously the opinions of land owners, investors, operators, developers and consultants are paramount to create a coherent design brief to give the project its overall direction and financial parameters, but for us the term also includes members of the local community, as well as the land’s existing inhabitants – plants, animals, insects and even fungi. This may initially seem to be an outlandish prospect, but the reality is that the biotic community is a part of the sites’ natural capital, and that natural capital is the essence of the final guest experience.

The landscape concept for Nomadic’s new leaf suite tent

As a result of this pre-design research, our landscape concepts often combine endemic plant species, local materials and naturally occurring organic shapes on the site with a functional, experience based hardscape. The source of the concepts varies widely depending on the specific mix of parameters, from the cantilevered structure of a saprophytic fungi on a tree trunk to the ovate, aerodynamic form of a seed.

At this stage we still typically use an old fashioned pen and paper – tracing paper, hand sketches or watercolours superimposed onto a topographical survey showing the existing contours, trees and rock outcrops.

The preliminary masterplan is a critical element in tented camp projects where the research from our initial appraisal phase comes into play – water flows, wind directions, solar incidence and migration patterns all influence our set out.

A sensitive strategy

Our design decisions relating to the site’s protection at this early stage can have a massive impact on the final product. A sensitive strategy could result in clouds of migrating butterflies enchanting guests, while a more aggressive approach could result in an ecological wasteland that will take decades to recover. As our understanding of eco-system management improves and our ability to process data evolves we can now regenerate landscapes to enhance the final experience, creating biophilic spaces that celebrate the biological value of the site. We can, in principal, attract clouds of butterflies by creating the right conditions for them to thrive.

Dining deck in India

Once we have an approved concept and masterplan, we start to flesh out the concept using 3D images to create accurate visualisations to ensure that all the functional and aesthetic requirements of the client are satisfied. We can now see how the buildings integrate the landscape and get a clearer picture of the outdoor living spaces and water features.

At this point we focus our attention on the guest experience to understand how the end user will experience the camp in different seasons, different weather conditions and at different times of day.

We create a narrative that guides the client through the space so we understand where to position various reference elements. Our experience of the hospitality industry quickly becomes apparent during this phase; lighting, signage, decks, firepits and swimming pools can transform a field with a few tents into a spectacular event space, or turn a rocky outcrop into a romantic private dining venue.

The softscape and planting selection is the joyful finale. Here we can play with leaf shape, density, size, color and texture to remarkable effect – we can turn a shower into Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) or make a green roof into a sun shade.

Glamping is an opportunity to help people reconnect with the living world – this is in fact its main selling point compared to traditional hospitality projects or Airbnb. Surprisingly often, owners and operators assume that a beautiful site is sufficient to provide a great guest experience, and don’t understand that a coherent landscape design can radically influence the quality of that experience. Functional pathways, subtle lighting, water features and planting can transform a beautiful site into a destination.

By using the concepts of biophilic design and regenerative landscaping, we can curate the guest journey and avoid experiences that could jeopardise their enjoyment – the simple truth is no one really wants to walk into a muddy puddle in pitch darkness after a romantic dinner and a few glasses of wine.

Tri Lanka, Sri Lanka

About the Author

Louis ThompsonLouis Thompson is CEO of Nomadic Resorts, an interdisciplinary design and project development company servicing the hospitality industry with offices in the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa.

Using a holistic approach, Nomadic creates sustainable resorts, tented camps, lodges and residential projects that reflect a true sense of place and fit organically into their natural surroundings. Its ethos is that designs should serve as a bridge to connect nature, culture and people.

The team specialises in sustainable architecture, contemporary bamboo construction, treetop living concepts, as well as tent design, engineering, manufacture and installation.

Over the last 15 years Louis has worked on some of the leading luxury tented camps across the world including Wild Coast Tented Lodge in the south of Sri Lanka, Soneva Kiri on Ko Kut island in Thailand and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia. The projects have won multiple awards in both the design and hospitality sectors including the 2019 Ahead award for the best resort in Asia and the 2018 UNESCO Prix Versailles for the best restaurant design in the world.

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