Robb Reader: HKS’s Kevin Underwood

The prominent thought leader on the artistry of planning spaces and a rapidly changing hospitality scene.

Kevin Underwood – Planning and Design Lead in EMEA and head of the hospitality market sector at HKS, one of the world’s leading hospitality design firms – has more than 35 years’ experience in the architectural planning and design of five-star hotels, resorts and upscale properties around the world. His work has taken him all over the globe, designing hotels for Four Seasons, Six Senses and private clients such as David and Victoria Beckham and The Emir of Qatar. His most recent project is Amaala – one of the largest wellness projects in world in the shores of the Red Sea. 

How do you go about creating a structure that will make people feel a certain way?
The basis of everything we do in the hospitality team is designing for human emotion: we think in terms of how to create environments that engender joy, comfort, security and so on. Understanding the feeling we’re aiming for influences the scale, form and shape of spaces. The current trend for wellness, for example, leads to smaller spaces, on a more human scale rather than grand architectural statements.

The Red Sea Museum 

To what extent does a building’s location – country, city, locale, general environment, urban versus rural – dictate the creative process?
Our process is exactly the same for all of our projects: we always begin with an in-depth analysis of the site, the geographic and cultural context. Our design is rooted in this analysis so the result is what responds to the location, bringing authenticity and appropriateness and ensuring projects are “of the place”.

How are tastes changing, in the realm of luxury hospitality in your opinion?
We’re seeing an increased emphasis on time, family and health as luxury. People are hungry for experiences; luxurious surroundings are more or less a given for visitors to top hotels and resorts. “Back-to-nature” type activities are becoming extremely popular, whether building campfires or nature walks with renowned experts. And, of course, wellness is a key trend with the health and wellbeing sector now estimated at $1 trillion (around £0.8 trillion). Alongside this we’re seeing a blurring of boundaries between business and holiday resorts, resulting in the expanding branded residential market. Resorts are increasingly demanding state-of-the-art business centres enabling families to spend whole summer stays.

Do changing consumer demands – such as Gen-X and Gen-Y’s demands for authentic and effective sustainability – mean you can never stop learning?
For sure. I’m a great believer that we should learn something new every day. But I am wary of placing too much emphasis on particular age groups, as if sustainability was invented by people of a certain age. When I was a kid, we used to earn money by returning glass bottles that were then refilled – we were very sustainable! There are dangers to trying to design for characteristics that are ascribed to defined generations. We prefer to rely on our own analysis and intelligence.

Amaala Wellness Core 

What’s your own personal definition of luxury?
Space, time and being away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

You’re also an artist – to what extent does this converge with your professional work?
Every day. My job as a master-planner and landscape designer involves creating compositions and understating proportion, light and emotion in the same way as when I paint. The difference is composing in 3D rather than 2D.

In what situations/places do you get your strongest business ideas?
In the shower in the morning! I’m a morning person and that’s when I’m most awake and feeling refreshed. And I’m alone which gives me time to think.

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