For the latest addition to the hotel portfolio Casa Cook teamed up with Common Architecture, a design practice based in Durban, South Africa. Common’s creative director Mark Bellingan was the lead designer, his sister Leigh Bellingan was the interior designer and both were supported by Miriam Seidenfuss, the project architect. We interviewed Mark to find out more about the design process and how Casa Cook El Gouna came into being.
Hey Mark, could you please tell us a little about yourself and your background? How did you become who you are today? Why architecture, why interior design?
I was born in South Africa 6 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. My life has been lived in a world of change: a country in which our citizens have been working out what it means to repair the tragedy of our recent history. I had a stable middle-class upbringing along with my sister Leigh who was responsible for the Casa Cook El Gouna interior design. While that was the case for us, I was aware that it was not the reality for many South Africans.
In this context I was wrestling with how I could be involved in creating positive, productive and right changes to the world. I was interested in architecture as a means of doing this and – as I have matured and grown – I have realised it is an opportunity to contribute to a world where human flourishing is possible. I cannot change the whole world but each project we are involved is an opportunity to push the needle, to create a bit of beauty, to leave a mark.
What inspires your work? How do you approach new projects?
For us every new project starts with two fundamental things: Firstly, the site – every place comes with its own unique characteristics; climate, views, historical and social context. We draw inspiration from the peculiarities of each particular context. With a focus on research, we ask ourselves the question: How? How can we respond to this place?
Secondly, we consider the idea. What story does the client need to share? With a brand like Casa Cook this idea is mature and developed already – but with other brands or clients we often help them with the articulation of their idea.
To these two things we apply our own philosophy of design. We begin a conversation between these three equal but different spheres: the site, the idea, and our design philosophies.
In a sense this conversation begins on the first day of the project, and only truly ends when the building is complete.
Now, tell us a bit more about Casa Cook El Gouna. What was the idea behind this hotel? What does it mean to you?
Firstly we were honoured to be a part of the project, the first Casa Cook in Africa. The hotel is born of the conversation between the brand and the place. In a sense the site stretches out from El Gouna itself – to the Red Sea Mountain range, the Nile and Egypt beyond.
The hotel draws on the established idea of Casa Cook, and fuses it with the rhythms of Egypt. From early on we pursued a place of calm. You arrive having left the busyness of the city for the edge of the Red Sea. The sense of arrival became really important because of this. As you look down from the highest point on site you see through a collection of buildings in amongst a landscaped oasis. The buildings themselves were designed to accept and accentuate the play of sunlight and shade on each surface.
Walking through, and engaging with the hotel becomes a daily practice of moving between light & shade and public & private enjoying the rhythms of this routine. Casa Cook El Gouna is of its place, referential and respectful.
How much influence did the direct surroundings have on the hotel’s design?
We were inspired by the quality of the sunlight, the pure shadows it creates and the way in which it changes throughout the day. The creation of shaded edges welcoming you in are a direct response to this.
We looked to the rich architectural history of Egypt to the millenia old tombs and temples with their celebration of rhythm and scale. The dark, rich green colour of all of the buildings was actually a colour match from the Red Sea Mountains which dominate the horizon.
El Gouna has been growing in popularity over the last decade, not only for the people of Cairo? Will Casa Cook El Gouna be adding something new? If so, in how far will it be different from the existing hotels?
As a destination El Gouna seems to have its own time zone – life slows down here. With that comes an opportunity to enjoy the alternative experiences El Gouna has to offer. While many of the hotels are connected to their urban surroundings like marinas, shops and restaurants, walkways and canals, Casa Cook El Gouna provides a different setting. Its main connection is to the Red Sea. Time spent here can be balanced between these worlds: the connectedness of the town and connectedness with nature.