Tourism in the desert is always going to inspire conflicting attitudes, those encouraging the boon to local economies versus those decrying the use of scarce resources for luxury retreats. Paris-based designer Matali Crasset’s first foray into architecture seeks to find a balance. Some might say this is a daring project, perched as it is on the edge of the Sahara and aiming to use only local materials, labour and produce to serve guests who may arrive from all parts of the globe to experience a taste of life in a Tunisian village, or just a period of relaxation disconnected from the sights and sounds of western urbanism. But for the team behind it, there was never any question that this was going to be a different kind of hotel.
After their successful collaboration on the Hi Hotel in Nice in 2003, Matali Crasset and hoteliers Patrick Elouarghi and Philippe Chapelet were keen to embark on another scheme together. All are eager to point out, however, that the Dar HI is not a replication of the Nice project, rather, it is an entirely new concept, “articulated around the ideas of wellbeing, an eco-retreat in a place that is unexpected, magical”. Looking at the finished building, it is easy to see how Crasset sought to harmonize her own creative instincts with the desert vernacular. This is not a single, monolithic block of luxury dropped onto the sand dunes, but a collection of seventeen “pilotis” structures gathered within a boundary wall, the huddle of shapes recalling the domed extrusions of a mosque perhaps. The pilotis are in fact more rectilinear than domelike, but with the corners shaved to soften the lines against the landscape. The design fulfils the aim of being both “a contemporary retreat” and one that offers a much deeper connection to the local culture than the sprawling resorts that line the Tunisian coast, being the result of a collaboration with local artisans and very conscious of its environmental impact. In Matali Crasset’s description the design also confounds expectations in that, “the exterior is introverted and the interior is extroverted”. This means that while the outside does blend with the lower-lying earthy structures of the ancient villages, the interiors are bolder and brighter in a quirky, Crasset-inspired way.
The hotel employs an array of environmentally friendly systems. Solar panels provide electricity, geo-thermal energy is used for heating water, the hammam and spa pool are fed from natural desert hot springs, and grey water from the hotel is recycled, used to irrigate the nearby palm grove and gardens. The construction made use of traditional methods without importing any materials.
For the main structure, brick was covered in a mix of (desert) sand and cement and lime-washed, making the walls, as in the local buildings, very thermally efficient. Native apricot and palm wood was used for internal roofs, door and cabinet construction, and local Foussana marble features in some of the rooms.
Possibly the most intriguing and important decision of the design for the hotel was Crasset’s idea to create a collection of structures on stilts. This allowed for variation of designs/experiences within a modestly sized complex (approximately 2,300 sq m), creating “a kind of village” of its own. There are a total of 38 rooms based on 9 themes and three basic typologies. On the upper level, the “pilotis” are private rooms with patios set just above the surrounding walls and have panoramic views over the desert, the palm grove, the village of Nefta. Beneath the structures are shaded seating areas. The “dunes” (below, at sand level) share communal spaces (intended for families or friends on holiday together) in the cooling shade of the main wall and upper buildings. The “troglodytes” express the most adventurous design theme; these are cave-like habitations inspired by the underground Berber dwellings at the nearby village of Matmâta, and appear to be carved from elemental rock.
Communal spaces feature traditional Islamic patterns with colourful details, such as Crasset’s own faience creations. Everywhere are reminders of local design and culture as well as natural beauty. Visitors to the region shouldn’t need an overwrought monument to luxury to help them feel they have escaped to a different world.
Fortunately the creators of the Dar HI are well aware of that, and have brought comfort and a degree of contemporary flair to a resort that supports inner well-being while highlighting this amazing world that exists just outside the door.