Where the land lies

By | Category: Travel destinations

CD Traveller speaks to Sean Simms – the man credited with creating some of the Caribbean’s lushest landscapes

Make no mistake: Sean Simms’ schedule would kill a lesser man. When CD Traveller caught up with the popular landscape architect, Simms had been on “13 different flights in six days.” Certainly judging by the amount of airmiles the man has accumulated in the past few years he is doing well.

Indeed in 2008, Simms struck out and started his own Kansas based (“I moved back to Kansas to be closer to family and friends”) company: Sean K Simms Planners, Landscape Architects LCC. Although only in operation a few short years, the business has built its reputation by creating landscapes that make a statement about place and setting and context without needing to shout.

So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Simm’s career as a landscape architect came about by accident. “I had no intention of becoming a landscape architect; in fact I had no idea what landscape architecture involved or even was,” he says. “What I wanted to become since boyhood was an architect.” To this end, Simms signed up to study straight architecture at Kansas State University back in 1997. However during the first year of his course, Simms happened to take a class in landscape architecture (contrary to popular belief landscape architecture isn’t a subspecialty of architecture – rather a separate discipline with its own education and licensing requirements; just as you hire an architect to build your home, a licensed landscape architect is trained to create blueprints for your exterior) and the rest, as they say, is history. Fascinated and enthralled by “the class and what the professor was saying about the scale of the projects,” Simms gained a deep desire to become a landscape architect and subsequently switched his degree discipline; in short he started to feel that the spaces between buildings were more important than the architecture itself.

Simms’ first job after graduation was at EDSA architectural firm in Florida, which proved to be a pivotal move in his career. It was “while working for EDSA that [Simms] got into resort design” – an area which has become not only his niche but his forte (not all landscape architects are horticultural experts who focus on front and backyards). Simms likens his experience at EDSA to “being thrown to the wolves; it was sink or swim.” Simms, of course, swam and found himself fortunate enough to work on “quite a few high profile projects straight out of college. It was a bunch of different type mixed use projects including large scale resorts encompassing 1,000 acres.” Some of the prestigious projects that Simms sunk his teeth and tools into include The Atlantis (Paradise Island, The Bahamas), Ocean Club (The Bahamas) and The Ritz- Carlton Grand Cayman where he was responsible for anything related to land including site planning and hardscaping (use of non-plant features) as well as planting.

When pushed to pick his favourite project, Simms plumps for the mega resort of The Atlantis – a 24 storey property unlike any other hotel this side of Vegas with its 11 swimming areas, 7 acre snorkeling lagoon, six story water slides, 35 specialty restaurants, bars, an entertainment complex with a 50,000 sq ft casino and cabaret, spa and shopping plaza! (But then what do you expect given that the guy behind the development is South African billionaire Sol Kerzner who cites “blow away the customer” as his “core value number one”?) Certainly the sheer size, scale and scope of The Atlantis made it an alluring venture to be involved in for the fresh faced graduate, as did the level of responsibility afforded to him (“While the enterprise was under construction, I became the lead guy ”) and the chance to work for the colourful Kerzners – arguably the definition of creative geniuses. “The Kerzners are good guys to work for and true visionaries, ” says Simms. He has a point; Sun International – Sol’s South African company – has transformed Paradise Island from a sleepy Bahamian backwater into a tourist mecca through the vast (and ever expanding) vacation fantasyland aka Atlantis, which is rumoured to be the largest employer after the Bahamian government.

By all accounts, Simms’ sojourn in The Bahamas was an exciting one owing to the astonishing variety of work. “It was always changing. One week I was working on Waterscape [one of the world’s largest water playgrounds] for the Kerzners, the next on Beachfront Villas for the Ocean Club spa, and the following on a Tom Weiskopf golf course – all with highly talented professionals. It was a busy time,” he recalls.

Simms had barely finished in The Bahamas when Mike Ryan – owner/developer of the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman – came calling. “I was very proud to be a part of the development, although it was a tad frustrating at the time.” He explains: “We had our first meeting in, I think, 1997 but the hotel didn’t open until 2006.”

The Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, however, is the exception rather than the rule. While Simms acknowledges that “all projects are unique”, for the most part “a large hotel project typically involves “an 18 month design process followed by two and a half years of construction.” That said, Simms is keen to stress “that throughout the construction period, the design process is still going strong.”

The process begins with a conversation with the client or as Simms puts it: “We get our margin orders which reveals what the client sees and what their expectations are. We then have to ask ‘what can the design team do with the orders?’” As Simms makes clear, every person on the project needs to be on the same page: “We feed on each other – it’s a creative process. It’s imperative that we are in sync so as to create better and more immersive places; all of the pieces have to work together”. All told, the aim is for the eye to see the whole, not the parts and to be blissfully unaware that designers were hard at work: “If the job has been done right, all evidence of engineers and architects fades away,” says Simms.

For his part, Simms – who sees resort landscapes as a way of creating a transporting, magical experience – works closely with architects, surveyors and engineers to determine the best places to put plants taking into consideration the site’s sun patterns, slope characteristics (the technical term is topography) and soil conditions and other factors governing land use; all of which means that as a landscape architect Simms has invested much more thought into his projects in order to bring the grounds into harmonic convergence with the resort, than a drawing may suggest.

In his designs, Simms seeks to take advantage of the location and build landscapes that evoke the local vernacular: “Resort architecture has to take a back seat to setting and place.” Capturing that regional essence (he looks to fit any design into its environment) is what has given Simm’s work such pride of place. Case in point? The ocean “is key” in many of his Caribbean resort designs. “People come to the Caribbean for the ocean,” he acknowledges, “so capturing views of the sea is important.” Consequently at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, stunning sea views can be enjoyed from any number of spaces making for the best in outdoor living Caribbean style.

Regardless of which corner of the world the landscape architect finds himself (to date Simms has worked his magic in more than 20 countries), Simms is eager to do the least possible damage to the local scenery and ecology – though he confesses it wasn’t always this way. “As my career has evolved, I have become more and more environmentally conscious. When I first started, I was all about the adrenalin rush but after you have gone through a few projects you take stock of what you have done and edit yourself a bit.” Subsequently Simms now specifies recycled landscape construction materials, aims to avoid disturbing sensitive natural areas and also tries to choose native flowers, trees and shrubbery that can best thrive in a specific region.

Looking to the future, Simms would relish the opportunity to return to the Caribbean – the region where he kick-started his career over a decade ago. “I have done some great work and master planning all over the planet but the Caribbean remains close to my heart. It’s where it all began for me and I have a passion for the people, the environment and the region. Ideally I would like to do more smaller scale, high end boutiques in the Caribbean.” Don’t bet against it: this landscape architect is in it for the long haul.

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