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Guidelines for Spas and Retreats

By Alex Stark. Copyright and all rights reserved.

Spas are locations where the individual can experience the totality of their being in order to create healing and wellness. The land, its topography and the spiritual qualities of the site are integral components of this process. In this context it is important to allow the landscape to speak to the soul and heart of the individual. To achieve this, it is essential, from an energetic perspective, to enhance and to replicate its qualities in the built environments.

Spa structures must serve a fundamental purpose: to resonate with the natural qualities of the landscape. Buildings must respond to the basic qualities of place: orientation to the cardinal directions, relationship to sky, water and earth, and to the movement of bodies as they travel in space. To this end, certain metaphors and narratives must be orchestrated in an attempt to guide the visitor into an experience that can capture the magic and mystery of the land. Furthermore, any harsh qualities of the terrain must be softened with the addition of new elements that play off the inherent qualities of light, sound, wind, and the passage of time.


  • The experience of space is designed as a narrative in the landscape. Guests must feel that they are discovering the landscape in order to create wellness in their bodies, psyche and soul.

  • This experience is conceived as a series of events that follow each other in sequences. Some of these events involve built environments, others include natural formations, gardens, exotic element imported for this purpose, or special artwork that resonates with the environment.

  • The connections between places, events and amenities is conceived as a web of relationships, rather than a pathway or road. This allows for more complex discussions about the role of experience. It also allows for the introduction of sophisticated ideas for programming.

  • Key metaphors are isolated from the surrounding landscape and repeated at various scales in order to reaffirm the terrain and its qualities. These include but are not limited to: light and shadow, sun and moon, water and earth, openness and closeness, wind and mountains, the movement of sun, moon and stars across the sky, and plant life that reflects the patterns of life, death, and rebirth. Spaces must resonate with these qualities.

  • Although local materials are preferred, certain exotic items can be introduced in order to heighten the tension between nature and man. These include crystals, indoor plants, antiques, textiles, sculpture, and other decorations.

  • Art is used as a way to heighten the experience of place. Large scale sculpture and earthworks, in particular, can be helpful in dramatizing the landscape.

  • Since wind and sky are a key component of the landscape, its movement is made visible through art, architecture, and sculpture. Small chimes can also be used in courtyards and dwellings. Every small movement of wind needs to be captured as a way of increasing psychological relief.

  • Water and its role in the landscape must be explored repeatedly: water is everything in the land. Hence, gardens and horticulture play a central role in defining the guests’ experience. Shallow reflecting pools and larger water features all have a role: to cool and delight.

  • In addition to the metaphors of earth and water, the movement of sun, moon, and stars across the sky is an organizing principle that can be captured with sundials, portholes, rituals, ceremony, and programs such as solstice events, labyrinths, sweat lodges and many others.


  • The entire experience at a spa can be organized around a narrative that involves movement in space.

  • This sequence is critical to an understanding of the landscape and of the transformative experience which the spa can provide.
  • Guests are intentionally guided through a series of paths that are packed with symbols, metaphors, and stories. This acts as a backdrop to the rest of their experiences.

  • The organizing scheme or Master Plan includes both buildings and paths, but from the feng shui perspective, it is all about energy flow in time.

  • Guests arrive at the Reception Area after a meandering drive or a path system that emphasizes a sense of removal from ordinary life.

  • There they are refreshed and welcomed. After this respite, guests are encouraged to proceed to their dwellings along a series of paths or drives that continue to emphasize the experience of immersion into the landscape.

  • All other areas and services can then me connected to this central system, which is also the central image of the spa as a whole.

  • Certain areas may focus on socialization and community, others on privacy and seclusion: at times mystery and a sense of discovery may be prevalent; at others, familiarity and comfort may be more important.

  • In the end, it is this orchestration of narratives and transformative experiences in time that makes for a truly special experience.


  • The experience of space occurs always in time. How one perceives a space or an experience depends on the orchestration of events as they unfold over time.

  • In order to develop a transformative experience, the spa designer must create a series of controlled narratives that will slowly disclose the basic metaphors inherent in the landscape as well as those in the spa’s specific program.

  • These narratives are like stories that are told not in words, but in unfolding movement through the environment.

  • Of all the possible narratives, the most important is the arrival experience. The guest must be made to realize how important and life-transformative the specific location can be.

  • To do this it is essential to create a sense of arrival that is superbly special and which can convey the totality of the spa’s mission and ethos.

  • In this narrative, key sequences can be patterned on certain recurring sequences: travel and arrival; vast open areas and small enclosed spaces; open hot skies and cool interiors; blinding sunlight and welcome shade.

  • This experience sets up a rhythm that can be compared to the in breath and out breath of life. Through this pattern, the very nature of life is explored and a greater awareness and respect for nature is promoted.


  • Metaphors are essential components of any building campaign.

  • A spa’s topography, climate, flora, fauna and history provide clear metaphors that are symbolic of the personal journey of transformation: going into the wilderness in order to find oneself.

  • The specific conditions that characterize the site also speak of the dual relationship between weakness and courage, challenge and surrender, death and rebirth.

  • In order to provide such a transformative experience, a spa must pattern itself directly on these conditions. These metaphors can then be used for the development of architectural forms and interior design. They can also be reflected in experiences that can form part of the spa program.

  • Unlike architecture, which can at times be understood as an abstract aesthetic quality outside of time, the experience of transformation occurs only time, and is dependent on sequence, timing, and expectations.

  • A carefully designed experience highlights not only the beauty of the natural setting and the architecture that is patterned on it, but brings into play the psychology, psyche and vision of the individual living that experience.

  • Consequently, it is essential to choose a set of achievable symbols, signs, objects, and processes that can be repeated in diverse locations, which will reinforce the basic metaphors present in the landscape.

  • Key metaphors may include, among many other:
    – Freedom: open skies
    – Majesty: towering earth and mountains
    – Transcendence: sands that shift in time
    – Vitality: preciousness of water
    – Time: movement of sun, moon & stars
    – Relief: the cooling power of wind
    – Psyche: underground places
    – Endurance: plant and animal life
    – Mystery: shadows, moon and stars
    – Intimacy: caves, canyons, valleys


  • Landscapes are redolent with images and objects that are not only magnificent in their stark beauty, but also symbolic of larger metaphors in our own lives.

  • Sculpted rocks, for example, speak to the process of transformation experienced by the earth through the action of water and wind; exposed layers of the ancient ocean are representative of the layers of our own psyche, revealed by the challenges of life.

  • The whole of the landscape contains such meaning; desert flowers evoke our ability to make beauty of the most challenging situations; valleys represent the potential of future discovery; the vastness of space mirrors our own capacity for insight and vision.

  • In order to make use of these images, it is necessary to catalogue them and to introduce them into the newly created environments.

  • Architecture and interior design should therefore reflect the landscape. Objects placed in dwellings, common areas, paths, or rest areas can re-evoke the experience of the landscape in a more intimate way, reminding and deepening the guest’s experience thereby.

  • Artwork and decor can have a similar effect, resonating with the terrain.

  • Key objects may include, among many others:

    – Sculpted rocks: symbols of Nature’s beauty
    – Crystals: symbols of Earth’s purity
    – Small gardens: the preciousness of water
    – Hanging plants in crevices: tenacity and courage
    – Reflecting pools: healing and tranquility
    – Modern art: finding new meaning in the beauty of the old
    – Large scale stone sculptures: guardian rocks and gateways
    – Shaded areas: rest and recuperation
    – Light and shadow: whimsy and fantasy
    – Flags, banners and chimes: hope and liberation
    – Fire pits: security and community