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The Lie of the Land

Sean Simms - the Landscape Architect credited with creating some of the Caribbean's most distinctive landscapes reveals how his career took shape.

Make no mistake: Sean Simms’ schedule would kill any lesser mortal. When REALlife caught up with him, Simms had been on 13 flights in six days. Certainly, judging by the number of airmiles he has accumulated recently, this is a man at the top of his game.

Last year, moving back to Kansas to be closer to family and friends, Simms struck out on his own, establishing Sean K Simms Planners, Landscape Architects LCC. The Kansas-based business builds its reputation on creating landscapes that make a statement about place, setting and context without needing to shout.

Surprising, therefore, to learn that Simms’ 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 even was,” he reveals. Wanting to become an Architect, Simms enrolled at Kansas State University to study pure Architecture. However, during his first year, fate intervened when Simms chanced upon a class in Landscape Architecture, and the rest…is history.

Immediately fascinated, Simms switched disciplines and began fostering a new guiding philosophy focusing on the spaces between buildings, rather than the architecture alone.

Simms’ first job was at EDSA a landscape architecture firm in Florida, which proved to be a pivotal career move. Here, Simms moved into Resort Design – a field that became not only his niche, but his forte. “It was sink or swim,” recalls Simms. Of course, he swam.

Sinking his teeth into a number of prestigious projects including Atlantis (Paradise Island, The Bahamas), Ocean Club (The Bahamas) and The Ritz-Carlton (Grand Cayman), Simms continued to hone his craft and expand his unique knowledge of the Caribbean.

Interestingly, Simms points out, every project has come with its own unique design feature, often borne out of a particular design challenge. Such was the case when tackling The Ritz-Carlton’s canal system. “It took a lot of design and engineering to get the canals to look right and to function properly,” explains Simms. “Now they provide a unique amenity for the Ritz in terms of the real-estate offerings along the beautiful golf course.”

Simms faced a similar conundrum in The Bahamas when presented with the high salt concentration in the irrigation water for the Ocean Club Golf Course. The original idea of creating a ‘wild’ dune ecosystem was tempered by working with highly salt-tolerant dune-style landscaping. “By appreciating and replicating the natural coastal vegetation, I think the intent was still intact. The process was extraordinary,” claims Simms.

When pushed to pick his favourite project, however, Simms plumps for the mega resort of Atlantis – a 24-storey property ­­unlike any other this side of Vegas with its 11 swimming areas, seven-acre snorkelling lagoon, six-storey water slides; 35 specialty restaurants, bars, entertainment complex, cabaret and casino, spa and shopping plaza. Rumoured to be the largest employer in the country after the Bahamian government, the sheer size of Atlantis made it an appealing venture for the fresh-faced graduate.

With South African billionaire, Sol Kerzner, behind the development, Simms soon assumed a lead role in executing Kerzner’s ‘core value number one’: blow away the customer. Arguably the definition of creative geniuses, Simms cites his employers as, “true visionaries,” and he may well have a point. Sun International – Sol Kerzner’s South African company – transformed Paradise Island from a sleepy Bahamian backwater into a tourist mecca.

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 one of the world’s largest water playgrounds, Aquaventure, the next on Beachfront Villas and Spa for the Ocean Club, 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 at EDSA and Simms was asked to tackle this new challenge. “I was very proud to be a part of the development, although it was a tad frustrating at times.” He explains, “We had our first meeting in 1997 but the hotel did not open until 2006 [due to major delays caused by Hurricane Ivan]”. The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, however, was the exception to the rule. “For the most part,” he states, “a large hotel project typically involves an 18 month design process followed by two and a half years of construction. Nevertheless, the design process is always ongoing.”­­

Simms stresses the importance of the conversation with the client in the design stage: expectations are clarified so that every person on the project is on ­­­the same page: “We feed on each other – it is a creative process. It’s imperative that we are in sync so as to create better and more immersive places. There’s no way to achieve success without tapping into the expertise of other professionals; 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 transformative, magical experience – works closely with architects, surveyors and engineers to determine where best to locate plants, while taking into consideration the site’s sun patterns, topography and soil conditions. In order to bring the grounds into harmonic convergence with the resort, Simms invests more thought in his projects than a mere drawing may suggest. “You definitely have to take into account things like storms, salt and groundwater when dealing with landscaping in the Caribbean. It’s nice, though, to get a project like the Ocean Club Spa and Villa Courtyards (The Bahamas) that is protected from these natural elements. That’s when you can begin to do some fantastic things with tropical plant material that you can’t normally do in an exposed area.”

Simms’ trademark designs capture that regional essence, taking full advantage of location to build landscapes that evoke the local vernacular: “Resort architecture has to take a back seat to setting and place. When it comes to the Caribbean, the ocean is key to many of my resort designs. People come to the Caribbean for the deep blue, so capturing views of the water is important,” he acknowledges.

Regardless of which corner of the world the Landscape Architect finds himself (and, to date, Simms has worked his magic in more than 20 countries), Simms is eager to minimise damage to the local ecology – though he confesses it was not always this way. “As my career has evolved, I have become more environmentally conscious. When I first started, I was all about the adrenalin rush, but after completing a few projects, you take stock 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 relishes the opportunity to come back to the region where he kick-started his career over a decade ago. “It [the Caribbean] is where it all began for me. I have a passion for the people, the environment and the islands.” With numerous high-profile projects having won him a landslide of professional accolades, it seems this is one Landscape Architect who is king of the hill.

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