For the Palm Heights Hotel, FOOD New York designs a lush, outdoor bathhouse

At the Garden Club

furniture and greenery at Palm Heights Hotel by FOOD New York

The genius of the traditional bathhouse is its simplicity: just four walls, fire, and water. For the Garden Club of the Palm Heights Hotel on the Cayman Islands, FOOD New York managed to distill things even further, all but eliminating one of those essential elements.

lush vegetation divides zones
Greenery acts as a spatial trick to divvy up different zones while remaining open and outdoors (William Jess Laird)

outdoor showers at Palm Heights Hotel by FOOD New York
Outdoor showers and baths allow guests to remain outdoors as they unwind (William Jess Laird)

“The brief was very open-ended,” said founding director Dong-Ping Wong, so he took a plane down to check out the site. “You walk out of the plane into this wall of humidity,” he described, “so it was a no-brainer. You’re sweating anyway. Instead of fabricating the bathhouse, could you just get outside?”

bathing pool
Getting rid of doors allows the bathhouse to use the humidity as part of the experience (William Jess Laird)

bathing pool with pool patio furniture
The Garden Club includes a sextet of pools (William Jess Laird)

In effect, that wall of humidity is a bathhouse wall. But in reality, lush hedges do the spatial trick, carving out zones across a 35,000-square-foot spa with a sextet of pools, a hammam, treatment and locker rooms, and more. “Planting became an architectural material,” Wong said. “It had to have a certain level of thickness, because we wanted opacity.”

Yellow travertine floors and walls
Yellow travertine clads both ice and steam rooms and mimics the sun filtering through the foliage (William Jess Laird)

Yellow travertine floors and walls
Clerestory cutouts in the hammam help keep structures open to the exterior (William Jess Laird)

Yellow travertine floors and walls
The sun glints off of the travertine, adding to the material’s own marbled pattern (William Jess Laird)

Stone steps in when absolutely necessary: Yellow travertine clads both ice and steam rooms, its hue meant to be discovered like sun filtering through the greenery. Black marble defines a roofless zone with both hot and cold plunging pools. “The idea was for it to become a sensory deprivation room,” Wong said. But even here, the sunlight gets in. Connection to the senses is key. “I wanted as little artifice between the thing producing the experience—in this case nature and temperature—and your body experiencing it.” Simple as that.