Born and raised in Istanbul, Hakan Ozkasikci’s hospitality journey invited the executive vice president of global design and technical services at Kerzner International to dig deep into the mechanics and emotion behind design.
With 17 years of experience working on projects across 36 countries, Ozkasikci cut his teeth at InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and Aman before joining Kerzner International four years ago. In that time, he’s been integral to growing the company’s portfolio, notably with the launch of SIRO Hotel Collection—an immersive fitness, wellbeing, and health brand that will make its debut at One Za’abeel in Dubai at the end of the year.
It joins a long list of Kerzner properties that reflect the company’s luxury-first ethos, including Atlantis the Royal in Dubai, which sprung to life with its unusual but captivating architecture; the Rare Finds collection, a diverse group of resorts that celebrate their locations via “authentic and soulful experiences,” he says; and One&Only, the high-end resorts brand where sustainability is top of mind.
Here, Ozkasikci shares how his past influenced his flourishing career.
Tell us more about your background.
Hakan Ozkasikci: I was immersed in an equilibrium of different cultures at a young age, where I had to comprehend the terms of coexistence from the remains of different eras. I understood later that it was a blessing to witness the mastery of [16th-century Ottoman architect] Mimar Sinan in creating impressive venues and innovative structures that defy the constraints of traditional building materials. I could not resist the urge to practice design in the actual environment, and I paused my studies for a couple of years yearning to understand what it meant to build what I thought I was designing. That caused a commotion in the family, but I started roaming the country designing and building exhibition stands.
After an eventful three years, I decided to go back to school and graduate. The field training paid off, and I managed to pull it off in one year. I carried on with my master’s degree with a focus on sustainability in hospitality design, and I had a three-year academic career at Mimar Sinan University while I continued practicing. My formative years in architecture and design were full of travel, but my foundation was laid in Istanbul.
When did you know design was your calling?
HO: I recall modifying my toys, playing with the geometry of the cutlery we had at home, which drove my mum mad. My father was a contractor, and he would take me to building sites on the weekends [to help me] understand what he did. I was intrigued by those mystical people who held blueprints in front of them, looking at empty plots to discuss how they would build what they saw on paper. I would snatch those projects from my father’s office, desperately trying to read the secrets they held. I would try hard and imagine how the results could be durable, functional, and beautiful. I cannot describe the shock I had at the library of Mimar Sinan University during my first week of architectural education some three decades ago when I picked a dusty copy of On Architecture by the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius to read that the founding principles of architecture are described as ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas,’ which translate as firmness, usefulness, and beauty. It was a moment of pure gratitude.
What drew you to hospitality?
HO: During my second year at the university, [I was] on a trip with my family, and we stayed in a small, unassuming hotel that felt like home. I got curious there. I saw how complicated the backstage is and how similar the design principles of hospitals, cruise ships, and hotels are, as well as how grand the responsibility of being the designer of these spaces can get. I would skip classes and visit hotels, places of worship, hospitals—anywhere people are meant to feel comfortable away from home. In time, it became an obsession to find the best practitioners in the world of hospitality design and try to learn from their designs if not directly from them.
You worked for both IHG and Aman. What did you learn that you have applied now at Kerzner?
HO: My time with IHG was like a fine-tuning program of my personal experience as I learned how a brand can bring order to chaos. I learned the common threads of various brands under one umbrella and understood that branding was not confined by star ratings. When I moved to Aman, I was ready to take on the challenge of being the custodian of design for a brand I had always admired. I had to adapt to the reality of how different and difficult it was to be free of the confines of brand standards, while designing an ultra-luxury experience.
Our brands at Kerzner International have extreme differences and similarities. I employ my upbringing at IHG and Aman to help design properties that are efficient and innovative, contextually relevant but unexpected, and uncompromising in terms of their quality and caliber. Most of all, they should enrich the lives of guests while providing them with unforgettable experiences [so they will] come back and explore all over again.
Describe your approach to sustainability.
HO: Sustainability has become a focal point when considering the design of our resorts. One&Only Mandarina in Mexico was built around the unique topography of the land, allowing nature to take centerstage and preserving the environment. The resort was sensitively designed to embrace the dramatic setting, rather than reshape it, and careful low-density planning in consultation with botany experts has preserved the land and the historic and ecological importance of the destination. Constructed with clay, wood, precious metal, and stone, and the finest raw materials indigenous to the region, the resort villas are private sanctuaries, grounded in the earthen spirit of the local Cora and Huichol cultures.
At One&Only Moonlight Basin in Montana, the architectural design of the resort respects the terrain and minimal impact will be made to the location’s ecosystem during development. Sustainability is a holistic discipline for us; we try to consider all aspects from the outset, utilize the byproducts in favor of the operation, and contribute to the location of our resorts. This principle applies for all existing properties branded by Kerzner and will be the code going forward.
How do you define luxury today?
HO: The three tenets of luxury are originality, volume, and personal time. We strive to create unique volumes that inspire people to rediscover their drive for personal joy. [That] is the motivation that brings our guests back to our properties.
What do you love most about your job?
HO: I love every aspect of what I do. The thrill of the blank page phase of a project, sky-is-the-limit thinking, learning from peers, collaborating with specialists, sharing the responsibility with my team, strategizing, fighting to keep up with time pressure and budgetary constraints, seeking innovative ways, and realizing the designs that are the fruits of an arduous process. Nothing beats the sensation of visiting the designs after they are finished. I adore watching people as they enjoy the places that mean a lot to me. Watching them age and seeing how individuals contribute or change the spaces due to factors that are new is a great and humble way of learning.
How do you achieve balance?
HO: Reading, meditating, cooking, and motorcycling are truly important for me. Above all, the most rewarding exercise in terms of seeking balance is thinking and reflecting alone during the very early hours of my day.
Where do you find inspiration?
HO: I find it very hard to quench the thirst of my curiosity. Works of Mimar Sinan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Sedad Hakkı Eldem, Tadao Ando, and Carlo Scarpa still amaze me. I am an avid jazz enthusiast, and I find significant similarities between the patterns of architecture and jazz. Bill Evans and Miles Davis inspire me when I need to focus, and they help me remember how seamless transitions can be achieved. I am not biased. I do believe in the virtue of learning from everything everywhere.
This article originally appeared in HD’s July 2023 issue.