A Symbolic Sanctuary

Aug. 1, 2004
Michael Erlanger, AIA NCARB

Aparia Design ensures that guests at the Aji Spa rejuvenate their minds and spirits within an atmosphere that reflects the rich culture and history of the Gila River Indian Reservation.

When Aparia Design was awarded the Aji Spa project at the Wildhorse Pass Resort in Sacaton, AZ, we were exhilarated with this new challenge. This project was much more intricate than simply designing the interior of a spa. Because the retreat was to be built on the Gila River Indian Reservation, it was imperative that we learn the Gila River Indian Community's (GRIC) history and culture well enough to subtly blend these elements into every aspect of the spa's design.To begin our research, we met with Dr. Amadeo Rea, an ethnobiologist who studies how human life depends on complex systems of cultural knowledge about the natural world. An expert in Gila River Pimo and Maricopa history, Rea's research of the Gila River culture began in 1960 when the older generations of the tribe were still available to share their legends and history. The Gila River people have passed their legends down through the generations by means of storytelling; the legends have never been recorded on paper. For this reason, Rea was very helpful in teaching us about the rich culture and history, based on the older generations' perspectives. With this newfound knowledge, we took our education a step further and met many times with Emmett White, an elder of the tribe, who oversees the Cultural Theming committee. He was able to provide us with information about GRIC history and the legends of their people based on perspectives from the current generation of Gila River Indians.It was extremely important to us, as architects and interior designers, that we honor Gila River's history in every way possible. So as the design process progressed, Aparia Design met with White on a regular basis to ensure that every design—from murals to mosaics to light fixtures—replicated the culture in an authentic manner. In addition to these very vital meetings, we toured the reservation on several occasions to collect rocks, flowers and grasses. We used these specimens as a guide for our color selections at the spa so that the environment would accurately reflect the natural surroundings of the GRIC.The Aji Spa is a symbolic representation of a safe haven in the hills of the GRIC. Historically, Aji was a place where women and children were sent in times of battle. From this haven, great distances could be seen with great clarity. In order to provide an experience for spa guests that simulated a feeling of "great clarity," Aparia Design focused on recreating such a retreat by incorporating GRIC legends, geography, plant life, basketry, pottery and the importance of water.Upon arrival at the spa, visitors realize that they are about to embark on a true cultural experience as they seek sanctuary from their daily stresses. Because the original Gila River people were sun worshippers, the entry faces east to welcome the sun in traditional Pima fashion. Circular patterns visible throughout the spa depict the cycles of life and the connection of all living things to each other and to the land.Gila River legends were incorporated in a variety of ways. For example, in the Creation Story legend, the four creation beings—Earth Maker, Elder Brother, Vulture and Coyote—had the responsibility of locating the center of the earth where their people would live. Aparia Design constructed a story-in-mosaic on the lobby floor to represent the Creation Story. It is hoped that spa guests will pause to center themselves here before they begin their luxurious journey. According to another story called the Butterfly Legend, Elder Brother saw that all the children laughed and sang, but the elders didn't they only worked hard. So, wanting to create something that would be beautiful when it was both young and old, Elder Brother made the butterfly. Aparia Design thus created ornamental metal screen walls showing the butterfly symbolism and carefully located them to generate a sense of privacy around various spaces.The geography and plant life of the GRIC also provided inspiration for various design elements at Aji Spa. The natural beauty of the saguaro cactus, the mesquite tree, the aroweed plant, various reeds and the legendary "devil's claw" (all indigenous to the surrounding environment) are recreated in the architecture to remind spa guests of the Pima and Maricopa culture. The inner portion of the saguaro, a bamboo-like reed, is used in ceiling panels of the main lobby space. Dome spaces throughout the spa represent traditional Pima housing known as the Olas Ki, which were constructed from the mesquite tree with thatching made from the aroweed. Large murals depicting these structures are seen in the men's wet room while a functioning replica of an Olas Ki near the exterior pools can be used for readings, meditation and possibly outdoor treatments. Large sculptural metal screens resembling the bamboo reeds often found along the Gila River act as transparent dividers at the retail shop, café and juice bar. Custom patterned carpets in both the men's and women's locker and treatment rooms were designed with natural colors to portray the river's edge. Each treatment room is named after a native plant rather than simply being given a room number.Finally there lives the legendary devil's claw. This rounded plant, which actually resembles two fingers of a claw, was once gathered by members of the tribe and bunched together in a wreath-like cluster before being brought back to the village. The claws were then peeled back and the inner threads were used for Pima basketry. The conceptual design of the salon at Aji Spa is based strictly on this metaphor. For example, Aparia Design created hanging light fixtures to portray these clusters of the devil's claw while designing wall sconces, which take the shape of a single claw. A curved wet wall surfaced with bright desert colors picks up on the claw's curvature and creates the salon's central architectural feature while separating the individual treatment rooms.Many other subtle reminders of Pima and Maricopa life can be found throughout the Aji Spa. Traditional Pima basketry patterns were die cut and used as metal emblems on light fixtures and architectural screening. All locker room washbasins are raised above countertops to portray Maricopa pottery. Even the seats at all vanity counters are large cube-shaped cushions to duplicate the stone blocks used by the natives when sitting along the Gila River to bathe. The sight and sounds of water greet spa guests at every turn. The spa's pool, five whirlpools, a watsu pool as well as indoor and outdoor waterfalls remind guests of the importance of water and its relationship to the Gila River. In all showers, ceramic tile accents are carefully placed, decreasing in density as they approach the floor to reproduce rainfall. Showerheads are placed directly overhead, rather than on a sidewall, to further add to this effect. The traditional village sweat lodge was a place for relaxation and socialization; Aparia Design created the significant setting by designing fully-tiled, multi-tiered round steam rooms in both the men's and women's wet areas.Aparia Design is pleased that through extensive research, creative design, value engineering and commitment to the client, the spa opened on time and on budget. It is a tranquil escape where clients can reflect and reminisce on both the Pima and Maricopa culture, while at the same time relaxing and rejuvenating both their bodies and minds.

  • Michael Erlanger is principal of Aparia Design, an architecture, interiors, product and communication design practice with offices in Irvine, Santa Monica and Thousand Oaks, CA. For information, visit
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