Bespoke hotel design in Asia

Words by
Ed Peters

21st March 2015

Gone is the emphasis on high threadcounts and personal butlers—the new breed of hotels in Asia has been conceived with specific groups of travellers in mind and designed with real artistry to take guests on a voyage of discovery

Anyone looking to put the current state of Asian hotel design in a nutshell need look no further than Loh Lik Peng’s pithy summary: “I like to think of hotels as playgrounds for grown-ups.” The Singaporean lawyer-turned-hotelier, and the driving force behind such groundbreaking projects as Wanderlust, in the republic’s Little India, and The Waterhouse at South Bund in Shanghai, is one of a select group who are looking beyond threadcounts and butlers to get to the very soul of a hotel. 

Snootiness is out; and so—to put it bluntly—is the tarted-up shoebox that used to be labelled five-star. Hotels are somewhere to chill, revel and appreciate the very best things in life. And achieving that sort of hotel starts with the architects who shape guests’ lives without guests really being aware of it. If there is one architect in Asia who might be said to be the poster boy for the future of hotel design, it’s André Fu. Born in Hong Kong, but educated at St Paul’s and Cambridge in England, he made his name with The Upper House, a 117-room boutique hotel on Hong Kong Island which had previously been an entirely comfortable, if uninspiring, set of serviced apartments. Fu didn’t so much transform the residential block as wave a magic wand over it: pairs of apartments were merged into single suites, the top floor was removed to provide an airy double-storey space for a restaurant helmed by celebrity chef Gray Kunz and—most radical of all in metropolitan Hong Kong—Fu made sure there was enough space for a small roof garden.

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The Upper House in Hong Kong, designed by André Fu, was previously a block of uninspiring serviced apartments

The Upper House in Hong Kong, designed by André Fu, was previously a block of uninspiring serviced apartments

“There are so many parks in Hong Kong, but few places with a lawn where you can spend some time or drink a cocktail; Upper House revolves around that fact,” says the boyish-looking thirtysomething, whose thoughtful utterances overlie an obvious passion for his chosen métier. Even his office, in downtown Hong Kong just below the grounds of Government House (the colonial governors’ residence), has a verdant outside terrace that makes it seem more like an urban resort.

The success of The Upper House triggered a torrent of requests from hotel developers who wanted to catch the wave of Fu’s chic, yet classic, vision. Apart from designing a private residence for film star Michelle Yeoh hoo-Kheng—about which he remains charmingly circumspect—Fu has taken on a trio of trophy projects: both the Waldorf Astoria in Bangkok and the Park Hyatt in Phuket are due to open in 2016, while the Rosewood in Bali should be welcoming guests in 2017.

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The Upper House in Hong Kong, designed by André Fu

The Upper House in Hong Kong, designed by André Fu

“It goes without saying that a resort is very different from an urban hotel,” says Fu. “Designing is like taking a journey, and the inspiration comes from all manner of things: the forest you drive through to get to the site; the way fires are lit locally; the proportions of the building that you envisage; the views all around… so you start to think how to craft the different types of experience. “It’s a real privilege to work with very experienced hotel operators, and I think they come to us for a breath of fresh air. I’m very happy with what I do at present: for the future, I’d like to try designing an arts space, a theatre perhaps, or something along similar lines.” If André Fu represents the young face of Asian hotel design, there is no questioning who is the doyen of the region’s architects. Frequently dubbed “starchitect”, since opening his atelier in Bangkok back in 1989, Harvard-educated Bill Bensley has added his distinctive moniker to scores of properties that redefine luxury. The business has blossomed, an apposite verb given his genius for landscaping, and he now employs more than 150 staff. However, Bensley, who cites Frank Lloyd Wright as a major influence, remains very much hands-on. “My first hotel experience 30 years ago was planting the gardens for Pangkor Laut in Malaysia and, although it was challenging to learn the palette of tropical plants and their singular characteristics, I soon had it down pat and wanted to do more,” says Bensley. “Three decades ago I felt the rush of being put into a position of not being comfortable at doing something professionally. While I had a Masters degree from Harvard in architecture and landscape architecture, nobody ever mentioned doing resort design in the tropics. That rush of learning keeps me pumped.”

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The Four Seasons Chiang Mai, which Bill Bensley is still working on 23 years after it first opened

The Four Seasons Chiang Mai, which Bill Bensley is still working on 23 years after it first opened

Bensley says that what excites him about designing is the fact that, as the world of hotels grows, it is becoming more sophisticated, in that it is being tailored to specific groups of travellers. “Some travellers prefer all design and little comfort, as they feel good and cool there, others don’t,” he says. “I like it that not all hotels offer the same ambience or comforts, because, clearly we are not all the same. I had a client in America who was one of the world’s richest women, and she chose an antique wooden Ming stool, with no cushion, for her desk, and used it eight hours a day.”

With myriad completed projects to his name, and more coming up, Bensley continues to add to his reputation as he spreads his template around Asia. “My preferred project at the moment is the InterContinental Danang in Vietnam,” he says. “Thinking of past projects, I’d say my favourites are the Four Seasons Tented Camp in Chiang Rai, and the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai, which I am still working on 23 years after it opened.

“But Danang is a good one, as the client has given me carte blanche to create a very special project. The process to date has taken some seven years and, while we opened 18 months ago, we are still not 100 per cent done as there is always something to do to make it better.” The road from commission to opening is a long one, which Bensley navigates with a tried-and-tested methodology. “What we did over the seven years just for Danang could fill a book,” he says. “But basically, I find inspiration, write a story, develop the DNA of the resort and stick to it tenaciously. I never give up, and just keep pushing it until it is as good as it can be. “I am learning that the more disciplines that can stick to my DNA the better the result. Thus, at Danang, we ended up designing some 50-plus uniforms, menus, outlet names, tabletops and logos; we even designed the various music lists in each of the venues.”

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The InterContinental Danang in Vietnam

The InterContinental Danang in Vietnam

Bensley’s many other projects read like a Where’s Hot of upper-crust Asian accommodation: they include overseeing the design for Ritz-Carlton resorts in Lijiang and Hainan in China, and an Indigo Pearl in Patong, Phuket, as well as the redesign of the old Bali InterContinental, Capella Teng Chong, Capella Guangzhou and Banyan Tree Goa, while the finishing touches are being applied to Park Hyatt in Siem Reap and InterContinental Phuket. The future of hotel design is a much-discussed topic among hoteliers and designers, and always with a close regard to the fact that no matter how jaw-dropping the architecture, hotels are a business and the bottom line is rarely a secondary consideration.

Thailand-based Bill Barnett, managing director of the C9 Hotelworks consultancy, comments: “We can value design now with hotels’ branded residences in terms of market interest and sales. If you attach a brand to a project in a relatively unknown location, it instantly increases the sales pace and increases the value with a premium of about 30 per cent. In all honesty, in these instances, it’s more about the name of the designer regardless of whether the design is any good or not.”

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Poolside at the InterContinental Danang in Vietnam

Poolside at the InterContinental Danang in Vietnam

In Asia, the country with the greatest potential for hotel design is the economic powerhouse of China, which in the space of a generation has vaulted from gloomy state-owned guest houses via international chain hotels to veritably funky properties such as the recently opened W Guangzhou, designed by Rocco Yim and hailed as a “spatial odyssey”. Equally arresting, the 508-room Jing An Shangri-La in west Shanghai is the latest landmark project from a hotel group that has invested heavily in the People’s Republic. The Atlanta-based Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA) was given special responsibility for many of the public areas with a particular brief to attract the new generation of Chinese travellers, something that the firm was at pains to weave into its design solution. “Fashion is a driving force for the residents of Shanghai, and the Jing An Shangri-La is situated on Nanjing Road, which is famous worldwide for its luxury fashion boutiques,” says HBA’s senior designer, Todd Ellenberger. “Given its prominence in the area, HBA incorporated elements of fashion into the design of the hotel: the guest experiences a traditional woven design of an imperial robe as the inspiration for the elevator lift doors as well as the artwork within the cab. The grand staircase is anchored by a three-storey mural of traditional Chinese patchwork patterns produced in eglomisé (a gilding process) in tones of gold and silver. And fashion inspirations continue into the Grand Ballroom with panels of wall upholstery designed to look like the laced bodice of a dress.”

Like his fellow architects, Ellenberger evinces a true passion for his métier, which is perhaps the most singular characteristic of Asian hotel designers. The bare bones may be bricks and mortar metaphorically speaking, but this is overlaid with real artistry, conducting guests on a voyage of discovery rather than simply providing mere bed and board. Naturally, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is Bill Bensley who sums it up best: “I love my work, but I also love travelling and fishing. I think a great goal is to be able to vacation three months a year, which is what I have done for the past four years. If I can continue to balance work with inspirational travel, I will keep at it until I’m 100.” All of which spells very good news for travellers in search of refined and discerning hotels in Asia for some decades to come.