Since the end of the 19th century, when the hotelier brothers the Sarkies created their pseudo-classical grandes dames, Asia has been inextricably linked to stylish, statement-making hotels. Their properties—Rangoon’s Strand, Singapore’s Raffles and Penang’s Eastern & Oriental, among them—ushered in a new wave of luxury hotel living, where the lobbies were vast and the verandas broad. Like The Metropole in Hanoi or The Oriental in Bangkok, these were gardened, chalk-white sanctuaries from their tough, crowded cities.
Today’s Asian luxury hotels still provide such refuge, only now they’re set in urban thickets of sleek supertowers and seemingly impossible, imagination-defying structures. The hotels, for their part, are doing their best to keep apace, often adapting local traditions to the 21st century. Propelled by stars like Andre Fu from Hong Kong, Jaya Ibrahim from Indonesia and Eugene Yu-Ching Yeh from Taiwan, a quietly contemporary vernacular has emerged of late, embracing cultural and historical contexts rather than relying on more far-flung influences. If anything, says Edwin Heathcote, architectural critic for the Financial Times, “Today, Asian design is influencing Western hotels. Once, it was the opposite.”
Ibrahim confirms this, noting that some designs interpret their locations better than others. The key is in the yin and yang of it, “balancing the essence of the materials—cool and hot, rough and smooth, dark and light, hard and soft. Even more important is the spiritual sense, the symbolism of what each material represents.”
The most significant new hotels to open in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Bangkok all remain true to the dynamics of modern Asia—even those that are not the work of homegrown talent. The properties include gleaming skyscrapers defined by spectacular views, of course, but also intimate guesthouses and colonial stalwarts refashioned for the next generation. In some, it’s the restaurant that’s the most memorable; in others, it’s a soaring sky bar or a penthouse suite. In others still, it is the brave new structures themselves that are redefining skylines from Bangkok to Pudong.
A core trend in Shanghai’s hotels has been to go higher: The Grand Hyatt Shanghai (from $300; shanghai.grand.hyatt.com) sits on floors 53 to 87 of the Jin Mao Tower, and the Toni Chi–designed Park Hyatt Shanghai (from $400; parkhyattshanghai.com) perches on the 79th to 93rd stories of Shanghai World Financial Center. And if Chi’s “invisible design”—a focus on the tactile rather than the visual—is a display of his restrained, contemporary aesthetic, then the new Peninsula Shanghai (from $525; peninsula.com) aligns itself with its locale in a more historical way. Located on the Bund, the city’s riverfront promenade, the Peninsula emphasizes the Shanghai of the 1930s (polished-chrome details, Deco motifs) as well as a sense of old China (black lacquering, hand-painted panels). “I dreamed of a 21st-century landmark that would also reflect the Bund’s halcyon days,” says David Wang, the hotel’s co-owner.
Another great Art Deco landmark on the Bund, the Peace Hotel (from $390; fairmont.com), had an upgrade of its own, reopening in July with Fairmont at the helm. And in 2009, Langham opened the 96-room Yangtze Boutique, Shanghai (from $220; langhamhotels.com) in a Deco hotel originally built in 1934. This old-new China has its place at the new PuLi Shanghai (from $510; thepuli.com) as well, which was codesigned by Australia-based Layan Design Group and Indonesia’s Jaya Ibrahim; dragon-inspired screens and cast-bronze basins appear in every room.
The dictum “the higher, the better”—an obvious way to stand out—defines the Tower Club at lebua (from $380; lebua.com), which sits on the 51st to 59th floors of Bangkok’s second-tallest building. While there are better places to stay, at least according to one expert travel agent, it’s worth a visit for the astonishing views from the open-air Sky Bar on 63 and the partially alfresco Asian restaurant Breeze, on 51 and 52.
For the most part, financial crisis and political upset have meant restrained growth across Bangkok. As Monocle editor Tyler Brulé notes, hotel architecture here could stand to “up its game.” And indeed, little has been built in recent years to compete with the city’s two luxury stalwarts, the Peninsula (from $320; peninsula.com) and the Mandarin Oriental (from $360; mandarinoriental.com), a situation likely to last until 2014, when a 150-room Edition (the new luxury brand from Ian Schrager and Marriott) opens below the Ritz-Carlton Residences in a 77-story skyscraper designed by Ole Scheeren of Rem Koolhaas’s Dutch firm OMA, with interiors by Brit David Collins.
But positive signs can be found, especially at smaller, privately owned spots like the new Praya Palazzo (from $470; prayapalazzo.com), a 17-room mansion on the Chao Phraya River. And The Siam Hotel (from $500; thesiamhotel.com), also on the waterfront, debuts this summer, designed by Bangkok-based American Bill Bensley, who has also worked with Four Seasons, Hyatt and Oberoi.
Another boutique favorite is the Eugenia (from $230; theeugenia.com), a 12-room spot from Taiwanese designer Eugene Yu-Ching Yeh. The style here is the opposite of the city’s sky-high aesthetic. Built new, Eugenia’s restrained, low-lying colonial-style building is done in grays, blue-blacks and browns, with Asian antiques and taxidermy scattered about. It’s a sort of Thai-tweaked version of Florence’s Jordan Kisner Place—a Yeh favorite.
Long one of Asia’s great global trading posts, Hong Kong has also opened itself up to a host of contemporary international architects who’ve put their stamp on the city, from Foster + Partners to Cesar Pelli to I. M. Pei. Recently, at the 117-room Upper House (from $425; upperhouse.com), local Andre Fu—known for doing the home of actress Michelle Yeoh—has created an ideal, almost spiritual, balance of uncluttered spaces. “The design is not Asian in a literal manner,” says Fu, “but it reflects a subtle Asian sensitivity.” He has achieved this with pools of water, bamboo enclosures, natural timber, shoji glass, limestone and lacquered paper panels. Additional design highlights include the Sky Bridge on the 49th floor, which crosses a 130-foot-high atrium; the hotel’s Bedonia stone façade by one of Britain’s hottest architect-designers, Thomas Heatherwick; and freestanding bathtubs with panoramic harbor or island views.
Less tranquil but significantly more Pop is the W Hong Kong (from $310; starwoodhotels.com) in West Kowloon. “Of all the chains spreading into Asia, W is doing a good job,” says Claus Sendlinger, CEO and founder of Design Hotels. And Guy Rubin, of the China travel specialist Imperial Tours, cites particularly inspired elements like the exotically wallpapered bedrooms and digital screens projecting colored patterns above the front desk. “The hotel takes guests on a new journey,” says Rubin, “rather than simply offering them a place to rest from one.”
The city-state’s collaged architectural history—a mix of Malay, colonial and Art Deco aesthetics—has allowed Singapore relatively free play in its new buildings. Take the $5.7 billion Marina Bay Sands complex (from $300; marinabaysands.com), which opened in June. An attempt to reshape the skyline, as one insider put it, the building’s three 55-story sloping towers, designed by Boston-based Moshe Safdie, rise from reclaimed land to encompass shops, 50 restaurants, a huge casino and the country’s largest hotel. Marina Bay Sands’ most innovative feature is the three-acre Sands SkyPark—a cantilevered platform with an observation deck, a restaurant and a 490-foot-long infinity pool—that connects the tops of the towers. The project is “more than a building,” says Safdie. “It is a microcosm of a city.”
Close by, the new, 111-room Fullerton Bay Singapore (from $310; fullertonbayhotel.com) showcases Singapore’s DP Architects and Hong Kong’s Andre Fu. A sister property to the city’s Fullerton Hotel, which occupies a 1928 post office building, the new Fullerton Bay is, according to Fu, “a modern colonial hotel that pays tribute to that bygone era.”
Fu is also behind Cassia, the Chinese fusion restaurant at Capella Singapore (from $540; capellasingapore.com), on nearby Sentosa Island. Incorporating two 1880s buildings, the new hotel now features a dramatically curved, Norman Foster–designed wing that reflects the soft contours of the surrounding land.
New boutique properties are also boosting the hotel scene. Wanderlust’s (from $145; wanderlusthotel.com) four floors were each done by a different local design company, while The Club (from $150; theclub.com.sg) is by the Singapore firm Ministry of Design. And at Klapsons (from $200; klapsons.com), Italian design house Sawaya & Moroni installed Pucci-pink lighting and a 16-foot-diameter silver pod—known as the Steel Sphere—as a reception area in the lobby.