Into the Woods With Architect Maximilian Jencquel

Tommaso Riva

An apostle of sustainable design finds his groove in Bali.

Maximilian Jencquel was in a meeting at home in Ubud, Bali, when his wife called. “There’s a lady at our house who wants to meet you,” she told Jencquel, a Venezuelan-born architect. “I can’t. I’m in a meeting,” he said. His wife insisted—the visitor was on her way to the airport and wanted to talk immediately. So Jencquel excused himself and met the woman, a Polish real estate developer, who told him: “I want to buy your house.”

Rumah Hujan, Jencquel’s sleek, single-level house, was constructed from a bridge the architect brought back from Borneo, although he didn’t start building right away. “I wanted something in tune with my vision,” he says. “I didn’t want people to say, ‘You’re a designer, but you didn’t succeed with your own house.’” Balinese in ornamentation (think rattan lampshades) and in the honeyed hues of teak, rambutan, and ironwood, the three-bedroom structure is otherwise simple and clean-lined. “Most homes here are over-ornate,” says Jencquel, adding that the densely jungled site, with a stunning view overlooking a gorge, mattered more than anything. It now features rental properties and a badminton court.

A turtle-shaped structure that houses an indoor badminton court; the badminton court. Tommaso Riva

Jencquel is an exemplar of “slow design,” a movement that emphasizes traditional techniques, the cultural sensitivities of a project’s locale, and thoughtful, low-impact sustainability. His visions tend to percolate rather than erupt. Given, however, the increasing popularity of his work, not to mention that of Bali as a destination, he may need to speed up his process. In the past few years Jencquel has worked on projects for clients in Singapore, Thailand, Costa Rica, and even the Republic of Congo. “You could say I created a little niche market on the equatorial belt,” he says. “Call it eight degrees latitude design.”

Jencquel, 40, came to Bali eight years ago from Paris, where he worked for the French designer Christian Liaigre. (Liaigre “taught me how to design furniture,” he says.) His dream was to “capture” the Balinese lifestyle and export it to Venezuela, but political turmoil in his home country obliged him to voyage elsewhere. In 2010, after vacationing in Ubud, Bali’s spiritual mecca, he founded Studio Jencquel, which designs homes and interiors that borrow heavily from their surroundings and that seek “meaning and emotional connections.” Of particular interest were building materials such as the local species of teak (always reclaimed or sourced from plantations) and various forms of lava stone, such as paras—“basically compressed ash from a volcanic explosion,” he explains.

A house on Jencquel’s estate built out of a reclaimed ironwood bridge; a bench made from a prized rambutan tree on Jencquel’s property. Tommaso Riva

His first project on Bali was Suarga Padang Padang, a boutique hotel he collaborated on with architect Cheong Yew Kuan. Since then, the now-five-person Jencquel shop has brought to life projects ranging from a floating bar at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan to a badminton court on the architect’s own property that has a turtle-shaped bamboo roof designed to accommodate the parabolic trajectory of a shuttlecock.

“I try to keep interiors simple and functional,” Jencquel says. “I don’t want to distract from the lush exterior.” The badminton court arose from “lust” to work with bamboo; his desk is “a copy of a midcentury Scandinavian design.” And as for Rumah Hujan, Jencquel nearly sold it to the Polish developer, “but the idea brought my wife to tears,” he says. Instead, he rented it to the developer for a year while he built her a new 5,000-square-foot house.

A rental apartment on the estate. Tommaso Riva

“For that commission, we took elements from my home and brought them to another level,” Jencquel says. The property occupies a seemingly isolated jungle-covered ridge near Ubud’s five-star hotels—a true “Millionaire’s Row,” Jencquel says. The physical challenges of the site, compounded by what he calls an extraordinarily wet, muddy year, were mitigated by Balinese resourcefulness. “Even when there is no road access,” he says, “you can have thirty people carrying stones and sand onto the site on their heads.” What makes the site especially stunning is its westward view of the Ayung River, preferably enjoyed from the house’s pool. “People are blown away,” he says. “It’s like something out of Jurassic Park.”