For more than three decades, high-end hospitality architect, designer and landscape architect Bill Bensley has eaten, slept and breathed Southeast Asia. Calling Bangkok home, his professional and personal lives have centered around, in his words, this “sublime” region. Now, thanks to a handful of new boundary-pushing projects, 2018 is looking like the year Bill Bensley brings us into his world.
Europe is often the default destination for culture seekers, but the man responsible for the seminal Four Seasons property Tented Camp Golden Triangle, Thailand has made it clear through his innovative approach to luxury that there’s much more to Southeast Asia’s diverse and emerging hospitality landscape. In many ways, Bensley's success can be attributed to his unending curiosity and sense of adventure. But, in particular, he can thank one Harvard classmate for his career trajectory: On graduation day in 1984, he asked Lek Bunnang where he was bound. The answer was Singapore, which sounded so exotic he asked, on a lark, if he could join. “And I never left [Asia].”
Bensley, whose husband of more than 30 years is Thai, says he speaks the languages of the region both verbally and by way of building. He devours books and researches each project heavily, delving into the history of Cambodia, Laos, Bali and more to come up with transcendent concepts that aren’t merely hotels, they’re experiences.
Since Bensley—who often takes on the trifecta of architecture, interior design and landscape design for his clients—is asked to build a project somewhere in the world almost every day, he has his pick. For that reason, his selections are usually places he’s deeply intrigued by or has never visited. He’s worked in the Caribbean and elsewhere but now prefers to avoid flights to the opposite side of the world—unless it’s to conceive of a fishing lodge in Patagonia (a dream project, along with small hotels in Bagan, Myanmar; Kyoto, Japan; and Galle, Sri Lanka).
Instead, Southeast Asia is his office and playground. He recently camped with friends and his design staff in Mongolia for three weeks, turning off his phone and computer, and catching (then releasing) 356 trout. For the creator of some of the most opulent and unabashedly glamorous hotels in the world, this might sound odd. But not when one considers his famous Four Seasons is a tented camp—the brand’s only one, and at $3,000-a-night, the 15 tents are perennially sold out. He’s a staunch conservationist, and proud of the fact that after being hired to design a mystical new Bali resort, Capella Ubud, he convinced the owner to forget his contract calling for 130 keys and instead erected only 23 tents, disturbing not a single tree.
“I truly believe that when it comes to high-end travel that smaller is better," says Bensley of encouraging owners in the direction of high yield, low environmental impact and “as unique as they can stand!” The success of the Four Seasons proves his theory.
In many parts of the world, volume rules. But in emerging Southeast Asian destinations, he has the flexibility to think small, and with greater impact. “One of my mantras is to build with minimal intervention to a natural site. I love the idea that the Capella, in essence, disappears into the forest as it is integrated. Bali is so very overbuilt now, and the last thing she needs is another in-your-face multi-storied brick monstrosity,” he laments.
Capella Ubud represents a homecoming for him since Bali was where he began his professional career in the ‘80s. “By way of her example, [Bali] has taught me to dig deep in other parts of the world to understand what is unique about their built environment,” says the self-proclaimed "Bali-ophile" who studies the history of forms and schemes on how to fight globalism. “To be an archeologist of lost architectural techniques is valuable and makes our projects richer.”
He’s spent this year also filming a series, Escapism (sharing its title with his coffee table book), for Netflix. Each episode features a lost craft or craftsman. For Bali, he highlights the traditional Kamasan painters who use a limited palette of natural dyes and a flat, two-dimensional format for paintings that were used for storytelling.
The curiosity evident in the series is what drove Bensley—alongside with a desire to alleviate some of its extreme poverty—to Cambodia, where he recently opened Shinta Mani Angkor – Bensley Collection. “First we sent secondhand clothes, then we bought a secondhand van to get kids from the villages to the free children’s hospital—for some of them it was the first time they experienced AC and a cushioned seat,” he says. For adventurers, travel to Cambodia now “is the right thing to do, in that the place is fascinating well beyond the temples. It’s the poorest country in Southeast Asia, and they need a helping hand.”
The deep-seated poverty is in stark contrast with both the wide grins of most Khmer people and the grandeur of Bensley’s boutique property of 10 dreamlike villas boasting private pools, verdant rooftop decks, luxuriously tactile materials and lush outdoor tubs. The country’s royal past also inspired his motifs, notably King Jayavarman VII who, Bensley jokes, “clearly thought he was hot. His face is everywhere.”
Farther south, the final touches are going on Shinta Mani Wild – Bensley Collection, a private nature sanctuary on a river with three “raging sisters,” waterfalls whose songs Bensley calls “spellbinding.” The 15-tent property boasts perhaps the most memorable—and original—arrival in the world: a 1,240-foot zip line over rushing natural water (a Jeep is the gentler alternative). “I want to be the first one to zip line into the Landing Zone Bar on opening day,” November 1, says Bensley of the luxury-Cambodian-safari Eden he’s created “for adrenaline junkies and those who just want to chill and collect wild pink mushrooms.”
Another protected area, Luang Prabang, Laos, is Bensley’s favorite village in Southeast Asia because of UNESCO’s preservation and dictum that all new architecture must be of Laotian Colonial ilk. His intimate Rosewood Luang Prabang, opened in May, followed suit. “The personality Mother Nature has given to the site is the most impressive—the tiny, self-contained valley with the ever-flowing Nahm Dong River bisecting it is just magic. That made my work easy,” says Bensley, who found reprints of historical manuscripts by the explorers of the 1866 Mekong Expedition, which was vital to his design scheming. “Spinning a tale is a great joy in my life,” says the renowned architect. “I love storytelling via hospitality as one, in a way, has a captured audience.” The next place he may draw an intimate, captive house: a massive cave on the Laos-Vietnam border he recently found breathtaking on a three-hour helicopter tour. Remoteness is not something that deters this pioneer from opening up a new corner of the world to guests. Says Bensley, “When I travel I especially love to learn, so I try to teach guests something new and interesting in every one of my creations.”