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The imprints of English-American architectural wizard in Vietnam
Jenna Duong 10:05, 2023/01/23
The design philosophy of Bill Bensley - the architect known worldwide as the “king of resorts” - is as interesting and unique as his hospitality projects in the country.

Have you ever admired the beauty of Indochine architecture blended with typical patterns of highland people at a hotel in Sapa Town in the northern mountain province of Lao Cai? Overwhelmed by the fresh, natural space at hotels in Danang City or Hanoi?

Bill works at his Bensley Outsider Gallery in InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort. Photo courtesy of the resort 

The person behind all these masterpieces is the wizard Bill Bensley - the leading architect in the tourism and hotel industries worldwide. He was named “the king of exotic luxury resorts” by Time Magazine, as well as recognized by Fast Company as one of the 100 most creative people in the world.

Bill Bensley has designed more than 200 resorts and hotels in 30 countries. He also made his mark in Vietnam with large-scale hospitality projects from North to South.

His latest work is the 5-star hotel Capella Hanoi, inspired by the Palais Garnier or Opera Garnier in Paris in the 1920s.

Exchanging sketches for meals before becoming Asia’s leading ‘gardener’

Bill Bensley was born on a small farm in California, United States, to an English immigrant family. From a young age, he learned to grow vegetables, pick fruits, raise poultry, and harvest honey.

“My parents were really into botany when I was growing up in the US. They taught me how to maintain and arrange a garden, and I grew to love it, too. I even got paid by my neighbors to maintain every garden in the neighborhood,” he recalled.

The space of Capella Hanoi Hotel. Photo courtesy of the hotel

The architect graduated in Landscape Architecture in California, then studied further at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Not knowing what to do after his graduation, he decided to backpack across Europe.

“Back then, I could not afford to stay at Motel 6, so hotels weren’t really on my radar,” Bill admitted.

Having spent all his savings, he stopped in Southeast Asia and hitchhiked and sketched portraits in exchange for meals. Somehow, he finally managed to reach Lek Bunnag’s doorstep. Thanks to an old classmate, who was teaching in Singapore, Bill found a job at an American firm.

“However, just after graduation, I landed a job in Singapore, and a week later, I was on a plane to Bali to design a pool and the gardens for the Bali Hyatt. I was smitten,” he said.

In 1989, Bill Bensley opened his own Bensley Studio in Thailand, then acted as the ‘orchestra conductor’ of many prestigious regional projects. He chose the hospitality sector over housing because the operators would have to maintain the beautiful designs and contact him again for maintenance and renewal.

However, it took about 10 years for fate to bring Bill Bensley to Vietnam.

Unforgettable scars soothed by the S-shaped land’s potential

InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort is the first resort designed by InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort in Vietnam

At that time, the architectural wizard was invited to design a resort on the shores of Nha Trang Bay. However, his first project in Vietnam was suddenly disrupted when the investor got imprisoned. This sad memory became a scar in Bill Bensley’s heart, causing him to flatly refuse the next person that came to him.

However, since the investor begged him for a whole year and even asked friends to persuade him, Bill couldn’t help but accept out of respect. A few months later, the architect arranged a trip to Vietnam to survey the terrain. After all, the potential of the S-shaped land did not let him down.

Within a year, Bill ‘wandered’ from North to South, immersing himself in daily life to absorb Vietnamese culture and architecture. Outstanding hospitality buildings were created one by one, combining the talented architect’s unique design thinking and the locality’s traditional beauty.

“If a project fails to interest me, then I don’t do it. I believe if someone doesn’t enjoy their work, then they won’t do a good job,” he said in an interview with an international correspondent.

Treating work as going out, threatening to fine investors $1,000 for a tree

“The fact that folks pay me to play. I have never worked a day in my life,” said Bill Bensley.

Like many other creators, this architect also has immutable principles. His life motto is encapsulated in four Thai words “mai mun mai tum”, which means “if it’s not fun, I won’t do it”.

Bill will refuse a project if he feels forced to do as the client wants, no matter how beautiful the landscape is or how much the investor pays. He also never imposes his style on the works but tries to learn about and apply local cultural features.

Managing to invite Bill Bensley is one thing, pursuing the project with him to the end is another difficult challenge. This architect's designs are rather expensive, yet he does not allow investors to give up midway.

The Pink House in JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay in Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, Vietnam

To meet the conditions of this architectural wizard, large construction companies in Vietnam have to relearn how to make each brick. When an investor threatened not to pay to make the wizard succumb to his will,  Bill Bensley loudly replied that he did not need money but just wanted a beautiful building.

Growing up in a poor family, Bill hates wastefulness. He once “sulked” and skipped breakfast because… a mango tree was damaged or demanded a $1,000 fine on the investor for harming one of the 8,000 coconut trees in Koh Samui, Thailand, during construction.

“As a landscape architect to begin with, my first goal is always to respect what Mother Nature has given us two of my mantras: that of Minimal Intervention – reading the lay of the land and building between or around trees rather than cutting them down – as well as High Yield Low Impact,” he said.

Surprisingly, Bill Bensley even feels… proud to have someone copy his design. The architectural wizard thinks that if a building is not good or beautiful, no one will want to imitate it. Each of the works he created is one of a kind because “creation is infinite”, according to him.

As the architect explained, the most important thing for him is creating new and strange things - he wants to come to places no one has been to, do things no one has done, and tell stories no one has ever known.

“Dance first, think later,” Bill would advise you to do what your heart tells you - even if you think it’s silly.

“Designing a hotel is akin to producing a Hollywood movie… they both need a strong, compelling storyline.” Therefore, each of his works takes a dominant character throughout.

Gorgeous architectures in Vietnam

The space of Legacy Yen Tu - MGallery Hotel in the northern province of Quang Ninh, Vietnam.

InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort in the central province of Quang Nam is the first-ever creation of Bensley in Vietnam.

The resort “is a special one for Bill and the Bensley Team as it was the most extensive hotel we had ever built at the time,” according to Bill Bensley’s team.

The result is a whimsical realm spread across four levels - Heaven, Sky, Earth, and Sea – taking advantage of the incredible vistas from the mountaintop and the pristine beach. It is Bill’s interpretation of the best bits of Vietnamese vernacular architecture, combined with some wilder elements, like a bar designed by an aristocratic monkey, a banana yellow cinema, and exciting toilets.

The Hotel de la Coupole - MGallery in Sapa Town of the mountainous province of Lao Cai tells you about the 1930s Vietnamese bamboo hat’s influence on French haute couture.

As for JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay in Phu Quoc Island, Kien Giang Province, it's the story of a fantasy university over 100 years old. With the complex “King of luxury resorts,” Bill created a unique property that lets guests feel like they are being transported back in time.

Regarding the hotel concept, there is no other resort property in Asia like the JW Marriott Phu Quoc. A tremendous amount of time was spent on this project to ensure that every detail, including the decorative items and staff uniforms, was carefully selected to reinforce the hotel’s overarching academic theme.

Capella Hanoi Hotel is located in the heart of Hanoi.

Situated in the same neighborhood as the iconic Hanoi Opera House, Capella Hanoi is the latest work of Bill in Vietnam.

Under the talented architect’s meticulous eye, the property was infused with early 20th-century details, allowing guests to fully immerse themselves in the spirit of the decade as part of a transformative travel experience unlike any available in the region.

Travel + Leisure Magazine’s “IT List” 2022 has summed up the feeling of a stay at the property with the Vietnamese phrase “tinh te”, which means to have exquisitely discerning taste. Bill has left no detail unchecked in the 47-room hotel giving guests an opulent 5-star experience with a bespoke boutique feel.

The hotel has a charismatic atmosphere and yet offers a soothing feeling of striding into something much smaller and special, like setting foot in a petite auberge – the secluded rendezvous venue of great Opera singers, composers, and artists.

“Good design means living a good life, as one is usually happy when surrounded by things of beauty that work well and tell a story that puts a smile on your face,” Bill Bensley said.

TAG: Hanoi Tourism; Travel to Hanoi
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