Bill R. Bensley is a world-famous architect and landscape designer who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He has made it his life’s work to design unique luxury hotels that incorporate elements of the local environment—from elephants to historical artifacts—to create an unconventional experience for guests. He’s also my neighbor in Thailand.
Fifteen Minutes: What was your biggest takeaway from your education at Harvard?
Bill R. Bensley: The people I met were the biggest takeaway. I had a very small class… and it had only six Americans. There was somebody from every continent around the world, and I met people from Thailand. That’s why I am here.
FM: Like whom?
BB: Like Lek Bunnag, who’s a very famous architect now here in Thailand.
FM: After you finished at Harvard, did you come directly to Thailand?
BB: I came directly to Singapore because that’s where Lek went to do his professorship at the NUS, the National University of Singapore.... Lek kindly invited me to stay there for a couple of days, and the same day I got to Singapore I found a job working for Belt Collins, an American landscape architecture company. The first big job I had there was at the Bali Hyatt, so they sent me off to work in Bali, which of course I loved. In the early ’80s, it was absolute paradise. And [I have been] doing design for resorts ever since day one, in the fall of 1984.
FM: Which project are you most proud of?
BB: That’s really difficult, because I’ve done about 165 resorts in something like 28 countries. One of my most enthusiastic, most aggressive, most comprehensive projects is the Intercontinental in Da Nang, Vietnam. It’s 165 rooms, but there are so many different room types. That’s really a beautiful project. I love it.
I guess my all-time favorite, if I had to choose one, would be the Four Seasons tented camp in Chiang Rai, which was a series of 15 tents. It was Condé Nast’s number one hotel in the world for three years in a row. No hotel has done it since or ever did it before.... I’m really more into designing experiences... than hotels.
FM: On a day-to-day basis, from where do you draw your inspiration?
BB: The most important inspiration we have comes from Mother Nature, from the site that we’re working on. So I take it very seriously, and when I go to the sites that we work on—sometimes we’re given very sensitive sites—I really listen to what [Mother Nature] has to say to me. And one of my credos is to never, ever cut down a tree, never change the profile of the land, because it’s been that way for a long time and you use very small footprints in order to work yourself around those trees. It makes all the difference in the final product....
Number two for inspiration is really understanding the place that you’re in—understanding that if you’re in Vietnam, do something Vietnamese, don’t do something Spanish. Do the obvious, and the more that you can really understand the nuances of the neighborhood and the village that you’re working in, as opposed to the state or the country... the more you can bring it to people as an experience and the more people learn [from] that experience. People love to learn.
FM: Are you currently working on a big project?
BB: Well, I’m working on about 25 big projects. We’re working on a really neat one in a place called Keliki, which is outside of Ubud in Bali. It’s 22 tents and it’s based on the idea—and this is really weird—of a Dutch camp... in the 1800s. What would that have looked like in Bali 200 years ago? That’s what it’s all about. The uniforms are 18th century. The tents are 18th century. We’re using real antiques.... I want to teach people the history of Bali, because very few people know that it was a Dutch colony.
FM: If you could give any advice to students pursuing a career in design, what would it be?
BB: After school you should just travel, travel, travel. I’m so glad I did.... I travel a lot for my work, but it wasn’t until I was 50 that I took a three-month vacation. So yeah, travel as much as you possibly can afford after you graduate.