One of the most highly regarded landscape architects in the world, Bill Bensley, 55, has designed more than 200 hotels, including the award-winning Four Seasons Tented Camp in Chiang Rai and The Siam Hotel in Bangkok. As he works on his latest project designing the residence for the Malaysian sultan, BK talks to Bensley about how he got his start, his charity work in Cambodia and his other exciting projects around Asia.
Gardening got me interested in landscape design. 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 pretty much maintain every garden in the neighborhood.
I fell in love with amusement parks. In high school, when a landscaper came to my school and showed us pictures of an amusement park he was designing, I was like, “Wow! It want to do this!” That’s how I got into design. I am actually working on an amusement park in Vietnam right now, called Asia Park.
Methar “Lek” Bunnag [the legendary Thai architect], my classmate at Harvard University, led me to Asia. After college, he asked me where I wanted to go. I had no idea, and just told him I was going backpacking in Europe. He was going to Singapore and told me to join him.
I spent all my savings in Europe. I then hitch-hiked around Malaysia, sketching people in exchange for meals. It was a blast. I finally made my way to Lek’s doorstep in Singapore, where I got a landscaping job at an American firm. Not long after, I moved over to Hong Kong to establish a branch of that firm. Finally, in 1989, I arrived in Thailand and started my own firm.
I live my life under the simple philosophy of “mai mun mai tum” [if it’s not fun, I won’t do it]. This applies to my work, too. 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. I also always try to incorporate local flavors in my designs.
To do the unexpected, that’s what makes a design special. I love to create impressions in every step of my hotels.
Designing a space is a lot like writing music. You need to learn the natural rhythm and flow of the space in order to make your designs feel natural and unobtrusive. The same applies to music, as you must first have a solid rhythm to follow before you can write a melody.
Thai designers are incredibly talented. I attribute this to the fact that almost all Thai designers know how to draw by hand, and they’re really good at it, too. It’s a very special skill, the ability to visualize a clear picture and actually draw it in detail.
Thai people are so nice and caring, and very honest. Bangkok especially has gotten better and better. The quality of life has improved a lot over the past 30 years.
At least we don’t have Thaksin [Shinawatra] now. I even joined the protest to dispel him from the post. For all the change we’re now facing, Thailand has a bright future ahead.
My favorite places that I’ve designed are, in random order, Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, The Siam Hotel, The Four Seasons Tented Camp—which received the [Condé Nast Traveler] prize for best hotel in the world for three consecutive years—Intercontinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort, and the palace for the Malaysian sultan, which I’ll finish early next year.
Designing experiences, that’s what I’m interested in. I love to design every aspect of the hotel to give people the best experience possible, from the first thing they see in the lobby to the food and services. I want my designs to evoke specific feelings. It’s quite challenging, but I’m having a hell of a time with it. I did it for Four Seasons Tented Camp and The Siam Hotel.
Helping others is important. I founded the Shinta Mani Foundation in Cambodia because I saw people there living in depressing conditions. Kids were running around and rummaging for food in the garbage. So I decided to create the foundation and run a small hotel and cooking school under the same name to teach these poor kids how to work in hospitality so that they may have a better future.
Participating in the foundation’s graduation day always makes me cry. Each student gets to tell their story. It’s so touching.
I aim to starting a farming school in Cambodia. I want it to be somewhere people can learn about botanical diversity and how to plant various crops, as farmers in each area tend to stick to only a couple. There will be a garden that the community can help maintain, as well as take home seeds and bulbs.
Everyone needs to love and be loved. My partner, Sirachai, and I have lived together for nearly 30 years because of this principle. That’s what gives value to a person’s life.