Through his stellar work with Capella Ubud, Bill Bensley shows us that there need not be any compromise in the marriage of design and conservation
“Zero trees were cut down,” exclaims Bill Bensley when asked about his concept behind the luxury resort, Capella Ubud. “I believe that even though I’m a pretty good architect, when you go to a very natural place like Capella Ubud, that beautiful little valley, no matter what I do, no matter how sensitive I am, I’m only going to make that place worse. So, I approached the project with the idea of minimal intervention.”
Nestled in a lush valley, the five-star property embraces the natural landscape. Twenty-three luxurious tents embedded in the dense rainforest are linked together by snaking footpaths, steep stone steps and hanging bridges, surrounding a stunningly unique pool, made from the recycled ship’s hull.
“The owner of the land wasn’t quite sure what to do with it and the original project was going to be a large scale 120-room hotel like most other properties in Ubud,” shares Capella Ubud’s general manager, Mark Swinton. “Then he met Bill. It was one of those serendipitous moments, where a light was switched on and it became a true meeting of the minds. From there, it just took off and it became organic.”
Veering away from the industry standards of bulldozing and filling the land, Bensley wanted to preserve as much of the rainforest as possible. “This is why I chose a tent. It has a very small footprint, which allowed us to build within the forest.” Some of the tented rooms even have trees snaking through the floor to the ceiling. “If you want the predictable, you don’t come here,” says Swinton. “If you want the adventure, you want to go out of your comfort zone and you want to become alive, then you come here.”
This conservationist philosophy is also deeply rooted in Balinese tradition of being in harmony with God, people and nature. “We are inspired by the local concept of Tri Hita Karana,” explains Swinton. “We run the resort with this in mind. We source produce from local farms, we have our own sewage treatment plant, we try to conserve water but we still maintain that sense of luxury and refinement.”
Far from the minimalist or rustic stereotypes of eco-resorts, Capella Ubud has Bensley’s signature maximalist style. Each tent is whimsically decorated according to theme–the Photographer’s Tent with vintage cameras and photos or the Puppet Master’s Tent with Balinese puppets, lavishly covered in beautiful local textiles, and adorned in antiques and handicrafts.
Bensley, who sources these pieces himself, and admits to keeping many for his own home, shares how antiquing fits right into his sustainable design principles. “There is this constant influx of new antiques, new materials which we use and some stay in my home for many years. Some go in and out for a few years at a time but nothing’s wasted. I don’t like to buy new furniture, I like to re-invent and I like to upcycle a lot, even with the properties I design.”
When asked how he came to espouse sustainability, Bensley, who feels that “sustainability is a generally new buzzword” says, “As a child, I was brought up on a farm and we had to grow our own food. I had ducks, quail, vegetables, bees and rabbits. Basically, we were self-sufficient, we were sustainable, but we never used that word.” He then further explains that his training as a landscape architect helped him crystallise this mindset. “As a landscape architect, you grow and you train to become a patron of the Earth. You train to know how to work with the elements of Mother Earth rather than throwing concrete on it. It has become second nature to me to look at architecture differently than, perhaps, most.”
His natural instincts have paid off, winning multiple awards not only in design but also for his sustainable practices, including the Leader in Sustainability Award at the Global Wellness Summit held in Singapore 2019. Capella Ubud has also been recognised multiple times as being one of the world’s best resorts for its outstanding combination of extraordinary mindful design and impeccable service. “The moral of the story is”, explains Bensley, “that if you respect Mother Nature, good things will come.”
Scott A Woodward