The architecture of luxury is a complex field. It must impart the exclusivity of the experience, convey an idea of difference or the exotic, and justify the expense, while also allowing apparently effortless operation.
We are all familiar with a certain aesthetic which evokes Balinese temples or Javanese villas, a look which has proliferated in top-end hotel spas and expensive Thai restaurants – all dark sandalwood and low lighting, exotic scents, flowers in limpid bowls and expensive looking stone pools with trickling water. It has become a default language of luxury pampering; friendly Far Eastern service to the sound of incessant mood music.
That this has become a global aesthetic commodity, however, does present a certain problem. What do you do if you want to open an exotic luxury hotel and spa in Bali itself? The answer – and what an answer it is – can be seen in the Alila Villas in Uluwatu. This seductive, thoughtful resort in the rockier, drier southern part of the island is a sublime cocktail of slick modernist design, complex waterways and lush vegetation framed by the deep, tropical blue of the sky and the sea.
The architects, Singapore-based Woha, have somehow combined an intricate complexity with a minimal purity, and at the same time engineered the whole experience to be hugely, and enjoyably, theatrical. The moment of arrival is spectacular, a winding route of cloister-like arcades takes you to a kind of central plaza, at its centre a pool and beyond its infinity edge, the sea melting into the blue sky. The buildings are cool and permeable, interior space flows through seamlessly to outdoor space. There are touches of Frank Lloyd Wright, of Mies van der Rohe and of Italian architect Carlo Scarpa (who similarly worked with layered geometries and complex, animating water courses, notably at Venice’s PalazzoQuerini Stampalia) yet the architecture is never anything other than completely individual. The way the arcades and columns recede in a series of stepped planes reflects the layered complexity of the ponds and pools in the surrounding landscape.
The designers have been careful to use local plants and trees to harvest and recycle water and embed the architecture in the rocky hillside. They have also used the geography and the contours to ensure an extraordinary level of privacy. In your villa you remain blissfully unaware of your neighbours.
The villas are reached either from a long stair set into the hillside and bounded by trickling watercourses and the sounds of croaking frogs – the air wafted by the wings of beautiful Chinese lacquer red dragonflies – or along a winding road, up which your personal butler will drive you in a golf cart. It’s all a bit embarrassing as even at the top of the hill it’s only about a two minute walk but I suppose that this level of luxury demands that physical exertion be confined to the gym. Having said that, the walk down the cliff-side steps to the beach below is a slog.
The villas themselves are microcosms of the larger landscape. A generous room is bounded on one side by a small patio and outdoor shower and on the other by a gorgeous pool and a gazebo in which guests can luxuriate on a bed the size of a sultan’s. The slats of timber which make up the complex shading structures of the walls and which cast a net of shadow on the floors, are recycled and create a kind of ethereal architecture which suggests structure yet is barely there, allowing through a gentle breeze and views to the sea.
Inside, the most striking thing is the furniture. The low-slung easy chairs and coffee tables have the look and feel of a kind of mid-century modernism designed for colonial outposts. I was surprised to learn that the architects had designed it all specifically for this project and that it was locally made, fostering an industry in an area that remains down at heel. Apparently the furniture has been such a success that guests keep offering to buy bits and the hotel is considering production.
There is a slight feeling of discomfort as your butler accompanies you in your 4x4 through the shanties and tin-roofed workshops which sprawl from the airport to the hotel. And yet there is undoubtedly an argument that the area’s new luxury resorts bring real work to a deprived region. The sprawl is leavened by the endless shrines: strange hybrid Buddhist/Hindu (the population here is largely Hindu) stupas specked with offerings of exotic fruit and guarded by lushly sculpted, pot-bellied Ganeshas and dragons.
Inside the hotel complex you are aware of none of this (though it does have its own shrine tucked away near the entrance), and the seamless luxury remains uncontaminated by the drudgery of everyday existence outside. I ought to have prefaced this piece by admitting that I was reluctant to visit Uluwatu, and that I hate the suburban isolation of luxury resorts, always preferring the buzz of a downtown hotel. But this one seduced me. The architecture and the landscape, the food and the furniture combine to make a place that is coherent and breathtakingly beautiful.
The architecture of luxury usually stays in the background, its job is to recall half-remembered images of exoticism without ever being specific. Here the building is firmly in the foreground, perhaps the reason it has won a series of awards since opening in 2009, including most recently from the Royal Institute of British Architects. I was also told that the hotel gets busloads of Chinese tourists who alight there, photograph it thoroughly and then leave. The manager suspects there may be dozens of clones shiftily appearing across China.
The luxury here is not only in pampering and lazing, in the climate and the warm pleasure of discreet service but in an unusual intelligence that has been applied to every aspect of the design. Clever, beautiful buildings that enrich rather than destroy the landscape are among the greatest, and rarest luxuries we have.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic
Edwin Heathcote was a guest of Alila Villas Uluwatu (www.alilahotels.com) and Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com). Villas for two, including breakfast and airport transfers, cost from $700 per night. Singapore Airlines flies the A380 twice daily from London Heathrow to Singapore, and has two daily connecting flights to Bali