Asian hotels: a lesson in design

In a new book, Singapore's Wow Architects explain that anything is possible if you incorporate context into the building's form

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The Independent Travel

Spanning an array of countries that are each undergoing varying degrees of economic development and cultural change, the architecture, interior and landscape designs of Wow Architects are driven by a desire to create a sensory experience. An awareness and appreciation of the place, its culture and craftsmanship are achieved through the engagement of the body with the spaces themselves, whose designs rely on memory in the formation of impressions and references by their users and inhabitants.

Wow was founded in Singapore in 2000 by Wong Chiu Man and Maria Warner Wong. For each of its projects, a separate set of inspirations is drawn on. Meanwhile the rapidly-changing political, social and natural environments in the countries where the hotels are sited pose a challenge in the search for appropriate design solutions that suggest a brighter future for the development of the place, while still remembering its history, its culture of craft and its natural beauty.

The multidisciplinary thinking that affects the designing, building, and operation of the finished project is also characteristic of the work. Wow aspires to not be considered "foreign" in any location where it builds. In order to do this, the designers obtain a knowledge of the locations of their projects through local architects, landscape architects, interior designers and graphic designers to create these rich and varied experiences, as these examples illustrate.

Vivanta by Taj Bangalore, Whitefield, India

Sitting near the entrance of the International Technology park of Whitefield Bangalore, the Taj Vivanta hotel is a sculptural landmark that anchors the first major IT park in India. The building was conceived as a "landscraper" that embraces the public realm in the community. The design peels the ground plane upward and wraps it around in a Mobius curve upon which the hotel rooms hover in the midst of a bustling and active collection of public spaces.

The folding and wrapping forms of the building's raw concrete structure, as well as the hi-tech undulating facade, both highlight the area's development ambitions and celebrate the solitary hand of the culturally-rich craftsman.

The hotel's social spaces are designed as an indoor and outdoor urban park that stretches down to the street to openly invite both hotel guests and members of the public inside. The building appears to grow out of the earth, with elongated sloping plazas peeling up from the ground level in a reminder of the rolling green hills of agricultural land that once defined the site, and in a gesture to give back this lost landscape to the community. The external street plaza is almost imperceptively merged into the indoor spaces, dissolving the definitions of public and private. The lobby interiors continue the playful garden theme with trees planted into the ground, colourful freeform furniture pieces, and totemic light fixtures scattered around in the manner of a playground.

In a gradual transition to the private realm, a three-storey block housing the hotel rooms hovers above the social spaces while it twists its way around the site. The rooms use an unconventional open-plan with the bed as an island. This layout maximises functionality as well as giving the feeling of sleeping in a landscape with natural earth tones and botanic themed fabrics and patterns.

Vivanta by Taj Bangalore – Whitefield, Karnataka, India (00 91 80669 33333;

Hilton Bandung

Hilton Bandung, Indonesia

Set against the dramatic Parahyangan volcanic mountain range that encircles the city of Bandung, this five-star Hilton hotel is an urban resort with a landscape concept at its core. The hotel evokes the imagery of a deep canyon that rises up to a hilltop plateau. The visitor enters from the main lobby, which forms the base of the gorge and moves upward five levels through the tall, dramatic space to the pool deck plateau. From this breezy, elevated vantage point, guests enjoy views of the rooftops of the deco-styled buildings influenced by Bandung's Dutch colonial past, as well as the spectacular mountain range beyond. The architecture, landscape and interior design were developed as an integrated experience that embraces the Javanese culture and the distinct urban and geographical characteristics of the place.

Bandung is an urban mountainous retreat in the centre of Java that attracts visitors from all over Indonesia and South-east Asia. The hotel was conceived to cater to large social gatherings. The majestic entrance hall plays up this social drama where the guests move up a grand spiral staircase and crisscross over a series of bridges with a deliberate theatricality. Massive stone columns twist as they rise up to meet the upper level lobbies above, emphasising the tall vertical proportions of the canyon space. The atrium lobby is carved with a wave pattern inspired by Javanese batik.

Dotted across the landscaped roof garden are whimsical interpretations of indigenous Javanese huts that are reflected in a mirror pond. An outdoor restaurant overlooking the pool completes the resort atmosphere.

Hilton Bandung, Java, Indonesia (00 62 22 8606 6888;

Sheraton Hangzhou, China

Described by Marco Polo as the "most beautiful and magnificent city in the world", Hangzhou maintains a reputation as a mystical and picturesque city. The Chinese owner of this Sheraton in Hangzhou wished to break away from the standard design brief of the hotel operator by celebrating its positioning in this enchanting city and by giving it noteworthy interiors. In the three restaurants, the dining experiences are coupled with moods and imagery of specific times and places.

The All Day Dining restaurant is linked to its context through its interpretation of the Chinese five elements: earth, metal, wood, stone, and water. These elements, which form the basis of Taoist philosophy, are adopted by the building. The sequin-like quality of the walls represents "metal". The natural brown and grey floor tiles represent "earth", while the end wall of the room is made of a screen using strips of "wood". A series of undulating, wave-like panels suspended from the ceiling sways in the manner of "water", leading the guest through the restaurant.

The Chinese restaurant takes its inspiration from imagery of the West Lake in Hangzhou after a light rain. In the main dining area, pendants simulate raindrops, and hand painted champagne-coloured silk on the walls depicts images of underwater scenes and views from the lake in order to draw the guest into the water itself.

The French restaurant offers an experience that is meant to transport the guest to the Belle Époque in France. As one moves deeper into the restaurant, the theme of Parisian burlesque brings down the level of formality with its provocative imagery such as a laced corset on the sinuous wall reliefs and flowing, translucent curtain fabric suggestive of the movement of female skirts.

Sheraton Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China (00 86 571 2887 8888;

Airport Garden Hotel, Sri Lanka

An extension to an existing hotel with a mature garden, the project includes a new lobby, spa and restaurants. The theme revolves around landscapes, informed by the site, which straddles a mangrove swamp and a coconut plantation. The work of the late Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa, was the inspiration for the design.

The objective was to take modern architecture to the next level by integrating precedents already established by Bawa into a more contemporary design language, still observing the spirit of the place.

Airport Garden Colombo, Sri Lanka (00 94 11 5 44 0000;


This is an edited extract from WOW: Experiential Design for a Changing World by Darlene Smyth © 2014 WOW Architects Pte Ltd, published by Thames & Hudson (January 2015) £35