"Root balls," American landscape architect Bill Bensley exclaims, describing the challenges a working day might hold. "When we move coconut trees, the 1.2-meter root ball is incredibly heavy and usually requires around 20 guys." He's referring to the tree's root system and the soil clinging to it. Workers sometimes leave part of it in the ground to lighten the load, but while the tree will live, "this short cut can delay full bloom by as much as two years." Such are the nuances of terraforming Asian luxury resorts, which Bangkok-based Bensley is a master at. If you've stayed at the Four Seasons Langkawi, the Maia Resort in the Seychelles, the Shanti Ananda in Mauritius or a host of other top-tier hideaways you'll already know his theatrical gardens and filmic terraces. If you haven't, you can get an idea of his lavishly romantic style from the pages of his new book, Paradise by Design.
A Harvard School of Design graduate, Bensley arrived in Asia in 1984 to work with a college mentor, the now well-known Thai architect Lek Bunnag. Five years later, he founded Bensley Design Studios, which today employs around 100 people in Bangkok and Bali. Paradise by Design credits the contributions of many of them a conscientious gesture on Bensley's part, illuminating the talents of hitherto unknown artists like Putu Mahendra, the head of his Bali statuary studio. Bensley is also unfailingly honest about past mistakes, admitting that a proposal to add a huge Turkish sandstone head to the otherwise Thai gardens at Anantara Hua Hin was a "silly idea" (and ultimately rejected by the client). Mostly, though, he is inspired. For the St. Regis Bali, opening in September, he has devised an elongated pool that allows guests to move through parts of the resort aquatically, and installed gas jets to create long rows of fire leading to the ocean. The groundsman will doubtless be grateful for the convenience. At the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, a less fortunate staff member spends three hours a night lighting the 150 torches Bensley has scattered among the rice fields. Creating paradise is hot and laborious work.