Architect blends nature and heritage

08:48 | 23/06/2017
The tourism services and cultural centre at the historic Yen Tu site in the north-eastern province of Quang Ninh has become a spiritual and artistic masterpiece of the renowned architect Bill Bensley.
Cross-section of the project’s reception area

The work attests to the strong commitment of developer – private firm Tung Lam Development JSC – to build an upscale work that preserves and brings forth the values and natural beauty of Yen Tu, its surrounding pagodas, and relics.

But only with support from provincial leaders, several well-known architects, and the help of Bill Bensley – designer of some of the world’s most iconic resort and spa venues, did the strict artistic requirements for the Yen Tu project materialise.

The Harvard-educated, Bangkok-based architect has satisfied the developer’s aspirations of bringing ‘the soul of the Tran Dynasty’ into the work to create a truly cultural, historical, and monumental spiritual masterpiece.

Bill Bensley and the journey to Yen Tu

Named among the world’s top architects, Bill Bensley is a highly sought after individual. Having Bensley’s input in a project is a challenge for any investor who desires his unique touch.

Unlike the other resort venues in the central city of Danang or Phu Quoc Island which carry Bensley’s exotic fingerprints, the project to form a tourism and cultural centre at the Giai Oan bus station is unique because of its cultural and historical significance. 

In light of the Yen Tu relic site’s expansion and development plan, which was approved by the prime minister via Decision 334/QD-TTg dated February 18, 2013, the site is now a protected area. The work, therefore, required specific architecture that respects the inherent restful values of Buddhism.

That was a large challenge for Tung Lam Development JSC to overcome initially. It took more than three years for Tung Lam to find a solution. The company met many well-known architects, such as French architect Paul Andreu, the designer of Beijing’s Opera House; Spanish architect Salvador Perez Aroyo, who left his imprints on a string of Quang Ninh-based works; and Japanese-Canadian architect Colin K. Okashimo. But only after Bensley got on board with the project were the problems gradually resolved.

Typical ancient Viet architecture sits within the grounds of the project

Tracing the Tran Dynasty’s 700 year-plus history

After arriving in Quang Ninh, Bensley asked Tung Lam’s employees to lead him around the entire Yen Tu area. The distinct architecture of Hue Quang tower garden, which dates back more than 700 years, left a strong impression on the talented architect. Bensley decided to incorporate the Tran Dynasty’s distinct architecture, with a lightly curved roof and thick walls, to his work at Yen Tu.

According to Bui Dinh Tuan, Tung Lam JSC chairman and also the project’s director, it is no easy task to combine historical architectural designs with contemporary construction requirements.

Bensley’s design made it challenging for Tung Lam to complete the project. For example, the materials for the job had to be made manually, under specific orders strictly adhering to Bensley’s requirements.

Tuan said that the project’s management staff had to visit craft villages nationwide to place orders for each specific component, such as hand-made bricks, wooden window frames, beds, tables, and pillows. Tung Lam was very dedicated to meet Bensley’s all requirements. For instance, brown tiles used on the roof have three tints, from light to dark, to enrich the rustic authenticity of the buildings.

The project also includes 88 Mgallery-branded, high-end apartments in which visitors can stay.

The apartments are under the management of well-known hotel group Accor, and feature interiors that are complementary to the historical motif of the area, including hand carved wood and stone, and stylised fabrics and tapestries with botanical themes of lotus flowers and whirling calyxes. 

The rooms are designed to maximise space, with a wide balcony overlooking Yen Tu mountain’s abundant greenery. The doors and walls are designed to emulate the traditional style of the ancient Vietnamese.

Each apartment is inspired by the distinct architectural aspects  of northern villages, yet remains consistent with the architectural style of the area as a whole. Rows of houses in the high-end service area include interconnected balconies, following styles seen in ancient pagodas.

This style encouraged community relations in the past, and promotes visitor connectivity in the modern day – as opposed to the current closed-off style in modern architecture.

Because the project consists of different architectural modules covering more than 15 hectares of land, it was a challenge for Bensley to find a way to construct the buildings without detracting from the natural tranquility of the surrounding area.

To tackle the conundrum, Bensley chose to build each unit based on the site’s sloping terrain. The way tiled roofs were oriented made Truc Lam Palace – the central building of the Yen Tu tourism area covering 5,500 square metres and an ability to accommodate 3,000 visitors – look like ancient northern villages where houses are constructed side by side.

The area also features a peculiar architectural style that was popular across ancient villages nestled amid bamboo growths.

Zen, the spirit, and other Buddhist concepts are also leading architectural traits used throughout the complex to engender tranquility and allow people to get lost in the harmony of nature. 

The space is arranged symmetrically through a central spiritual axis, starting from Giai Oan pagoda to Ha Kieu slope. Diverse architectural works run along the two sides of the central axis, with their major faces overlooking a 1.28ha-wide courtyard.

A welcoming gate and reception area was constructed at the front of the area. The highlight of this area is a lake with an ivory bamboo bush in the middle.

This is also the starting point of a metaphorical journey to enlightenment along the right side of the square. A typical scene in routine daily life of ancient villages is also apparent through the architectural works on the left side of the square.

Striving for perfection

The project’s director Bui Dinh Tuan at Tung Lam Development JSC recalled a story about Bensley striving for perfection during his time at the project. According to Tuan, after sitting in a state of contemplation for two hours in the high-end accommodation service area, the architect felt that he was not satisfied, and amended his design and implored the investor to make the changes.

To ensure quality and consistency, the investor did exactly as Bensley requested, and the result was better than one could have expected.

Bensley’s technical blueprint did not allow room for big construction works, and the height of the buildings remained low. Small gardens were arranged amid the buildings, creating nice views and botanical aromas for the reception area.

Most of the architectural works here is from six to 12 metres high, with a construction density between 25-36 per cent. The remaining space is dedicated to the natural and historic environment.

During the construction process, Bensley also insisted that no tree with a diameter greater than 10 centimetres should be chopped down. More than 800 types of trees and flowers are now growing on the site, ensuring the perfection of Bensley’s work at the Yen Tu historic relic site.

By By Thu Le and Thanh Son

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