In a tucked away corner of Bangkok, in an alleyway reminiscent of a Los Angeles backstreet, there is an address where the greenery is eating away at the sky and over the walls. In the unremarkable alleyway stands a great big door, the sort of passage you read about in the pages of Alice in Wonderland. When you enter Bill Bensley’s home, you walk into an eternal garden—a refuge from the cyberpunk dystopia that is Bangkok. The lush, verdant fertility of an Indochinese Eden envelops you in a cool shade. Here, the cruel arm of the eastern sun cannot reach you.
Splashes of pink and white flowers intersperse the palm trees and ferns. The marks of human presence are selective, paying homage to Bensley’s own synthesis of maximalist design with low-impact ecological harmony. A set of rattan chairs awaits guests and a David set in Balinese stone stares out from behind the leaves with a piercing gaze. Enter the house, and chandeliers illuminate the relics and artworks collected by Bill and his partner, the horticulturalist Jirachai Rengthong. When done working in his city studio or flying all over Asia to oversee the development of his hotels, this is where Bensley returns for his moments of peace.
The house pays homage to nearly 40 years of design and architecture. Bensley first came to Singapore in 1984, with a degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and an offer from his classmate, Lek Mathar Bunnag, to come learn landscape design. Enraptured by the region, he worked in Hong Kong and Bali, dedicated himself to learning Indonesian and Malay, and immersed himself in Balinese traditions of design. In 1989, he launched the first “BENSLEY” studio in Bangkok.
Bensley is best known for his work on hotels and has overseen numerous projects across Asia and the globe. From Shinta Mani in Cambodia, a minimal-impact ecological resort built around the forests, to The Siam’s art deco invocation of King Rama V’s Bangkok, Bensley displays a reverence for both the human and natural environments in which he does his work.
Avetis Muradyan, correspondent for Palladium Magazine in Southeast Asia, met with Bensley at his home to discuss his artistic process, his philosophy of design, and what he has learned from his years of work across Asia.
Learning the Craft in Asia
Is there someone in your career you would describe as a teacher or as a master?
Many, so many. Probably the most influential was my classmate at Harvard. His name is Lek Mathar Bunnag. He is a Thailand national treasure and a really great architect. He invited me to come to Asia on graduation day. I came out and we went to Singapore, where he was teaching, and we spent a couple of years in there. Then we both moved to Hong Kong, having different jobs, and then we also both moved to Bangkok at the same time. That’s when I opened my own business in 1989. We shared an office for several years.
Lek single-handedly taught me almost everything I know about architecture because he could speak plainly. And he broke things down into such bite-sized pieces. It’s just very basic stuff. But those are things that I teach. The essence of architecture that I teach now, and have taught for the last 35 years, is what he taught me. So he’s probably the most influential.
What was the learning process? Did you work collaboratively on certain projects? Or was it a space where you could exchange ideas?
Well, we worked on many projects, him being the architect and me being the gardener. The problem was that it came with a message to get in that box and stay in that box. That’s where I was going to be. Don’t even think about coming out of that box and pretending to be an architect. So that’s what eventually split us up. I wanted to grow, very much so. I wanted to do other things. And he was insistent. In my formative years, he was such an influence that he almost convinced me to stay in my box.
Would you describe that kind of collaboration as master-apprentice?
Lek is 10 years older or so. So yeah, I would say master-apprentice. I never thought of it quite in those terms before but yeah, why not? I think that’s a good way to describe that relationship. Very much so.
You said that there were limitations but you were also taken under his wing in some ways. I’m guessing it made your introduction to Asia much smoother.
Very much so. Not business-wise, because I tend to be the leader on that. But as far as understanding the cultural nuances of all the projects in all the various countries that we were working on in the 1990s, yes. You know, we probably worked collaboratively in between 15 and 20 countries within 10 years. And then it all began to make sense that everything is connected. Just think about the architecture and the cultures of Southeast Asia—even greater Asia and beyond. There’s so much connection. If you just look, you can see those relationships. I think that is the real essence of what he taught me. And number two, what he taught me precisely was scale—how important scale is. How many meters is it from my head to your head? Can you guess?
About three or four?
I put it at about 2.65. And I bet you I’m within 10 centimeters. We used to travel a lot together and in every single place that we went to, every single hotel, we would do measurements. That was the first thing we did. We would get the tape out and we would measure the tables, we would measure the distance between the wall and the bed, and so on. We’d measure the ceiling. We had books of this stuff at the end of four or five years. And it is so true today that if you don’t understand scale, it doesn’t matter how well you can draw on the computer or how well you can do something in Rhino. No matter how well you can press the buttons, you don’t understand scale—that, from me to you, it is not three or four meters.
So if you don’t do that work, you’ll never be good. That’s what’s lacking with the kids today—they don’t use their hands. They don’t use their hands to draw anymore. Everybody that came to this lecture that I gave last week, maybe 15 people, asked me for a job. And I said, can you show me one of your drawings? Nobody could. Well, if you can’t draw with your hands and if you can’t understand scale, no matter how good you are with the computer, you can get that license but you won’t be creative.
To extend that criticism of art without craft, it seems like there is a devaluing of technical ability. There is a move towards automation on the one hand and sublimation on the other. A lot of art forms have taken on this idea that art is simply an expression of the artist. And it’s all looking for interpretation. Technical ability, the raw ability to create, is not the focus.
Yeah, and I call bullshit on that, big time.
You built your career in Southeast Asia. Did you have any prior ties to Asia before coming here?
None. Lek told me on graduation day, “Come with me to Singapore!” And I said, “Where the hell is that?” I had no idea where I was going. And then the week that I got there, I was put on a plane and I went down to work on a resort in Bali. My eyes went wide. It was so wonderful. It was so beautiful. And being able to draw something and then have 600 guys carve it out of stone was amazing.
At that point, I could draw better than anyone else in the office. I was the youngest but I could draw better. These crazy things that I was drawing still exist down in Bali and Lombok. Giant sculptures, swimming pools, big fantasy things that I just loved. And I became a “Baliophile.” I read everything that I could get my hands on, stacks and stacks of books. And then I learned the Balinese and Indonesian languages and I loved it. It was the best job in the world.
I did that for about 10 years or so. At one point in Jakarta, there were eight new hotels going up. I was doing seven of them. And I could present my drawings in Indonesian. The owners were like, “Who is this guy? He’s good!” It was really fun. But then, you know, that put me in this box of being a Bali gardener and designer. I could see that I was never going to get a job doing anything at the Taj Mahal, say, or anything in India. I would only be getting work in Bali. So I put the brakes on that. This was in the 1980s and ’90s.
What was it like to transition from the U.S. to Southeast Asia?
I was a total freshman. I knew when I graduated from Harvard that I had the choice of either getting out or planting rhaphiolepis indica in McDonald’s parking lots for the rest of my life. I knew that I did not want to do that. I thought that California, or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter, was just not exotic enough. I felt that I had already absorbed it. There was nothing left there.
The way you describe Bali is almost like an empty canvas. You could actually do something, especially in your business, which deals with the physical world and manipulating or changing it. And the way that you describe the U.S. and your experiences there, you didn’t have that canvas. We kind of tend to think of the 1980s and ‘90s as an exceptionally creative period. And yet you felt that you had absolutely no future amid all that cultural energy.
Right, I had zero interest in doing anything there.
When did you decide to start learning Balinese, Indonesian, and Thai?
The same week I got there. I enrolled right away at the university night school. I’d go and work out and then go to night school. I did that for three or four years. I would carry this big stack of flashcards in my back pocket of English and Malay. That sort of thing.
In the 1980s, when I first arrived, it was not just some nice thing to do. You had to learn Indonesian to be able to work as a landscape architect because nobody spoke English. Today, it’s a completely different landscape. Everybody speaks English. I find it difficult to get my staff to speak Indonesian to me anymore because everyone wants to learn English. But not at that point. So even just a smattering of Indonesian within the first three or four months was really welcome. You’d get these giant roars of laughter—”Mr. Bill can speak Indonesian!” And that just encourages you.
Globalization was only just taking off. What was the energy like in Asia then? Was it roaring and booming, or a very quiet place?
It was a very quiet place. When I first got here, you landed on the pavement at the airport and you’d walk across the paving to two open hangars. There were a couple of desks there and some big fans. And that was the airport. It was really cool. It was an adventure because I would get to Bali and I would take my VW, which I still have, and drive up to Ubud [a town in Bali popular for its cultural and ecotourism]. It was a one-lane dirt road up to Ubud. I would get up there and maybe see three or four cars on the way up.
I knew it when it was such a beautiful place. And now it takes you three hours to get to Ubud from the airport. I just finished the Capella hotel over there. So I miss it. When I first came out here, the hotel industry was in its infancy. There was one company that dealt with landscape architecture. I worked for that company for five years and then started my own firm. A lot of what we did was educate our customers on what’s possible. For us, too, it was a big learning experience.
In a lot of industries, there was this gap of sophistication between Asia and the West back then. Was that a challenging aspect of your early work in Southeast Asia?
I never thought of it as a gap of sophistication that I had to fill. I never thought that much of myself. There was this job to do with infinite possibilities. But I knew right from the very start that the people that I surrounded myself with—the Indonesians, the Indians, the Chinese, the Vietnamese—were people that could still use their hands to craft things. That was my real fascination and it still is today. That is what makes our work tick: the ability to interpret various cultures and bring those cultures forward into a hospitality situation in unique ways.
Your use of historical influences is quite fascinating. You bring a lot of forgotten elements forward in time.
I consider myself a designer of hospitality. I design hotels and I do architecture, interiors, landscapes, uniforms, signage, menus, table tops, flowers, music, whatever. Part of that responsibility to the owners is to make money. But we know that over the last 40 years, hotels have been like restaurants here in Bangkok. The trendy ones go in and out of style. One minute you’re in and one minute you’re out. So I have very much stayed away from anything at all trendy. I want my clients to make money. When they make money, they’ll come back to you.
By staying away from trendy projects and by understanding cultural references, I can do things like The Siam. You walk in there and people ask me, “How long did it take you to renovate this building, Bill?” But it’s brand new! It’s about understanding the context of that part of the neighborhood. When that neighborhood was going up, when it was in its heyday, it was the 1920s. It’s about what Thai people were building then and what materials they were building with.
So it’s not necessarily about renovating projects, but understanding context and understanding cultural references and trying to create—this is the most important thing—something that will stand the test of time. If a client has to totally renovate every five or ten years when things go in and out of style, then he’s also less likely to make money. It’s really simple.
It’s funny you say that because a lot of the opposition to building good architecture, probably more in the West than here, is something along the lines of it not being economical. But you’re telling me it is good business. As far as quality prioritizes correct integration, it’s good business.
Very much so.
If you were starting over, where would you go today?
I’d go to a developing country, like India, Bhutan, or Nepal. But you could also go to Vietnam, Indonesia, or to a developing country anywhere in Africa. We’re doing some wonderful work in the Congo which is all about conservation and hospitality.
The Principles of Design
What basic principles animate your process and style? Do you see yourself as having a worldview or philosophy? And if so, what?
Yes—the crazier, the better. The odder, the better. Why do people go to hotels?
To stay, right! And why do they stay? The vast majority of leisure travel is based on the idea that people want to have something different than they have at home. So by building hotels that are odd and different, really what I’m saying is that it simply has to be better or different than what you have at home. Otherwise, why would you go, other than for business?
As a hotelier, we have your attention for one day, two days, maybe two weeks. I don’t want this to sound sacrilegious, but in a way, hotels are becoming more like the churches of the past. You’ve got someone’s attention. So having said that, I think that good hotels should teach something to the people whose attention we have. We should educate them in something, whether it’s about conservation or the problems of Cambodia. Or if you’re in New York and there’s an orphanage next door and the kids are drawing airplanes, teach that. Teach your guests something and don’t just put heads on beds. So that’s a big part of my design philosophy.
I just mentioned we opened that Capella hotel in Ubud. Do you know what I wanted to teach people? In the 1800s, there was a Dutch camp that was capturing slaves from Bali. You’d never hear that. We’ve never heard that the colonies were providing slaves to the Dutch. That was a fact. They were considered the best of all the slaves in Indonesia.
And nine out of ten people that come to that hotel don’t give a shit. You know, they want the margaritas. But the fact that I laid it out is the important thing. And in every single hotel that I’ve done for the last 10 or 15 years, there is something—often there are many things—that you can learn like that. So that’s my philosophy.
Would you do any other form of architecture?
Oh, sure: museums!
I was at The Siam yesterday, which feels like a museum in its own right with its decor. I figured the concept would be interesting.
Oh yeah! I would love to do an art museum. And I would love to curate it as well. That would be a ball. Yesterday, I spent all day in museums in Manila. Museums are the places where people really learn.
At The Siam, the impression I got was that it was integrated into its own history. But I felt like I had left Bangkok. I think that as soon as you step into the courtyard, you’re no longer in Bangkok. Even the sounds are kind of muted. It’s like a dream or looking out from a window, the city has stopped. The place brings in artifacts from history. But I don’t know what your relationship with the past is. You seem to have a reverence for it.
Very much so. I read a lot. During COVID, I read over 200 books. So I read a lot and I think that’s a big part of it.
Maximalism and Ecology in Synthesis
You’ve been described as a stylistic maximalist. Yet you also privilege low ecological impact.
It’s just another one of the boxes that I hop in and out of.
How do you think about the synthesis? How do you leave the box?
How do you leave it? You jump up and over. Honestly, it’s by learning something new. I think that my best projects, which are very much maximalist, are also utilizing thousands of unique items from a bygone era that people forget about. So that is very much part of environmentalism and of conservation.
Add a few cans of colorful paint and some gay pillows, and poof, you’re a maximalist. So I’m okay with that. Where am I going next? I want to take art and philanthropy to another level. That has so many possibilities: art, hospitality, and philanthropy. And to do good in all the places that can’t afford maximalism. Have you been to Shinta Mai? I was kicked in the stomach by how atrocious the Cambodians were treated by Pol Pot. The atrocities that happened there for years and that still happen! Shit’s still going down.
I was there three weeks ago, right before I went to Las Vegas. I learned from a doctor who was next to our property in Phnom Penh that the farmers there are still using DDT because the government allows it. They don’t give a shit. And that DDT has now gotten into the groundwater, and the groundwater is causing cancer in kids at a tremendous rate and in the population out there.
It’s like the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam but self-inflicted.
But self-inflicted, exactly. And there are huge problems with finances. So that’s one of the things we want to do: finance education, now that it’s become trendy amongst the farmers to have a credit card. They put up their tiny piece of land, their tiny farm, so they can get a credit card to buy a motorcycle. And they get credit, but they don’t understand that the interest is 19.5 percent. So, long story short, within a year that land goes back to the credit card company. It’s repossessed.
There’s a clash of old lifestyles with modern financial instruments and contracts.
Right. And they have problems with prostitution, like 13-year-olds being sold. It’s just ad infinitum. The average Cambodian makes about one-seventh of the average Thai person. So what we’ve been trying to do as best we can is to work on clean water and general access to water. To be able to get kids to school. So this year, all of these paintings are being sold now to buy 1000 bicycles. We’re buying something like 25 houses because now we’ve identified families that have no roof. Sometimes they have walls, but there’s no roof, it’s plastic and whatnot. So we’re getting that sorted out. We’re building schools. All that is through the sales of these paintings.
It seems that Western cities are comparatively risk-averse. They don’t really like distinctive or maximalist art or architecture or any urbanism. Would you say your work would be possible in the West?
Absolutely. We’re doing work in Connecticut and the reason that we’re there is because they know that we’re going to reinterpret a 250-year-old architectural history into something which is super-layered, probably maximalist. And then at the end of the day, it’ll look like it’s been there for 100 years. And it’ll be commercially viable.
You created your vision in Southeast Asia. Now you will be able to expand that in the West? It seems like various factors trap designers into the universal glass box style that dominates basically every city now.
The longer I do this, the easier it gets. And why? Because of my track record. So, the people come to me because they know pretty much what they’re gonna get. And they know pretty much to leave me alone during the process. Except for the Saudis.
[Laughs] I’ve heard stories.
The Saudis know best, you know—they’re the center of the universe.
But also, I have only got seven days a week like everybody else. I’m asked to do a new project every single day of the year. And so certainly, I could make it work in the West. But nine out of the ten projects that I’m offered to do are those boxes, which I don’t want to do. So the trick is to wait for the perfect client that has that really special project. Over the past 20 years or more, that’s been the key to our success. We don’t grab everything that’s thrown our way, we cherry-pick.
When I was doing landscape architecture, the company I was with kept fastidious American timesheets. What project did you work on? How many hours? And so on. They had it all in a system. And every time that I would get to a point in my projects where things were really going well, they would come in and say “You can’t work on this anymore! You’ve run out of hours!” I vowed when I opened my own office in 1989 that I would never even think about having timesheets. And that, I think, has been a great key to success. You always do the project to the best of your abilities, to the best use of all the time that you have, with all the budget that you have.
Do you think your clients in Southeast Asia have been more receptive to the kind of work that you do?
When we were talking about job selection, the places that I want to work, I’ll always pick the places that I’ve never been to before. And I look for two things: Number one, if those places have cultural interest. And most places do if you look. The second thing is that my clients should be on the same page in mindset. If we’re in a natural environment, we respect Mother Nature. We all have to be on the same page to go forward. I speak so much to that and write so much to that effect that the majority of people that come to me are already in that boat.
Is the convergence of world cities on the universal glass boxes inevitable? Is this just part of a globalized society?
No, it’s not. It’s all about planning. It’s all about urban design. Going back to Connecticut: clearly, the people of Connecticut don’t want that globalization. So it’s all about planning. And they decided to go with these beautiful little houses which all look like heritage houses that are 150 years old. As a whole, they’ll make this hotel. But it feels very much like the fabric of that place. So no, it’s not inevitable.
So, if you had a message for municipalities and planning departments across the world, how would you tell them to create that distinctiveness in cities?
The answer is not always looking backward. The answer certainly is not just what is the most commercially viable—which I think is 99 percent of what is built in the U.S.—as opposed to the most environmentally pleasing. That’s a tough one because the dollar, the baht, and the rupee rule. Do you have any idea?
Yeah. You need a philosopher-king running every town hall in America.
[Laughs] All right!
We don’t tend to think across time. Your work is pregnant with these long timeframes. You graph the past, but you also look ahead to longer periods. It seems like our cityscapes would be very different if we had people who understood the speed at which time passes. But most are unable to place themselves. That certainly applies to the people that we find in city halls.
That makes sense. And I don’t mean to belittle the people of the city hall, but those that do, do, and those that can’t, regulate. Or teach. That’s a big problem. Anyone who really wants to build something is not going to be in that position in the city hall.
So maybe the answer is to use a jury. We don’t do that here in Thailand, but in the U.S., you call for a jury to see whether somebody ran a red light or not. Maybe you call jury duty for, you know, the most prominent architects and most prominent designers for five days a year, instead of going to jury duty proper. Sit in on a number of planning boards, as Norman Foster [a prominent British modernist architect] does now. He goes in once a week and he looks at 40 projects during the day. Pass, no, do this, don’t do that.
You go around Bangkok and there are tons of “For rent” and “For sale” signs. There’s a lot of space to do stuff, for life to go on. In the West, people talk about a housing shortage. There are not enough houses for everyone, there’s not enough space for people to do stuff—to live in, essentially. But also for commercial activity, artistic activity, or communities. This question of creating enough spaces fast enough, building things, and getting stuff done is a huge pain point for culture.
When we talk about space, I read that we use something like four-fold of the space that the average American had in the 1940s. They had a minuscule amount of space compared to what we have now. But it’s never enough.
We had that in America from the Gilded Age to the 1920s. The Hanoi hotel that you built is in the Art Deco style. It was around that time that America had that style with lots of buildings. And they did it at scale.
In some sense, China is way ahead of the West in that they don’t allow single-family houses anymore. They don’t allow golf courses anymore. They don’t allow crazy uses of land. In that sense, communism has had its pluses.
It’s not ecologically viable. It’s not sustainable. You don’t have enough space. We could leave so much more space to nature. And even agriculture, right?
Right, so when I hear the stories about America not having enough people to work and all of these complaints about how horrible things are in the U.S., I think “Get a life!” Just look around you and see what the rest of the world lives like. When I went to give a talk at this university, right away the dean came up to me and started soaking me for money to get another fat ass on another big sofa that can teach more stuff. And they asked me to pay $40,000 for a hosted chair or something. Do you know how much I can do with $40,000 in Cambodia? I just thought…lady, stop.
Your projects are very cohesive, they reflect a harmonious style. How do you consider what material elements to include?
In thirteenth-century Vietnam, there was a man called Trần Nhân Tông. He was the king of part of what’s now Vietnam and he’s very famous. Today, five million Vietnamese regularly go to his grave site in a beautiful valley to the east of Hanoi, called the Yen Tu Valley. I worked on this project for about seven years.
One of the first things we did was to try to understand what the materials of the thirteenth century were, with a team of maybe 20 experts and college professors. What were they using to build? And we used that knowledge. We found out that it was a very limited palette, but we used that knowledge of what they built and how they built it to completely replan this valley, which is 10 kilometers long. We took out everything in there which had been built since the 1950s to accommodate these 5 million worshippers—built to get more money, more money, more money.
Trần Nhân Tông left his kingdom to become a monk. And so this whole valley is a series of places for pilgrims and also for monks to stay, a series of temples. I had to design a whole series of temples and understand their needs. And then I designed some hospitality as well.
Why I’m telling you this story is that this is the role of materiality. Does that answer your question?
It sounds like you double as an archaeologist. It’s about studying the material culture of places.
From the early 1980s when I learned the Balinese language and Indonesian language, I studied under a guy named Wayan Susila. He did his master’s degree in Bali, studying traditional Balinese architecture. Over a period of years of doing these gardens and houses, he taught me the essence of Balinese architecture and planning.
Like many cultures around the world, it’s all based on the parts of the human body. So you would have one siku—one elbow, and one hand, and so on. The measurements of everything are all about that. Like how in English, we have the foot. In Bali, it’s based on these measurements to an amazing degree of accuracy. Even though people’s hands are different sizes. I still find that really fascinating, how architecture is handed down from farmer to farmer, by way of the body parts. The top is the kepala—the head. Everything in Balinese Hinduism and animism is broken into three different parts: the holiest part, then the body itself, which is representative of the people, and then the dirty part that is closest to the devils.
That goes right through to city planning as well. So that each village has three different temples: first is the closest one to the mountain, the holiest place where you go to worship. Second is a place where we would marry people. It’s the middle place, the place where people are. And finally, the farthest one away, the one closest to the ocean. That’s where the tourists are. That’s called the Pura Dalem and it is also the place where all of the evil spirits hang out. So there’s always this balance between black and white.
It’s the vernacular language of the materials.
What I find so beautiful about that is that architecture is accessible to everybody, in that way of teaching. That’s what I admired so much about Lek. It was accessible, and it comes down to little pieces so this little brain can figure it out.
The Tools of Excellence
You also paint in your spare time. In fact, I visited the gallery at The Siam yesterday. You engage with other media and art forms. How do you evaluate them as someone who is primarily a designer and architect?
I’m working on a 72-story super-high-rise in Tel Aviv. I met this client 10 years ago and I’ve been traveling there. Fascinating place, but it is a really, really tough place to work and also to be in. Everybody hates everybody else. In fact, I just heard on the news that two more people were shot on the night that I got there, four months ago.
So how do I decide about the art? We called this hotel the Hotel de la Paix. The Hotel of Peace. In the entire 72 stories—this is one of the things that I want to do with philanthropy art—every single piece of artwork is going to be about peace and about harmony. How people should come together. Keep it as simple as that. But thousands of different images.
Yeah, people will keep on fighting each other. But you’ve got the attention span of about three days for most people coming to the place, so you can at least attempt to solve a problem. Not just cover it up.
Is hope in short supply?
To be honest, the society that I live in lives for today. The people that I relate with don’t think much beyond that. So we have very few philosophical discussions about hope. It’s about what is happening now and what’s for breakfast tomorrow. And how are we going to solve this problem of building this hotel? Can we get it done by four years from now? So I think that there’s a short supply of hope.
Where the world is going is very worrisome for me. As we talked about earlier, the little we can do is make ourselves feel better, I suppose. But, I have very little hope for this planet in the next 1000 years. It’s the Anthropocene.
What about the medium itself? What’s your approach to these different art forms?
I have really only been working at it for three or four years now. But what I’ve been trying to do is that every month I have a muse—for example, Picasso. And I will try to think, if I’m Picasso, how would I draw you? So I’d have you sit in front of me and I’ll try his techniques. Or Matisse’s techniques, or someone else. So I use artists as my muse and try to get into their heads. That’s one of the things I love reading: monographs and biographies and autobiographies of artists and how they think.
I think that brings us to this idea of intellectual empathy. You want to place yourself in their position and play their game. And empathize completely, artistically.
Right! One of the most interesting gardens we’ve ever done, a little while ago now, is the Ritz Carlton in Bali. And I asked my staff what might have been done by Isamu Noguchi, the famous Japanese-American sculptor who lived in Bali during the 1960s and ’70s. That’s what I do continuously. This is very much a way for me to think about how to make my art richer. Everything we do makes everything else richer. It’s an exercise.
For me, it’s a form of meditation. It’s a form of relaxation. It’s an expression. But it’s also trying to catch up. Over the last 30 years I’ve had in our studio, I employed fine artists. I think that’s certainly the key to our success: everyone in my office can do things better than I can. Everyone can do things better than me. So I want to catch up on that. I want to be able to do at least something as good as somebody in my office. It’s a technical challenge. A pride in the craft.