Reda Amalou, designer of the Six Senses Con Dao hotel and partner at French design firm AW2, does not want his latest project in Vietnam to stand out. Rather, his goal when designing the 50 villa resort was to make it ‘disappear’ into its natural surroundings.
Famous for its prison built during the French colonial rule, Con Dao is an archipelago of 16 islands located 230km south of Ho Chi Minh City, an hour’s flight away. More than 80% of the islands are protected national parks, making the Six Senses resort “quite unique, quite special,” said Amalou.
“You have to respect such a place,” he said of the island’s mountains, mangroves, beaches, coral reefs, forests and river. “We had to blend in to the landscape and become one with it; we had to disappear.”
The firm’s previous experience in designing the all villa resort of Nam Hai on Vietnam’s Hoi An beach established its reputation for luxury resorts in the Vietnamese market. Rather than concentrate on design specifics, the Six Senses brief reflected the operator’s commitment to give guests a unique experience when visiting the resort.
“The brief was fairly loose to start with,” said Amalou. “Most of the items, like the restaurant and bungalows, were already there, but we had to try to make use of the site in the best possible way, and then give people a nature-friendly experience while retaining the highest level of luxury.”
In keeping with Six Senses’ global commitment to developing environmentally friendly properties, the design of the Con Dao resort was inspired by the richness of the island’s scenery and natural surrounds.
“The main characteristic of the brand is that people enjoy a healthy, natural and luxurious experience,” he added. To capture this, AW2 planned the resort to be “very much in contact with nature at all times,” he said.
“The rooms are designed so you’re always in contact with the sea or the mountains, wherever you are in the room – in the bath, in bed, or in the living room. There’s a very strong, almost in-your-face contact with the sea and the mountains.”
After “a lot of back and forth” coordination with both Six Senses and site owner, Indochina Land, the final plans for the resort, including Robinson Crusoe-type beach huts and a central marketplace, were set.
“There were difficulties linked to the design process,” said Amalou. “It was long because we we had to find the right design.”
Not content with designing the standard palm leaf roofed huts typical of many beach resorts, Amalou aimed to introduce a more modern feel to the buildings. “Most of the resorts you see today which want to be eco-friendly have a fairly traditional approach to design,” he said.
“What we wanted to do was redefine this experience as something more contemporary, and a little more urban than what the others were doing.”
To give his clients a stronger visual notion of his plans, Amalou designed and built the first suite of the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.
“Everyone had to confer that this was the right design, and once it was approved, we moved on to finish the rest of the design. That all took a bit of time.”
While serving as a selling point for guests, Con Dao’s remote location proved the source of many construction difficulties.
“It was tiresome, very long, and very difficult,” he said, with “basically nothing” on the island, most structures had to be built on the mainland before being shipped to Con Dao.
“The harbour on the island can’t cope with heavy equipment, so there was none we could use. We had to have everything prefabricated in the frame structure on the mainland. It was then shipped to the island in small pieces and reassembled on site, mainly by hand. We had very, very little equipment we could use.”
The difficulties caused by this method of working added a year to the project’s five year completion time. “On projects like this you’d expect that it would be a long, drawn-out process, especially the construction,” he added.
The resort is centred on the main marketplace, designed to resemble an authentic Vietnamese village with a square. Consisting of shops, bar, library, meeting rooms, an open-air theatre with day beds and a hawker-style Vietnamese eatery, the marketplace is the first public area the hotel guests visit as they arrive.
“It’s a meeting place. It’s where all the people mill about and where they come for lunch, dinner or drinks,” said Amalou.
The buildings here are designed with two-tiered shingle roofs, their slightly irregular alignment a nod to traditional Vietnamese houses. The main architectural attraction of the marketplace, however, is in the reclaimed teak doors used as cladding. “We’ve done this on purpose because this section of the hotel had to stand out,” he added.
More than 2,000 old, unwanted doors were sourced throughout Vietnam, both adhering to Six Senses’ commitment to the environment and lending the marketplace unique qualities. “It made sense in different ways,” he said.
“One is the idea of reusing discarded materials and recycling. The other, points to the history of Vietnam, and gives a strong architectural character and sense of place.
“So it’s one thing which gives three different meanings, and that’s really what we wanted to achieve throughout.”
The recycled door cladding found in the marketplace mirrors the natural solid timber that is used as the main building material throughout the resort.
“Using timber only was a very strong choice,” said Alamou. “We felt it made sense environmentally and also in terms of designing something contemporary.” Because it is untreated, the timber will fade in time and blend into its surroundings. “It will turn an almost grey colour, and become one harmonious colour with the landscape,” he added.
Each of the 50 villas in the resort was built with the same untreated timber, designed to enhance the natural vistas surrounding them. Ranging in size from 194m2 for a deluxe to 671m2 for a four-bedroom suite, the villas feature an ocean view, and private plunge and swimming pools.
Natural ventilation is used on the ground floors, while the upstairs bedrooms are air conditioned. “We wanted to reduce the volume of accommodation being air conditioned,” he added.
“By using through-ventilation with the breeze and only air conditioning in the sleeping units on top, we make a smaller footprint on the site.”
Large bathrooms of 125m2 are a main feature of the villas, with some boasting inside/outside bathing facilities.
As well as timber, bamboo was used in the villas’ bridges, fences, light fittings, guard rails and screens. Soft furnishings in vibrant colours feature throughout the villas.
“All the fabrics came from the eco-friendly manufacturer sourced by Six Senses,” said Alamou. “They’re all basic cotton in vivid colours, to offset the use of timber as the only building material.”
A design highlight of some villas is the ‘flying roof’. The idea of the flying roofs was we wanted to open up the views towards the horizon,” he said. “We’ve changed the geometry of things by using this contemporary architecture.”
In designing the Con Dao property, Alamou created a resort that perfectly blended the island’s natural scenery with the high-end luxury of the Six Senses brand. “It’s all about going there and experiencing the place,” he said.
• Butterfly roofs
• Reclaimed teak door cladding
• Natural ventilation in villas
• Open views to sea and mountains
• Natural, untreated wood throughout
• Central marketplace
AW2 hotel projects
• The Nam Hai, Hoi An, Vietnam
• Alila Villas, Mui Ne, Vietnam
• Nurai, Abu Dhabi, UAE
• The Malkai, Barka, Oman
• Ras A’Ruwais, Ras A’Ruwais, Oman
• Dar Sabra, Marrakesh, Morocco
• Chedi Tamouda Bay, Tétouan, Morocco