A Wellness Retreat Inspired by an Ancient Chinese City

General / People / Places / November 1, 2023

Neri&Hu is an interdisciplinary architectural design practice and research office in Shanghai. It’s known for an approach to projects that span architecture, interior design, master planning, furniture, products, branding and graphic works. Its work often centers on the interplay between tradition and modernity, as it did with the Sanya Wellness Retreat featured on A+A today. We recently interviewed team member Serein Liu via email:

Your assignment here?

We were tasked with designing a wellness retreat that would offer a distinctive, tranquil sanctuary for guests, allowing them to fully immerse themselves in the culture and natural beauty of Hainan. We sought to generate a design imbued with elements of the island’s heritage, offering a sense of serenity and a deep connection to the surroundings. We interpreted this by drawing inspiration from the concept of ancient Chinese walled cities while paying homage to local culture, using traditional materials and techniques to create a modern, immersive experience.

 Your design intent?

Our design intent was to create a place where guests could fully engage with the essence of Hainan, feeling its culture, history, and natural beauty in every aspect of their stay. Through our design, we aimed to transport guests to a relaxed state of mind, encouraging them to appreciate the unhurried pace of island life and to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Hainan. At every given opportunity, we tried to embody the genius loci of Hainan by blending elements from the island’s collective memory, culture and natural features. We also intended to give guests a unique and dynamic room experience, conceiving each guest room as an individual wooden hut. Complete with ocean view balconies, the negative space between these ‘wooden boxes’ forms the sleeping and relaxing areas. In creating an alternating rhythm between solid and void, along with the angled walls and textured material expressions, we intended to continually play with light and shadow to create a distinct sensory experience for guests. We also intentionally framed the corridors between bedroom units to act as an ‘urban streetscape,’ allowing guests to traverse and enjoy chance encounters, embracing the curious essence of being a traveler.

How did the site drive your design?

The site played a pivotal role in shaping the Sanya Wellness Retreat’s design. Situated near the picturesque Haitang Bay on Hainan Island, the lush surroundings and proximity to the sea were crucial factors. Our goal was to seamlessly merge the retreat with the landscape, allowing guests to feel a deep connection to the environment. As mentioned, we drew inspiration from ancient Chinese walled cities, which were elevated on a heavy plinth and typically surrounded by water for protection. We emulated this by defining the hotel in two parts; a wooden dwelling with the guest rooms, which perches atop the masonry base containing all of the public space below. The site also inspired us to design a water courtyard to be at the heart of the hotel. Here, two L-shaped building volumes come together, serving as a hub from which all amenities radiate, transforming the lobby into a garden landscape. In this space, we also intentionally lowered the ceilings in order to frame the site’s breathtaking views of the azure seas.

Your material palette?

The material palette for the was meticulously chosen to reflect the local culture and craftsmanship of Hainan. Handmade clay bricks were used to clad the masonry walls on the lower levels, tapping into local craftsmanship. Fabrics and rugs were inspired by the textile arts of the Li minority tribe, adding a rich cultural layer to the design. We also incorporated bamboo, woven rattan, and yellow bronze accents, using local materials and techniques – such as soaking and pressing bamboo – to enhance the project’s authenticity and connection to the island’s heritage.

 Its scale and proportion?

Totaling 83,000 square meters with 343 guest rooms, we strived to make the guest experience at the Sanya Wellness Retreat intimate and captivating by playing with scale and proportion throughout the design. In doing so, we toyed with elements like lowered and suppressed ceilings, floating lanterns that allow gentle light to filter in, streetscape-like corridors, and angled walls to create alternating rhythms between solid and void.

How does it work within the context of what’s around it?

The Sanya Wellness Retreat is designed to integrate seamlessly with its surroundings and the local architectural and cultural landscape. The use of traditional materials, local craftsmanship, and its homage to ancient walled cities all contribute to a design that harmonizes with the culture and heritage of Hainan Island. The retreat becomes a unique destination that respects and celebrates the island’s rich history, while providing guests with an authentic and immersive experience.

For more, go here.

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Mike Welton

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