Sugar mill resort in China features underground spa with walls of volcanic rock

by Jane Kitchen | 21 Jul 2017

Hospitality group Alila has opened a second location in China, converting a historic sugar mill into a 117-bedroom “modern retro” resort in Guilin, overlooking the Li River.

Designed by Dong Gong of Vector Architects with interiors by Ju Bin of Horizontal Space Design, the vision of the Alila Yangshuo resort is to integrate the new with the old, and the designers have incorporated elements of the 1960s sugar mill architecture in a bid to bring the story of the historical mill to life. The complex was first opened in the 1920s, and was successful for some years, before economic crisis forced it to close down and become a weapons factory.

The design team and five tradespeople produced more than 60,000 hollow bricks for the resort's exterior walls – inspired by the sugar blocks produced in the 1920s – with the help of a specially-designed machine that formed the material from local sandstone.

“We contemplated how to give the building facade an airy sense of lightness, especially at night, with subtle lighting beaming through the walls,” said Dong Gong. “The building within made of concrete, but visually it possesses the quality of lattice work, with light and air.

“Alila Yangshuo, as in many of our recent projects, is located in a natural site, so I have the opportunity to think of how the environment can impact and influence the architecture and its function. I believe that an architect should be in awe of what is called ‘Tian’ in Chinese, or ‘nature’ in Western culture. This means that when you are on site, you see with your heart and invoke the energy of the site environs to define the form and meaning for your architecture.”

Red volcanic rock was discovered during the construction phase, and was incorporated in the building by being ground and mixed into the terrazzo floors and used to create pottery for the guestrooms. Slabs of local clay with etched motifs are used on the bathroom walls, and clay etchings of local tradesmen in the 1960s are used to decorate the headboards.

The region of Guilin is famous for its limestone hills, tunnels and caves, and Dong Gong’s design concept used caves and passageways built with surprising ups and downs, and some corridors leading to nowhere.

A Spa Alila is housed in an underground location that guests access through a modern spiral entry. Walls and floors are made from underground volcanic rocks, which produced jewelled hues in the cave-like interiors. The spa includes five treatment rooms, and outdoor treatments are also available in the Villa garden.

Other wellness facilities include a dramatic outdoor swimming pool, a gym with cardio theatre and a Kinesis wall.

The resort's interiors incorporate elements of the original sugar mill, and designer Ju Bin said the decision not to be too modern in his approach was an intentional one.

“The Chinese aesthetic concept of ‘beauty is in the old and the turbid’ means that the space must contain a touch of rusticity and must not be too refined,” he said.

After a big opening ceremony 1 July, heavy rainfalls caused the Li River to swell to unprecedented levels and flood area roads, including part of the hotel grounds, delaying the opening until Q1 2018.

Alila's first Chinese property, Alila Anji, opened in 2016. It also plans to open locations in Bintan and Cambodia.

Last year, Alila's parent company, Commune Hotels, merged with Destination Hotels, forming the new Two Roads Hospitality.

Alila  China  Yangshuo  spa  architecture  hotel  travel 
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Hospitality group Alila has opened a second location in China, converting a historic sugar mill into a 117-bedroom “modern retro” resort in Guilin, overlooking the Li River. Designed by Dong Gong of Vector Architects with interiors by Ju Bin of Horizontal Space Design, the vision of the Alila Yangshuo resort is to integrate the new with the old, and the designers have incorporated elements of the 1960s sugar mill architecture
'When you are on site, you see with your heart and invoke the energy of the site environs,' says architect Dong Gong
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