Neri&Hu designs a comprehensive spa complex for those looking to unwind outside Hong Kong

Seeking Serenity

China’s southernmost point is the Hainan Island province, whose tropical climate has made it a go-to vacation spot. The burgeoning “Hawaii of China” inspired a large insurance company to build the sprawling Sanya Wellness Retreat on the island’s Haitang Bay. The company enlisted Shanghai-based Neri&Hu Design and Research Office. But when the architects arrived at the site, they found that the supposed beach resort is not … on the beach.

hotel connects to beach
The spa houses 343 guest rooms all of which have a view of the ocean (Chen Hao)

A pesky highway divides the beach from the retreat, requiring visitors to cross beneath via underground tunnels. This puzzled the architects: “How to let the people who come here have a sense of peace and quiet and not be bothered by the highway?” asked the firm’s cofounder Rossana Hu.

facade detail of Sanya Wellness Retreat by Neri&Hu
A series of terraces, set at an angle, create an intriguing facade (Chen Hao)

The answer was in the massing. Two L-shaped volumes encircle a courtyard, walling off the road while protecting guests within its arms. The diagram takes cues from the ancient walled city of Nanjing. The timber form is perched atop a masonry base, ensuring that all 343 guest rooms have a view of the ocean.

covered balconies
The covered balconies add texture to the minimal design (Chen Hao)

Given the large scale of the project, Neri&Hu choreographed openings and compressions to strategically cultivate a calming environment. On the first level, the lobby feels more like a garden landscape with its profuse ponds, apertures, and floating lights. Even within the nearly 89,000-square-foot campus, there’s still a connection to nature through the framing of sky and water and gentle cross breezes. “It’s a delicate balance between openness and enclosure,” Hu said.

skylight with wood paneled walls
The overall rational, gridded style of the design is repeated on small and large scales (Chen Hao)

“The ground floor is very open and transparent, so you can see through a lot of different layerings of functions and rooms,” she continued. In the cafe and dining areas for instance, rattan partitions offer organization, but the translucent material softens the fortresslike feel of the structure.

corridor with large column
Rattan partitions offer organization, but the translucent material softens the fortresslike feel of the structure (Chen Hao)

The architects relied on local craftsmanship where possible: handmade clay bricks for the walls, teak wood throughout the interior, and traditional bamboo construction abounds. Fine art made by the Indigenous Li tribe is also showcased. Incorporating local practices was important to Hu: It gestures toward a different sense of luxury. Advocating for this became the biggest challenge in the project as the client conceived of a different aesthetic. “Their idea of luxury was commercial luxury: chandeliers and Venetian glass,” she explained. Yet Neri&Hu bridged this divide by educating the clients on how luxury and wellness can look different—and even better.

High lofted ceilings are tempered by wooden structures (Chen Hao)

This take on quiet luxury persists in the guest rooms, designed as wooden boxes with soft, waxlike bamboo finishes. Custom furniture designed by the practice decorates each space. Here motifs from the first cohere with the second: The wood and white color scheme continues the resort’s subtle color palette, rattan and bulbous lighting recall the first-floor eateries, and fluted walls provide texture, recalling the overall rational, gridded structure of the hotel’s design.

seating and furniture in large space with high ceilings
A wood and white color scheme create a calming environment (Chen Hao)

Each room is outfitted with a terrace, an important component to keep guests in connection to the outdoors. The series of terraces, set at an angle and divided by wooden partitions, create a rhythmic facade of brown sails in the sky.

balconies and staircases
Outdoor circulation is encouraged laterally on the balconies and between floors with thoughtful vertical integration (Chen Hao)

rattan headboard and bulbous light fixtures
Spherical bulbs and woven screens add a touch of whimsy to the rooms (Chen Hao)

Sanya emphasizes Neri&Hu’s dedication to total design. Walking in the footsteps of Walter Gropius, the architects focused on cohering and controlling product, interiors, and architecture. “We were very mindful of experience from different scales, at the city level all the way down to the personal level,” Hu said. In the growing world of specialization, full-scale integration is both a strength of this project and the office that executed it.