Inside Hotelier Ronald Akili's Desa Potato Head Project—Bali’s First Creative Village
As any hotelier will tell you, building a hotel requires an almost masochistic appetite for long project deadlines, eye-watering expense outflow and an even longer horizon for an adjusted-for-inflation return on investment. In most cases, five years is a bare minimum, but in the case of Ronald Akili’s ambitious Desa Potato Head project, that horizon has stretched to a decade—and the Jakarta-based real-estate developer turned hotelier is still not done.
The first salvo was fired in 2010 when Akili—the son of prominent Indonesian entrepreneur and collector Rudy Akili, who also opened the Akili Museum of Art in Jakarta—launched Potato Head Beach Club in a quiet stretch of Bali’s Seminyak neighbourhood.
By any yardstick, it was a game-changer: a slick mix of restaurant, music club, bar and pool, and social hangout for both locals and the greater community of hipsters that turned the tired old trope of Bali as the backdrop for surfers, yogis, spiritual shrines, traditional gamelan orchestras and kohl-eye-lined dancers on its head. For here was a thoroughly fresh take on Bali, a place whose setting was steeped in tradition but whose programming felt thoroughly millennial.
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Exhibit B was five years in the making. In 2015, Akili opened the 58-suite Katamama right next to Potato Head Beach Club, tapping Indonesian architect Andra Martin and Singapore-based interior designers Takenouchi Webb to create a quietly modern space that was layered with teak and terrazzo, Balinese bricks and hand-made Javanese tiles. It was another instant hit.
Even so, few really appreciated that both Potato Head Beach Club and Katamama—and the sweep of restaurants that Akili opened in the interim in Singapore and Hong Kong as well—were test beds for a more ambitious expression of his belief that genuine hospitality “lies in the interaction between different cultures.” Specifically, “authentic, not ethnic” has been an abiding mantra. This year, Akili launches in stages what he describes as the last piece of the puzzle: the Creative Centre.
For this most affable of hoteliers, a hotel has so much more potential beyond being merely a place to check into and sleep. At the very least, it is a space that should be open to everyone; specifically, the local community and visiting guests—a communal space where strangers can meet naturally and form creative and emotional bonds. In other words, a village. “I have been dreaming about the idea of building a village for 10 years, ever since we opened our first venue in Bali,” Akili says.
And yet ‘village’ is something of an understatement, because it seems to imply something bijou and rustic, a place where you might expect to see, say, a troop of hens pecking at the dirt amid some alang-alang thatched huts. Akili’s village, or Desa Potato Head, to be formal, is a 387,500 sqft complex that includes Katamama and Potato Head Beach Club, at the heart of which is the new Creative Centre.
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Akili’s ambitions for the 258,000 sqft Creative Centre have, except perhaps the Villa La Coste complex in Aix-en-Provence, few parallels in modern hospitality. This, he points out, is a new type of holistic experience where music, art, design, food, wellness and sustainability collide for both the local community and guest. “We’re not trying the change the industry. We want to create an entirely new model for it.”
Over the course of 2020, the Creative Centre will unveil a 168-room hotel called Potato Head Studios, farm-to-table restaurants, a host of bars, a multifunctional gallery, an environmentally driven kids’ club, several rooftop communal zones, an amphitheatre, a beachfront pool, a music recording studio, Wild Life Archive (a collection of posters, books and resources on techno, disco and acid house) and Klymax, a high-fidelity, subterranean discotheque designed in partnership with DJ Harvey.
Even for the most hyperactive Bali reveller, the scale of the offerings is exhaustive, and potentially exhausting. Yet a judicious spreading out of the various venues in landscaped cocoons and zones creates an unexpected human intimacy.
Thanks to OMA who, working with Akili’s long-time collaborator Andra Matin, have fused Balinese architectural and its arts and crafts traditions with the niceties of a modern hotel and hospitality complex without ever lapsing into cliched territory.
“OMA is known for building public spaces like museums and institutions, and that was our idea for Desa Potato Head,” Akili says. “We wanted to create a type of cultural institution that mixes public with private, guests with locals, and future thinking with time-honoured craftsmanship.”
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Hand in hand
In keeping with Akili’s insistence on sustainability—a philosophy that’s been central from the beginning with Potato Head Beach Club—locally sourced and recycled materials were used, but in an innovative way. These included ijuk, a local roofing material, teak from a local and renewable source, handmade breeze blocks, terrazzo made from waste concrete chunks, and ceiling panels woven by local craftsmen from 1.7 tonnes of recycled plastic bottles.
“We also involved a large number of local people to handcraft the textures of some concrete walls,” says David Gianotten, OMA’s managing partner. “While giving the building tactility, the textured walls also represent a construction process that respected local culture.”
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Physically, the Creative Centre is anchored by a sprawling, open-air, floating ring lifted on piers; in effect, a piazza that directly leads to the beach and is a flexible centrepiece for staging festival celebrations, cultural events and day-to-day leisure activities. To enable more chance encounters between hotel guests and the public, OMA incorporated a route connecting amenities in the floating ring that leads to the rooftop, conceived as a community and a sculptural park.
This is one of the last beachfront sites in Seminyak, explains Gianotten. “A resort for hotel guests’ exclusive enjoyment, as is the case of typical resorts in Bali, could have blocked public access to the beach. Ronald wanted a welcoming resort for everyone, and we saw an opportunity to create, through the open platform, a project that would defy exclusivity and also give meaning to the local community. It became the focal point of the project.”
Scattered throughout the estate are head-turning installation pieces, not least the sinuous bamboo construct, The Womb, which its creator Nano Uhero accompanies with the ring of a gong to allude to purification and rebirth as guests physically emerge out of its womb-like pod; the Netherlands- and New York-based design collective Rotganzen’s Never Ending Nights, a giant melting disco ball slumped on the roof of the Creative Centre; and Joko Avianto’s Clouds, a 23-metre-high interactive sculpture made of recycled plastic to resemble bamboo.
For Gianotten, the Creative Centre provided OMA with an opportunity to explore new possibilities in form, programme and materiality, and a remarkable learning curve. “It redefines the resort because the architecture does not only offer physical comfort for guests, but it also creates an environment where everyone feels adventurous for new encounters. It becomes a place from which to experience a place’s culture without filter. I think this understanding of the resort typology could inform our upcoming designs, which, I hope, would yet again bring something new.”
All of which translates into a freshly minted, multigenerational playground for our times. Or at least, that’s Akili’s game plan. “We know the consumer is changing to value experiences over simple transactions, and we believe that villages and communities can create those memorable experiences—especially when they are focused on inspiring creativity like we’re doing at Desa Potato Head.”
That creativity looms large in the overarching mania for recycling and sustainability. Most of the furniture and amenities for Potato Head Studios, for instance, are made out of waste, recycled or organic materials, such as the chairs designed by Max Lamb and Faye Toogood, who used plastic waste and rattan respectively. “We encourage our guests to travel light and we give them everything they need here, including a zero-waste kit that contains a water bottle, bamboo straws and refillable amenities such as sunscreen and insect repellent,” says Akili.
Meanwhile, Desa Potato Head’s seven restaurants embrace a zero-waste approach that influences every touchpoint—whether sourcing pesticide-free produce from small-production farms in the cool hills of Bedugul, encouraging vendors to avoid single-use plastic in their deliveries, floors made of chipped plates and broken bottles, furniture made in-house from factory offcuts, menu boards whipped out of old truck tyres, feeding food waste to pig farms, and grinding clam and oyster shells to add to chicken feed.
In case there’s any doubt, being green isn’t cheap. All these initiatives are costly in terms of the financials and time spent in re-educating an entire commercial supply chain. But Akili is both unrepentant and upbeat. “Turning a dream into a reality is never easy, and we have challenges every day. But our biggest challenge was probably in maintaining our family value of sustaining Mother Earth. Some ideas weren’t that difficult, like creating the zero-waste kit for guests. Others required us to challenge entire operational systems, like how our farmers package the produce delivered to our kitchens.”
In every way, Desa Potato Head cleaves close to the corporate motto of ‘Good Times, Do Good’. Cynics may arch an eyebrow at the four pillars of the brand—nourish the body, align the soul, inspire creativity and sustain Mother Earth—but there is no reason to doubt Akili’s intentions and every reason to believe the evidence.
As David Gianotten points out, from the beginning, Akili has been consistent in his goals and vision in creating a five-star hotel in Seminyak not only for hotel guests, but also the local community. “We shared Ronald’s vision, and our collaboration started from there, and it has since grown into an aligned vision, and even friendship.” We, for one, are sold.