An encounter with Silvio Ursini, executive vice-president of Gruppo Bulgari, in charge of the Bulgari Hotels & Resorts project. The design of all the Bulgari hotels is by the studio Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel
by Gilda Bojardi with Antonella Boisi
The appointment is at the Bulgari Hotel in Milan, on Via Fratelli Gabba, the first created by the studio Citterio Viel for the Bulgari Hotels & Resorts collection, which now includes six hotels – Milan (2004), Bali (2006), London (2012), Beijing and Dubai (respectively September and December 2017), and Shanghai (June 2018) – and three under construction, in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo, slated to open from 2020 to 2022.
Silvio Ursini, deus ex machina of these extraordinary ‘jewels among jewels’ of the Roman maison, is a veteran inside the brand, previously its marketing director, then head of the creative division, and now executive vice-president.
Let’s start with your story…
I’ve been with Bulgari for 29 years, 30 in April. With the growth of the company and my personal evolution, I reached the point of heading our design center, focusing on communication but also on the design of products and stores.
Until the end of the 1990s, when as creative director I thought up the concept of the Bulgari Hotels, and got so involved with it that after a one-year sabbatical I decided to focus on it full time. I have become a hotelier without a background in hotels.
A rare breed amidst the competition, because I have a different perspective, as a traveler and manager of a luxury brand, radically different from the traditional service orientation, that focuses more on service and less on an overall vision of the guest experience.
Was the choice of your operator, Marriott International Group, decisive to implement this vision?
Absolutely. We have an exclusive partnership with the luxury division of the Marriott group, with which about 20 years ago we sat down around a table and rewrote the operative standards, so they could run all our hotels according to the same parameters. The formula has not changed: we invent the hotel, local investors build it, and Marriott manages the facility. And the studio Citterio Viel does the design.
You were the person behind the choice of the firm of Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel?
Well yes, I was. Just as we selected the operator, so we opted for the studio Citterio Viel, after having met with various architects. We fell in love with their approach of versatility that ranges from the design of the building to that of the handles. We share the same passion of timeless quality that corresponds to an ideal of classicism.
The proof is that this hotel in Milan has not changed at all since it was created as the first pilot project. It was a very interesting encounter, because we asked Citterio to interpret himself with Bulgari. “Imagine,” we told him, “Mies van der Rohe meets Caligula.”
We are Romans, imperial… though the company was founded at the end of the 1800s, our evocative substrate draws on an extraordinary legacy of classicism and Mediterranean identity. Nevertheless, we want a contemporary, terse design that can survive in time.
So if you had to indicate the key elements of the Bulgari Hotels & Resorts collection…
The collection stands on some indisputable foundations. The first, and the most important, has to do with the choice of the city, which should always be a large capital with many international visitors. It might seem banal, but if you fail to choose correctly on this score, you will never manage to build a special place.
Secondly, as a result, there is the choice of the site, in keeping with rational criteria (address, size, square meters, views, distinctive features like the garden here in Milan, or the shore at Bali), and irrational ones, like the genius loci, which at times is not immediately perceptible. It was unmistakable in Dubai, however. When we saw the artificial island of Jumeirah Bay, unique in terms of position, scale and characteristics, built from scratch in a dimension utterly lacking in architectural and historical background, we immediately realized that it was a truly singular situation. In the cases of Beijing and Shanghai, on the other hand, it was a gradually discovery.
You have to enter into the spirit of the place, in tune with its features. To watch the ships moving on the water, to listen to the river and the wind, stimulated us to imagine what that zone in Shanghai could become, though it was a tabula rasa before our project, at the end of the Bund, the intersection with the Suhe Creek zone that offers a spectacular view of the skyline all the way to Pudong.
When the hotel had already been built, one afternoon a typhoon arrived and we photographed it from the restaurant; the sky was black. It looked like Gotham City, an unreal dimension. In Beijing, on the other hand, the impression came from the presence of a parking facility, which became a park with weeping willows and age-old pine trees from the mountains of China.
This helped us to make the hotel into a true urban resort in the financial district, the area of the embassies along the Liangma River, not far from the Genesis Art Foundation which will open in 2019, with a contemporary art museum designed by Tadao Ando.
The third key element of our collection is the design of the building itself, which interprets the genius loci and develops proven stylistic canons, staging the timeless values of Made in Italy anywhere, with rigor and perfection, conveyed by the chosen materials of the architecture and furnishings, with very few concessions to local design. The only exception to this rule is Bali, because the client wanted to be able to have a local experience, though a distilled, refined one.
You always pay close attention to the wellness center and the cuisine (especially that of Niko Romito, the Michelin-star chef from Abruzzo, a constant in all the Bulgari Hotels). How has the concept of luxury changed over the last two decades, in your view?
Well, I am a bit ‘old school’ and I think that in the end the concept of luxury hasn’t changed at all over the last four or five thousand years. There is the inborn desire of people to surround themselves with rare, precious objects that enrich their existence. Of course, as a trend we can see a greater focus on wellness.
One thing we learned here in Milan is that clients want large spaces for the spa and beauty treatments, and we have applied this awareness to the other project. In Beijing, there is a spa with an area of 1500 square meters on two levels, and a large fitness room. Many Beijing residences like to use the facility as a place for an exclusive weekend spent in the city. In Shanghai the spa has an area of 2000 square meters, with an indoor swimming pool of 25 meters. Otherwise not much has changed. Or, more precisely, we are not interested in following the trend of hypertech experience in private spaces, exploiting the potential of interfaces with the latest generation of smartphones.
What is instead new and interesting is the digitalization of the experience connected with the phenomenon of social media, where people can get informed and then share their personal experiences when they have come to the actual place. Our projects are very photogenic and perfect for Instagram: details and views of design lend themselves to effective communication, amplifying our message…
The message of timeless luxury and quality, but also of interest in the place and its culture, as you were saying… What are the local references in Shanghai?
They are much fewer there, actually, because discussing things with our local counterparts, we soon realized that they were not interested in an Italian interpretation of Chinese culture. What they want from us is Italian design. In the project, in any case, we have tried to reflect the spirit of a city that is relatively new and vibrant, a seaport and a place with enjoyable night life.
Shanghai is a bit like the Paris of China and it went through a remarkable period in the 1920s and 1930s. The project has been oriented in that direction, opting for Deco citations, with dark, almost black wood, and well-gauged red accents.
The hotel in Beijing, on the other hand, is much more similar to the one in Milan in terms of materials and colors: elm, wicker, soft honey tones that emphasize the direct relationship with nature, the park, the green areas of the hotel in the lower part of one of the towers.
Getting back to Shanghai, we were also lucky because for a foreigner who wants to have a local, traditional experience, next to the contemporary hotel there is a historical building from the early 1900s, the former headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce, which now contains the hall for events and the Chinese restaurant.
While at the resort in Dubai…
Well that is extraordinary, because as I was telling you, it is part of a unique location: 13 of the 52 acres of Jumeirah Bay Island, a piece of residential city on the water, far from the Dubai of skyscrapers, but close to the attraction of the mall.
There was the opportunity to create a small village in a semicircular form around the marina for 50 yachts, composed of the hotel, six apartment buildings, 20 villas, including the top of the line with an area of over 500 square meters, 6 restaurants, gardens…
The scent of an Italian village, of the Mediterranean, to move through on foot. The project in Moscow will also involve the reconstruction of an entire block in the historical center. It calls for conservative restoration, creating harmony among the facades of buildings dating back to different periods, with contemporary architectural insertions and the total reconstruction of the interiors, while enhancing the splendid private courtyard.
God is in the details, Mies van der Rohe said. Is that also true for Bulgari?
Without a doubt. We try to recover what has been lost in the luxury hotel market. I am thinking about the ‘God in the details’ of the Savoy in London, where all the lighting fixtures were custom designed, or the Parco dei Principi in Sorrento completely designed by Gio Ponti, from the architecture to the tiles. We want to go back to that approach. Without ever losing track of the added focus that makes the different in the various locations.
Were you also the person behind the recent experience at the FuoriSalone in Milan, with the intriguing installation of 1000 square meters in the Brera Design District created by Iván Navarro and Courtney Smith, MVRDV and Storage Associati?
We thought that up all together, inside the company (the jewelry, interior design and hotel divisions), as a choral reflection on the parameters of color, materials, and a modular approach to the stylistic identity of the brand.
It was very well done…
I’d say so. It narrates, through parallels, the evolution of the approach to style, also in our hotels. We go through three phases. The initial one corresponds to the projects in Milan and London, because Bali remains a case apart. The present phase is represented by the examples of Beijing, Shanghai and Dubai.
And the phase to come is under construction, in Paris, Moscow and Tokyo. In this line of clear continuity, the progression has been contaminated with other expressions (absorbed, for example, from the retail projects), so you can see a subtle difference among these three phases. A few more concessions to color, to eclectic details and various forms of artistic representation.
In short, today we dare to do more, to keep the memory of our history alive. And we have realized, in the end, that this is also fun. In the communal spaces of the Shanghai Bulgari, for example, there is a collection of archival photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, pictures of Veruschka, Virna Lisi, Monica Vitti and others, wearing Bulgari jewelry… Images that belong to collective memory, that make us dream about the days of the Dolce Vita and the atmospheres of the Eternal City.
But where do you live, most of the time?
In Rome, Grosseto and airports.