Class Act

28th June 2009 (Last Updated June 28th, 2009 18:30)

The Rocco Forte Collection's design director Olga Polizzi sits down with Christopher Kanal. She discusses the highs and lows of six years working on the company's most ambitious project yet: its first resort, Verdura in Sicily.

Class Act

On a bleak February morning in a Mayfair that is still thawing out after heavy snow, Olga Polizzi is sitting opposite me extolling the beauty of Sicily in the summer. “Nobody has actually done anything in Italy in years,” Polizzi says.

“I am amazed that we are where we are now. It’s a forgotten part of Europe yet people love it.”

Polizzi and her brother Sir Rocco Forte, chairman and chief executive of The Rocco Forte Collection, are hosting the launch of Verdura Golf & Spa Resort, which Polizzi co-designed with Italian architect Flavio Albanese.

Verdura is the family’s most ambitious project to date and, debuting as it is during a global recession, the boldest.

The resort is set in a secluded location on Sicily’s south-west coast, an hour’s drive from Palermo Airport and near to fishing towns including Sciacca and historical sites such as the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.

“We have used stone only where really necessary, and then we have rendered and painted the buildings.”

“This is the first hotel Flavio has done,” Polizzi tells me. “He is a complete lunatic; a wonderful, complete lunatic. He has a house on Pantelleria so he knows Sicily well. I looked for so many people and just couldn’t find anyone I felt really comfortable with. Then Flavio arrived with thousands of drawings and got us very enthusiastic.”

The €124m resort Verdura opens in July 2009. It has been a six-year labour of love for the Forte family – “the biggest, most terrifying project to date” according to Polizzi.

Even by big chain standards the project was huge. The site covered an area of 230 hectares.

“It took two years to bring together 93 land owners to get hold of this plot,” says Polizzi. “We couldn’t buy one piece of land without everyone agreeing. That was the first hurdle and there have been many others along the way.”

The subsequent construction was not without problems. “We had the worst winter imaginable,” she explains.

“In January Sicily had half its annual rainfall so we weren’t able to get on with the landscaping. There were lots of orange trees that we had to move and replant again.”

The resort’s location among citrus and olive groves is stunning but Verdura’s real draw is its understated facilities, which include three golf courses, a 60m swimming pool, a thalassotherapy spa with its own lap and hydrotherapy pools, four restaurants and even a yoga centre. Verdura also has an extensive conference and business area in the central resort building, with ten flexible meeting rooms, a double-height ballroom for up to 250 guests and a 500-seat open-air amphitheatre.

The sheer size of the resort has allowed Polizzi and Albanese to create an atmosphere of seclusion and intimacy on the site. All 203 rooms and suites are landscaped in groups around the property, and have private terraces and uninterrupted sea views.

Such is the importance of the project that Sir Rocco approached a Forte veteran, Franco Pecorelli, to be general manager after having run the Forte Village in Sardinia years ago. “Thank God we found him,” says Polizzi.

The design

Taking inspiration from Mexican architect and Pritzker Prize laureate Luis Barragan, Albanese employed bold, Latin terracotta and ochre for the exterior of the buildings, varying the textures by mixing stone, sand and wood, and incorporated green features such as solar energy and water recycling as well as more traditional technologies. “We used a lot of stone to keep the temperature down,” says Polizzi.

“I have never fallen out with Rocco. Obviously he’s important to please.”

“We wanted to use as little air conditioning as possible.” Barragan was a big influence.

“He did these wonderful buildings, all different colours in blues and greens,” says Polizzi. “Ours are much stronger and more Sicilian.”

Verdura mixes modernist, environmentally sensitive architecture with a design template rooted in Sicilian culture. “I like strong buildings,” says Polizzi.

“Sicily is raw and hard, so we didn’t want to make it pretty and soft.” The character of the Sicilian land contributed towards the design direction.

“You can go 20 different ways with a design,” she says. “There is not really a right way of going, so you have to take the plunge and go in a certain direction.”

A key design ethos for The Rocco Forte Collection is that each hotel is different and inherently reflects its location. “Everything that we do is tainted with that philosophy,” says Polizzi.

“When you wake up in Browns you know you are in London. I don’t want guests to wake up [in Sicily] and think they are in Mexico.”

The challenge was to create a design that is long lasting yet contemporary.

Verdura certainly echoes the minimalist neo-classical lines of architects such as David Chipperfield and Aires Mateus. Albanese has applied minimalist, contemporary lines to the construction of the accommodation, spa, restaurants and outdoor facilities.

“There is a main facilities building that has two restaurants and the spa, and then there are the courtyard buildings, which are like baglia, the old farmhouse buildings you find in Sicily,” explains Polizzi.

“Rocco was very involved in the design of the golf course. He is a keen golfer.”

She employed local artisans extensively on the project. Mosaics were sourced for the bathroom walls and colourful objects used in the rooms include tiled tabletops and pots that were commissioned from a local potter.

At the entrance to each room are plaster reliefs of ancient Sicilian artefacts. To evoke the wild Sicilian grasses, bamboo canes have been used over the terraces to create shade, and then emulated on the rooms’ ceilings.

“Cane relief looks rather nice if you are lying in bed,” says Polizzi. Fabrics, such as throws, are based on the design of a Sicilian tile.

“Every bit of material is a huge, blown-up version of this tile,” she says.

All the rooms and suites are situated in either a “courtyard” or “landscape” building. In each, Polizzi has set intense, Sicilian colours – violet, ochre and scarlet – against a white background.

There are 47 suites, two large Ambassador Suites (169sq m) and a Presidential Suite (175sq m), which has its own swimming pool, hot tub, outdoor dining area and three private terraces.

Rooms have contemporary four-poster beds in dark wood with simple white muslin curtains. Soft lighting is provided by lamps with fabric cylinders made by Italian lighting company Flos.

“You need a balance between something classic and modern. I hope we have got it.”

The floors are polished concrete. “I know what Rocco likes,” explains Polizzi.

“I know that he will like a really comfortable bathroom, lots of space by the basins and a decent light to read by.” Each bedroom features walk-through wardrobes and spacious, naturally lit bathrooms with walk-in showers for two, stone vanity tops and seating areas.

Sir Rocco brought in Kyle Phillips to design three golf courses that meander around indigenous orange and olive groves, and undulate from mountain foothills down to the Mediterranean seashore. Phillips, who designed the stunning Kingsbarns Golf Links just outside St Andrews in Scotland, has employed his trademark use of natural and manmade landforms.

A keen golfer, Sir Rocco took a special interest in designing the courses. “My brother had the mania of having a championship golf course,” says Polizzi.

“He hates playing golf and having houses all around the course.”

“Outside there are caned terraces. We took a relief of the cane and put it on all the ceilings inside.”

Whether the project will help transform Sicily into a luxury destination in the present economic climate remains to be seen, although the island has long been a favourite with the discreetly wealthy. “I am always very nervous before we open anything because you never know what the reaction is going to be,” says Polizzi.

“I always see what is wrong. It’s only when people start saying they like it that one relaxes a bit, but it is always quite hard.”

Polizzi tells me that Sir Rocco was in Sicily last week checking on the progress of the project. “I hate him going now because he will go and say: ‘I don’t like that,'” she laughs. “I’ll say: ‘Rocco, it’s too late, it’s too late.'”