As a teenager, my Parisian mother used to go to Molitor on hot days to swim, sunbathe and eye up the other teenagers. Like many Parisians, the iconic Art Deco pool held a special place in her heart, which is why I was excited to visit it in its latest incarnation and interview Jean-Philippe Nuel, the interior designer behind the transformation of Molitor and several other exciting hospitality projects.
“The place already had a soul that had to be preserved,” says Nuel, who has made his name designing hospitality projects including the 5 Codet in Paris and the InterContinental Hotel Dieu Marseille. His most recent project, the Intercontinental Lyon – Hotel Dieu, also sees a much loved historic building – a famous hospital dating back eight centuries – sensitively restored to become a contemporary boutique hotel that has already won several awards for its design.
“Paradoxically, historic buildings often result in more creative projects than new builds because the constraints mean certain situations are unavoidable and this allow us to break the usual standards,” Nuel tells me.
“In Molitor we don’t have guestrooms on both sides of the corridor like a conventional new build hotel would have. The result is that the flow becomes magical because it’s entirely glazed on one side and therefore suspended above the Roland Garros and Jean-Bouin stadiums with superb views of Paris.”
The pool complex was designed by architect Lucien Pollet and inaugurated in 1929 by Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller (who later starred as Tarzan in the Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s). Pollet employed the finest craftspeople to create the ironwork, terrazzo floors, mosaics, portholes and white railings that contributed to its cruise liner feel. During the summer it was packed with swimmers; during the winter it was used as a skating rink. The swimming club hosted fashion shows and attracted celebrities, but also acted as a respite from the city for ordinary Parisians like my mother.
In the 1970s and 1980s though, the pool began to need more and more expensive renovation work; eventually Paris’ City Council decided enough was enough and refused Molitor’s management’s request to extend the leasehold. In 1989 the keys were returned to the council and the complex was closed.
Over the next two decades, the abandoned buildings were taken over by graffiti artists. The complex became a kind of urban mecca, attracting artists and skateboarders, and hosting concerts, raves and parties.
Then, in 2007, a tender process was announced by the Paris City Council for the restoration and operation of the building. This was awarded to Colony Capital, associated with Bouygues Construction and Accorhotels, who teamed up with Alain Derbesse, Perrot et Richard, Jacques Rougerie Architectes and Jean-Philippe Nuel to create a hotel that would respect its history.
“I visited well before I started work on Molitor and took lots of pictures,” says Nuel. “These visits greatly influenced the decorative bias. I also gathered testimonies from people who’d known Molitor at different times. The oldest people had known the pool or the skating rink; the youngest knew it as a place where rave parties were held. These testimonies convinced me to see the project as a journey through the history of the building.”
The design team made the decision to rebuild parts of the building with original elements remaining as they were when Pollet designed the complex.
The new spaces, and areas where no original elements remained, would be designed in a contemporary style, with a nod to Molitor’s street art period. It was important, says Nuel, not to just create a pastiche of the original building.
In 2014, the Hotel Molitor Paris reopened under Accor’s MGallery brand as a 124 room hotel with a restaurant, a rooftop bar, a fitness club and a 1,700sq m Clarins spa. The state of the foundations and concrete meant the indoor and outdoor pools had to be demolished, but they were rebuilt following the original designs, with the colours, mosaics and balustrades all faithfully re-rendered. The original ‘tango yellow’ building facade has been brought back, and other original elements have been restored including leaded glass windows, mosaics and lamps. The glass-enclosed ticket booth is no longer needed but has been kept as a historical artefact and a reminder of the days when queues would have snaked out of the building and around the block.
The hotel lobby houses a graffitied Rolls Royce convertible, raw concrete walls and bold contemporary artworks, while a muted colour palette has been used in the guestrooms to create a tranquil feel. The spa and club feature bold, graphic design – lots of navy with flashes of tango yellow in the furnishings and porthole-style windows looking out onto the famous pool. The indoor ‘winter pool’ celebrates Molitor’s more recent past with the changing cabins transformed into an art exhibition, with various contemporary artists invited to use them as canvases for their work. It’s an exhilarating mash up of styles that combine to create something entirely unique.
“I find historic buildings inspiring,” says Nuel. “The project becomes a story that we already have the introduction to, and that takes us and guides us towards a new path.”
INTERCONTINENTAL LYON – HOTEL DIEU
Summer 2019 saw the opening of another interesting historic building remake – Lyon’s Grand Hotel Dieu. Built starting in the 12th century, it was one of France’s most important hospitals for centuries, welcoming pilgrims and travellers, treating European monarchs and birthing generations of Lyonnais people in its maternity ward.
In the 18th century, architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot – best known for designing the Pantheon in Paris – replaced the original building with the current one, which features an imposing facade and a soaring 32m high dome.
In 2010, the building ceased to operate as a hospital and has now reopened as a commercial centre with shops, restaurants, offices and a food museum. In June 2019, the InterContinental Hotel Dieu de Lyon opened, following a 10 year renovation project, with interiors by Nuel and his team.
“To approach the project, I researched and discussed it with the heritage architect Didier Repellin who was part of the project management team,” says Nuel.
“It was important to fully understand the architecture and its history to nourish its rebirth.
“Renovating a building of this size is a cultural and social issue for the city,” he adds. “There’s a very strong connection between this type of iconic building and the inhabitants of the city who grew up with its presence. They each have a personal story with this architecture and the renovation involves writing a new story. This is what’s happening in Paris with Notre Dame Cathedral, and that is why there are passionate debates on how to rebuild the spire.”
As with Molitor, Nuel was determined to respect the history of the building while creating something new.
“‘This renovation was done around some strong ideas,” he says. “We wanted a contemporary approach to avoid any pastiche. Our aim was to reinterpret the original dichotomy of the building – that it was a luxurious palace to treat the poorest. We also wanted to achieve a sense of ‘humble luxury’ that corresponds to the history of the place but also to our time and to my sensitivity.
“The fact that it was a hospital was important, but I never wanted to express it through anecdotal references.”
The hotel has 144 rooms and suites, a large conference centre, a restaurant and a bar. Le Dôme Bar is a probably the standout feature of the hotel; a huge, stunning space to sit and drink a cocktail in, set in Soufflot’s soaring 18th century dome, formerly the hospital’s chapel.
“The bar was an extraordinary challenge,” says Nuel. “It was necessary to be consistent with the history of the place and to correctly understand the scale, which is why we custom designed all the furniture for that space. It was also necessary to solve many technical problems, such as the lighting, scaffolding and acoustics.
“I’m very proud of Le Dôme Bar. A hotel bar like this is probably unique in the world.”
Born in the east of France, Nuel graduated in architecture from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Nuel made a name for himself early on in the world of interior design by winning several competitions, including one presided over by Kenzo Tange. His first built project was a hotel in Paris’ St Germain des Près, which opened in 2000; Nuel was responsible for both the architecture and interior design. Other hotel projects followed, with clients including Accor, Club Med, Hilton, Radisson, Starwood, Marriott and IHG.
“Hotels are interesting because in a small space, they contain the main functions that punctuate our lives: rest, work, relaxation, sport, meetings,” Nuel says. “They’re like laboratories for our lifestyles, and they quickly reflect evolutions in the way we live our lives.”
Today he employs 30 designers in an office just outside Paris, with his second office opened in New York in 2019 in collaboration with US-based interior designer Sandy Despres-Stevens.
As well as hotels, he has designed several product lines, and interiors for homes and cruise ships.
Looking ahead, Nuel is designing the interiors for Radisson’s Paris La Defense hotel, which is due to open in 2024 and is located in the new Christian de Portzamparc-designed Sisters Towers. Other hospitality projects include the design of six upscale suites for the Hostellerie de Plaisance luxury hotel in St-Emilion, France; an architectural project with a winery for Chateau Fonroque, also in St Emilion; and several cruise ship projects including a sailboat with 16 cabins for Ponant.
While Nuel specialises in the design of upscale spaces, he says his idea of real luxury has nothing to do with high end furnishings or luxury goods.
“Luxury for me is a state of mind, the opposite of glitzy and often vulgar things,” he says. “Luxury is about giving depth and meaning to things. A luxurious place or object must enrich us morally and intellectually.”
What is Nuel’s wider philosophy, when it comes to design? “I see design as the expression of our time,” he says. “The designer captures the transformations of an era and translates them into objects and spaces. In this context, the designer is a witness of his time and a visionary, if he or she has a lot of talent.
“Spaces must therefore ‘speak’ – they must be meaningful and resonate deeply with who we are.”