The Paris architectural map, studded with inspiring edifices of poignant historical significance conjoined with contemporary progressivity, make it a perfect blueprint for a study of the evolution of building design, renovation and repurpose
Paris. The City of Light. The City of Love. The French capital is one of the world's most visited destinations year after year, sought out by travellers for its dining, fashion, art and culture, and, of course, for its epoch-spanning architecture and design. Paris streets brim with examples of Roman, Renaissance, neo-classical, art nouveau, deco, post-modern and contemporary architecture and more, each rubbing up against the other in ironic harmony – a legacy of the considerable planning skills of Napoleon III's urban renovator extraordinaire Georges-Eugène Haussmann
A deep dive into the city's design history is the stuff doctoral theses are made of, but the 1st arrondissement, bordered by the Louvre, the Seine and Place de la Concorde, with the Jardin des Tuileries at its heart, is a good starting point for any architectural tour.
The Grand Hotel
Paris delivers a wealth of modern hotels, but a stay in one of its regenerated palaces isn't just luxurious, it's a glimpse into the past. Among the most notable is Hôtel Le Meurice, part of the London-based Dorchester Collection. Perched on Rue de Rivoli overlooking the Tuileries and first opened in 1815, the current structure dates to 1835 and can arguably lay claim to being Paris's first grand hotel. Decorated predominantly in its original, opulent Louis XVI style, a 2016 re-envisioning of the public spaces by Philippe Starck and his daughter Ara married Le Meurice's classical elements with contemporary chic. Beginning with the main lobby, Starck's signature blend of traditional and ultra-modern pops out: brocade and marble contrast with geometric lines and a dolphin chair.
In Le Dalí dining room, Starck looked to the surrealist master Salvador Dalí to create an elegant space that plays with perception. Pink copper, irregular-shaped molten chairs, marble table tops and neo-Corinthian columns spread out below a canvas-draped ceiling. At the Versailles-inspired Restaurant Le Meurice Alain Ducasse, Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs sit at modern tables, photography complements frescoes, crystal and bronze wilfully clash. Bar 228 is now a traditional English club with 18th-century French accents, and as such is defined by heavy leathers, marble and distressed brass.
Paris contrasts can be seen up close not too far from Le Meurice at Le Centre Georges Pompidou, recognisable for its eclectic glass and steel superstructure. Completed in 1976, the cultural centre was one of the earliest examples of architecture to deliberately maximise interdisciplinary flow. Also nearby, the ultra-modern Opéra Bastille provides a stark counterpoint to the historic Place de la Bastille, while Jean Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arabe is an elegantly blocky, rationalist structure whose motorised geometric motifs filter light and recall Islamic climate-focused architecture.
Along the Avenue
Staying with the Dorchester brand, the Hôtel Plaza Athénée Paris on Avenue Montaigne also re-announced itself in 2014, after a €200-million expansion and renovation. Dorchester purchased the Charles Lefèvre-designed 1913 epitome of Parisian luxury style – with its iconic red canvas awnings over window boxes – in 2001. The eclectic building has been subject to regular upgrades since, including Bettina Mortemard and Marie-José Pommereau's contribution of Louis XVI and art deco floors in 2003. Bruno Moinard's redesign in key public spaces seamlessly integrates with the signature feature of each: the grand lobby, brasserie, garden, ballroom and gallery begin with elegant sandstone and platinum bases, boasting red accents that connect the interiors to the iconic window boxes of the exterior. In Jouin-Manku's re-imagined Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée modernity and tradition intersect with a crystal ceiling, organically shaped metal furnishings and clear resin finish at Le Bar. The result is an overall tone of design and
architecture opposition; history and the future effortlessly co-existing to create a new paradigm for French opulence.
Not far from the Athénée, the pedestrian mall in the regenerated Place du Marché Saint-Honoré runs the length of the structure so visitors can get a sense of the classically designed temple and market inside a double-glazed facade. Film buffs will want to stop at Frank Gehry's La Cinémathèque Française. Its typically challenging geometry makes for an ideal final prong in a Gehry trilogy, along with the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain, and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Also nearby, IM Pei's contemporary glass pyramid leads into the Musée du Louvre, a must-stop for all visitors.
Les Beaux Arts
The 1908 Beaux-arts style Peninsula Paris, on historic Avenue Kléber, reopened in 2014 after a €300-million restoration. The site began life as a palace designed by Clément Parent before becoming the Hotel Majestic (which featured Queen Isabella II of Spain's bathrooms from its earlier iteration) before Armand Sibien completed the building as it stands today. It served as a First World War hospital, and a German High Command headquarters in the Second World War (it was the location of an assassination attempt on Hitler) before its life as government offices began. It opened as The Peninsula Paris following Affine Design's four-year restoration. The process involved retaining the majestic early-20th century main foyer's Campan marble columns, the mosaics in the rotunda, the curved ceiling and its paintings and colour, the original woodwork, and the fish-scale roof tiles in slate and limestone from the same quarry that outfitted the building in 1908 – all of which are late belle époque design features. The Peninsula trades in an overt gold-drenched classicism that is only visible in its public spaces; hotel rooms and suites are outfitted with comprehensive modern amenities.
The Peninsula's proximity to the Bois de Boulogne makes a stop at the Louis Vuitton Foundation – another Gehry project – a must. Designed with the principles of the park's landscaping in mind, the main building connects to the surrounding nature, and the upper floor's glass sails, comprising some of the centre's 3,600 glass panels, envelope its art galleries.
Rounding out a diverse set in the heart of the city, the Mandarin Oriental Paris on Rue Saint Honoré began its life in the 1930s as an art deco office building, with its Jean-Michel Wilmotte-led renewal coming in 2011. More inherently modern than either Dorchester property or The Peninsula, the Mandarin's couture lobby is highlighted by stone, lacquer and gold leaf, and bold plum, rose and ecru colours as the first taste of Sybille de Margerie's interiors. The hotel brings the outside in with its butterfly motif embroidered on upholstery or installed as permanent sculpture (by Marcello Lo Giudice). At Sur Mesur par Thierry Marx, Jouin-Manku jettisons conventional lavishness for stunning white in the dining room, where flowing fabric and a central light well provide an illusory focal point for the complementing sculpture, while Bar 8 contrasts with its dark wood and rich browns, accented by crystal and smoked glass.
From the Mandarin, cross to La Rive Gauche, the southern bank of the river Seine, and stroll along the river to the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterand and its quartet of L-shaped towers, designed to resemble open Modern Orientalism books, that are deceptively exceptional, starting with the wooden walkway leading to the set. Meander on to Oscar Niemeyer's Communist Party Headquarters with its futuristic, undulating curves and wavy glass curtain wall. The cupola and meeting room is one of Europe's most engaging auditoriums.
This is an excerpt from the “LES BELLES ÉPOQUES" article from the September 2017 issue of Perspective magazine.
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