February 19, 2015

Making A Splash: Reinventing a Swimming Pool as the Hôtel Molitor Paris

It was American olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller, later of Tarzan film fame, who inaugurated a municipal swimming facility in Paris, the Piscine Molitor, in 1929. filling an entire triangular city block near the Bois de Boulogne and the complex where the french open tennis tournament is played, the massive, splendid, three-story art deco building was painted “tango yellow,” a vivid mustardy ocher, and boasted not one but two pools. Both the olympic-size open-air pool and the slightly smaller glass-roofed pool were surrounded by tiered balconies of blue-doored changing rooms—all of it evoking the great ocean liners of the era. The outdoor “summer” pool even had sand “beaches.” (Which disappeared in winter when the pool became an ice-skating rink.) In 1946, the bikini was introduced here.

This playground of le tout Paris remained on the scene well into the 1980’s. Fans of the book-movie the Life of Pi may remember that the title character’s full name is Piscine Molitor Patel. By 1989, however, the facility was outdated and unsafe, and municipal officials shuttered it. Classification as a historic monument shortly thereafter staved off out-and-out destruction, but the building was boarded up and abandoned after various development proposals fell through. Then, around the millennium, the decrepit pools enjoyed another burst of fame, this time as a mecca for graffiti art and all-night raves. It wasn’t until 2008 that the city figured out what to do: Award a long-term lease to a consortium, including the hospitality company Accor, for a five-star hotel.

“Around the millennium, the decrepit pools enjoyed a burst of fame as a mecca for graffiti art and raves.”

Part of Accor’s Mgallery Collection, the Hôtel Molitor Paris now occupies a building substantially reinvented by Alain Derbesse Architectes, which worked under the supervision of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux to virtually demolish what remained, then reconstruct it and add two guest levels on top for a total of 124 rooms and suites, plus a roof terrace with a summer restaurant. The eye-popping interiors are by Agence Nuel. Part faithful re-creation, part ricochet ride through time, the property packs in enough historic interest and visual verve to serve as the set of a Wes Anderson movie.

The wow factor kicks in from down the street with color shock, “tango yellow” not being a shade ordinarily associated with luxury hotels. As for the interiors, resurrecting Molitor’s deco grandeur might have been the obvious solution. But Jean-Philippe Nuel found the recent past of the property as compelling as its more distant glory days. Delving into research, he spoke not only to older Parisians who remembered learning to swim here—and pinning a changing-room number to their bathing suits—but also younger people who confessed to sneaking in for raves. “We had to take into account the evolution, the graffiti, the contemporary factors,” he says.

That explains the head-spinning mash-up in the public spaces. Parked front and center on the ground level is a 1984 rolls-royce convertible once owned by a soccer star who commissioned a street artist to slather it with graffiti. Flanking the rolls are reception desks in gold-trimmed white solid-surfacing, inspired by deco jewel boxes. Silvery ventilation ducts run riot overhead, and everything is reflected in ceiling and wall mirrors. Nearby lounges are filled with mismatched flea-market furniture including a scruffy sideboard hoisted to hang, like an artwork, on a raw concrete wall. In the basement spa’s entry, three juxtaposed vintage-style geometric patterns of cement floor tile play off the mixed wall coverings to dizzying effect. Treatment rooms’ wallcovering depicts swimmers as they first appeared in the building’s leaded-glass panels by an artisan whose architect fans included Robert Mallet-Stevens.

“Sometimes the demands of historic places are not really constraints but, on the contrary, a chance.”

Images bearing witness to the building’s graffiti phase are sometimes so enlarged, for photomurals, as to become pure color abstractions. Brilliant flashes of color appear throughout the public spaces: turquoise chairs in the spa, chartreuse glass walls in an elevator, lipstick-red refrigerators in meeting rooms. Sofas in the bar-lounge pick up that “tango yellow,” which pops against walls in the blue of the changing rooms’ doors. “Not a color harmony that I would have chosen on my own,” Nuel concedes. “However, it provided an opportunity to do something different. Sometimes the demands of historic places are not really constraints but, on the contrary, a chance.”

Blowups of bathing beauties who lounged poolside in the 1930’s and ’40’s line the guest corridors, and their carpet, also black-and-white, commemorates Molitor names and dates—Weissmuller 1929, bikini 1946—in a strongly deco graphic style. The guest rooms themselves are comparatively calm, thanks in part to a tranquil palette of black, white, gray, taupe, and brown. Furnishings include walnut-stained oak armchairs and asymmetrical swing-arm lamps in the manner of serge Mouille. A native Parisian who would have been 7 years old when the Piscine Molitor opened, he might well have gone swimming here.

Project Team: Valérie Binder; Claire Frixons; Marine Lafon: Agence Nuel. Perrot & Richard Architectes: Historic Preservation Consultant. Jacques Rougerie Architecte: Pool Consultant. Mirollege: Glasswork. Ami Lenglart: Drapery Workshop. Bouyges Construction: General Contractor.

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