Vive la révolution

Palatial hotels in Paris and London are currently undergoing a not-so-quiet renaissance. Julian Allason reports on how these bastions of luxury are reviving the best of times.

November 18 2010
Julian Allason

Before the most keenly anticipated hotel opening Paris has seen in decades could take place last month, one vital preparation had to be completed: the portiers were sent back to doorman school for re-education. Not, as one might suppose, to enforce tighter security, but quite the reverse. “I want to welcome in the neighbourhood – the entire city,” declares Sylvain Ercoli, directeur général of Le Royal Monceau – Raffles Paris and enfant terrible of grand hotelkeeping. It is an ambition that neatly turns on its head the policy of exclusivity pursued by palace hotels across the globe since the days of their Haussmann inception – and it’s not just a one-off experiment.

After decades in which the same five Parisian palais ruled supreme, commanding room rates well above those prevailing in London, three further palaces are set to launch over the coming 18 months – the next in just weeks. Each of them will manifest in different ways a break with the gilded past. For when César Ritz built his luxury hotels a century ago, they represented the state of the art. Now they are gorgeous museums, preserving a way of life that no longer exists outside their revolving doors. “We, instead, are aiming for the client of today – and trying hard to anticipate the needs of tomorrow,” says Ercoli. In the conservative and tight-knit world of hotel investment, such talk is likely to frighten the thoroughbreds – as indeed, in Le Royal Monceau’s case, did the commission of the unpredictable Philippe Starck to give physical expression to the new concept.

At Le Royal Monceau, close to the Champs-Elysées in the patrician-chic 8ème arrondissement, the contemporary arts have visibly supplanted traditional grandeur, with precious ground-floor space given over to a 100-seat 3-D cinema with sleek sofas, a raised Long Bar (a nod to the legendary original at Raffles Hotel Singapore) and a meticulously curated modern-art bookshop. In place of a lobby, there is Le Grand Salon, already a draw for lounge lizards, fashion muses, painters and dandies without portfolio of the quartier. Starck conceives it as “a village within a village, where productive surprises will occur”.

The biggest surprise is that it all works. Instead of jettisoning Le Royal Monceau’s heritage, Starck has reinterpreted it subversively, corralling the original chandeliers together above the monumental staircase to create a spectacular light sculpture evoking a palace of crystal – and an au revoir to outdated ostentation.

Unlike the minimalist design hotels that have prospered in major European capitals in recent years, what’s presented here are public spaces that are vivacious and mutable, their boundaries purposely blurred to fit the way we live now. The ingenuity (and investment) required to create such inimitable ambience guarantees their uniqueness and newsworthiness. It seems unlikely that any investors in their right minds would, for instance, commission from scratch the extraordinary Ray Charles Suite at Le Royal Monceau. But Raffles seems to have accepted without demur Starck’s proposal to rebuild the meandering four-room suite just as the legendary musician might have wished it today, tactile and vibrant with unexpected shapes. And a guitar. (A “Cariatride piano d’artiste” grand piano, it goes without saying, is also in situ.)

The style nods in Le Royal Monceau’s 85 rooms, 61 suites and three apartments are not to fin-de-siècle dazzle but, rather, to Parisian appartements of the 1950s, a period hitherto largely immune from plunder. Starck took particular inspiration from the endearingly chaotic jumble of French adventurer-author-statesman André Malraux’s study: bibelots, leather-bound tomes, maps and objets trouvés mix with artful insouciance amongst furnishings of the 20th century. The same downplay has been applied to the French and Italian restaurants, which resemble brasseries du quartier, executive chef Laurent André having consciously moved away from the traditional codes of haute cuisine in favour of a friendly, spontaneous approach. The evening menu even includes – sacré bleu – dishes for sharing.

Imminently, the great doors of the Palais Iéna, on an avenue near the Trocadéro in the smart 16ème, will be flung open to reveal it as the newest member of the Shangri-La group. When that happens, there’s virtually guaranteed to be a press of smart guests intrigued to discover how the residence of Napoleon’s great-nephew has been conjured into a super-stylish hotel for the 21st century. From its base in Hong Kong, the group has rolled out a wave of resorts in exotic places, defined by their collective Asian approach to service (superlative-exhausting levels of attentiveness and courtesy). So the opening in Paris, a city notorious for the conservatism – and costliness – of its unionised hotel workforce, represents a double departure that is provoking debate about what modern luxury could mean.

The nativity has not proved easy. Architect Richard Martinet and interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon have had to work around sacrosanct original features that include 7m-high doorways, marble floors and ceiling frescoes. Moreover, the restoration suffered delay arising from the uncovering of hidden gems, including a glass cupola. But what discoveries. For the Shangri-La represents a unique elision of history and modern style that Parisians dub haute boutique. Prince Bonaparte may not have lounged with le cocktail, but today’s guests will, entranced by views out over the Seine and Eiffel Tower. Nor is the Prince’s taste in Chinese food recorded, but one draw will undoubtedly be the Cantonese restaurant, for which Michelin inspectors are already said to be booking up. They will do likewise for L’Abeille, the contemporary French restaurant of cult chef Philippe Labbé, who earned a score of 19/20 from Gault Millau at La Chèvre d’Or on the Riviera.

The castellans of the famous five palace hotels are under no illusion as to the threat posed by the newcomers – such are the sensitivities that one directeur général refused to discuss the subject – even though the Shangri-La will field just 81 rooms and suites. Its size, along with the balconies and vistas, should appeal directly to the precious big spenders who come to Paris for a week and stay for month. The breathtaking rooftop suite is a direct challenge to those of Le Meurice and the Hôtel de Crillon, famous as party venues with a view to dine for.

Nor does the activity end there. Two more Asian groups with grand plans and deep pockets are preparing to gatecrash the Gallic capital. Early June is pencilled in for Mandarin Oriental’s launch of a sizeable ultra-luxury property right on chic shopping central, the Rue Saint-Honoré. It will feature an Asian spa, expected to become a destination in its own right. Further out is Peninsula’s planned 2012 opening on Avenue Kléber of a 200-room property. The details are enveloped in secrecy, but it’s whispered that interior designer Thierry Despont has been briefed to trump the competition with a modern tour de force that complements the faultless beaux-arts bones of the original building to spectacular effect.

In planning such stylistically conflicted (and costly) ventures, the Paris hoteliers and designers have cast an eye over their shoulders – and the Channel – to the most massive, and sensitive, restoration project in a generation: London’s recently reopened Savoy hotel. Every complication being faced in Paris has already been confronted on the Strand, and often on an epic scale. The result, after The Savoy’s near-three-year closure, has been a surgical realignment of the public areas to reflect the view of designer Pierre-Yves Rochon – and owner Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal – that the hotel is a grand stage upon which guests interact with London’s citizens. But if the role of hotel as public theatre is agreed, the nature of the production is hotly disputed. The dais from which The Savoy Orpheans played in the 1920s has been transformed into the Beaufort Bar, which, with its gold alcoves set in black walls and live cabaret, is more nightclub than thé dansant.

“Everyone feels they have a stake in The Savoy,” reflects general manager Kiaran MacDonald, “so we’re walking the knife edge of expectation.” Thus the design has had to remain true to affectionate memory, while attracting a younger generation of clients with different tastes. The dilemma has been tackled head-on, with a dramatic suite of public rooms proceeding down from an entrance lobby, opened out for people-watching as the great, good and notorious make their entrances. A marble staircase, more palatial than in any other London hotel, leads down to the Thames Foyer and a giant gazebo flooded with natural light from a new dome over the courtyard. The culmination is the River Restaurant with its Thames views filtered by the plane trees of Victoria Embankment Gardens. Tea, cocktails, clandestine assignations – The Savoy seems well on the way to recovering its pole position for liaisons of every description.

The authenticity of these spaces has been preserved by ruthlessly stripping the décor back to its art-deco and Edwardian constituents, a process repeated to less dramatic effect in the guestrooms, particularly those overlooking the Thames, where views towards Parliament and the City are allowed to dominate. Bathrooms have been moved back from the façade to create more window frontage, and enlarged – “like the Jazz Age, but with better lighting”, said an early visitor. Guestrooms lacking the riverscape are necessarily more inward-looking. They compensate by majoring on Edwardian comfort, thanks in great part to the deployment of some of the 400 pieces of original period furniture retained.

A property of this size cannot live upon bed revenue alone. Banqueting, events, the sterling shed by casual visitors in the restored (but happily unmodernised) American Bar – these will help to pay off a bill that has staggered the industry, hovering around £220m. But first the guests must be enticed back. And that problem is not confined to The Savoy.

“When we realised that loyal Four Seasons guests were not staying with us on London visits, we knew it was time for a change,” says John Stauss, veteran general manager of the company’s Park Lane property. Change has meant gutting the entire building and creating what is in effect a brand-new hotel (opening to guests on December 15). In the process, it is not just the atmosphere of baronial gloom that has been banished, but the whole concept of the hotel as a carefully ordered retreat. The principle now being implemented is that it should not just be a Four Seasons in London, but of London. Thus the brief to the architects was to bring Hyde Park right into the hotel, embracing also its views of the Palace, Parliament and Thames. The most radical departure is in the lobby, now a bright halfway house between park and city, its corners thick with foliage. The conservatory part of the restaurant creates a sense of being alfresco, even when the weather does not allow dining on the terrace. Guestrooms are light, airy and outward-looking, in a sleek, modern style, laced with design classics such as the Eames desk chair.

Another consequence has been a bonfire of the rules for guests and staff. Instead of defined venues to breakfast, drink, relax or meet in, the entire ground floor is offered as a flexible continuum, with an open invitation to do what you want, where you want. When its doors open in a few weeks’ time, old-guard hoteliers, and some guests, will be in for a shock. It seems that, like the school for doormen, hotel academies may have to adjust their syllabi: out with the old, in with the way we live now.

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