Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hotel Lutetia, Paris

The first in a series of posts which will focus on historically/architecturally significant hotels (i.e. preparatory PhD research).

Stepping off the Boulevard Raspail and into the Hotel Lutetia is an experience akin to time travel. I'm not sure what the rooms themselves are like, having seen only public areas and a salon open for a small art show, but the lobby, eateries and corridors are filled with interwar splendour.

Across a square from the Hotel Lutetia is Le Bon Marché (one of my favourite department stores); the hotel was founded in 1910 by Marguerite Boucicaut, then proprietor of the store, as a place for important clients to stay while in Paris to shop.

Hotel Lutetia, though, hosted quite the interesting assortment of guests, not merely shoppers. James Joyce wrote part of Ulysses while staying there; Picasso, Matisse, Beckett and Saint-Exupéry all stayed in 1920. Later, Charles de Gaulle spent his wedding night and Albert Cohen wrote Belle du Seigneur while resident. Alexandra David-Néel, famous for being the first foreigner to visit Tibet (and generally a fascinating person), stayed at the Hotel Lutetia upon returning from South-East Asia.

It's interesting that this luxury hotel attracted so many cultural innovators. Additionally, the contrasts are perplexing: both Charles de Gaulle and Alexandra David-Néel? Interestingly, in the 1930s tensions between different political persuasions meeting in the hotel were so high that they had to place a ban on duels.

A 2009 book on the Hotel Lutetia is subtitled "L'Esprit de la Rive Gauche," and I suppose the mixed clientele mirrors that of the Left Bank more broadly; it's simultaneously a place for artists and Armani jackets, students and wealthy retirees.

When not a hotel, however, the Hotel Lutetia's contradictions loom even larger. In the early days of World War II, the Hotel Lutetia was used to house refugees. During the occupation, it was home to the officers of the Abwehr. After this, it was used as a reception space for returning prisoners of war.

The building is beautiful, though, and awareness of the history adds more weight and intrigue to a hotel that would fascinate even without such luminaries and such periods of luxury and of darkness.

Hotel Lutetia was designed by Louis-Charles Boileau and Henri Tauzin. Boileau was one of the chief architects for Le Bon Marché; he worked on a number of buildings in Paris (including St Trinity in the 9th arrondissement) and his son, Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, inherited his role at La Bon Marché and designed the annex which is now their food hall (along with some very significant exposition buildings in the 1920s and 30s). Tauzin is primarily known for his work on Hotel Lutetia.

Hotel Lutetia is sometimes described as art nouveau and at other times as art deco. Built in 1910, it's a good example of how the transition from art nouveau to deco occurred, with a facade that could fit into either category. It has the curves and the carved figures and plants of art nouveau; it has the stepped upper floors of art deco. The interior is more thoroughly deco, though it's hard to tell to what degree this is original.

After World War II, the hotel was renovated. In the late 1980s, the interior was redecorated with the assistance of Sonia Rykiel. I haven't been able to find out exactly what either the renovation in the 1950s or the redecoration in the 1980s consisted of. Nonetheless, the public areas feature pink marble pilasters and Lalique chandeliers, furnishings and mirrors are generally deco in style and the main hallway to the left after entering has a delightful curved ceiling. The bar and restaurant are of a similar spirit, while the brasserie recalls the more splendid of art nouveau railway brasseries.

Hotel Lutetia still retains an intellectual spirit, hosting weekly debates and literary salons. Literary prizes are regularly announced in the salons of the hotel and they pride themselves on their art collection, much of which consists of works by artists who have stayed in the hotel. The largest suite is named after Arman, who designed much of the furniture within the suite. When I visited there was a small exhibition of art deco figurines and furnishings in one of the basement salons.

Hotel Lutetia also retains a link with Le Bon Marché, the store offering privileges (I'm not sure of what kind) to guests who chose to shop there.

Next door, there's now an Hermés store in the Hotel Lutetia's old swimming pool. I went inside this afternoon; it's the most amazing shop I've ever stepped into. As the pool is heritage listed they haven't been able to change much, instead asking Denis Montel (of Rena Dumas Interior Architecture) to create structures that tie in with the existing architecture. The result is akin to a fancy summer camp in a swimming pool, with swirling tent-like structures sitting on what would originally have been the floor of the pool. A variety of interesting tiles make floors sparkle and are cleverly used by Hermés to differentiate different parts of the store. They've also added a tiled Hermés logo at the entrance, which works well.

The balconies on the upper levels are perfect for admiring the architecture generally; they've also used a detailed company wallpaper that seems in keeping with the intricate patterning of the iron balconies and the aforementioned tiles. There's a cafe called Le Plongeoir (The Diving Board) that's sadly unaffordable.

Fittingly, the store includes an architecture and design bookshop. Seduced by the beauty of it all, I bought a copy of Frame. I felt a little ridiculous walking home with the Hermés bag in my hand, even knowing the contents could be found at a newsagency.

I wish I could find more information on the original interiors of the Hotel Lutetia; most information focuses on the history of the hotel's inhabitants. Either I've forgotten how to effectively use the BnF's online catalogue or there's a curious lack of primary source material from the interwar period.

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