(Patrick Jouin et Sanjit Manku)
The project to re-open a hotel and restaurant in the Saint-Lazare priory extends far beyond its mere physical appearance, however magnificent that might be! Long planned, the hotel project is part of the broader vision for the ‘Contemporary City of Fontevraud’ a project whose many and varied elements it fully embraces, from cultural dynamism to sustainable development, from digital innovation to a firm sense of welcome and hospitality. As David Martin, Director General of the Abbey underlines, “If the establishment of a 4* hotel and a haute cuisine restaurant meets expectations of comfort and service, the intention was not simply to boost hotel provision in the region”. Infinitely more substantial, the project’s scope is much larger. Embracing the essence of the place, the project is in part about looking for meaning, in part about creating emotions. An ambitious aim, almost a dream! A vision commensurate with the entrancing beauty of this abbey and its 1000 years of history. Another ambition, this time about hospitality, makes sense when you look at the ancient history of the abbey. Saint-Lazare has always been a place of communal life, once housing the monks who looked after lepers, before becoming a hospice for nuns who were ill or at the end of their life and no longer able to follow the harsh monastic routine. Transformed into a hospital while the abbey was a prison, Saint-Lazare became a hotel and restaurant in the 1980s.
‘Hospice, hospital, hostelry’… these words express the tradition across the ages of hospitality at Saint-Lazare and the Benedictine rule that inspired Fontevraud (‘On the reception of guests’, chapter 53 of the Rule of Saint Benedict). “It is this tradition of hospitality that we wish to make a way of life”, continues the Abbey’s Director, “the art of receiving, of looking after and of delighting our guests.” The opportunity for these guests to enjoy a unique experience, stimulating all their senses, to slip into a different time and make this place their own, from the fading mists at sunrise to the setting sun reflecting on the pure white tufa stone… and later, by the light of the moon. “Between parchment and touch screen, we have written a new page, opened a new historical period, one where we can experience a vibrant living heritage, which, as well as celebrating its past, is forging itself a future!” concluded David Martin. Overseen by the Head architect for Historic Monuments, Jouin Manku’s resolutely contemporary architectural design asserts itself in a contained but remarkable manner. Remarkably contained! Rendering the monastic spirit in the age of the digital tablet, the architects’ scheme extends an unbroken line of time, elegantly blending all the nuances of the site. A setting which, without losing anything of its soul, has just moved into the 21st century.
The lobby area sets the tone for the hotel with its decorative wood-clad wall – a solid, warm reference, variations of which are found throughout the different spaces of the priory. Inspired by liturgical furniture, natural oak panelling installed by Rousseau SAS, covers the wall right up to the ceiling, matching the wood and leather benches and setting off the rich tones of the reception desk, made for the project by CAA. The bare wall opposite will display a piece of contemporary art. On the floor, a carpet specially made for the project by Kasthall gives warmth to the space. The glass and metal entrance door, made by AF2M, is a counterpart to that at the entrance to the iBar – both borrow their geometric motifs from stained glass.
The 54 bedrooms offer the comfort and services of a 4* hotel establishment. Located throughout various parts of the priory (South wing, West wing and Pavillon du Liban), they are shaped by the architectural spaces around them: some rooms are duplexes, others are sloping attic rooms or have extremely high ceilings. In all the rooms, particular attention has been paid to acoustics and lighting in order to create a quiet, intimate refuge suited to meditation and contemplation. These are comforting environments where an unconditional modernity comes together with the monastic history of the site. References to this past include the folded linen bed head that hangs above the bed, evoking a Fontevraud monk’s habit, or the wooden cladding that features in the duplex rooms, inspired by liturgical furniture. The sober bedrooms invite one to consider life’s essentials. A deliberately restricted palette of colours and materials (wood, fabric, metal) reinforces this honest simplicity, evoking the stripped back nature of the former cells. Behind this apparent austerity, however, lies discreet luxury. Quality materials, the attention to detail that is a mark of the skills of Richet’s fit-out work, finesse and touches of humour awaken the senses and a sense of well-being. The angle of the bed head is ideally suited for a comfortable reading position and soundproofing is ensured by 22cm thick partitions. Everything is designed for relaxation, every detail celebrates the ancient art of receiving guests.
The bedroom furniture has all been designed specifically for the project. From the wastepaper basket to the desk and the stool, which doubles as a clever piece of storage, the exceptional level of detailing sets the experience of staying at Fontevraud apart. The furniture is a subtle distillation of the language of the monastic cell and adds to the spirit of the place. Objects to stimulate the imagination, they subtly tell a story. Although all the services indispensable to modern connected life are made available, they are carefully hidden in the room’s design in order not to disturb the nature of the rooms as places for relaxation and reflection.
In the new hotel complex, the chapel is a meeting point that is open to all visitors to the Abbey. Having initially considered creating a spa here, the idea ultimately developed to set up a digital mediatheque with a bar. How could this be achieved without offending people? By installing a long oak ‘alter-like’ monolith. Whilst it is no longer a chapel, the space is not exactly a bar either, rather an unlikely marriage of both. Having a drink in a place of heritage, a place for meeting and sharing, is the occasion to linger over a visit to the Abbey, to learn and to play thanks to the touch-screen table-tops and digital tablets set into the furniture. Six bespoke screens, designed by Jouin Manku, each unique, are used to structure the space and provide seating, whilst lending a softer feel to the space.
Beautifully made by CAA, the strong horizontal geometry of the bar is the opposite of the vertical lines of the chapel. It is composed of solid modules (seats, movable panels, banquettes and folding seats) carved out of age-old beams drawn from the reserves at Atelier Perrault Frères. Nothing was left to chance in its fabrication. Every last piece – runner, cylinder, fixing – was the subject of careful choices, whether to ensure its solidity or for aesthetic or ergonomic reasons. An exceptional piece, this four-tonne, outsize piece of furniture also houses plenty of technology: digital resources accessed via the touch-screen table-tops or tablets, telescopic lamps, diffused delicate soft lighting…
Fontevraud Le Restaurant
The cloister around which the priory is organised is the ‘stone heart’ of Saint-Lazare. To bring life back into this space, Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku have chosen transparency. Using freestanding glass partitions, part of the restored cloister has been put back to its original use as a place for strolling, while the rest is occupied by the restaurant. Here the arrangement of tables encourages guests to let their gaze wander outside, towards the garden planted with aromatic and medicinal plants that chef Thibaut Ruggeri comes to pick whenever required. Arranged around two spaces within the cloister, the 88-cover restaurant extends into the chapter house. The furniture, restrained and contemporary, has mostly been made to measure, sometimes to adapt itself to the restraints imposed by the architecture. The fabric and leather banquettes placed on the chapter house’s stone benches are a case in point. As are the hanging wooden lights, whose unusual shape helps to deal with the difficult acoustics.
The refectory, now transformed into a banqueting hall, perfectly revives the community aspect of the original priory. Intended for hosting special events, it has been conceived as a modular space. Between receptions, it returns to being a huge, calm living room where hotel guests can dream under the vaulted ceiling in front of the huge fireplace nestled at one end. Instead of religious paintings and the frescos of long ago, four textile triptychs accent the walls and absorb noise. The one fixed element in this ever-changing environment is an 8m-long table with metal legs, around which guests are invited to sit. Down the centre, a long line of candles cast shadows of the past… a gentle reminder of the monastic atmosphere of long ago.
We quietly slipped into the Saint-Lazare priory, immersing ourselves in its history and its uniqueness. We tried to capture its essence, from its monastic simplicity to its prison austerity via the wisdom and philosophy of those who built and lived here. Then we had to fine-tune our approach, to give life to a contemporary vision that would respect and preserve the spirit of the building. We didn’t want the visitor to forget where they were. On the contrary, we wanted to assure an intimate...
- Year 2014
- Work finished in 2014
- Status Completed works
- Type Hotel/Resorts / Restaurants / Interior Design / Custom Furniture / Lighting Design / Recovery/Restoration of Historic Buildings