Claridge’s sci-fi siblings debut on the French Riviera

Arriving at Maybourne Riviera on a Sunday lunchtime, with the sparkling sea below and the still warm, buzzing supercars on their winding journey from Monaco, is a special experience, tinged with both a bit of nostalgia and a bit of science. -fiction. fi, shimmering in an irresistible hazy fantasy between mid-century glamor and retro-futurism. This new hotel, perched on the rocks of the Riviera high above Roquebrune-Cap-Martin and overlooking the bustle of hypertrophied towers of Europe’s second smallest state, effortlessly appears modern and cult cool.

Car doors open noiselessly by gentle staff dressed in preppy seersucker jackets and white sneakers, which weave their way between Aston Martins and Bugattis. (A vintage Citroën DS and Jaguar E-Type attract particularly admiring glances, including from me, and I’m not even interested in cars.)

Inside, guests find themselves beneath the legs of a hanging couple cast in shiny metal and seemingly entwined by their engorged intestines. It is, in fact, a work by Louise Bourgeois. Hotelier Paddy McKillen will tell me later that he met him in the artist’s studio after his death and must have had him. The whole lobby has been designed around him and McKillen is enthusiastic about the hundreds of other works of art he has collected for the hotel.

McKillen, born in Belfast, manages the Maybourne Hotel Group, whose properties have been welcoming affluent travelers since 1815. The group, owned by the Qatari royal family and with McKillen as a co-investor, is anchored around three great ladies of London – Connaught, Claridge’s and Berkeley – but in late 2019 expanded beyond the British capital by acquiring Montage Beverly Hills and relaunching it as Maybourne.

Deckchairs and infinity pool © Richard Haughton

The Louise Bourgeois sculpture in the hall

The Louise Bourgeois sculpture in the hall © Richard Haughton

Natural light floods in

Natural light floods in © Richard Haughton

During the pandemic, McKillen was working on two large digs simultaneously. In London, he was completing a mega basement under Claridge’s – dug out of London clay by a team of miners from Donegal who used pickaxes and shovels so as not to disrupt the smooth running of the hotel at- above, which was, incredibly, kept fully open throughout.

Up there, meanwhile, in the rocks above the bay, his teams exploded on the hillside to build the group’s first property in continental Europe, built at a cost of over € 300m. It couldn’t be further from Brook Street: a sleek, consciously contemporary structure somewhere between 1930s Med-Modern chic, 60s Palm Springs, 90s Los Angeles and Thunderbirds.

    Map House & House - France - Riviera Maybourne

I am taken directly to my room (there is no reception and check-in is done in the room or remotely in advance). There, I was silenced by a view which is surely one of the most beautiful hotel views. The L-shaped corner suite has a wraparound terrace and an expanse of shimmering, rippling blue that meant that for my two nights I barely noticed the interior, can’t help but to look outside.

This new addition to a group of historic hotels is a claim that a luxury hotel can be contemporary without being clumsy, architecturally ambitious without being pretentious, and can play with style ideas drawn from different eras and arenas without fully committing ; nautical architecture, the history of modernism, ancient landscapes and contemporary avant-garde.

Views along the coastline from the sheer cliffs
Views along the coast from the sheer cliffs © Richard Haughton

The Maybourne Riviera perched on top of its cliff

The Maybourne Riviera perched on top of its cliff © Richard Haughton

A view of the hotel from below

A view of the hotel from below © Richard Haughton

McKillen shows me around. Browsing the site quickly, he is most animated when he meets the workers who are always wandering away in a wing of the hotel. He greets them all by name (many have Irish accents), telling them how well they get along. He seems more moved by the cavernous underground engineering and massive new underground parking lot with its neat concrete seismic detailing and steel fasteners than by the hypnotic sight. “We built it in 14 months,” he says, explaining that the pandemic has helped him, with builders from other sites across Europe converging here.

There was a hotel here before, the Vista Palace from 1970, but it’s a new building occupying roughly the same silhouette, perched precariously on top of the cliff. Maybourne acquired the site in 2015, but a long planning process meant that work only started last year; the first guests arrived for a “soft opening” in September.

Despite its importance (not just its hilltop profile, but LED lighting, which makes it hyper-visible against dark rocks all night long), the architects strove to integrate the structure into the landscape of the historic terraces extending towards the coast. Some coins were inserted directly into the hill, like white boxes stuck in the side of a sponge.

French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte (best known for his cultural buildings, including the temporary new Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris) worked with executive architect Franck Demaria to create a hotel that has endless echoes of ancient architectures throughout by looking authentically and surprisingly new.

This spectacular district is anchored in the heritage of modernism. Eileen Gray built Villa E-1027 (1926-29) for her friend Jean Badovici just along the bay when there was nothing else there (I could see it clearly from my window). McKillen was instrumental in funding its restoration and, now relaunched, is clearly one of the most innovative and intense Modernist houses.

E-1027, the modernist villa designed by Eileen Gray

E-1027, the modernist villa designed by Eileen Gray © Alamy

Le Corbusier became disturbingly obsessed with the villa, building his own small, austere wooden cabin next door and later smearing murals on the walls of the villa (against Gray’s wishes). He also built a row of vacation chalets just above the villa on the rocks (brightly colored for maximum visual disturbance) and died in 1965 while swimming in the sea right in front of the house.

A whole seedy history of gender, sex, appropriation and design as violence fits into this modernist landscape. Gray then built himself another house along the coast in Menton and Coco Chanel designed and built her own house, La Pausa, in Roquebrune in the early 1930s.

McKillen was clearly won over by this heritage. The hall, dominated by bourgeois figurines suspended in the intestines, also presents a sliding stained glass window “after a drawing for a tapestry by Le Corbusier that we exhibited at Château La Coste”, its wine estate and its sculpture park in Provence, while a white screen of interlocking elements was inspired by Gray’s famous designs.

The hotel is built on a terraced hillside, above Monaco
The hotel is built on a terraced hillside, above Monaco

Several interior designers have been appointed so there is no single style but rather a kind of collection of inflections, variations on a theme. The 45 rooms and 24 suites (all of which have sea views) were designed by Michelle Wu, Pierre Yovanovitch, André Fu, Bryan O’Sullivan and my room, I was told, was by Rigby & Rigby , better known for yacht interiors than buildings, which might explain some of the oddly shaped sofas.

My little complaint that the over-designed office chair was a bit low could be based on a misunderstanding. Maybe, I thought to myself, this is not a place to work at all. The oval-shaped tub, on the other hand, carved from a single piece of marble, was a marvel – both utterly overdone and strangely minimal.

At the top of the hotel is Ceto, a seafood grill with an undulating white cap run by chef Mauro Colagreco, revered for his three Michelin-star Mirazur just along the coast in Menton. It’s spectacular, a crystalline space punctuated with complicated and strangely charismatic cooking appliances. (“We wanted it to be light, on top of the hills,” McKillen says. “Lots of glass.”)

A stained glass window in the reception area, after a tapestry by Le Corbusier at Château La Coste
A stained glass window in the reception area, after a tapestry by Le Corbusier at Château La Coste © Richard Haughton

At the lobby level, Colagreco also oversees the more casual Riviera restaurant, another glassed-in venue overlooking stunning sea views, almost floating above the panorama. The sleek, uncluttered architecture is made more dramatic by sharp angles and pointed prows. Intentionally evoking liners or yachts, it is also a small piece of craggy expressionism, hewn in the rock, encrusted in the topography.

The layers of rooms (still being finished when I visited) that move away to one side are embedded in the hillside, streaked like the steep, rocky fall from the terraces below. Some have garden terraces, others have plunge pools. The spaces between the translucent privacy screens are a bit tight, but the expanse of view beyond makes you forget about the blinders.

There are sometimes minor missteps, I think, like the infinity pool next to the restaurant terrace. It hardly improves the view – the sea is all around – but it kept me from swimming while the extraordinarily stylish ladies had lunch. I was just too shy. On the other hand, no space seems neglected here. Even the elevator lobbies offer stunning sea views.

Every nook and cranny has been taken care of, every surface, from the creamy terrazzo floors to the polished copper elevator, has been treated with care and yet it never feels too much. McKillen points out the mosaic sidewalks outside, inspired by those of Roberto Burle Marx on Copacabana beach and laid by Portuguese craftsmen.

I asked the hotelier how, after reworking classic hotels like Claridge’s and Connaught, with their particular worlds of history and association, he thinks of a brand new hotel in 2021. “I didn’t mean to think about it. not pretend here, ”he told me. “What would we do, false Georgian?” What is 2021? We had a dress code at Claridge’s, women were not allowed to wear pants. Now of course we don’t have a dress code, we don’t care what you wear. If fashion is changing, what is it today? It’s not minimalism, it’s not Art Deco, or anything from the past, so it’s a great experience of freshness.

“It’s modernism,” he says. “Optimistic… He ticks all the boxes in a hotel. Then he turns to tell another worker he’s doing a great job and, showing the veneer of a door that opens to a view of the Rippling blue Mediterranean, asks, rhetorically I think, “Doesn’t that sound grandiose?”

Edwin Heathcote is the design critic of the FT


Edwin Heathcote was a guest at the Maybourne Riviera ( Double rooms cost from 750 €

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