September 1, 2008
A new waterfront hotel disrupts Bordeaux’s 18th-century architectural vibe.
In Bordeaux, France—that most architecturally traditional of cities—a five-story, snow-white, origami-like structure has materialized at the end of a row of picturesque 18th- and 19th-century facades. “It’s gotten much more attention than we anticipated,” says Alain Dhersin, who, with his wife, Chantal de Knyff, owns the Seeko’o, a new hotel overlooking the Garonne River. It refers to the building’s 10,700-square-foot facade, composed entirely of white Corian, the first such use of DuPont’s solid-surface acrylic polymer in its history. Yet what might seem like a stunt is the outcome of thoughtful consideration, by the local King Kong architecture office, of a series of opposites: contrast versus contextualism, originality versus pastiche, past versus future.
This is appropriate, since Bordeaux is celebrated for its historic architecture—about 40 percent of the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007—yet in recent years it has executed substantive urban changes, redeveloping the Garonne’s once industrial left bank, introducing an innovative tram system, and making major thoroughfares more friendly to pedestrians. The hotel’s location on the border of the Bacalan district—a rundown industrial area set to undergo major transformations as part of Mayor Alain Juppé’s redevelopment plan for the city—incorporates both old and new. It invited a design, says Paul Marion, a principal of King Kong, that “inserted itself within the area’s heritage but at the same time was very contemporary.”
The architects anchored the structure on its corner lot by aligning the windows with those of its neighbors, and tilting back the facades along a line that begins at the cornice of the building adjacent to the northern elevation, then slopes downward, turns the corner, and terminates at the cornice of the shorter structure on the hotel’s eastern side. The Corian heightens the effectiveness of both gestures: its monolithic quality emphasizes the window depth, which mirrors that of its stone elders, while the material’s softness and color make the fold above the line more subtle (and less of a design gambit).
At the same time, the Corian drives home the structure’s modernity, erasing the rectilinear patterns of traditional stone-and-mortar construction. And by converting the hotel into an engimatic abstraction that has been likened to a ship or a seeko’o—Inuit for “iceberg”—the architects have rejected not only the prevailing neighborhood style but also the more orthodox idea of copying it, as others working on Bordeaux’s waterfront have done.
Though de Knyff observes that some conservative citizens have wondered how Bordeaux “could have let this happen.” The city hall, which authorizes construction, embraced the plan after rejecting more conventionally contextual schemes developed by the owners’ original architects. “The city wanted to bring energy to this area that’s being developed,” Marion explains. “This creates a link to the past and is an expression of what we do today.”