January 1, 2010
A renovation inflected with traditional details returns Morocco’s La Mamounia hotel to its roots.
Set just within the ramparts encircling the medina, the old city of Marrakech, Morocco, La Mamounia is the most storied of grand hotels. Designed by Henri Prost and Antoine Marchisio, it opened in 1923 in the nearly 20-acre garden given to Prince Moulay Mamoun by his father, Sultan Mohammed III, as an 18th-century-style wedding gift. Ever since, the lavish property has had its legend burnished by a cavalcade of fashion designers, rock stars, film luminaries, and politicians, notably Winston Churchill, who declared it “the most lovely spot in the whole world.”
Alas, even legends need makeovers. The original 50-room hotel, built for Europeans seeking an Orientalist fantasia, was strongly Moorish. But as it was expanded and renovated, the hotel became more Westernized. André Paccard’s 1986 Art Deco–themed redesign, with a ballroom inspired by the 1935 French ocean liner Normandie, occasionally crossed “the border from luxurious to ludicrous,” according to the architecture critic Stanley Abercrombie.
Jacques Garcia, a Paris-based interior designer who had visited the hotel 30 years ago and been captivated by its exoticism, was engaged in 2006 to reinvent La Mamounia for what its executive director, Denys Courtier, called “a younger, more international crowd.” Despite his reputation for extravagance, Garcia returned to what he remembered: the original’s vernacular style. His three-year renovation has infused a contemporary luxury hotel—it now has 210 rooms, suites, and riads (courtyard houses); multiple restaurants and bars; and a 27,000-square-foot spa—with the beauty and mystery of a Moroccan palace.
Garcia’s magic wand was craft, which he deployed everywhere. Both zellige (colorful mosaic tile work) and intricately carved plaster details, of the kind seen throughout old Marrakech, enrich the hotel’s private and public spaces; walls are surfaced with tadelakt, a plaster made from egg yolk and lime. The designer also introduced familiar Moorish architectural elements, such as mashrabiya latticework screens, and preserved and extended the hotel’s traditional beamed, painted-cedar ceilings. Moroccan master craftsmen, called maalem, supervised huge teams of workers. “One day, we had fifteen hundred people doing different tasks,” Courtier recalls. “It’s why the renovation took three years—everything is handmade.”
Yet if Garcia has restored the tradition, he has also modernized it. Take the inky surface of La Mamounia’s Moroccan restaurant. “Black tadelakt is something that historically doesn’t exist,” Courtier says, “and neither does the mix of black-and-white zelli that appears in a new enclosed patio.” Having enlivened the architecture, the designer quieted the interiors, replacing the Deco furnishings with Moorish-influenced, clean-lined seating that defers to the richly crafted walls. He also unified the sprawling plan with repeating elements, particularly a distinctive glass-and-filigreed-metal lantern, and largely restricted the palette to garnet and saffron.
Garcia has said that he hopes the new La Mamounia, despite its modernity, will seem to have always existed. According to Mohamed Bouskri, a longtime Marrakech antiques dealer and guide who owns Riad Kniza, an 11-room medina hotel set in an immaculately restored 18th-century residence, the designer has succeeded. “We were all afraid it would lose something,” Bouskri says. “But it has kept its Moroccan soul.”