The Abbaye de Fontevraud

The Abbaye de Fontevraud

Hotels and Restaurants
France - Build completed in 2014
© Nicolas Matheus

The Abbaye de Fontevraud

Patrick Jouin as Architects

Philosophie 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 experience of the site, allowing the visitor to appropriate fragments of the past in comfort. Achieving this also meant rising to the challenge of the constraints imposed by the building’s classification as an historic monument, notably that we were not permitted to touch the ceilings and the walls. The best approach was to find a way to turn these constraints into opportunities.


With the help of clever furniture and innovative ‘microarchitecture’, in natural materials chosen for their quality, we were able to address the thermal and acoustic issues in the refectory and the chapel, and the lack of natural light in the chapter house. Guided by the simple honesty of the priory building, which avoids unnecessary stylistic effects, we stayed true to our own signature style: simple and elegant shapes determined by their use and requirements; a refined, fluid and sensual atmosphere that works in harmony with the high-ceilinged spaces and age-old walls. What we wanted for Fontevraud was not the classic hotel and restaurant experience, but something unique. A journey between tradition and modernity that reinterprets the story of Saint-Lazare for the future, marrying emotion, sensual pleasure and poetry.


Intention 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.


Introduction Located on the borders of the regions of Anjou, Touraine and Poitou, Fontevraud Abbey – administratively overseen by the Region des Pays de la Loire1 – is one of the largest monastic sites remaining from the middle ages. A UNESCO-classified historic monument and one of the Loire Valley’s major tourist destinations, Fontevraud continues to follow its founding principals: to be a model community – the ‘Cité idéale’, an ideal city. The contemporary project for Fontevraud probes the relationship between time and space and mankind, and boasts a range of activities specific to the site: cultural (concerts, exhibitions, …), intellectual (debates, conferences, …), residential (congresses, seminars and receptions), and commercial. The founding concept of the ‘Cité idéale’ is at the heart of today’s Fontevraud project, bringing together things that may seem unrelated – even contrary – to create a common theme, all in the light of the site’s unique history. By building a Cité for living, Fontevraud’s history has a future, rather than being simply a site for reflection on the past. Founded in 1101 by Robert d’Arbrissel, a charismatic and iconoclastic preacher, for seven centuries the abbey provided the setting for an unusual monastic community. D’Abrissel decreed that the Fontevraud order should be mixed, welcoming both men and women, from aristocrats to penitent prostitutes.


It was run under the authority of 36 successive abbesses. It was a burial site for the Plantagenets, as the presence of the reclining effigies of Eleanor of Aquitaine, of Henry II and of Richard the Lionheart attest. At the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon ordered the conversion of the abbey into a prison, saving it from the fate suffered by the abbey at Cluny, which at the same period was largely destroyed and used as a stone quarry. Fontevraud’s extraordinary but salutary period as a prison came to an end in 1963, with a series of restoration projects that were to confer on Fontevraud the appearance it has today. Distributed over 13 hectares, the four priories are arranged around the cloister of Sainte-Marie, a peaceful haven at the centre of the Grand-Moûtier monastery, serving the abbey church, chapter house, chapel, refectory, kitchens and dormitories. Next to the Grand-Moûtier and opposite the Sainte-Marie Madeleine priory, the Saint-Lazare priory is surrounded by landscaped grounds and an apple orchard. Its chapel, chapter house and refectory are also arranged around a cloister. Only the Pavillon du Liban is separate and opens onto the physic garden created in the 18th century for the cultivation of medicinal plants. It is at the heart of this ancient and unique site that Jouin Manku have redesigned a hotel and restaurant.


Fontevraud L’Hôtel 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.


Les chambres 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.


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