Fit For a Queen
Standing in the great hall of the reimagined Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, little evidence remains of the slightly staid, ageing interior that welcomed the grand hotel’s last guests before its 2016 closure. Renovated and reopened, Montréal’s largest hotel now returns to the downtown core with a new aesthetic, and a much closer relationship with the city around it.
Designed by Sid Lee Architecture in collaboration with Architecture 49, the hotel now greets visitors with an unapologetically contemporary — yet historically sensitive — new face. Commissioned by property owners Ivanhoe Cambridge and operators Fairmont Hotels, the $140-million renovation saw each of the 21-storey hotel’s 950 rooms restyled with contemporary furnishings and finishes.
In every guest room, boldly coloured and geometrically patterned accent walls offset what is otherwise an elegantly subdued interior. Appointed by Design 360 Unlimited LA, the furniture features mid-century modernist detailing that speaks to the history of a hotel that first opened in 1958, and later garnered international attention for hosting John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s highly publicized ‘Bed-In For Peace’ in 1969.
Memory of that seminal sleep-in remains embedded in the hotel’s heart. Suite 1742, where John and Yoko’s protest captured the late ‘60s zeitgeist — and briefly, the world’s attention — has been rebuilt as a functional memorial to the legendary couple. Resisting the urge to make the space a mere simulacrum of the past, Sid Lee, in collaboration with art consultants MASSIVart, have imbued the hotel’s contemporary aesthetic with subtle tributes and historic touches.
Reproductions of the famous handwritten ‘Hair Peace’ and ‘Bed Peace’ cut-outs adorn the window once again, while the words of Give Peace a Chance, which was recorded in the suite, are inscribed repeatedly on the walls, suggesting a war memorial. Here, wishes for peace are inscribed in lieu of the names of fallen soldiers.
Downstairs, the spaces surrounding the luxurious great hall are characterized by an elaborate interplay of geometric patterns, richly textured finishes and decorative elements. Occasionally flirting with flamboyance, the interiors nonetheless retain a sense of cohesion amidst a multitude of design elements. Moving from the great hall through the cocktail bar, restaurant, and cafe, new communal spaces animate the ground floor with expansive windows and new street-level ingresses.
As Sid Lee’s Jean Pelland puts it, “the hotel literally opens onto the city.” The designer adds that “one of the principal goals of the renovations was to create stronger connections with the street, and make the hotel more a part of Montréal.” Although the hotel’s 1958 exterior asserts a quietly elegant International Style aesthetic across the upper levels, the ground floor always felt somewhat insulated from the surrounding urban fabric. Now, the three new spaces engage passerby from the street while bringing intimate urban views to diners, transforming a somewhat monolithic street-level presence into a more vibrant and welcoming destination.
Through it all, there are subtle hints of The Queen Elizabeth as it once was. On the ground level, the old escalators remain, while the configuration of the second floor is only partially changed. Although many of the spaces remain where they were, the second and third-floor business amenities have a brand new look.
On the third floor, the playful ‘CoLab 3’ collection of themed third-floor meeting rooms is inspired by modern co-working spaces. The flexibly configured individual rooms include fun — if not entirely functional — details like a ping pong table, or a set of swings. Emerging onto a generous terrace, the second floor’s Square Victoria Lounge is more understated.
Formerly a mechanical space, the 21st floor has been transformed into a communal lounge, which slides into a more private and restricted space for Fairmont Gold Club members. Here, the designers faced the challenge of working with a very low ceiling clearance of about eight feet (not that you’d really notice). “At a certain point, we decided we had to emphasize the horizontality of the space,” explains Martin Leblanc, senior partner at Sid Lee Architecture, “with a long, open layout that draws the eye across the room, instead of up at the ceiling.” It works, creating a feeling of openness and comfort which belies the structural restriction.
Above it all, the newly completed Espace C2 conference venue tops the iconic hotel with an elegantly restrained glass canopy. Opening the space to panoramic views of downtown Montréal, the angular roof structure houses a conference centre embedded within the 1958 structure’s topmost floor. Hosting up to 220 guests, the 13,000-sq.-ft. space offers a more industrial aesthetic. Exposed brick and concrete are accented by heavy grout, with the rougher textures pleasantly balanced by opulent flowing curtains and a clean glass envelope.
Across its 21 floors, the reinvigorated Fairmont Queen Elizabeth unfolds in a playful medley of styles and design elements. At the hands of lesser designers, throwing together a seemingly cacophonous collection of design elements would make for busy, incoherent spaces. Luckily, Sid Lee Architecture just about have the nous to pull it off, integrating a slightly daring array of finishes and furnishings into a cohesive whole. In any given space, individual design elements draw the eye but almost never compete against one another.
“Throughout the hotel, there are a lot of design elements,” says Leblanc, assessing the project as a whole, “but we were very deliberate about how we placed them, with elements carried over from one space to another, to give it a sense of unity.” More than anything, it’s the geometric floor and wall patterns that tie it all together, while more subtle repetition of furnishings and material finishes throughout the The Queen Elizabeth serve to underscore a sense of place. The results may be more Kate Middleton than Elizabeth II, but all the same, the place is fit for a queen.
Photographs by Stéphane Brugger, unless otherwise indicated.