Stay pure

A city comfortable with its past tends both to protect its built heritage and still encourage the new. The politics of sovereignty notwithstanding, Quebec City is such a place. While it continues to consolidate the preservation of its unique historic buildings stretching back 400 years, the ongoing major revitalization of the commercial core beyond its storied walls mixes new design with the adaptive reuse of older structures.

Last year’s opening of Hotel Pur in the rapidly transforming neighbourhood of Saint-Roch, after a complete refurbishment by Bisson et Associs for the Willow Hotels group, represented both preservation and a bold departure. While many might not find great heritage merit in preserving a rather banal, 18-storey, concrete tower on a podium dating from the 1970s, the architects have both visually transformed the old Holiday Inn while preserving a powerful expression of its classic concrete frame. By stripping the building back to its structure and replacing small windows with floor-to-ceiling glass in the hotel’s 220 rooms, there is, according to design principal Jonathan Bisson, “a more untrammeled interaction between rooms and the urban environment,” not to mention the striking Laurentian Mountains to the north and the St. Lawrence River to the south.

Most impressive, however, is the remarkable concurrence between the hotel’s name and its award-winning interior. A rigorously applied, limited palette of white, black and greys with controlled touches of orange, all applied in primarily simple sculpted spaces and rooms stripped of extraneous furniture and unnecessary objects, certainly seeks to distill a rather Zen-like purity. Yet the architects maintain that their design is both minimalist and sensual. As the first denotes providing only the barest essentials or elements, while the second consists of exciting, indulging and gratifying the senses or appetites, some may find the two terms odd bedfellows.

In his book, Living Zen, however, Michael Paul maintains that the pared-down simplicity of Zen is “a deliberate attempt to rid our lives of clutter and unnecessary distractions …. [leaving a] clean, uncluttered canvas that serves to highlight the intense beauty of all that remains. A space that contains only the bare essentials seems to accentuate the sensuality of the surfaces and finishes.” For Bisson, the studied neutrality of the interior hues and uncluttered spaces ensures that every remaining detail is highlighted — from the exposed raw concrete, bas-relief wallpaper and molded steel walls to the striking profiles of the city and surrounding landscape. This “economy of means,” he says, “brings out what was already present in terms of views, materials and light. It sifts out the hidden beauty.”

The original large, nondescript lobby has been broken into two more intimate and compressed spaces. A sculpted steel bench-cum-wall funnels arriving guests toward the reception desk, whose austere but visually impressive geometry certainly focuses each guest. The raw steel wall also serves as a screen to a modest lounge-caf area with equally sculpted grey lounges (with a single orange exception) from MDF Italia. In both the lobby and the lounge, Bisson uses lighting recessed in deep wall reveals at both the ceiling and floor to etch out the spatial volumes and define boundaries. “The linearity and the purity of light,” Bisson says, “have constituted the underlying thrust of the project; light has demarcated the different areas, endowing each of them with a clearly stated function.”

Light also plays a role in defining a path that takes guests from the pure bright white of the lobby through the low light of the hallways, only to open the door onto a luminously white room. The relatively modest-sized rooms — making minimalist furnishings a necessary blessing — are also quite long and narrow. Along with such minimal details as the grey pinstriped carpeting, concealed air conditioning and wall-mounted flatscreen TVs, the room’s dimensions help telescope the view toward the striking panorama beyond the mullion-less and opaque-transparent windows. In some rooms, the window is even filled with the fine facade of the historic Neo-Gothic Saint-Roch Church across the street. According to Bisson, the intent was to produce a “cinematographic spatial creation using light.”

From elegantly austere bathrooms with deep Japanese soaking tubs to meeting rooms that eschew beige and brocade for simplicity, greys and whites, and bold planes of rough exposed concrete, Pur seeks a rich uniformity. Some online customer reviews suggest that there are those who have trouble with this almost monastic aesthetic. But the hotel’s success since opening suggests that far more find pure comfort in Bisson’s sensual minimalism. CI