There was a time, not long ago, when Piscine Molitor was the place to be. Tucked away in the leafy outskirts of Paris, the pool opened with Art Deco splendor in 1929, and soon became a magnet for all things chic. Sunbathers would lounge among celebrities and starlets, stretched out in white deck chairs and very often topless. One of its first lifeguards was an Olympic gold medalist-turned-actor who would go on to star in the film Tarzan.
During winters, the pool was converted into an ice skating rink, and in summers it hosted galas and fashion shows, its cruise ship-like design providing an understated backdrop for some of the most provocative trends. It was here that the world's first bikini debuted in 1946, followed by the ill-fated "monokini" nearly two decades later. Outside of Paris, the venue is perhaps best known for its role in Life of Pi, the award-winning novel whose eponymous main character, Piscine Patel, is named after Molitor. In the book, Patel's father says he chose the name because he "wanted his soul to be as clean as the pool's water."
"It was an iconic place," says Frédéric Maynier, president of SOS Piscine Molitor, a local community group devoted to the preservation of the pool. "You didn't go there just to swim, you went to be seen. It has always been like that."
But things began to change as the century drew to a close. Molitor was closed in 1989, after the city of Paris decided to replace it with a new housing development. The building was saved from destruction after protests from local associations, but it suffered from a lack of maintenance and soon fell into disrepair. Over time, it drew skateboarders and graffiti artists who transformed it into a cathedral of urban culture. The clean rows of cabins designed by architect Lucien Pollet were turned into spray-painted murals, and its Olympic-sized pools became center stage for raves and concerts.
Yet even in its decaying state, the building remained a historical monument, and locals still held hope for its revival. Those hopes finally came to fruition earlier this week, when the Piscine Molitor reopened as a new luxury hotel-club after nearly a decade of renovations. The new Molitor, inaugurated on Monday, is the result of an €80 million (about $109 million) project from French hotel group Accor, with financing from investment firm Colony Capital. Its designers aimed to breathe new life into the complex without losing its original Art Deco aesthetic.
Image copyright Gilles Rigoulet
Much of the building's exterior had to be rebuilt — its south-facing side is all that remains of the original facade — but extensive work went into restoring its mosaics and stained-glass windows, and its central pool retains its original blue-yellow color scheme. Inside are 124 sleek hotel rooms, replete with modern furniture and espresso machines, as well as a spa, gym, and rooftop bar. In a nod to its more recent past, the venue will also host regular exhibitions from local artists. The goal, according to designer Jean-Philippe Nuel, was to create a visual narrative of Molitor's 85-year transformation.
One day of swimming for $245
"The approach was to look at the pool like a character with many histories, many cultures — a birth in 1929 and today, a certain maturity," says Nuel, who designed the interiors at the new Molitor. "The challenge was to connect these two points — its birth and current renaissance — with sometimes contradictory facets, like the 1930s windows next to a bomb of spray paint... Two worlds that have nothing to do with one another, and suddenly connecting them with a thread."
But some politicians have raised concerns over the pool's pricey entrance fees, which they fear will create a more stilted, exclusive atmosphere. Molitor was never free to the public, and its renovation was financed entirely with private funds, but entry fees were never as high as they are now. Just one day of swimming there now costs up to €180 (about $245), with annual membership fees of €3,300 ($4,500).
"I am not against the use of private capital," former socialist culture minister Jack Lang told Le Figaro this week. "But places must be open to a wider audience."
It's unlikely that the Piscine Molitor will ever recapture the spirit of its mid-century heyday, but those who remember it say they're glad it's back in use — if only as a temple of collective memory.
"There were divers, hair, and bare breasts everywhere. It was the era of pleasure pools."
"Children would do cannonballs, women would wear one-piece bathing suits and swim topless, you'd have a smoke after a swim, fingers still humid," recalls Gilles Rigoulet, a Paris-based photographer who shot a black-and-white series at Molitor during the 1980s. "Thirty years ago, in pools, the norms of security, hygiene, aesthetics weren't the same. There were divers, hair, and bare breasts everywhere. It was the era of pleasure pools."
- The outdoor "summer" pool looks much the same, but it's undergone dramatic changes over the years. (Gilles Rigoulet, 1985)
- 25 years since it closed, the Piscine Molitor finally reopened this week in Paris' 16th arrondissement. (Alexandre Soria)
- Once Molitor closed in 1989, it became a haven for urban artists and ravers. (Thomas Jorion)
- The redesigned lobby incorporates combines contemporary design with Art Deco aesthetics. (Alexandre Soria)
- Molitor's indoor pool, when it was under the reign of graffiti artists. (Thomas Jorion)
- At left, a woman models a bikini and parasol in 1947, one year after the world's first bikini debuted at Molitor. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images). At right, Parisians lounge under the sun in 1985. (Gilles Rigoulet)
- The interior of the renovated indoor pool. (Alexandre Soria)
- Women gather at Piscine Molitor for a swimsuit competition in 1933. (Bibliothèque nationale de France)
- A view of the outdoor pool from above. (Joyce Attali)
- Sunbathers sit poolside at Piscine Molitor. Four years later, the facility would be closed to make way for a new housing development. (Gilles Rigoulet, 1985)
- A view of the new outdoor pool at night. (Alexandre Soria)
- Three years after it opened, the pool was temporarily converted into an ice rink. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1932)
- Much of the complex had to be rebuilt, with careful attention to its original layout and design. (Joyce Attali)
- A woman zooms down a water slide. (Gilles Rigoulet, 1985)
- Rooms at the new hotel overlook the pool, with some offering a view of Paris. (Joyce Attali)
- The chambers of the renovated Molitor retain the same yellow-blue color scheme as the original, which was designed to look like an ocean liner. (Jean-Baptiste Gurliat / Mairie de Paris)
- The new Molitor aims to retain some of its more modern street art aesthetic, but some fear that its steep entrance fees will limit its audience. (Joyce Attali)
- Women pose during a nautical-themed gala, one of many that Piscine Molitor would host over the years. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, 1932)