Getting in Shape
Christian Baquiast gives form to a Paris penthouse filled with contemporary art, modernist furniture, and antique architectural details
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 10/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
Christian Baquiast has turned a childhood pastime into a career. "Whenever I visited someone's house, I'd always ask myself what I would have done with it," the architect recalls. Often, that mental game involved the moving of entire walls—a fantasy that came to life at this stunningly original duplex penthouse in Paris.
Situated on the top of a nondescript 1910 apartment block in the haute bourgeois 16th Arrondissement, the 2,700-square-foot four-bedroom was built at some later date by an American architect, who incorporated various salvaged architectural details into the design. An imposing mantelpiece of carved oak anchors the impressive double-height main room, ringed by a mezzanine gallery's 19th-century balustrade and 15th-century pillars. In the adjacent sitting room, sunlight streams through leaded-glass windows, onto oak parquet de Versailles.
When Baquiast initially saw the apartment, however, it had fallen on hard times. The pine-paneled sitting room was decidedly gloomy, the mezzanine balustrade and pillars had been slathered in white paint, and the airy main room appeared surprisingly claustrophobic. "There were partitions everywhere," he recalls. The private lift opened onto a vestibule with a small door to the main room; to one side, a seemingly endless corridor eventually led to a kitchen and several bedrooms.
Hired by owners Jean Christophe Lavillette and Angélique Benetti, Baquiast received a mandate to open up the layout. "There's always a sense of perspective in Christian's work," says Benetti. Indeed, whenever possible, he likes to break through walls. "When the eye is drawn into the distance, you get a different impression of space," he explains. His interventions here included knocking down the wall between the lift and the main room, removing a portion of wall to the left of the main room's fireplace to insert a flight of sheet-metal stairs, and cutting a porthole in the wall separating the main room from the master bedroom.
As Baquiast set to work, he discovered more about the history of the apartment. Pulling up the floor in the main room, for example, he found concrete blocks ringing its perimeter. "They must have been for the guardrail of a roof terrace—before this penthouse was built on top," he hypothesizes.
While Baquiast was keen to pay homage to architectural history, he ironically accomplished this with industrial materials. The mezzanine gallery he paneled in acid-blackened steel folded to resemble woodwork, and the gallery's sheet-metal flooring features circular brass insets that reference traditional French stone floors. (Stone flooring in the main room is, as a matter of fact, probably from an 18th-century château.) To give a wall in this central space the look of a Haussmannian facade's stone blocks, he undertook a multistep process. He started by creating a silicone mold from an oak plank, then poured concrete into the mold to ' make rectangular slabs. These he installed in a grid, separated by gaps through which he ran perforated steel rails suitable for picture hooks.
Serious works of art play an important role throughout the apartment. In the main room, a stainless-steel Rona Pondick sculpture combines a cast of the artist's head with the body of a fox, and a silvered-glass Marc Quinn piece stretches skyward. A Takashi Murakami doll figure stands by the leaded-glass windows in the sitting room, where Bruno Bressolin and Bruno Juminer's eye-catching photograph of a kind of mutant baby hangs above the fireplace.
The private lift is an installation in itself. At first, Lavillette and Benetti thought of fitting it with fiber optics—to resemble the one Philippe Starck designed for the Sanderson hotel in London—or covering the walls of the cab with a panoramic landscape photo. Finally, the couple brought in a young illustrator, Alexandre Athané, and gave him free rein with red, yellow, orange, green, and black paint.
Furniture, far more august in provenance, includes the sitting room's Jean Royère sofa and chairs, 1950's pieces that combine rounded canvas-covered shells with upholstery in yellow or green velvet. In the main room, André Dubreuil's pair of ornate, lanternlike chandeliers are suspended above his 6-foot-tall steel and enameled-copper clock, which could easily be mistaken for a hat stand. Across the room sits Roland Mellan's chest of drawers, a trio of copper-surfaced bulges worthy of the Michelin Man.
The most unusual things about the apartment, however, are the two roof terraces. The larger, L-shape one is an exuberant, prolific flower garden. On the smaller terrace, an old-fashioned bathtub sits inside a greenhouse structure. Why glass? "In Paris, where you can't even see the sky from many apartments, it really is a luxury," says Baquiast. "Here, it's possible to take a bath by candlelight, under the stars."