Perfect Forum

Jean Nouvel and Room Mate Group craft 24 apartments in a multidisciplinary arts hub that unites Rome’s ancient past, 18th-century architecture and modern culture.

A village of art. This was what the Fondazione Alda  Fendi – Esperimenti envisioned when, in early 2012, they began concepting the palazzo rhinoceros. Named for the animal, famous in ancient Rome, the building is a nexus for a wide variety of genre-bending and category-defying art. The Fondazione commissioned French architect Jean Nouvel to lead the regeneration of the 410,000 sq. ft., six-story historic building situated on the edge of the Roman Forum. Within it, Nouvel, founder of his eponymous practice, and his team at Ateliers Jean Nouvel crafted exhibition space, galleries, Caviar Kaspia Roma (an outpost of the 90-year-old Parisian icon), the new rooftop restaurant, and 24 individual apartments that comprise The Rooms of Rome.

Room Mate Group president and founder Enrique “Kike” Sarasola was called upon to manage Caviar Kaspia Roma and what will be the first iteration of Sarasola’s latest venture, The Rooms of the World. With views overlooking the Temple of Vesta, Arch of Janus, and Palatine Hill, The Rooms of Rome takes a fresh middle road between restoration and the Botox’ed perfection of some radical redos.

The Rooms of Rome

Sleek, inviting furnishings counter raw, exposed layers of paint and plaster in this one-bedroom apartment’s sleeping quarters. Photo: Roland Halbe

Nouvel wasn’t looking to simply convert the physical structure or erase the signs of time. He sees rhinoceros as a living, breathing celebration of the beauty of age. It is a creative hub destined to inspire. “I wanted to leave a building that we feel has lived,” states Nouvel. “On the facades we have preserved everything that could testify to the passage of time, emphasizing the different layers to reveal a building that has stopped aging without the aid of plastic surgery, where all its wrinkles are loved and preserved.”

But as Nouvel points out, there is room for progression and evolution as one adds to the building’s story. “It is not a question of freezing an existing state,” describes Nouvel. “In contrast, it is a play of encounters, a collision of epochs from the most ancient to the most modern.” Within the gallery spaces and apartment terraces, the untouched, rough foundation is contrasted by crisp white walls, stainless steel, and sleek black detailing. Within the apartments, a series of steel boxes form the ultra-modern kitchen spaces, while deep, inviting sofas, and refined, minimalist bathrooms provide a stark contrast to the untouched brick and patina of the walls. The apartments range in size from 398 to 882 sq. ft. and though each houses a kitchen and many a separate bedroom, some of the largest are designed as open studios. “Each apartment was its own project,” says Nouvel. “They are all places of creation and become places of exhibition too.” That flexibility is especially key when a guest could stay for a night or five years—there are no length-of-stay restrictions here.

Throughout the interiors, while significant work was done to construct the new exhibition spaces, shops, restaurant, and central courtyard, the private spaces inside each apartment let the past take the lead, using minimal finishes and FF&E. That lets the exposed cement floor, existing tile and paint serve as focal points.

The Rooms of Rome

A wash of the apartment’s original flooring tile sits juxtaposed against steel boxes that contain state-of-the-art kitchenettes. Photo: Roland Halbe

Upon entering each unique apartment, Nouvel keeps artistically-minded guests inspired by “what once was.” Unfinished walls expose layers that become an artwork on their own. Dramatically framed windows look out onto Roman ruins and beside them, custom screens feature life-sized images of the room in which they stand, as it looked before Nouvel’s renovation. Teetering on the edge of the absolute literal and the subliminally suggested, these screens toy with the concept of reflection. The original textures and materials are illuminated on the panels and provide a portal into the space as it was. By placing the screens in the renovated rooms, the effect is a mirage that connects the present room with the past.

The Fondazione’s desire to create something completely unconventional and just as completely inspiring steered them far from any standard hotel or residential concept. Sarasola’s experience both with home-y hotels and apartments with conventional hospitality amenities made him the right fit. His budding Rooms of the World brand also creates a clear line of synergy with the innovation-inspiring mission laid out by the Fondazione, which boasts a mantra of curating boundary-less, personalized travel experiences based on each guest’s wishes, needs and dreams. Could this be the next evolution of experiential travel?

For designers, the challenge here is to step out of the spotlight and know when to give the guest space to dictate their experience within the space and the building. No, that’s not meant to be an ego-walloping statement. It takes just as much design talent to stop as to start. After all, doesn’t a great costar enhance the overall picture? Here, the structure and the guest both split the limelight.

PROJECT PARTICIPANTS

CLIENT
Fondazione Alda Fendi – Esperimenti

OPERATOR
The Rooms of the World

DESIGN FIRM
Ateliers Jean Nouvel: Floriane Abello; Sabrina Letourneur

ARCHITECTURE
Ateliers Jean Nouvel: Jean Nouvel; Alessandro Carbone; Livia Tani

GENERAL CONTRACTOR
RC Costruzioni

DESIGN CONSULTANTS
Devoto Design (interior consultant)
Viabizzuno Srl.  (lighting design)

ART 
Alesandro Imbriaco

FURNITURE
Jean Nouvel Design

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