Inside Le Bristol

Beirut institution Le Bristol Hotel reopens after a two-year-long facelift. Galal Mahmoud, the president and partner of GM Architects behind the renovation project, talks to us about bringing contemporary elements alongside its 65-year heritage.

Located in Verdun in the heart of the city, Le Bristol Hotel’s heritage stretches a long way back. Opened in 1951 by the Doumet family, the hotel has long been an important landmark of the city, synonymous with the golden days of Beirut. Drawn to its classical elegance, Le Bristol hosted Lebanon’s high society and the gentry of the Arab world; with guests that included prominent foreign dignitaries and stars such as Prince Albert of Monaco, Princess Souraya of Iran, legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Dizzie Gillespie and the iconic poet Nizar Kabbani. On top of that, the hotel’s history is connected with the politics of the country; hosting major political conferences and rallies and welcoming guests from all sides of the political spectrum.

Originally designed 60 years ago by renowned French decorator Jean de Royere, in 2013 the hotel closed for a renovation project led by Galal Mahmoud, the president and partner of GM architects. Mahmoud is well versed in handling the design and renovation of prestigious hotels, having worked on numerous projects throughout the world for the last 20 years, although this project was perhaps his most personal yet. Having grown up in the neighborhood around Le Bristol, Mahmoud’s own memories are intertwined with the hotel’s history. He used to join his father to work in the late ‘60s with his offices directly next to Le Bristol. Mahmoud even stayed at the hotel at the beginning of the civil war.  In an interview with LT, Mahmoud shares his insights into transforming this Lebanese institution, while maintaining its heritage.


What was your brief before starting and what needed to be done?

It took a lot of discussion and reflection to reach the brief stage, because it is such a historical and cultural institution for Beirut. Also, for me personally, it was more complicated as I was so close to the project. The hotel is not only a key part of Beirut’s history but also of mine. I had to think about if I could take on something so close to me. I have been visiting the hotel since my childhood and remember always being impressed by its grandeur and elegance. Knowing how to capture this spirit took a lot of reflection and discussion. In addition, the closer we looked beyond the surface, the more we realized just how big a project it would be.


How did you address those needs?

We worked very closely with the team at the hotel making sure we’d understood what they were looking for, also proposing our creative perspective and then making sure these two viewpoints crossed over. We also spent a lot of time looking through archives of the hotel in its glory days and picked out key moments in its history. We tried to identify what had made the hotel so legendary and how we could enhance this.


What was the underlying theme?

The lobby sets the tone for the rest of the hotel representing a range of styles from the most important decades for the hotel, but also with classic and timeless overtones. For example we used a solid dark walnut desk [at] the reception together with old paintings from the hotel’s collection. However contemporary lines link the space to today’s Beirut. The overall theme is that the hotel’s history has come come to a meeting point with the present day. For the rooms we have picked out three themes, which encapsulate what the hotel represents, they are ‘Oriental’, ‘1960s’ and ‘Modern Classic.’


How much of the original design has remained intact?

We obviously tried to keep as many original features as possible; one example being the Damascene woodwork, which dates back to the 19th Century. Emile Tarazi installed it during the time of the hotel’s construction in 1955. The chairs and sofas are original but have been re-upholstered in warm colors in homage to the romantic orientalism of that time. It is really a mix; half original, half contemporary.


What is it about the hotel that’s undeniably Galal?

Two major guiding forces of GM Architect’s practice are restfulness and wellbeing. We used the warm colors and design to create a soothing environment. Also, the mix of different cultural influences is always evident in [our] designs; partly because the firm is based in Lebanon, a country that has been a melting pot of different cultures throughout its history. I take inspiration from all over the world. However, despite this, I like each project to be immersed in the local culture, using materials sourced from the area and supporting the work of designers and artists from the region. This was true of Le Bristol project as we worked with some exciting artists and designers such as Nada Debs.


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Curie Street, Verdun

Rooms start from $165


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