The Mama Shelter used to be a multi-storey car-park. Its ceilings and floors are covered with graffiti. It stands beside a disused railway line in what is reputed to be one of the toughest, and least fashionable, areas of Paris.
And yet the Mama Shelter is threatening to become the most talked about, and the most trendy, hotel in the French capital after opening two weeks ago.
The “graffiti” scribbled permanently on the ceilings, floors, even inside the lifts, are part of the decor – bizarre but welcoming, funky and functional – created by the internationally-acclaimed French designer, Philippe Starck.
The hotel attempts to combine the informality of a student hostel with the best qualities of a top-class hotel, without the stratospheric prices.
The Mama Shelter is the brain-child of Serge Trigano, 61, son of Gilbert Trigano, the founder of Club Med.
Just as his father invented a new kind of tourism in the 1960s and 1970s, M. Trigano believes that he and his team have invented a new kind of hotel for a new kind of urban tourism in the early 21st century.
“The name may seem odd at first but it tells you what we are offering our customers: a convivial shelter from the tension and aggression of the city and a friendly welcome – a mother’s welcome,” M. Trigano said.
“I believe that the old tourist model, once represented by Club Med, is declining. People no longer want to wait for hours in airports to fly to exotic locations which are no longer especially exotic. The new tourism of the 21st century will be urban tourism, the discovery, or the re-discovery of great cities, like Paris or Amsterdam or London.”
Placing a trendy, new 172-bed hotel in the 20th arrondissement of Paris – the poorest, the most racially mixed, the most troubled part of the capital – seems like a gamble.
Until recently, the 20th arrondissement was fashionable only if you were dead.
The sole tourist “site” close to the Mama Shelter is the Père La Chaise cemetery, last home of, among others, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Bizet and Chopin.
For M. Trigano, and his two sons Benjamin and Jeremy, for Philippe Starck, and for the hotel’s architect, Roland Castro, the location of the Mama Shelter was a “deliberate choice”.
The French capital’s axis of youth, fun and trendiness has shifted from west to east in recent years.
Despite this tide of gentrification, the 19th and 20th retain some of the edgy atmosphere, the gritty street and cafe life, of pre-war Paris.
The hotel is a swirl of black, grey and brown, metal, glass, wood and concrete. Poetry, aphorisms and bizarre observations are “scribbled” on the ceilings, carpets and lifts.
“Human beings and dolphins are the only animals who enjoy sex”.
“Twenty-seven per cent of women who win the lottery hide their ticket in their bra.”
Unlike in Club Med, from which the Trigano family was ousted in 1997, the friendly staff will not organise games or insist that you pay for everything with shells or tokens.
The Mama Shelter is, however, club-like in other ways.
The restaurant-bar-lounge-breakfast room has long wooden benches, like a youth hostel. The rooms vary in price from 79 euros (NZ$170) – almost as cheap as you can find in Paris – to 200 euros (NZ$430).
The beds have linen of quality that you might find in the Ritz. Each room has a free-access TV and wi-fi.
With minimal publicity so far, the hotel is fully booked until close to the end of October.
M. Trigano said: “My hope is that we will eventually attract visitors from the 16th arrondissement (the most conservative of all Paris districts). After all, if they go to Marrakesh, they will merely see other people from the 16th arrondissement. If they come here, they will see people, and things, they have never seen before.”