23 July 2014 – T Magazine
India’s sliver of the Francophonie occupies a grid of tree-lined boulevards just south of city of Chennai along the Coromandel Coast, facing east toward the Bay of Bengal. Streets bear names like Rue de la Compagnie and Rue Labourdonnais. Buildings in the White Town (also called the French Quarter) are still graced with long verandahs and elegant compound walls, a genteel French-colonial vision straight out of Indochina, inflected with the pastel calm of India’s palm-fringed south. Since 2006 the town has officially been known as Puducherry, but most people here and across India still call it by its original name, Pondicherry, or its loving diminutive, Pondy.
Sylvain Ségiyane Paquiry was born and raised in Pondy, attending the French School until 1991 when he left India and moved to France with his parents. He returned to his hometown in 2006 and five years later opened La Villa Shanti, a midrange boutique hotel in the city’s gracious heritage quarter. Three years after that, he has opened the doors to his second property there, La Villa, Villa Shanti’s luxury cousin (he has been invited to apply for membership in the international consortium of boutique hotels and restaurants, Relais & Chateau, which first entered India in 2008). Though they target different audiences, both properties share the same principles of “transparency, honesty, simplicity.”
Working with Tina Trigala and Yves Lesprit, the same team of French architects that designed Villa Shanti, Ségiyane has approached La Villa as an exercise in adaptive reuse and heritage conservation. “Most people who own old colonial or Tamil houses have no choice but to demolish or sell, so the old colonial houses are threatened,” he says. For La Villa, the team has taken a long-term lease on a 19th-century home called Villa Notre Dame de la Garde and transformed it into an intimate, six-bedroom hotel that combines a respect for the building’s heritage with a clear-eyed approach to contemporary design.
Wherever possible, the original features of the building have been preserved, while in the newer portions of the hotel Trigala and Lesprit have worked with more modern materials to highlight the differences in period and style, rather than mask them behind a faux-heritage veneer. The lobby maintains the original ceiling beams and columns while replacing the floors with concrete and cement tile, sympathetic to, but careful not to imitate, the original building’s style. In the bedrooms and bathrooms, imported French linens and toiletries from Fragonard are matched with humble bamboo accents from local markets. Doors in the newer part of the hotel have been fashioned from old teakwood doors sourced from the city’s antiques markets. “How we’ve managed to match the two, the future and the past, is what sets us apart — how we’ve given another life to these popular items from the street,” says Ségiyane.
When it opens officially on August 1, La Villa will have a rooftop swimming pool, a small boutique selling items sourced from around town and designed by the architects and a 12-table garden restaurant serving simple cuisine inspired by ingredients produced nearby (the proximity of the organic farms and cheesemakers at Auroville will make for an unusually broad selection). In the coming years, Ségiyane hopes to see La Villa and La Villa Shanti expand to other cities and towns across India, taking with them their ethos of “strong local identity” and a pared-down vision of luxury disconnected from the marble and gilt that dominate the country’s five-star properties.
“Our vision of luxury is space, pleasure for the eye,” Ségiyane says. “It’s something that you don’t see every day.”