Jean-Michel Wilmotte, an Architect and Understated Star

Have you ever seen the Grand Palais Ephémère at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, Station F, the Orthodox Cathedral, or the new Hôtel Lutetia in Paris? Or the Google head offices in London, Incheon International Airport near Seoul, the Guy Savoy restaurant in Las Vegas, or the Bleu Ciel tower in Dallas? You may not realize it, but you have probably crossed paths with one of Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s projects. This architectural jack-of-all-trades has won over the entire world with his elegant, anti-pretentious style.
© Jean Grisoni

His business card reads “Jean-Michel Wilmotte, architect,” the profession that saw him step into the limelight. But this household name, who heads up a firm of 300 employees from 27 different countries, is also an interior architect, a designer, and a city planner. What’s more, he has a gift for drawing – sketching every project with felt pens on tracing paper – and can dream up hotels, offices, factories, and even furniture (which he describes as “mini-architectures”). Yet despite everything, he is unfalteringly modest, claiming to be “astonished” when asked about his various talents. “Essentially, these are all connected professions,” he says. “Architects must have a vision of – or at least a perspective on – the things they then translate into concepts. This applies to architecture, but also to objects and city planning.”

Famous in the United States for creating a 33-floor tower in Dallas and the interior of Guy Savoy’s restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, this internationally renowned creative has also designed a collection for the Holly Hunt furniture and lighting brand in Chicago. The diversity of projects completed by his agency is staggering, from the Orthodox Cathedral of Paris on the banks of the Seine to the Ferrari Sporting Management Center in Maranello, to the Google headquarters in London. In his office on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Antoine, closer to the Place de la Bastille than the well-heeled neighborhoods of the capital, Jean-Michel Wilmotte is proud of his specialty: not having one. With his sensible suit, club tie, and ruffled hair, he hardly resembles an outcast rebelling against his time. However, he does “like to surprise people.”

When asked about the Russian Holy Trinity Cathedral and its five gold onion domes, inaugurated in 2016 in front of the Pont de l’Alma, he replies: “My desire to understand the needs of the client – the Orthodox clergy – helped. I took part in the Easter procession around the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed on Red Square in Moscow.” As for the Ferrari Center in Italy, he says: “The factory in Maranello is like a town spanning 540,000 square feet, including a research laboratory and a private racetrack. Some 4,000 people work there, and only four cars are produced per day – two for racing and two for the series. I believe I successfully combined an image of speed with a need for discretion.” And for the London headquarters of Google: “The English dislike wasting space, but my concept of offices organized around an atrium forming a lightwell resonated with them.”

The Bleu Ciel tower, Dallas. © Wilmotte & Associés Architectes
The Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral, Paris. © Alessandra Chemollo

He continues: “I always begin with a place by immersing myself in a brand. I then shift my focus to infuse the construction with elegance and discretion, or something boldly visual, depending on whether the client wants a recognizable image. However, I never forget about the people who inhabit the spaces.” Looking at his work, the architect seems to have a soft spot for elegance. This explains his refined, understated style with a penchant for plants, light, and simple materials – stone, wood, or backlit glass tiles – always combined with respect for each site and its history. This humility produces a feeling of calm and serenity, which enables his work to exist in and of itself. A far cry from the spectacular signatures of other celebrity architects trying to go down in history at any cost – sometimes impacting the project’s budget and often neglecting the occupants themselves.

Between Vauban and Le Corbusier

Born in 1948 in Soissons, near Reims, the architect has an eclectic range of influences. Le Corbusier, himself an architect and a city planner, features prominently, “for his sensitivity to shapes, along with his paintings and drawings.” Then there is Luis Barragán, the Mexican winner of the Pritzker Prize, who loved “emotional architecture” and inspired the open setting of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, designed by Louis Kahn. Lastly, there is Vauban, the engineer, architect, city planner, and strategist whose star-shaped forts defined the era of Louis XIV. His versatility and attentiveness to the challenges of the day resonated with Jean-Michel Wilmotte, a multifaceted designer more interested in solving contemporary problems – such as the over-management of French cities and its impact on creativity – than dreaming up vast, eye-catching concepts.

This lack of a clear-cut stance has cemented his reputation. The anti-star has become an international celebrity, with most of his work outside of France found in Asia and the Middle East, such as Incheon International Airport near Seoul and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. Jean-Michel Wilmotte has a passion for museums. “Whether we are working on old buildings [the Musée d’Orsay or the Louvre] or new structures [the Bunkamura cultural center in Tokyo, one of his first projects], the staging of the museum space must instill a relationship between three figures: the exhibited work, the setting hosting it, and the moving visitor. I like to develop this relationship between one work and another, the layout of a display, converging lines, and a dialogue between inside and out.” This talent was demonstrated in Venice in 2017 for a Damien Hirst exhibition complete with transparent installations at the Punta della Dogana, which had been renovated by Japanese architect Tadao Andō – another influence.

Terminal 2 at Incheon International Airport, near Seoul. © Lee Namsun L2 Agency
Project pour the American Hospital of Paris, set for delivery in 2026. © Wilmotte & Associés Architectes

Until June 2023, the major Vermeer retrospective at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam showcases the architect’s love of color – another facet of his talent. To celebrate one of the leading Dutch painters along with Rembrandt and Van Gogh, he wanted to “hone in on the blue and dark-green velvets in the residences painted by the Delft master. Each time, just like in his paintings, I included a beam of light coming from the left, as seen in Girl with a Pearl Earring or Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.” This inspired staging is a nod to Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s other passion: theatrical sets. In fact, he designed the sets for several ballets by Roland Petit, at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, and at the Bolshoi in Moscow.

François Mitterrand asked him to design the interior of his apartments at the Elysée Palace. Some 40 years on, the Wilmotte & Associés agency, which has offices in Paris, Nice, London, Venice, Dakar, and Seoul, is flooded with orders. The renovation of the Gare du Nord train station and the construction of the future training center for the PSG soccer team west of the capital are set for delivery this year, while the new offices for the Cognac sector will be ready in 2025. This discrete but illustrious creator has also won over LVMH, L’Oréal, Peugeot, JCDecaux, Google, and Crédit Agricole. As Jean-Michel Wilmotte says, a company’s headquarters should “reflect the client’s identity before the architect’s signature.”

Article published in the March 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.