Lay of the land: surveying the creative expanses of Provence’s Château la Coste

Lay of the land: surveying the creative expanses of Provence’s Château la Coste

Depending on your predilection, Château la Coste, located a little north of Aix-en-Provence, is either an estimable winemaker with a sideline in contemporary art or a marvel of modern architecture with an open-air gallery that just happens to have a vineyard attached. Whatever the case, the 200-acre estate owned by Irish property magnate Paddy McKillen is hugely impressive, a contemporary bedfellow to properties like Chatsworth in Derbyshire and Désert de Retz in Chambourcy.

McKillen’s ownership of la Coste began in 2002, after which he started installing art and architecture (both extant and commissioned) in response to the landscape and its winemaking history. A weighty book (now available at WallpaperSTORE*), titled, simply, Château la Coste, documents the recent history of the site in detail. It’s a beast: a 350-page volume crammed with sumptuous photography, contextual essays, diagrams and ephemera – self-congratulatory, perhaps, but deservingly so. There’s clearly been no expense spared: aside from the literal weight of the thing, the production values are notable, flitting between paper stocks and finishes, with supplementary pamphlet-style inserts on light, technical papers and loose single photographs and notebooks tucked inside each cover.

Following a preamble interview with McKillen and a florid introductory essay, a booklet of structural schematics gives immediate insight into the workings of the starchitects who’ve shaped la Coste, from spectral renders by Tadao Ando and Oscar Niemeyer to the more formal and meticulous diagrams of Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano (Jean Nouvel’s contributions are something of a mix).

One substantial photo section comprises artful, high-gloss shots of the site, its buildings and interventions. Many are straight-up architectural images; some are ostensibly bucolic landscapes. Others are more abstract and geometric, dare I say, Instagrammy: roof panels, piles of logs, waves of corrugated steel, that kind of thing. Captions are kept to the break pages, so flicking through these images feels like a meditative, meandering journey through the Château grounds, unencumbered by such fripperies as context and information. All are unpeopled (there’s a separate booklet with candid portraits of visitors and staff).

The variety and scope of the artworks and architectural installations across the estate afford the grounds a surreal quality. Pictured, Frank Gehry’s Music Pavilion

Picking through the meat of the book – 200-odd pages of photography and profile text on each artwork and structure – is an exhaustive undertaking. Even choosing highlights is nigh on impossible, given McKillen’s curatorial nous (and, we have to assume, expansive budget). The work is all fairly startling, from Ando’s minimalist entry portal right through to the Château’s kitchen garden.

Along the way, we’re treated to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Mathematical Model 012, an example of the artist’s ‘science sculptures’; it rises from a shallow pool outside Ando’s Art Centre into an infinitesimal needle-point, positioned towards the firmament. Nearby, Alexander Calder’s primary-coloured Small Crinkly mobile shifts in the breeze. Embedded into a hillside across the estate is Andy Goldsworthy’s Oak Room, a haunting architectural installation responding to the topography (Goldsworthy is often creatively aligned with Land Artists like Richard Long). Though inconspicuous from the outside, its shadowy subterranean expanse is truly eerie, constructed from heavy, bare branches, dense and nest-like – not unlike True Detective’s Carcosa tunnels, if that’s your thing.

Elsewhere, Tracey Emin’s Self Portrait, Cat Inside a Barrel is a steel lookout platform sat between trees, a barrel containing a cat figurine featured at its tallest point. American sculptor Richard Serra has installed sheets of industrial steel into a hillside in his work Aix. And Tatsuo Miyajima has created a nocturnal LED work, bright pinpricks of green light appearing like fireflies as the sun fades (it’s dubbed Wild Flowers).

Even the most functional buildings are highly striking – particularly Frank Gehry’s angular, abstract Music Pavilion, seemingly constructed from a rough web of beams and girders, and Nouvel’s sheer, bunker-like wineries.

It’s a lot to take in, even in book form, but relentlessly intriguing as a snapshot of the upper echelons of late 20th- and early 21st-century sculpture and building. In the opening interview McKillen sums it up succinctly: ‘Château la Coste provides a beautiful context with a tremendous freedom to dream.’ By affording creative freedom to such an esteemed group of visionaries, he says, something rather special has been created. We’re inclined to agree.

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