Provençal Escape

The Three Secrets of Château La Coste

Wine, art, and architecture are the three pillars of Europe’s largest open-air contemporary art complex, which promotes the joys of living in Provence.
© Villa La Coste

If God were from Provence, then Château La Coste would be his kingdom. Visitors can access this slice of paradise from Aix-en-Provence, taking a zigzagging country road for 12 miles through the pines, cypress trees, and scrubland. Just before the hamlet of La Cride, the road opens out onto an amphitheater of hills overlooking a small plain. The complex stands proudly in the middle, a spectacular, V-shaped building boasting geometric lines and a smooth, silky concrete façade. The design was headed up by Tadao Ando, the architect behind Naoshima, the “art island” in Japan’s inland sea. Vineyards and rosebushes cling to the nearby hills, surrounded by oaks and olive trees, while streams run down the slopes and linger under the mossy ground. Aside from the cicadas, the buzzing of bees, and the sound of the wind blowing through the stone pines, silence reigns. The light is golden, crystal clear, and time seems to stand still.

When Irish property developer Patrick McKillen, who made his fortune in hotels (he is currently the co-owner of the Claridge’s, Berkeley, and Connaught hotels in London), decided to buy this Garden of Eden in 2004, he was initially focused on wine. The region was already renowned for its rosé, but he developed the offering, allocating half of the 570-acre estate to the production of organic red wine (Grenache and Syrah) and white wine (Chardonnay and Sauvignon). Visitors can sample them in the shade of the plane trees or under the pergola designed by Daniel Buren, in one of the two gourmet restaurants managed by Gérald Passedat and Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann, or in the “villas” of the five-star hotel over-looking the estate in front of the Luberon mountains.

The Music Pavilion, designed in 2008 by American architect Frank Gehry, often hosts open-air concerts. © Frederik Vercruysse

Art was a natural next step. “Paddy” McKillen loves artists, and is a personal friend of today’s “starchitects.” Many of them have helped him transform the harmonious, grandiose setting into a site filled with contemporary sculptures. His project is based on inviting artists to visit and work at the estate. They are given carte blanche as to where their work is exhibited. Respect for the landscape is the only guideline. Artists may not touch the trees or the restanques – drystone walls from Roman times once used to structure terraced agriculture. The slopes around Europe’s largest open-air art complex is home to leading names in international architecture including Tadao Ando, Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel, Richard Rogers – all winners of the Pritzker Prize – and landscape architect Louis Benech.

Tadao Ando is the star of the show among these prestigious figures, having designed the art complex in the center of three stretches of water. The first features an enormous spider sculpted by Louise Bourgeois, a giant mobile by Alexander Calder hangs over the second, and the third boasts a polished spike designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto in a nod to the pool’s reflections and the nearby bay windows. Meanwhile, Jean Nouvel has put his creativity into the wine cellar with an astounding half-cylinder comprised of corrugated sheets of steel. This year, near the stone slab path weaving through the oak trees designed by Ai Weiwei, Richard Rogers has put the finishing touches to a suspended, polychrome space devoted to drawing and pain-ting exhibits. This final piece is a response to the photography pavilion created by Renzo Piano, his partner for the design of the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Alexander Calder, Small Crinkly, 1976. © Frederik Vercruysse
Jean Nouvel built the Château La Coste wine cellar, a half-cylinder made of corrugated sheets of steel. © Adrien Gaut

These contemporary creations can be discovered via a path winding through the hills. It is hard to rank the finest sections. One gem is the Oak Room, a combined tomb, nest, and cave integrated into an ancient restanque. Land art pioneer Andy Goldsworthy made this structure using interlinked oak logs and branches to form a circular shape. Tadao Ando’s chapel at the top of the walk breathes new life into the a resting place for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. The Japanese master designed a frame in sheet metal and glass that filters light and offers a space for contemplation. This atmosphere is mirrored in the sculptures by Richard Serra, whose metal plates made with an iron, copper, and zinc alloy burst out of the earth and invite visitors to reflect on nature. The estate welcomes at least one new work every year. The Marriage of New York and Athens, a three-sculpture ensemble in steel and fiberglass by Tony Berlant, was installed in one of Frank Gehry’s pavilions in 2020.

Sean Scully, Lee Ufan, Paul Matisse, Tracey Emin, and Richard Long are some of the numerous leading contemporary names who have left their mark. Based on the Storm King Art Center in York State, Château La Coste has now inspired other institutions in the Var département in France, including the Commanderie de Peyrassol (sculpture and oenology), the Fondation Carmignac on the island of Porquerolles, and the Domaine du Muy, launched by Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand. The symbiosis of art and vineyards is clearly spreading. But with its exhibitions, tasting sessions, restaurants, and the sublime (and pricey) villas at its hotel, “La Coste, which is fully accessible to the public, is the only place that offers a certain ambience, art de vivre, and experience in which wine, art, gastronomy, and setting combine to celebrate the essence of Provence,” says Daniel Kennedy, the manager of the art center. Another glass of rosé, perhaps?

Article published in the July 2020 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.