A tour through the scenic Château La Coste in Provence, where sculptures and pavilions by Pritzker Prize winners, organic vineyards, and the culinary triumphs of renowned chefs intersect.
By Cynthia Rosenfeld
Photos by Sandro di Carlo Darsa
December 11, 2017
Paddy McKillen needed a chai, not the Indian-spice variety served at Starbucks, but what the French know as an above-ground facility used to house winemaking equipment and barrel storage. The Irish property magnate, whose global portfolio includes holdings in London’s Claridges, The Berkeley, and The Connaught hotels, purchased Château La Coste in 2002 from a family who had owned the 600-acre estate for 70 years. Positioned in southern France’s gently undulating countryside between Aix-en-Provence and the Luberon, McKillen’s oenological acquisition is the region at its most ideal: vineyards, chestnut forests, and olive-tree fields encircling the original 17th-century rose-stone bastide manor house and a collection of traditional barns finished with Provençal tiled roofs. A series of Roman pathways crisscross the terrain.
To upgrade La Coste’s white, red, and rosé wines to organic status and introduce biodynamic processes required state-of-the-art technology and somewhere to house those purchases. So McKillen reached out to his friend the Paris-based architect Jean Nouvel. Completed in time for the grape harvest of 2008 and connected underground, Nouvel’s pair of sleek half cylinders in aluminum and stainless steel make no effort to blend into the storybook setting, a juxtaposition that stimulated McKillen’s inspiration.
Nouvel’s Nissen huts ushered in, over the next decade, more than two dozen invitations extended by McKillen to international architects and artists, most of whom he considers personal friends. Each has since come to Château La Coste to create site-specific permanent installations within the naturally forested landscape. Irish-born, New York–based artist Sean Scully arrived in 2007, even before Nouvel’s structures were complete, to erect his imposing “Wall of Light” stone monument. He was followed by Richard Serra, who wedged a trio of angular steel slabs into a grassy knoll. But not everything was so neatly carved into the landscape. Resembling a human-scale bird’s nest, “Oak Room” (2009) by British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy lies hidden beneath the estate’s Roman walls.
Not content to hoard the works for himself, McKillen opened his burgeoning art park in 2011 to the public—and devoted the same level of aesthetic scrutiny to the visitors’ areas. Guests enter the property through Tadao Ando’s stark, unadorned “Gate,” one of five works here commissioned from the Pritzker Prize–winning Japanese architect. Designed around a Louise Bourgeois “Crouching Spider” (2003), Ando’s Centre d’Art brazenly slices through the pastoral backdrop with its smooth concrete surfaces, monumental glass panes and the reflective pools where the massive metal arachnid lives. “Small Crinkly,” a 1976 stabile by Alexander Calder, sits on water at the opposite side of the poetic, V-shaped building. Adjacent, chef Francis Mallmann’s new restaurant centers around an artful wire dome customized to hang and slow-cook the Argentine culinary star’s signature Charolais beef over an open fire; Provençal vegetables and herbs are prepared rescoldo style—underground, in the ashes. Deeper into the parkland, Jean Michel Othoniel’s giant red Murano glass cross stands alongside another Ando-designed building, a Modernist tribute in glass, steel, and stone to Henri Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, two hours to the east.
Even the grounds have received the star treatment. Louis Benech, best known for redesigning the Tuileries in Paris, created the château’s gardens, an orderly grid of organic eggplants, apricots, and pear trees, and Ai Weiwei laid down a sinuous walkway of cobblestones recycled from Marseille’s recently renovated ports. Titled “Ruyi Path,” after the ceremonial Chinese scepter that symbolizes power and good fortune, it zigzags through the landscape, connecting two Roman-era routes.
To view it all, most visitors follow the Art & Architecture Walk, a two-hour treasure hunt that winds past Paul Matisse’s mechanized “Meditation Bell” (2012) toward Lee Ufan’s “House of Air” (2014), a quaint stone hut that displays the South Korean artist’s minimalist paintings, and “Psicopompo” (2011) by Brazilian artist Tunga, a sculptural allegory in steel and quartz named for a mythical Greek scale used to measure a man’s soul. Some works are interactive, like Frank Gehry’s frenetic “Pavillon de la Musique”; others aredistinctly provocative, like Tracey Emin’s self-portrait at the bottom of a barrel. All incite awe in their ambition and scope. Among the most impressive is the 3,000-square-foot Château La CosteArt Gallery by Renzo Piano Building Workshop, carved directly into the vineyards. Under an origami-inspired white-sail roof, its folds aligned with the surrounding grapevines, a naturally lit photography exhibition space is perched above the château’s wine cellars.
One of the most recent names added to the La Coste roster is Hong Kong–based architect André Fu, who devised a bar, library, and 12-room spa for Villa La Coste. The 28-suite hotel opened this year on a summit overlooking the property’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Vermentino vineyards, its clean lines, local stone finishes, and Luberon-framing views the work of French architecture firm Tangram. Though geographically removed from the public park, the retreat shares its spirit of artistic engagement. McKillen himself chose the art here, from the Alberto Giacometti sketches that hang behind the reception desk to the Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs on display in some of the bedrooms. The talent extends to the furnishings, which include a wooden Charlotte Perriand table and another by Nouvel. The latter is topped with a polished stainless-steel sculpture by anti-gravity artist Tom Shannon, whose sculpture “Drop” (2009) is a popular park attraction. Gérald Passédat, who also owns the triple-Michelin–starred restaurant Le Petit Nice in Marseilles, helms the hotel’s restaurant, Louison, the celebrated French chef’s first-ever outside collaboration.
According to Fu, McKillen collaborates with each artist whom he invites to Château La Coste. The result is purposeful and deliberate. “He works with a rare appreciation for an artist’s creativity. This is not simply a collection of boldfaced names from around the art world—it’s a genuinely thoughtful curation by McKillen himself.”
Fu describes the entire experience as an opportunity to translate the original spirit of the vineyard, and the French art of winemaking more generally, into a modern art context. Though he calls McKillen a “passionate collaborator,” he says the Irishman is quick to remind everyone—Gehry, Ando, Mallmann, and Wei Wei included—that their creations are ultimately accessories. Says Fu: “For McKillen, the grapes are the real artworks at La Coste.”