Need to Know

Inside the History of SCAD's Provençal Campus in the French Village of Lacoste

The Savannah College of Art and Design celebrates 20 years of teaching design excellence at its French satellite campus.

SCAD's Library Rue du Four. All photography Courtesy of SCAD.

In 1979, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) opened its doors in Georgia and quickly established its namesake coastal city as a global design destination. In 2002, the college similarly transformed the medieval French village of Lacoste. Bathed in the famed light of Provence, the campus encompasses 16th-century farmhouses (one was used as a gambling den by the infamous Marquis de Sade), caves dating back to the Middle Ages, extant bakeries, and the region’s first art conservatory established by the American painter Bernard Pfriem. SCAD president and founder Paula Wallace oversaw the team of preservationists, and was appointed a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques for her work. SCAD Lacoste is now home to two immersive programs, Pre-Bee and Après SCAD, an artist residency for graduates, The SCAD Alumni Atelier, and has hosted everyone from Pierre Cardin to Carrie Mae Weems for lectures and master classes. 

This year, SCAD Lacoste celebrates its 20th anniversary. The university will debut two additions to the campus, and in October, the campus sculpture garden, SCAD Lacoste Promenade de Sculptures, will feature ten permanent outdoor installations from the SCAD community. The Lacoste campus boasts a rich slate of programming, even during the summer. On June 27 SCAD FASH will debut “Azzedine Alaïa: L’Art de la Mode”, which is the first exhibition of the late master couturier’s work in Provence. From July 1 through 4, the SCAD Lacoste Film Festival will run, featuring a special tribute to Agnes Varda and the presentation of the SCAD Etoile for Lifetime Achievement in Cinema to actor Jeremy Irons.

In the following conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, Wallace tells Surface how to bring 21st-century tech into 10th-century structures, the promise of adaptive reuse, and the pleasure of en plein air.

Fashion classrooms at the SCAD Lacoste campus.

How did SCAD first come to the decision to open a campus in Lacoste?

SCAD Lacoste began in 2002. The former Lacoste School of the Arts had heard of SCAD’s mastery of historic preservation and adaptive reuse, and they approached us to take over their Lacoste campus as their enrollment had dropped dramatically. They needed help and came to SCAD—and we saw an opportunity to establish a permanent study-abroad location, where students and professors could live and work in perhaps the most inspiring environment on the planet.

SCAD Lacoste welcomes students, alumni, and guests into a dreamscape of Roman ruins, medieval stones, and fields of lavender and poppies—an idyll that has inspired some of the world’s most beloved artists and creators. What did Mark Twain say in The Innocents Abroad? “One must travel to learn.” Studies show that travel imbues the traveler with curiosity and confidence. Students who travel tend to be more self-motivated and open to new ideas. Lacoste provides the perfect mise-en-scène for our Bees to stretch their wings, to see the world, and to meet new people, all with guidance and support from our acclaimed faculty. 

A theater on campus.

Preserving the character of the village must have been more difficult than simply retaining the facades and updating interiors; what do you think SCAD has done particularly well to ensure the region’s historical identity isn’t lost?

The most beloved spaces feel like living organisms. They bustle with life—full of light, color, and most of all, people. At SCAD, we love the stories of old buildings and add our own stories to them with verve and passion. When we first arrived in Lacoste, the buildings we’d been given by the Lacoste School of the Arts were in a state of deterioration and dilapidation. Many structures were only a few centuries old (young by European standards), while others dated to the 10th century.

We got to work, and we’ve been constructing and improving the SCAD Lacoste built environment for 20 years. We have meticulously restored the exteriors of every SCAD Lacoste building to speak to the design vernacular of the Luberon. Aside from a small sign here and there helping students and guests navigate their way around the vertiginous village, the façades and silhouettes of our Lacoste properties are very much a part of the village’s visual language. You can hardly tell the difference between a private residence, a student residence, shopSCAD Lacoste, say, or classroom buildings. 

The interiors are a different story. We rework and reimagine historic interiors to serve student needs—hence, adaptive rehabilitation. SCAD students, alumni, and professors require speedy Wi-Fi and ethernet access. Studios are situated to benefit from the beatific Luberon light. We fill SCAD Lacoste classrooms with the technology demanded by all 40-plus SCAD disciplines: 3-D printers, photography printers, HD cameras, Cintiq tablets, and all the rest.

We also incorporated many of the unique existing features and eccentricities of Lacoste interiors into joyful references to previous residents: old beehive ovens transformed into cozy reading nooks, a stone sink fitted with a top for use as a side table, a manger topped with glass to make a buffet. Keeping bits of the past and moving them into the present. As the French say, “Qui n’avance pas, recule” (“Who does not move forward, recedes”). We embraced Lacoste’s historical identity, coaxing it out of the ground and out of the ruins as we rebuilt, repurposed, and replanted. 

The interior of Maison Basse. Photograph by Adam Kuehl.

Of course, we must mention the Marquis de Sade. What remains of the farmhouse that once was his gambling den? What is it used for now?

Ah, yes, la Maison Basse! The old farmhouse and its outbuildings, which sit at the base of the village, have existed in some form for at least eight centuries. When the building was saved and donated to SCAD many years ago by the William Talbott Hillman Foundation, its only story was one of eons and epochs of disrepair. It had no roof. All that remained of its former life as a farmhouse and stable was the old oven and a few stone walls. 

We conducted a site study. We engaged SCAD preservation design and architectural history professors and students, as part of their SCAD Lacoste classes, to research, write, and publish the history of the site and the structure. SCAD is a research university, after all, devoted to applied discovery and its implications for the creative professions. The research helped us understand the building’s evolving design and function over the centuries, which then allowed SCAD to repurpose the structure—after adding a few more walls and a roof!—into a residence hall with classrooms, a dining area, and guest rooms. A strikingly contemporary movie theater and screening room now live inside what was once a barn. There’s a pool, complete with a few oversized swans that once gave rides at an amusement park, for a little whimsy.

One notable feature is the holes in the walls that held mulberry branches and busy silkworms in a previous era. We left the holes as a reminder of the farm’s previous function as a silk producer. And when refinishing the floor, we found some rubble, remnants of a Roman temple. It’s so beautiful that we lit it and covered it with glass so everyone can see it underfoot. There are also several cisterns that are part of artists’ ateliers, lit and preserved behind glass as dramatic visual elements.

The pool outside of Maison Basse.
 Maison Basse interior. Photograph by Adam Kuehl.

Over the decades, what’s surprised you about the way the students and buildings interact at SCAD Lacoste?

Lacoste sits on a hillside high above the Luberon Valley and, like so many European villages constructed on undulating alpine terrain, the buildings are full of surprising angles, nooks, narrow stairways, and breathtaking vistas. The front door might be on one floor, the rear door two or three floors higher. It’s anything but dull. I’m sure you’ve experienced the numbing fluorescence of so many ill-conceived learning environments at other colleges: the dreary architecture, the drab classrooms, the bare walls. 

Generally people expect college classrooms to be dark and dismal, on the assumption that truth must be inversely proportional to beauty. Here’s the real truth: The more time our students want to spend at SCAD and in SCAD buildings, the more they learn—and they spend a LOT of time in SCAD classrooms and studios! During the academic year, a SCAD student spends 450 hours in our classrooms (at least!) and 1,000 hours in our buildings, and that includes SCAD Lacoste. Because students spend so much time in our buildings, we’ve designed warm and comfortable environments (lots of upholstery and inviting textures) that are highly TikTok-worthy, filled with works of art that excite the senses and stoke curiosity. 

Photograph by Chia Chong.

How has Covid changed the way the buildings operate, and the campus itself?

Modern buildings—from the last 40 or 50 years, say—feel claustrophobic, with windows that won’t open and hardly a porch or pocket garden to speak of. Older buildings are so often more humane than new ones, with their vertiginous ceilings and plenteous light, the verandas and sleeping porches and balconies. These buildings reach out for light and air and pull them inside. We all needed plenty of air and light during the pandemic!

COVID-19 also reminded everyone how precious time spent outdoors can be. I’ve chosen every SCAD location, in part, for its climate. SCAD students prioritize their own wellness and love to lay out a blanket and relax or paint en plein air. Closeness to nature nourishes soul and body. Speaking of plein air, the buildings in Lacoste—when they were built—certainly didn’t have heat or air conditioning. So the fresh air so often recommended these days was de rigeur. And when the mistral comes through, hold onto your hat! Clean, crisp air from the Alps blows through Lacoste year round, accounting for the atmosphere of golden light the region is known for.

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