In September, when Richard Rogers formally announced his retirement from Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the firm he founded more than 40 years ago, he still had one major project underway. Located at Château La Coste, an art-filled vineyard in Provence, France, the Richard Rogers Drawing Gallery is finally complete—and stands (or floats) as a breathtaking final act to the distinguished architect’s six-decade career. The rectangular tube-shaped building, which measures 78 feet long, cantilevers dramatically from a hillside overlooking the ancient ruin of La Quille and the heavily wooded Luberon National Park. It’s also encased in a vivid orange steel armature that nods to the exterior structural elements that define Paris’s Centre Pompidou, which Rogers completed with Renzo Piano in 1977.
Construction was no walk in the sculpture park—the remote and unusual location, hand-picked by Rogers, required totally custom design and fabrication that involved local firm Demaria Architecture. “I gave Richard two things: the idea of a gallery to show drawings, and the view,” McKillen tells Wallpaper. “Richard took me to see a house projecting off a hillside held up by a single column. I remember him saying, ‘If we can’t get the gallery to work, we can always put in a column.’ But it was that column that gave it all away. And that’s when I said, ‘It’s either 100 percent pure, or it’s not, and if it’s not pure, better not do it at all.”
Component parts of the building’s structural skeleton were all manufactured at a steel specialist in Draga, Portugal, and then driven to the remote site on two 40-foot-long trucks. “It came as a kit of parts, and was built really fast,” Deyan Sudjic, the former director of London’s Design Museum, who recently wrote a book about the project, told The Art Newspaper. “It basically all happened in this pandemic year.” The region’s seismic activity, which raised some eyebrows about the project’s feasibility, required bridge-type engineering and flexible materials. Entrance cables that ground the structure contract and expand, sensitive to fluctuating temperatures, and the poured resin gallery floor flexes in harmony with the structure.
Sudjic further notes that while the project ends one of the industry’s most illustrious careers on a high note, it also sees Rogers come full circle. When his career began, more than 60 years ago, he and fellow fledgling architect Norman Foster embarked on a tour of every Frank Lloyd Wright building in the United States. Fallingwater—hailed as one of the greatest examples of fusing architecture with nature—left an enormous impact on both architects, and its influences on the Richard Rogers Drawing Gallery are clear.
“The external orange steel beams taper as the construction floats outwards into mid-air,” Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners explain in a statement. “Where the building touches the ground, it does so subtly, belying the robust engineering below ground that supports the structure from just one end. You leave the terra firma of the old Roman track and transition across a lightweight bridge to the cantilevering gallery. Walking through the support structure, it’s here where the visitor experiences a sensation of almost floating.”
The gallery will be in good company—it marks the latest addition to the hotelier and developer Paddy McKillen’s distinguished collection of art and architecture at Château La Coste, an expansive 500-acre site that features pavilions by Piano, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Frank Gehry, and Oscar Niemeyer. (Visitors are even greeted by a giant Louise Bourgeois Maman sculpture that looms over a Tadao Ando–designed swimming pool.) And more notable architecture is underway. A site has been excavated to build site-specific housing by Jean Nouvel for I do, I undo, I redo, a trio of sculptures also by Bourgeois, but engineering difficulties have mired the project in delays.
McKillen and Rogers became fast friends when they first met, in 2001, but it wasn’t until ten years later that he tapped the architect for a gallery dedicated exclusively to drawings. The end result stands as a symbolic ode to the medium. From a distance, the gravity-defying structure appears as delicate as drawing paper. Programming will also take on a personal note—rumor has it that McKillen plans to christen the gallery with an exhibition of works by his mother, who is an artist. Temporary exhibitions are slated to follow.