Art and wine: the combination sounds irresistible. And this is what Dublin property investor and art collector Patrick McKillen has created at the Château La Coste in Provence, where he has made a 200-acre sculpture park in the midst of a 500-acre vineyard. He has brought some of the world’s leading architects and artists to work on the park, in a programme that will support younger artists and offer them residencies.
Château La Coste is situated just north of Aix-en-Provence, in rolling countryside, and set amid olive groves and vines. A simple grey slab – “Gate” (2011) by Tadao Ando – marks the entrance, which leads into the domaine itself, with an elegant, low reception building in Ando’s signature dove-grey concrete jutting out beside serene spill-away pools. Crouched on one is a huge Louise Bourgeois spider from 2003; rising out of another is Hiroshi Sugimoto’s “Infinity” (2010) sculpture, a silver cone tapering to a tiny point.
Hidden away behind the building, surrounded with plane trees, is the original 17th-century bastide, as well as the farm buildings; beyond them is a Jean Nouvel-designed silver tube that houses the winemaking cellar. The domaine produces 750,000 bottles of appellation d’origine contrôlée Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence a year.
But the real adventure starts when you trek up into the surrounding hillside, where site-specific artworks are dotted under the oak trees and among the drystone walls. McKillen bought the domaine in 2004 and set about creating the park. “The project grew organically,” he says. “Initially, I invited artists and architects as friends, and they were inspired to create something in response to the landscape.”
The buildings are the immediately noticeable feature of the park: Frank Gehry’s 2008 “Music Pavilion” – an explosion of beams – was originally shown at London’s Serpentine Gallery. The site-specific sculptures, however, seem to blend into nature. “We give the artists carte blanche,” McKillen says. “For example, Andy Goldsworthy and Tunga each spent a month at Château La Coste before choosing a site. Richard Serra and Sean Scully made repeated visits before a concept was realised, while Tracey Emin is still clarifying her project.”
Tunga, a Brazilian artist, has made three “Portals” using heavy metal structures holding hanging chunks – of rock or glass – while Serra’s “Aix” (2008) is a series of three metal shards jutting out of a slope in the hill; looking beyond them, you can just glimpse the remains of the medieval village of Le Puy-Sainte Réparade.
Rough boulders form a wall leading to Goldsworthy’s 2008 “Oak Room”, a chamber dug into the earth and lined completely with oak branches, their size diminishing as they reach the top of the chamber.
Probably the most spiritual of the installations is Tadao Ando’s 2008 “Chapel”, in which the architect has surrounded the tiny 15th-century stone chapel of St Giles with a glass structure. Inside, when the heavy wooden door is closed, light seeps in around the door and under the altar thanks to a discreet slot at floor level in the outside wall. Ando also conceived Japanese-style pavilion “Four Cubes to Contemplate the Environment” (2008-11), which have, inside, cubes of plastic bottles, a photograph of a cloud, crushed drinking cans and an empty cube – symbolising water, CO2, rubbish and the future.
More installations are forthcoming from Per Kirkeby and Emin, who is working on her first outdoor installation, which will be in metal and wood. Turrell is working on a pavilion, as is Ai Weiwei and the Japanese architectural practice Saana.
“We don’t have a ‘master plan’. The nature of the project continues to evolve with the contribution of each artist and architect,” says McKillen, who adds that Gehry, Nouvel and Sugimoto are interested in working again at La Coste. “We will have a continually evolving exhibition programme in pavilions designed by such architects as Renzo Piano, Oscar Niemeyer, Richard Rogers and Sou Fujimoto.”
There is another side to this latter-day Medici. McKillen’s business interests have seen him in litigation with Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency; he has also has been battling British twin brothers Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay over the future ownership of Coroin, the company that controls Claridge’s, the Connaught and the Berkeley hotels. He lost his case in August and has not decided yet whether or not to appeal.
Sadly, the magical properties of La Coste could be affected by McKillen’s next project – an upmarket hotel planned right in the middle of the park. This will be built in two to three years’ time and will be small – 29 rooms, spread around 16 villas, with the reception building apparently hidden away in the hillside. Transport might be by buggy or through a back road, to minimise traffic disruption. But even so, while the art projects and buildings will still be as magnificent, seeing Château La Coste as it is now, still slightly wild and unspoilt, seems far more attractive than if it becomes a hotel with nice art attached.