Ground­breaker Renzo Pi­ano’s big dig in south­ern France

Renzo Pi­ano’s lat­est project is like no other. For one, it’s planted six me­tres be­low a vine­yard in the south of France


YOU CAN’T AC­TU­ALLY GET A SENSE of the new pho­tog­ra­phy pavil­ion at Château La Coste near Aix-en­provence un­til you’re prac­ti­cally in­side it. En­tered via a gen­tly sloped con­crete path, the white tri­an­gu­lar gallery – in­tended for dis­play­ing pho­to­graphs – is exquisitely spare, fea­tur­ing a pol­ished con­crete floor and hand­some open grid of white track light­ing. At the rear, wall-size slid­ing glass doors lead to a pris­tine out­door sculp­ture court and a re­flect­ing pool.

Seen from above, how­ever, the build­ing looks like a gen­tly bob­bing sail­boat moored among grapevines. Its 11 rooftop sails, made of ten­sile fab­ric at­tached to white steel arches, cover a 285-square-me­tre glass box set six me­tres deep in the hill­side. They hover among canes of Syrah and Sauvi­gnon Blanc, soft­en­ing the Provençal sun­light in the gallery be­low.

The sails are a clue that the ar­chi­tec­ture comes from the Renzo Pi­ano Build­ing Work­shop. In re­cent years, RPBW has used sim­i­larly yachty el­e­ments for mu­se­ums in Bos­ton, Oslo, New York and Hous­ton. The nau­ti­cal de­tail­ing, over­seen by

part­ner-in-charge Joost Mool­hui­jzen, works well on an in­ti­mate scale. It’s vis­i­ble mainly in the fixed sails, which are rigged with ca­bles run­ning along luff tracks. Project-wide, the pal­ette is re­stricted to white and grey. And the de­sign is witty: Pho­tog­ra­phy buffs will get the feel­ing that they’re in­side a Nixon-era Po­laroid Land cam­era.

An ar­chi­tec­tural jewel, the pavil­ion is the lat­est ad­di­tion to an as­ton­ish­ing on-site col­lec­tion of build­ings and art be­long­ing to Ir­ish prop­erty mag­nate Pa­trick Mckillen, who pur­chased the 202-hectare es­tate on which the château sits in 2002. Af­ter chang­ing the chai over to fully bio­dy­namic wine pro­duc­tion, Mckillen opened the prop­erty to the pub­lic in 2011. Vis­i­tors with stout shoes can walk among the vines to see work by, among others, Richard Serra, Andy Goldswor­thy and Tracey Emin. Tadao Ando de­signed the art cen­tre and restau­rant. Jean Nou­vel pro­vided a pair of wine­mak­ing sheds.

To launch the new gallery, cu­ra­tors in­vited artist Hiroshi Sugi­moto to fill it with his med­i­ta­tive seascapes, but he found that it let in too much light. In the end, he opted to hang his work in the dimly lit wine cel­lars that RPBW tucked be­hind the gallery’s walls, al­low­ing the ar­chi­tec­ture to re­main un­adorned just a bit longer. As it turns out, the pavil­ion built to show photos is pretty pho­to­genic on its own.,

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