What could be more agreeable than a glass of French wine while viewing French art in the landscape of southern France, a landscape made famous by the 19th-century Impressionist/proto-Cubist painter Paul Cézanne? This conflux of ideal conditions melds perfectly in the recently completed Château La Coste Art Gallery, a new venue for viewing artworks while sampling various wines from the private domain winery located on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, sometimes referred to as the “Paris of the south” for its longstanding renown as an outpost of sophisticated culture and food.
Designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW, an international architectural practice with offices in Paris, Genoa and New York) for a private business group, the La Coste art gallery opened in May 2017. It blends so effortlessly into the vineyard landscape—set 6 meters into the slope of a field, the building’s peaks of folded fabric roof align exactly with the tops of the grapevine rows—that it appears as natural an outgrowth of the grounds as the vines themselves.
Fabric in flight
RPBW’s description of the project outlines the genesis of the idea of submerging the building into the ground: “This 285 sq. meter pavilion aims at both displaying art and preserving wine. Due to the natural topography of the soil, it was decided to carve a 6-meters-deep valley in the earth so as to fully incorporate the building into the vineyard. The pure glazed façades and roof contrast with the simple exposed concrete used for both the retaining and the exhibition walls. The partly buried building highlights the roof covered with a sail fastened to thin metal arches. These arches echo the graphical layout of the grapevines, enabling us to integrate the sail into the vineyard. As a kite, the sail flies and lands, emphasizing all at once the lightness and horizontalness of the building.” Fabric, what the architect describes as the “kite,” is used in the roof as the main source of natural, diffused light that floods the gallery and highlights the artworks for visitors.
The new gallery is the latest designed by a number of world-class architects for the Château La Coste’s 500-acre estate that, from the start, its owners have devoted to wine, art and architecture. The campus main reception building is designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, a music pavilion for outdoor performances by Frank Gehry, and a wine bottling/production facility by French “starchitect” Jean Nouvel. Planted around the complex are large-scale art installations by Alexander Calder, Andy Goldsworthy and Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman,” a giant spider sculpture, one of six bronze casts in existence—to name only three of the artists among those on display.
Inspiration and execution
Like all good art, the RPBW La Coste gallery was long in gestation, begun in conversations between client and architect several years ago; put on hold, revived, put on hold again and revived once more early this year. The project was placed on the fast track by U.K.-based Architen Landrell, tension structure specialists and the fabric roof contractor, designer and ostensible project manager for much of the building’s details. Earlier concepts for the fabric roof were sketchy, and when Architen’s Lance Rowell (who began the initial contact with the client years ago) and Christopher Rowell reviewed the plans this spring, they quickly convinced the client that an easier way of structuring the roof could be done to reduce the amount of structural steel and supports, reducing overall cost and speeding construction time.
“The concept overloaded the steel structure beyond what was necessary,” says Christopher Rowell. “We dug into the project and produced a packet of construction drawings in March through April, calling upon a long-time collaborator, Tony Hogg, a structural engineer with special knowledge and experience designing tensile fabric structures, to join the project.”
A tail of downspouts
For such a shortened time frame, the project encountered surprisingly few impediments, adds Rowell. A late spring deadline for completion was set by the client, and the new concept and design package was signed off in April. There was only one detail that hadn’t been worked out, he says. “The roof is a series of ridges and valleys, and we felt there was no good detail on how to handle rainwater runoff! Water would have come shooting out of the valleys during a storm, and needed some sort of deflector that sent water away from the cables, joints and structure.”
Everyone in the Architen office put their heads together with lots of overtime into solving the dilemma and searched hard for a detail that could solve the problem without holding up construction. Someone saw a photo of a bird, a swallow as it turns out, that inspired a brilliant solution. The bird’s tail shape detail (described by Chris Rowell as a cross between a bird’s tail and a “Star Trek officer’s badge”) was quickly incorporated into the downspout design, and the team soon began calling it a “gargoyle” for its practical function—like the more grotesque historic gargoyles on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris—of directing roof water runoff to each side, splitting the water around the tie-down cable connections and turnbuckles of the roof valleys and away from the building.
A prototype, 3-D printed out of resin formed in a silicone mold, was rapidly produced and presented to the client for approval. Although the concept was initially rejected by the associated local architect, approval came from master architect Renzo Piano himself; when shown the plastic prototype, his eyes lit up upon seeing the mockup and the bird photo that inspired it. The irony is that most visitors will not see the detail or the top side of the roof, unless they were to rent a private low-flying airplane to buzz the chateau.
Although the “gargoyle” downspouts are 3-D printed (all 20 of them), they are sufficiently durable and heat-resistant to withstand 100 degrees (C) over time and to endure any normal environmental conditions the designers could foresee in application. The downspouts are sealed between the catenary cables, stainless steel turnbuckle tensioners and fabric clamping plates to be watertight, a very durable combination for the long haul. The fabric chosen—a relatively new product from Serge Ferrari, Précontraint TX30 Type II matte finish polyester fabric with a cross-linked PVC coating and a PVDF topcoat—is designed for a life span of more than 30 years. It’s a fitting combination that will last a long time in a landscape that seems timeless. Steel for the roof was fabricated by a mill in Ireland frequently used by Architen Landrell.
Even without a personal visit, photographs do convey the integrity of the overall design and its details, as well as its beautiful results. Art, architecture, landscape and viniculture: perfection. Now, for that glass of wine …
Bruce N. Wright, AIA, a licensed architect and consultant to designers, is a longtime contributor to Specialty Fabrics Review, Advanced Textiles Source and Fabric Architecture magazines.