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-en-Provence 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.