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Kings of the castles

Two very different French chateaux have been transformed into unique, world-class art galleries. Words and pictures by Keith Mundy


Almost within sight of each other, two chateaux in Provence, France, boast virtually the same name but entirely different characters. What they do share is recent reinvention as artistic centres by famous new owners.

A medieval castle crowning a rocky hilltop in the Luberon, Chateau de Lacoste was home to the Marquis de Sade and the scene of his most complex erotic experiments. In 2001, it was bought by couturier Pierre Cardin, who has introduced outdoor sculptures and an annual arts festival; but still a pall of historic sexual violence hangs over the half-ruined edifice.

Set in rolling countryside 22 kilometres away, vineyard Chateau la Coste was bought in 2002 by Irish property tycoon Paddy McKillen, who invites renowned artists and architects to contribute site-specific works. As well as producing notable organic wines, the 200-hectare property includes artworks placed in pools, meadows and woods, and has become one of Europe's leading environmental art sites.


A HEREDITARY domain of the Sade family, Chateau de Lacoste became the beloved home of the infamous Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade in 1765, when he was aged 25 and already on the police books for committing violent acts with Parisian prostitutes. The romantic, feudal character of the site - the steep hill capped by its phantasmagoric castle, like a Hieronymus Bosch vision - struck some central chord in Sade.

His arrival at the chateau gate with a courtesan from the capital on his arm was hailed by a ceremonial gathering of the villagers, of whom he was the feudal lord. The gate is reached after wandering through the narrow cobbled streets of the village, which clings to the steep slopes below the chateau. The scene seems largely unchanged from that of 2½ centuries ago, apart from the peasants having been replaced by artists and the boulangeries by boutiques - par for the course in France's beautiful perched villages.

The chateau looms high above, five storeys of it, with a crazy scattering of windows on the upper levels and the battlements ruined - the result of its sacking during the French revolution and later abandonment. Coming this way, the Chateau de Lacoste is a forbidding sight; arriving by car, though, is completely different.

A winding road climbs up into woods, then doubles back. Suddenly the trees clear and there before you is a wide grassy plateau with the chateau's ruined heights pointing jaggedly skyward - and an enormous pair of open arms.

This is Alexander Bourganov's Welcome, a 14-metre-wide crescent-shaped bronze sculpture. Despite Sade's reputation, it's actually appropriate: he invited many people to social events at the chateau and ran a 120-seat theatre there. It was only when he organised his biggest orgies - engaging a gaggle of young servants whose duties were expanded way beyond their imagination - or when his enemies were at their keenest to nail him that the marquis was less welcoming.

Now that Cardin has renovated much of the chateau, installed artworks and opened it to view in the summer, visitors are welcome again, most of all during the annual July festival, which features dance, drama and opera. Cardin has also bought many properties in the village, where the less well-informed tourists are shocked to find the Café de Sade.

The couturier's "range" for Lacoste has not received universal applause, however: there's a split between those villagers who welcome the greatly increased business and those who resent their village being turned into an "opera set". Here it's worth noting that things were calm most of the time in the marquis' day: his biographers assert that he spent the majority of his time in his well-stocked library.

In 1778, his foes finally got him locked up as a danger to public safety in a series of Paris prisons, where he wrote his notorious novels of extreme pornography. This is acutely referenced by another Bourganov statue, on the plateau above the castle - a crossed-arms bust of Sade with his head caged by iron bars.

Beyond are panoramic views of the Luberon landscape.


DRAMATIC AS THAT all is, Cardin's efforts are a cottage industry compared with those of McKillen at Chateau La Coste. Lying a 20-minute drive to the southeast, near the sleepy village of Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade and not far north of Aix-en-Provence, the medieval capital of Provence, this is a chateau whose original edifice has all but disappeared among the developments of the past decade.

Hidden away among plane trees are the original 17th-century bastide and farm buildings; much more prominent is the modern winery housed in two ribbed aluminium semi-cylinders designed by Jean Nouvel, which are like outsized 21st-century versions of the second world war Quonset hut. The domaine produces well-received biodynamic wines under winemaker Matthieu Cosse, with the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence appellation.

However, it is not wine but architecture and art that are the most remarkable features of the property. Under the Irish magnate's guiding hand, the domaine has acquired a dual, environmentally conscious personality, with organic winemaking matched by site-specific art.

The exploration begins at a long, low reception building created by Tadao Ando in dove-grey concrete, that's delicate and angular, seeming to float on the serene spill-away pools that almost surround it. Hovering over one pool is a huge Louise Bourgeois spider; rising out of another is Hiroshi Sugimoto's Infinity, a stainless-steel cone that curves and tapers to a high point.

Leaving the Art Centre, as the building is called, immediately noticeable beyond a swathe of vines ripening in the sun is Frank Gehry's Music Pavilion, a wildly deconstructed wood and glass structure that began life as London's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion of 2008. Far from blending into the environment, Gehry's creation seems to explode out of it.

Heading into the hillsides, you encounter another bold statement, firmly grounded this time: a massive cube about 20 metres long and five metres high made from huge blocks of red and grey stone. Beyond Sean Scully's Wall of Light Cubed, however, the oak woods close in and the sculptures and structures become rooted in their surroundings, none more so than Andy Goldsworthy's Oak Room. Here, rough boulders form a wall around a dark chamber dug into the earth and lined with interwoven branches.

"The project grew organically," McKillen recently told the Financial Times. "Initially, I invited artists and architects as friends, and they were inspired to create something in response to the landscape. We give the artists carte blanche," the proprietor asserted. "We don't have a 'master plan'. The nature of the project continues to evolve with the contribution of each artist and architect."

Following Ando, Nouvel and Gehry, fellow starchitects Norman Foster and Renzo Piano are in line to make structures; all of them winners of the Pritzker Prize, the highest award in architecture. And, after visiting earlier this year, the once-notorious British artist Tracey Emin is mulling a contribution.

Anyone can visit, in fact, any day of the year, 10am to 7pm, for a fee of €15 (HK$155), but unless you've been specifically invited, McKillen won't want an artwork from you.


Getting there: Air France ( flies daily from Hong Kong to Paris, and from the French capital to Marseille. Both chateaux are about one hour's drive from Marseille airport.



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Kings of the castles

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