Richard Rogers treats his cantilever with characteristic style in his final project, but the gallery poses some timely questions as well
Taking a walk around a hotelier friend’s estate in Provence, Richard Rogers found a site for a drawing gallery, 40 minutes walk from the main buildings, where the Roman road rose up to the edge of a ridge. The gap in the trees would be a good spot for a look out – over the estate towards the Luberon Mountains. That was in 2011, then three years ago the friend and sometime client, Paddy McKillen, came back to Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, ready to add a Rogers building to his collection at the Château La Coste.
You need to know Château La Coste (and McKillen) to understand the building. Around half an hour from both Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, it is a vineyard and hotel with a live architecture and landscape experience, and high class food and drink to match the work of international starchitects. There the Tadao Ando Arts Centre, a gallery dug into the terroir by Renzo Piano Building Workshop and a wine cellar clad in mirrored red metal by Jean Nouvel. You can sleep in one of Jean Prouvé’s demountable houses, adapted with pods by RSHP. McKillen himself has a track record in redeveloping luxury hotels and RSHP has collaborated with him on projects at Berkeley Hotel in London’s Knightsbridge since 2006, where it is currently working on a major overhaul.
This drawings gallery had a very open brief. Of course it had to be conditioned so it could display precious drawings, but its size was decided with McKillen sitting in Rogers’ London home; it was agreed that a domestic scale worked – twice the length of the living room (so a total of 24m) and about the same width (5m). And the budget? It was never mentioned, says RSHP associate partner Stephen Spence.
Everything had to be unloaded and dragged up on a flat bed trailer, pulled by a tractor
Rogers’ effortless sketches show the simple form shooting off into space. The photos show the same dramatic 27m cantilever in among, and above, the trees. This building has been labelled by the practice as Rogers’ last project before he retired from RSHP. Digging into the work behind bringing this building to realisation seems almost disloyal to the idea of it. But the whole building, and the cantilever in particular, was hard won.
Spence describes the sketch form cantilevering off the ridge. Like many simple ideas it wasn’t simple in execution. Initial thoughts were that it could simply be craned in as a single unit, but the access wasn’t good enough. Single lengths of steel were too long to get to the site. Everything had to be unloaded and dragged up on a flat bed trailer, pulled by a tractor. So what where the options for the frame? Could short steels for the exoskeleton be welded together? The architect wanted to avoid the quality issues of on site welding so that was no go. So the 6-8m lengths of steel had to be bolted. For Spence this is perhaps the most memorable detail of the project. Fearing the clunky, overbearing, bolts and the plates would dominate the building, RSHP inset the bolts in the steels and hand tightened them, rather than using a bolt gun. This keeps a simple look on a small building.
The real grunt work through 2020, in the heat of summer, was invisible to the design team who were grounded in London by the pandemic. There was a trip in January 2020 to Portuguese-based steel fabricator Bysteel to see the mock up in factory, and a flying visit when restrictions were relaxed in August, before the installation of the eight tension cables that anchor the form into deep but tiny foundations. It is clear to Spence that it might never have happened at all during Covid if it were not for specialist engineer Michael Hasson, who translated the drawings, in detail, into a Tekla model that was issued to Bysteel. While the architects couldn’t get to site fortnightly to check progress, this model meant many issues were already resolved.
Within the orange steel frame sits another box (Rogers liked the box in a box notion, says Spence). Made of timber insulated panels and clad with naturally finished satin steel it has a certain shine to it with the green of tree reflections in the summer. You enter across a lightweight bridge (along with all the services, slung underneath).
Inside, the gallery is a single volume. And a single window. At the moment the exhibition is all view, the focal point from the moment you enter, of the Luberon Mountains ahead. As you are drawn out to the shaded terrace at the end, you can spy the cluster of buildings at the centre of Château La Coste.
There are fundamental questions to ask about this gallery and its forest location begs the first. Why was it built? And why here? Its clarity points to its minimal functionality – a single volume with not a loo in sight and even the plant room hived off into another volume. A wild wee don’t seem to fit with the luxury image, even for those on foot who are taking the art and architecture tour. (The observation deck being developed nearby by the Norman Foster Foundation looks an equally unlikely candidate for a loo stop.)
This building is only tangentially about function, it is an object for show, rather like the Tracey Emin and Ai Wei Wei installations also on the estate. It is part of encouraging visitors to spend longer, to spread out from the centre, to come back another time. Was a mass of steel needed to do this, could it have at least been a gesture with lower embodied carbon? Perhaps, but not as it was conceived, timber wasn’t a possible structural substitute given summer wild fires.
As a folly, it is hard to justify in a time of climate crisis. But as we debate even the possibility of foreign holidays in our second pandemic summer, I do think rather dreamily of hiking round the estate and seeing all these pieces under a warm French sun.