Paddy McKillen’s blend of wine and art in Provence

Developer and hotelier Paddy McKillen has turned an estate on 600 acres in the picturesque south of France into a biodynamic vineyard, and a unique art and architecture project in which well-known artists and sculptors are given creative rein

 

In the low late January sunshine, uniform rows of bare vines roll out towards the distant Luberon mountains. By summer this landscape will be ablaze with colour when the vines and olive groves and lines of magnolia, cypress and Judas trees are in full bloom.

Located about 16km north of the pretty university town of Aix en Provence, this is Chateau La Coste, a working farm like any other in the heart of Provence in southern France. Apart, that is, from a number of unusual and striking structural features dotted here and there on the land.

Glinting in the sunlight is the enormous curved aluminium exterior of the winery designed by leading French architect Jean Nouvel. A short distance away is the Art Centre, the work of superstar Japanese architect and artist Tadao Ando – his works in Europe are few, though he has three works here and design enthusiasts travel huge distances to behold this cement and glass edifice in the heartland of his beloved inspiration, Le Corbusier. Beyond the centre in a shallow grass auditorium is a chaotic music pavilion designed to resemble a falling roof by yet another giant of modern architecture, Frank Gehry. Best known for his titanium-clad Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, this structure of steel, wood and glass was transplanted from London’s Hyde Park. Last year actor Stephen Rea and Belfast drea musicians Neil Martin and Barry Douglas performed a Bloomsday celebration here.

Also in this small triangle are sculptures by Alexander Calder, Hiroshi Sugimoto and a work by the late French artist Louise Bourgeois, whose Crouching Spider on water at the entrance to the arts centre has come to somehow symbolise La Coste. Its installation was a race against time in order to allow Bourgeois see the outcome shortly before she died, aged 98, in 2010.

Walking route

Since 2011, this Art and Architecture experience has been open to the paying public as a walk around a route through the 600-acre estate. With about 30 works by some of the world’s leading architects and artists, and a dozen or so still to come from Renzo Piano, Oscar Niemeyer, Tony Berlant and Sou Fujimoto, among others, it’s a vineyard experience like no other.

It’s the brainchild of Belfast-born building tycoon Paddy McKillen, who is as well known for his gargantuan battles with Nama and the Barclay twins over his ownership of London’s three flagship hotels, the Connaught, Claridge’s and the Berkeley, as he is for his carefully protected media-shy persona. From beginnings in his father’s business, the rag trade followed, and from there he built a portfolio of assets in retail and shopping centres in Ireland, including Dublin’s Jervis Centre. With an estimated value upwards of €3.5 billion, his empire operates all over the world.

Summer holidays

Today McKillen is passing through La Coste after meetings in Paris and on his way to Argentina tomorrow. We chat briefly over a coffee. His elder sister Mara is the progenitor of McKillen’s decision to locate here. She moved to France from London in the late 1990s in search of something different. Spending regular summer holidays here, he grew to love the area.

“Mara was living in Aix en Provence and writing and I asked her to look out for something like this and we looked for about 10 years. Then this place came up in 2001, and the only stipulation was that they wanted to sell to another family.”

The main house with its faded pink facade dates from the 17th century, and is less chateau and more grand country house. Having spent their early years on a family farm in Tyrone, there seems to be a symmetry to the McKillens at La Coste. It too is another farm, albeit a different crop on a grand scale, but it has become an anchor for family.

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Paddy and Mara’s parents live in apartment quarters in the main house most of the time. McKillen, who turned 60 last year, stays here when he visits. For him, though, the priority is the biodynamic vineyard: “This region has always been seen as the poor relation when it comes to wine production. But you taste a grape or a strawberry here and you won’t taste better. I couldn’t understand why the wine couldn’t be just as good if not better than elsewhere. And when Matthieu [Cosse, a biodynamic winemaker from Cahors] analysed the soil he felt all the elements were there to make a world-class wine. Within 20 years I’d like us to be producing the best rosé in the region.”

The vineyard achieved organic status in 2009 and is making good strides both nationally and internationally.

How have the connections with some of the biggest names in global architecture and art come about?

“I am very fortunate to have worked commercially with some of the world’s greatest architects and over the years, they have become good friends. It’s something that will always be evolving, it’s a passion.”

Mara and Paddy bring different strengths to the La Coste project. Mara connects with the place and the people operationally and emotionally, reinforcing a culture of quality and welcome. Paddy is most focused on maximising the land through the winery (“The real artists here are the vine growers”), and now a luxury boutique hotel is due to open in April. The artistic collaborations are a creative outlet.

Inspiration

“Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Van Gogh were all inspired by this landscape, so the artists are attracted here because they want to make something in response to the site that inspired the masters,” says Daniel Kennedy, the young Irish manager of the Art and Architecture project.

“The brief is very open, and then Paddy always has a new idea, a new way of doing things, so there’s an excitement to working here. It’s not a theme park; it’s meant to be an adventure for people to get lost in.”

McKillen insists it is not an indulgence, everything must make business sense. “I don’t want the family to have to wake up some day and feel saddled with this expensive artistic venture, so everything feeds into the success. The winery first and foremost, and the hotel now, will allow the architecture and art to continue.”

Two restaurants on site offer good local seasonal fare, and produce from the extensive walled garden developed by garden designer Louis Benech, who recently restored the Water Theatre grove at Versailles. Behind a gap in the wall is an enclosed space where John Rocha has clad the walls entirely in Waterford Crystal. Here also is an original wooden Vietnamese teahouse transported from Vietnam – where McKillen has had business links for years –modified and restructured entirely on site.

Generations and family figure large in the installations at La Coste. Wartime prefab barracks by industrialist metal worker Jean Prouvé were reconstructed with the help of his grandson Nicholas Prouvé. Paul Matisse, engineer and grandson of artist Henri, designed an industrial-scale meditation bell over four years using aircraft aluminium tubes. Frank Gehry’s pavilion was reconstructed with the help of his son Samuel.

Linear style

Irish-born artist Sean Scully completed his first sculptural piece, Wall of Light Cubed, in 2007 bringing his trademark linear style evoking hues of Provence on a massive structure of giant cubes of Portuguese granite. Last year he returned with his young son, and oversaw the installation of Boxes Full of Air, in Corten steel. Turner prizewinner Tracey Emin completed her first architectural piece here last year too, a rusted-effect industrial steel platform commanding one of the finest views over the vineyards below.

Daylight is fading when McKillen is pulled away by his building manager, David McGill, a straightforward Down man who heads up a small permanent team of mainly Northerners since he came here six years ago. He wants McKillen to view progress on the 29 individual suites and open terraces at the hotel.

‘Creatives’

McGill is the interface between McKillen and the creatives – McGill rolls his eyes – and the builders who must realise their “visions”. He speaks fluent Paddy, because everyone here will agree they never know what he’s going to suggest next – or, as McGill puts it: “Paddy is a year ahead of everyone else in his thoughts and his vision, so you have to try to keep up and understand what he wants. But it changes all the time.” A set of glazed doors haven’t passed muster; they’re heading back to Italy.

McKillen’s protracted battle through the courts against Nama and the Barclay brothers clearly still rankles. The legal battle for control of the London hotels is estimated to have cost upwards of £20 million, but he says he’s just happy to be able to move on with the hotels he loves dearly. Both Claridge’s and the Berkeley are undergoing extensive McKillen-style refurbishments (his work on The Connaught took two years and cost £70 million).

Today, though, he’s just excited about the latest venture at La Coste. “The amount of demand for the hotel is incredible. It took 10 years to get planning, we were so lucky. We reckon it’s the first newly built hotel in these parts of the Luberon in 100 years.”

La Coste acts like a foil to McKillen’s heaving global empire, and the complex legal and financial machinations driving it. Here there’s a sense of everything pared back to the essence of all that is important. Nature, family, productivity, creativity. And spirit.

Open daily 10am-7pm. Adults €15; Family €30 - chateau-la-coste.com

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