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AR Diary: From Menton to Nimes

Niall Hobhouse traverses the French Riviera, where signature architecture has come to die in the company of the displaced, bored and rich

Good Friday, two full days from Menton to Nimes; old friends, some great new enemies. Two observations: this is where signature architecture has come to die, in the company of the displaced, bored, rich. And, that buildings on the Riviera exist in a kind of parallel universe, where the main architectonic preoccupation has become precise orientation in relation to the Mediterranean. The two are somehow related − as though everything will be fine as long as a project presents well from the afterdeck of a private yacht. The tableau offered by Monaco (at least if approached by sea) is the perfect setpiece. Foster’s new Yacht Club assumes the form of an immense cruise ship parked up in the Port Hercule, under the shadow of Garnier’s Casino, itself in gasping style Napoléon III, completed long after the Emperor had died in exile. In Nîmes, the Maison Carrée may have been an equally questionable building type, but still it does transform the centre of a small provincial city with subtle detailing and contextual finesse. Thirty years on, that same language − now expressed in the specious flagstaffs and cascading decks of the Yacht Club − is staggering for the brazen symmetry of its presentational parti and its finished form. It succeeds, rather grimly, only in making Monaco a bit more like itself.

On the Riviera, too breezy and sun-drenched for irony to find anywhere to grow, really good architecture can survive only by passive aggression. Much of the mystique of the cabanon is its deep hostility to the neighbouring buildings, and to the opulent lives lived within them; that little shack really is hard to spot from out at sea. At this kind of snootiness, the Unité goes one better − set at a wilfully awkward angle to the Boulevard Michelet (parallel, of course, to the beach); a pure typological diagram, that describes (prescribes?) the life inside in the terms of monastic self-sufficiency or − come to think of it − of a cruise liner. I hadn’t noticed before that the roof parapet as built would have concealed views of all but the sky and hills (and the rear end of the absurd, ersatz-Garnier, Notre-Dame du Garde on the hill); all else that now projects above it has gone up in the last 60 years.

Architectural fetishisation has its odd pathologies, however. There is now just one real shop on the third floor street of the Unité − the rest are furniture design outlets and architects’ offices. And on my last visit, the enterprising hotelier who lets out apartments by the night, had gone from table to table at breakfast, banging down the cappuccinos in front of startled hipsters, muttering ‘fucking architects, fucking architects’. He is still there, and his clientele with him (or with Corb), but I couldn’t quite get him to do it over again to camera. His wife said cheerfully that her staff now know that two beds are needed: l’un pour l’architecte, l’autre pour son Ego. Back on the roof on the morning of Easter Saturday, a ‘secret’ group-yoga session to truly terrible music. Gentrification comes in many forms, but none weirder than this.

You cannot quite reach Château La Coste, 15 kilometres north of Aix, by boat; maybe best to switch to the helicopter? Twenty curious structures, designed by a roll call of practitioners, are laid out across an unpromising north-facing slope; each is specific to the site, and each fails pretty much to be any (or all) of sculpture, land art or architecture. They seem to be responses not to the place but to each other, their choice of location mostly the product of needing to remain hidden from the last in the sequence, or from the next; you might still have hoped that some sense of exploratory choice had remained the condition of good landscape design.

At La Coste we work with a checklist and a map, and the opportunity for casual dérive, or for surprise, is gone before we even begin to toil up the hill. Instead, we march briskly from Scully, to Emin, to Othoniel, to Ando, to Serra, to Goldsworthy − the work all off-key, as though each artist is embarrassed by having to appear as himself or herself at this celebrity cocktail party, but aware that it is important to be recognised in case somebody should think they haven’t been invited. If all this isn’t enough, descending through the vineyards (the best of the Land Art here, concrete and steel moulding itself to the slope) to the winery by Jean Nouvel, we pass Gehry’s Serpentine Pavilion, crash-landed in a field and for all the world looking as the Santa Casa must have looked on arrival at Loreto. Decon was never going to travel well; it fares no better here than the Prouvé prefab from the tropics, set absurdly − yes, a summerhouse! − in the vegetable garden of the chateau itself.

And so to Arles, to understand better how all this − and the world itself − will end. There, in a vast railway workshop owned by the Luma Foundation, eight rather unconvincing reproductions (‘models’) of Gehry buildings from around the world − each mounted on a trolley, pushed by an intern, and choreographed by Hans Ulrich Obrist − dance (until 26 October), to a requiem by Boulez. Says Maya Hoffmann, patron of Luma and of Gehry: ‘Frank’s free forms go so well with the Mediterranean spirit’. What was that about irony?


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