From time to time, you see something that makes you reconsider some of the decisions you’ve made in life, and a recent visit to the SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) Campus at Lacoste, was one of those moments.
It was the first stop on our day with the local Tourist Board, and although I had heard of SCAD, seen its signs and shop in Lacoste, and watched the recent new building being constructed below the village, I really didn’t know any more about it. I suppose, if pushed, I would have said it was a place people could come and paint, but it would have been a guess, and in fact, it couldn’t have been much further from the truth.
The fact is, that it is probably the most beautiful ‘campus’ I have ever seen, a far cry from the modern blocks and occasional concrete jungles of the University Campuses I have visited in the UK, and although I’m sure some will disagree, I think it is even more beautiful than Oxford, with its dreaming spires. Although of course, I am rather biased in favour of Provence!
When I was at school, I went to an all-girls’ Grammar School and I have to admit to being rather disinterested in art and design, which (looking back on it now) was a big mistake, although my art teacher would probably disagree. Perhaps if we had been encouraged to do metal-work, I would have taken a different path much earlier in life, but when I was at school, that was for the ‘boys’ and as we were effectively a small, provincial version of ‘Saint Trinians’, metal-work was just not on the curriculum. So, after leaving school, I ended up in a job that was about as rigid in structure and design as it is possible to be, and looking back now, I really was a round peg in a very square hole.
Just walking around SCAD and listening to the director Cedric Maros, talk about its ethos and work, I got a tingle of excitement. This is not a retreat for people to come and paint, but a structured University Campus, that hosts students to develop their creative skills in a business context, and just looking at the facilities and hearing about the work that takes place there, got my creative mind buzzing.
It’s far too late for me to look at anything like this now, but it’s lovely to hear about what it offers and to know that young creative, talented students can take advantage of this little place in Provence.
I suppose I had no concept, that a significant part of the village is all included within the SCAD campus, with the pretty, Rue Des Artistes at its heart.
Our day started though, in the peaceful setting of La Maison Basse, which nestles in a little combe just below the village, and has incredible views in every direction. This beautiful, ancient building provides student accommodation and teaching facilities, and has been designed to ensure the best possible facilities for those who come to study here.
The Maison Basse has a wonderful history, having been effectively on the border between Bonnieux and Lacoste. I have always looked at the villages, facing each other with the wide, sweeping valley between them, and wondered what the relationship had been between them in more feudal times, as I can imagine from the way they have been built that they haven’t always been the best of friends. It turns out that my distracted imaginings, weren’t that far from the truth.
In fact the two villages couldn’t have been more different, with Bonnieux sitting within the Papal lands of the old Comtat de Venaissin, whilst Lacoste was held by the Protestants, and was later the home to the Marquis De Sade, who used the chateau regularly in the late 18th century, just before the French Revolution, when it was largely destroyed.
The Maison Basse itself has traces of Roman construction, which isn’t surprising, bearing in mind its proximity to the Pont Julien on the Via Domitia, and Apt, which was such a dominant Roman city. The hidden Roman History of Apt
As with so many buildings though, it has changed and shifted use over the years. In the sixteenth century it was developed as a large traditional farm, with its ancient hayloft and bread oven; then as a Silk farm, with vast platforms lined with Mulberry leaves to feed to voracious appetite of the silk-worms as they produced their valuable cocoons.
Then when the Marquis de Sade was in residence in Lacoste, it became the coaching house, hostellery, and illegal gambling den, which I can only imagine, would have infuriated the sensitivities of neighbouring Catholic Bonnieux.
Now though, it is a calm and exquisitely beautiful space, that has been restored with incredible degree of consideration to its past lives. The ‘patrimoine’ and history of the building has been respected and highlighted wherever possible. The holes that held the Mulberry leaf platforms, have been kept as a feature of the rooms…
Old stone features, including sinks and wall alcoves have been retained and incorporated in the renovation…
And the whole building has a real sense of honesty, which is so refreshing to see, as all too often original features are just ripped out, or hidden away…
The student accommodation here is elegant and comfortable and the bedrooms have views that would grace any lifestyle magazine, and which looked particularly picture-perfect on the day we visited, with the vibrant autumn colours against a cobalt blue sky.
Even the teaching spaces are inspiring, a far cry from some of the college classrooms I have spent time in before…
Outside too, the gardens are beautifully kept, offering delighful views up to the village and across the wider Luberon, with the mist hanging in the trees on its flanks.
What was lovely to hear was that the building will be able to start hosting events again next year, with a number of plans in the pipeline, which will give the wider community yet more opportunity to visit and enjoy this stunning space.
From here we headed up into the village, and this was when I learned that a considerable number of the buildings are owned by SCAD, and actually form part of the campus.
The Rue Des Artistes is home to a number of studios, which are used as exhibition space and to display work for sale. What is lovely, again, is the effort that has been made to restore these buildings, making the most of the original stone and fabric of the houses, even showing how they would have been used.
One has been laid out as the home of ‘Pascal’, a baker and painter, with the kitchen equipped as it would have been in 1856, copper pans hanging in the fireplace and old glazed jars on the shelves…
But also has the wonderfully named Cave des Cochons, ‘Pig Cave’ that is built into the rock behind, complete with a family of pigs…
The old village boulangerie with its beautiful ‘ghosted’ painted sign has also been beautifully restored too, now holding a library…
The original domed bread oven still sits in the centre of the building and is home to comfortable chairs, acting as an access to another room.
It would have been very easy for the heart to have been ripped out of these beautiful old buildings, but the opposite is the case, and the work that has been done has both sympathetically restored, and at the same time enhanced the heart of the village.
The Rue Des Artistes is also home to SCAD’s shop, selling a beautiful selection of work created by students and alumni of the college too – from paintings, to jewellery, ceramics and textiles, again all hosted in an elegantly restored space, which was all far too tempting..
The visit made me realise that Lacoste is so much more than just a pretty village, which has become one of our latest ‘sitting-spots’ thanks to the incredible views…
I’m sure I would never have been talented enough to study somewhere like this, but even visiting without students on site, it had a buzz about it, and a creative spirit echoing around the empty studios and lecture rooms in Maison Basse.
The focus on the importance of the local culture and heritage is evident, but there is equally a sharp focus on the future and an investment in young people, which is just so delightful to see.
As I mentioned at the start, sometimes things just make you think, and knowing and understanding a little more about SCAD now, I will certainly be keeping an eye out for its events and exhibits in the future.
There certainly is more to Lacoste than meets the eye!