It is quite common to receive inspiration from the organic forms and beauty of nature, but self-taught French architect Jacques Couëlle took this inspiration one step further than most. His work on the Castellaras estate in Mouans-Sartoux, France blurs the line between nature, architecture, and sculptural art– hence the unique architectural style he is said to have initiated: Architecture-Sculpture.
Who is Jacques Couëlle?
Jacques Couëlle is a self-taught architect. Uncategorised, he remains on the margins of major movements in architecture and in particular the Modern Movement. In 1946 he founded “the Research Centre of natural structures”. Nicknamed “the architect of billionaires” he has made exceptional homes. The architecture of Jacques Couëlle, with its sculptural forms of concrete designed and carved, evokes the movement of architecture-sculpture born after the war.
The specificity of Couëlle’s architecture is its relationship to nature. His houses fit perfectly into their natural environment because they borrow their forms. They are “home-landscape”. This relationship with nature is associated with Antoni Gaudí’s organic architecture like the famous Park Güell (1900–1914) in Barcelona, where the paths carved into the slope as caves follow the contours of the land. An eccentric character, he was a friend of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. For his artistic merits, he was awarded the Legion of Honour at the French Academy. He worked together with his son Savin Jacques Couëlle (1929–2020).
For Couëlle, it was unthinkable to modify the land in order to build his home-landscapes. On the contrary, the different levels and curves of the façades follow the natural slope while the windows and doors are positioned in relationship to the surrounding landscape and the orientation of the sun. Born in Marseille, the architect did not draw up plans, but rather created plaster models directly that the workers were tasked with reproducing in real life. Rumour has it that he even asked his clients to visit the site before the works began to walk the future rooms and ensure the fluid movement from one to another before fixing the contours.
Jacques Couelle’s 10 Most Spectacular Interiors
1.Domaine de Castellaras, in Mouans-Sartoux
Only 5 clients were sufficiently visionary to commission a house from the architect, yet today their homes are considered extraordinary architectural manifestos
Completed in 1962, Couëlle designed five homes in this south-east French city using instinctive free forms that almost blended in with their landscapes. He achieved this harmony by adapting the design of the homes to the terrain, instead of the other way around. The natural slopes of the land dictated the different levels inside and the curves in the facades, while the sun dictated the locations of the windows and other openings. The rough white walls seem as if they were hewn from stone, and the irregular curved ceilings and arches create the sensation of living in a grotto or upscale cave. These organic shapes stood as a stark contrast to the angular modernism of the time, as Couëlle believed right angles and harsh lines “provoked human anxiety”.
Inside, curved ceilings, arches and an open fireplace have been left purposefully irregular, and are contrasted by details also designed by the self-taught architect – including a bronze mural that conceals doors to the kitchen and cellar. A deep-set porthole-style window offers views across the nearby bay, while other windows are set behind clefts in the house’s exterior, or feature decorative geometric steel coverings.
He also had a unique step in his process, which he called Tristan’s test. He would cover the ground with sand, roughly sketch the outlines of the main spaces, and ask his clients to come mimic their daily lives. He then used the depths of the steps in the sand as a guideline to create the volumes of the spaces, according to their various levels and frequency of interaction. Typically, the living room served as a starting point around which the other rooms would unfold. The picture below serves as a perfect example, with the large central fireplace serving as the focal point around which the rest of the space flows. Couëlle used an eclectic combination of stone, terra cotta, ceramics, wood, glass, iron, and copper as his materials and finishes. He incorporated touches of color in a beautiful thick stained glass window and a room with harlequin-style tiled floors. The window coverings and other areas incorporated decorative creations made of iron and steel.
2. Villa Goupil in Chevreuse
Chevreuse. North of France, 40km from the dynamic and lively Paris. It was here that we discovered an oasis of escape that seems almost purpose built for relaxation and reflection. Villa Goupil was designed and built in the late 1960’s, with the World Fair theme of ‘World of Tomorrow’ echoing in the minds of designers worldwide. Leading to futuristic and almost ethereal design choices, the property is the brainchild of Jacques Couëlle, a self taught architect who rebelled against the modernist movement’s rigid and mechanical forms. The house was almost one with nature. The carved, curving concrete exterior borrows its shape and form from the surrounding forest, with a movement and fluidity that defies and contradicts the nature of the materials.
It is a surreal place, but of course, this was expected of an architect who was close friends with Picasso and Dali! It is as if you are walking through a fairytale or the set of a movie, it almost didn’t feel real. Looking outwards, you are met with the view of lush forest and further onwards, a divine vista of quaint and quintessential French village life as far as the eye can see.The immersion in nature and the unobtrusive architecture and design leads to an all encompassing tranquility. Its deep serenity makes for the quintessential setting for some serious introspection and thought, ideal for overcoming any form of writer’s or imagination block. With a lack of distraction from the outside world, it makes anyone want to fully immerse themselves in the moment. To stop. Take it all in for a slight moment. Above everything, this property brings to the table all of the style and practicality of classic mid-century architecture. The design choices have been carefully curated to provide aesthetically pleasing features without sacrificing any of the creature comforts that you would expect of modern European luxury.
The swimming pool is the central ‘organ’ to this house. From both floors it takes precedence, and can be experienced through the glass windows. Working in autonomy with its surroundings, his designs hinted at fluidity and movement, contradictory to the nature of the materials he worked with. While his work always serviced the imagination, it was at times regarded as rudimentary by critics of the time who likened them to caveman-like designs – despite the billionaire backers who invested in them.
3. Hotel Cala di Volpe (1962) in Sardinia
The scenic Cala di Volpe bay is located in the north of Sardinia. It’s part of the Costa Smeralda, AKA Emerald Coast, famous for its white-sand beaches, exclusive hotels, and ability to attract celebrities and other affluent visitors. The place is so special that The Spy Who Loved Me, a James Bond film, used this resort town for some of its scenes. Hotel Cala di Volpe is the town’s landmark, the famous French architect Jacques Couëlle’s work. His architectural movement focused on the importance of blending in with nature and sculptural forms of carved concrete surfaces. Thanks to his brilliant work, Hotel Cala di Volpe has been open to guests since 1962.
In March of 1962 a group of Sardinian landowners including the Aga Khan formed the Consorzio Costa Smeralda, with the objective to carefully develop a tourism infrastructure on the island. Throughout the 1960s The Cala di Volpe became he new hub for high society during the summer months. Then, in the 1990s The Aga Khan’s Italian company Fimbar was in deep financial trouble. He had to give up the control of CIGA and its hotels in six countries, which also included the hotels along the Costa Smeralda. By 1994 Sheraton took over the Cala di Volpe. Evetually the American real estate kings Starwood would venture into tourism and buy the whole lot.
The cave-like interiors feature curvy walls in white-washed and terracotta color palettes. The friendly Mediterranean style creates a laid-back atmosphere, complementing the secluded town’s unique feel. The rooms and suites were cautiously upgraded by Bruno Moinard with the utmost respect to Jacques Couëlle’s original works. The rooms and suites have thoughtful natural decorations like Sardinian baskets and wooden canopies. Some are equipped with freestanding bathtubs overlooking the bay. Of course, the most luxurious is the Penthouse Suite, with its own rooftop terrace with a pool. What’s more, it also has a steam room, fitness room, hot tub, and uniquely made furniture.
Hotel Cala di Volpe offers a culinary journey through its various restaurants and bars, ranging from Mediterranean flavors at the Barbecue Restaurant to Japanese cuisine at Matsuhisa at Cala di Volpe. The spa is the signature work of the Japanese brand Shiseido offering treatments inspired by the fusion of Eastern traditions and philosophies and Western science and technology. The unique Spa Journey features Kuroho, a rare fragrance of the Japanese aristocracy from the 9th century. Step outside, and you’ll find the hotel’s Olympic size pool, one of the largest in Europe, filled with seawater. If you are looking for relaxation in a serene place, a 5-minute boat ride will get you to a private beach with perfect white sands and turquoise waters.
Bruno Moinard and Claire Bétaille, experienced in the art of the revival of prestigious hotels (Plaza Athénée in Paris, Four Seasons Trinity Square in London, Eden in Rome), have cast their singular gaze on this habitable work of art that needed to be rethought and relit, while respecting the original creative action of Couëlle.
After four years of work, the mythical Cala di Volpe hotel, on the Costa Smeralda, in Sardinia, welcomes its visitors with more brilliance than ever. It is the symbol of the creative genius of Jacques Couëlle, the great architect who invented the ‘sculpture-houses’, which appear raw and buried in their environment but are extremely refined in form. Intimately associating nature and simple luxury, it perfectly corresponds to our time and its aspirations. They wanted to keep the soul of the place intact, and loved adapting to the empire of materials reigning supreme here: the powerfully sculpted plaster which reserves havens of freshness, the barely civilsed wood which punctuates the structures and visual effect, the thick glass in colour compositions that filters the unique light of the bay, the warm silky terracotta underfoot, the skilfully reinvented fabrics. The furniture, for the most part, was custom-designed and often mobilised local know-how.
4. The Standing Stones House, Louveciennes, France
LOCATED 30 MINUTES FROM THE center of Paris, this house is in an area that was once the hunding ground of French kings. The home was given the name – les pierres levées– which translates roughly as ‘Standing Stones’ and is known for its scultpural forms of concrete, evoking an outsider movement of architecture and sculpture born after the second World War. Jacques Couëlle sought to integrate his architecture in the landscape thus giving this home its organic modern exterior, though the interiors are decidedly more traditional.
5. Villa Oxygen, Cannes
On the hillside of Super-Cannes, with a magnificent sea view is the deluxe Villa Oxygene on the French Riviera. A ten-minute drive from the excitement and glamour of classic Riviera resort centers such as Cannes and Antibes, Villa Oxygene offers a true retreat, inviting guests to a quieter environment. Designed by a renowned French architect, Jacques Couëlle, the Villa was built with privileged luxury in mind, and offers its residents the absolute best of everything.
Just ten minutes from the beach and 30 minutes from Nice, the two-story house features a spacious reception room, a large living room that opens onto an outdoor terrace, and a modern kitchen. Five bedrooms, including the master suite, complete the living quarters. The spacious pool deck offers breathtaking views of the Mediterranean Sea, and a large garden provides room to roam under clear blue skies.
6. Dragon Hill, Cannes
Authentic sculpted architecture, or architecture of instinct, this magnificent achievement from 1962, classified as a 20th Century Heritage, is one of the five “landscape houses” by architect Jacques Couëlle, an exceptional example of the movement of architecture-sculpture, acclaiming forms organic and rounded, inspired and integrated perfectly into nature, in opposition to the “right angles” of the modern movement of the time.
Located in a unique private and secure domain on the heights of Cannes, it enjoys absolute calm and an unobstructed view of the bay of Napoule and the Estérel massif.
Developing a living area of 300 m², on a landscaped plot of 5000 m², the neutral base of the shuttering and sprayed concrete frame was an ideal “playground” to give free rein to the creation of artist craftsmen to create such a varied composition. that incredible form and raw materials. Raw stone in warm and varied colors as well as marble for the floors, ceramics, iron and glass for the walls, wood and glass for the doors, copper to dress the facade details. The spaces, mostly on one level, develop like a star around the magnificent patio: the bright living room communicating with lush nature through large openings is complemented by an intimate and colorful reading room. On the opposite side, the kitchen as well as three bedrooms with their uniquely original bathrooms and a laundry room complete the ground floor. The first floor is accessed by two internal staircases adorned with colored terracotta tiles and illuminated by the glass pavers in primary colors so characteristic of the architect’s works. The large upstairs entrance gives symmetrical access to two bedrooms each with bathroom and access to the roof terrace with spectacular views of the landscape and other surrounding landscaped houses. The outdoor spaces are characterized by the view of nature and the varied shapes of the house, by various terraces and clearances offering varied living spaces ending in the east on the swimming pool without vis-à-vis and the large contemplating park. the distant view of the Cannes region and the sea.
A large carport and various parking lots complete this extraordinary work. 5 minutes from shops, 10 minutes from Cannes, 40 minutes from Nice international airport.
Who was Savin Couelle?
Following in the footsteps of his illustrious father, the architect Jacques Couelle, Savin Couelle cultivated from the 1960s the same harmonious relationship with nature, the same organic approach. If Savin Couelle was born in France, in Aix-en-Provence, it was in Italy that he decided to spend his life, and more precisely in Sardinia, an island he fell in love with. After studying architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Savin Couelle moved to Madrid where he assisted the decorator Georges Wakhévitch on numerous shoots. He worked for seven years as a decorator for the cinema until his father, the architect Jacques Couelle, called on him in the early 1960s to help build the Cala di Volpe hotel on the Costa Smeralda. This project made him decide to settle in Porto Cervo and marked the beginning of a long collaboration between the two men who were to design a multitude of villas along the Sardinian coast designed to blend perfectly into the environment, according to the principles of organic architecture. Over the years, Savin Couelle assembled a team of handpicked craftsmen whom he trained himself, and who unfailingly accompanied him on each project.
Far from seeking to domesticate nature, Couelle preferred to follow its contours. For this, he favoured above all natural and local materials such as stone or wood, and eliminated lines and angles in favour of curves. He very much followed in the footsteps of his father, yet also clearly brought his own unique touch to his creations.
What is Architectural Sculpture?
Architectural sculpture is the use of sculptural techniques by an architect and/or sculptor in the design of a building, bridge, mausoleum or other such project. The sculpture is usually integrated with the structure, but freestanding works that are part of the original design are also considered to be architectural sculpture. The concept overlaps with, or is a subset of, monumental sculpture. Architectural Sculpture dates back to ancient times. Modern understanding of ancient Egyptian architecture is based mainly on the religious monuments that have survived since antiquity, which are carved stone with post and lintel construction. These religious monuments dedicated to the gods or pharaohs were designed with a great deal of architectural sculpture inside and out: engaged statues, carved columns and pillars, and wall surfaces carved with bas-reliefs. The classic examples of Egyptian colossal monuments (the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Abu Simbel temples, the Karnak Temple Complex, etc.) represent thoroughly integrated combinations of architecture and sculpture.
Then, Classical Greek architecture, like the prototypical Parthenon, incorporate architectural sculpture in a fairly narrow set of standard, formal building elements. The names of these elements still comprise the usual vocabulary for discussion: the pediment, metope, frieze, caryatid, quadriga, acroteria, etc. Greek examples of architectural sculpture are distinguished not only by their age but their very high quality and skilful technique, with rhythmic and dynamic modelling, figural compositions in friezes that continue seamlessly over vertical joints from one block of stone to the next, and mastery of depth and legibility.
Not until about 1870 did the U.S. develop the talent, the economic power, and the taste for buildings grand enough to need architectural sculpture. The Philadelphia City Hall, constructed 1871 through 1901, is recognized as the turning point, because of the approximately 250 sculptures planned for the building, the large finial of William Penn, and the practical effect of Alexander Milne Calder training many assistants there. In the same years, H.H. Richardson began to develop his influential signature genre, which included romantic, medieval, and Romanesque stone carving. Richard Morris Hunt became the first to bring the Parisian neo-classical École des Beaux-Arts style back to the United States, a style that depended on integrated figural sculpture and a highly ornamented building fabric for its aesthetic effect. The Beaux-Arts style dominated for major public buildings between the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, through about 1912, the year of the San Francisco City Hall. The need for sculptors saw the emergence of a small industry of carvers and modelers, and a professional organization, the National Sculpture Society.
While Couelle’s architecture is certainly sculptural, it doesn’t neatly fit in any one category. I myself see it as very much aesthetically part of the organic architecture movement, but in some ways it was also before its time. Couelle integrates architecture with sculpture in a fluid and seamless way that is quite rare. While Couëlle’s architecture-sculpture had many critics during its time, his works are now labeled as a Heritage of the 20th Century. In 1998, architect André Wogenscky perfectly described the unique beauty of Couëlle’s work: “The architecture of Jacques Couëlle is a celebration of the earth. In the evening, when the day slowly slides out of our eyes and escapes, the houses of Jacques Couëlle enter the earth again to be confused with it. And each morning when the sky lights up, they seem to emerge from the ground and be reborn, like a daily fertilization of the earth. “