The Benkemoun Villa: an architectural rebirth

On 23 July 2019, by Dimitri Joannides

This iconic 1970s house, recently restored by the journalist couple Brigitte Benkemoun and Thierry Demaizière, will be reborn this summer during the Rencontres d'Arles.

 
© Serge Benkemoun

Built nearly fifty years ago by the architect Émile Sala (1913-1998) in the purest Seventies spirit, the Benkemoun Villa extends over a one-hectare estate at the gateway to Arles. The former Roman capital, mainly known as Van Gogh's inspiration, has established a glowing name in the French cultural landscape. Home to the Actes Sud publishing house (founded by the father of former Minister of Culture Françoise Nyssen) and the Luma Foundation designed by Frank Gehry, and a top-ranking archaeology centre, the little Provencal town has hosted one of the world's most important contemporary photography festivals every summer since 1970. And now this vibrant place includes an amazing villa on its list of attractions. Though Brigitte Benkemoun and Thierry Demaizière enable architecture and design lovers to experience the impressive 1970s interior in renting the villa by the week, the venue was first designed to host writers and artists in residence and exhibit their work in the adjoining gallery. For the opening week of the Rencontres d'Arles, the Benkemoun Villa gave a free hand to gallery owner Miranda Salt to stage photographs by Ellen Carey and Merry Alpern.
 

 
 © Serge Benkemoun

From Oran to Provence
Writer and journalist Brigitte Benkemoun looks back with great happiness on her years as a teenager spent in this house, which her parents built in the early 1970s. Simone and Pierre Benkemoun were not yet 30 when they left Algeria in 1962 with their children. They settled in Arles, somewhat by chance. When they arrived in France, the young father of the family worked tirelessly to buy a small bailiff's office, which he patiently developed to the point where it was one of the most respected in the region ten years on. When the couple finally had the means to build their house, they called on their friend Émile Sala. At the end of the 1960s, the Arles-born architect, by then nearly 60, had established himself in a line of organic architecture powerfully influenced by Le Corbusier. Here, his aim was to break with the classic codes of typical Provencal houses by adapting the building to its inhabitants' way of life. To quote Brigitte Benkemoun: "Sala did no drawings for a long time. He asked my parents to note down everything they could think of in terms of how they liked their daily lives to be, i.e. have large meals around the table, receive guests, put up friends, have the family to stay, and so on. After that he turned up with some plans. The lines were clean and there were right angles everywhere. So then my father started to round off the lines and create curves. Sala went away and worked on it further, and when he came back, he had the first sophisticated version of the current house, full of sensuality, on paper."
 

The Benkemoun Villa sitting room, with the chimney hood designed by Max Sauze.

The Benkemoun Villa sitting room, with the chimney hood designed by Max Sauze.© Serge Benkemoun

A film set
To make the project a thorough success, the architect called on interior designer Robert Heams, designer Max Sauze for the spectacular metal chrome-plated metal chimney hood, and ceramist Guy Bareff for the floors. "In 2017, when we started renovation work on the house after my parents died, Thierry and I decided to keep most of the furniture already there," says Brigitte Benkemoun. Although the interior had stayed mostly unchanged for nearly forty-five years, the couple had to hunt around for a few gems to recreate the original spirit of the place, like the sitting room armchairs designed by Geoffrey Harcourt. "We also restored the large Manhattan bed to its original orange," says the woman for whom the villa needs to remain a living space, not a museum frozen in an immutable layout. Meanwhile, the restoration work on the actual house was almost entirely overseen by Thierry Demaizière. Extending its generous curves over nearly 500 square metres of living space, this is a concrete masterpiece that also features a highly avant-gardist bioclimatic approach. The building turns its back to the north against the mistral, and features multiple patios, openings, solariums and roof terraces, creating sheltered areas for rest and socialising. A nod to the familiar pigeon lofts of Provencal landscapes, the round tower offers a marvellous view of the countryside from within, and from outside, a sight of the lively movement in the façade due to the "harmonious logic" sought by the architect. The villa echoes the Bank Villa built on the neighbouring plot, also designed by Émile Sala in the early 1970s. For its creator, this flawlessly homogeneous complex, which received the "remarkable contemporary architecture" label in 2012, was a totally new experimental laboratory.

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