Country houses for sale

How to restore a chateau

Behind an unobtrusive door in the boulevard Victor Hugo in the Provençal town of Saint-Rémy is an architectural practice that is so popular there is a waiting list for its services. Not only that: the substantial houses that Bruno Lafourcade and his son, Alexandre, restore are invariably resold for a premium (which can be double the original in the Côte d’Azur area), such is the fame of their work. Even more remarkably, the firm prides itself on its speed. A current project, which was begun by the firm last November, will be ready next month. At present, it is a building site, with about 50 to 80 workmen installing new window surrounds, hiding all the wiring and moving mature plane trees to create a symmetrical courtyard.

Attention to the surroundings is another unusual element in the Lafourcade practice: Bruno’s wife, Dominique, now designs the gardens for most of the projects. This includes their small domestic office in Saint-Rémy, which Bruno bought for its flourishing euonymus tree in an old courtyard. Dominique Lafourcade has converted this into a formal green haven, overlooked by most of the offices. Mme Lafourcade has had no formal training in garden design, but makes up for this with immense enthusiasm. Her style is distinctly French with Italian influences: there are formal axes and topiary in pots aligned with avenues of cypress trees. Straight rills of water or ponds with central fountains line up with the main entrances of the house.

Extraordinarily, it is unusual for architects and gardeners to work together as a team (Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll being the obvious example), yet the benefits are obvious. These splendid farmhouses, abbeys and châteaux, built in the soft limestone of the region, are meant to be surrounded by fine gardens and avenues of trees. The generous windows should always look out over vistas landscaped to integrate with the interior.

The Lafourcades, noted for their intense attention to detail, could hardly do otherwise. The office is full of samples of stone named by quarry, old mouldings that could be copied, and pieces of wood, such as smoked oak and sycamore for floors. One of the employees spends her time seeking salvaged fireplaces, terracotta tiles, wellheads and fountains.

When they first take on a project, says Claire Perraton, the architect-in-charge of the present building site, ‘Bruno takes a chair and a glass of wine, looks for the sun and considers what can happen to the building’. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that, in the Saint-Rémy offices, each project is remembered by an unopened, but relevant bottle of wine. Bruno adds: ‘You need to be a countryman, to know how local winds blow. You must listen to your clients like a doctor making a diagnosis. Do they have dogs? Do they need a music room?’ The plans are all drawn up by hand, not on computers.

The firm, founded in the 1970s, has undertaken some 300 projects at a rate of 10 to 15 a year, many with the same craftsmen. They are also major clients of a quarry at Les Baux de Provence, hidden among the wild herbs of the Alpilles, a small mountain range. This has been quarried discreetly from the inside, and resembles a huge cathedral built of honey-coloured limestone. It is the last one left in the area and has only 30 years of use remaining. ‘The stone tells you where to quarry it,’ says the manager, Pascal Bourgier, ‘and we cut to demand.’ The dust is then used for grouting.

The stone is too soft for floors, but the Lafourcades use it extensively for exterior windows, door surrounds and, at the finished project of l’Abbaye de Pierredon, for the pillars. ‘We distress the stone to make it look old,’ says Alexandre, adding, tantalisingly, that the recipe is secret. This was a huge project, with endless bedrooms, a temperature controlled wine cellar, and even a room for cutting ham.

The larder was designed around a set of antique wooden shelves. Behind the main façade of the abbey, which dates from the 13th century, the firm created an enfilade of rooms looking onto a south-facing terrace designed by Mme Lafourcade. The work is a classic example of how this family firm brings everything together into an idyllic whole.

Bruno and Alexandre Lafourcade, 10 boule-vard Victor Hugo, BP 75 13532 Saint-Remy Cedex, France (00 33 4 90 92 10 14; 00 33 4 90 92 49 72 (fax);

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