The architect François Valentiny works not only in the Moselle, but also in Austria and even China, travelling there every three weeks. He is also absolutely passionate about wine and has a Gewurztraminer vineyard in the hills above his village of Remerschen.
You have put up buildings across the whole of Europe and in Asia… but when it comes down to it you’re Moselle born and bred!
François Valentiny: With the midwife’s help, I was born in our family home in Remerschen. But by then things had improved: in 1900, my grandmother on my father’s side was born amongst the vines, and my great grandmother went off to work and came back home with a baby!
Did your family own any vines?
We were coopers and carpenters. And like all the families around here, we had a few plots. I’ve kept one, but I don’t make wine from it myself. The quality of wine made in Luxembourg has become so high, that you can’t make it any longer as an amateur – which is how it should be!
If you live in the Moselle and you don’t have any vines, you’re not really entitled to give your opinion!
Can you tell us about this vineyard?
I have 400 square metres of Gewurztraminer on the Kräizbierg, a wonderful Remerschen terroir. It’s nothing much, but it’s enough to be able to talk wine with a winemaker. Because if you live in the Moselle and you don’t have any vines, you’re not really entitled to give your opinion!
Who takes care of the winemaking?
At the start my neighbour Yves Sunnen did it [Domaine Sunnen-Hoffmann]. However, it became impossible as the vineyard is in a zone where helicopters spray [Yves Sunnen uses organic methods]. So now it’s Henri Ruppert who looks after my vines [Domaine Henri Ruppert in Schengen].
And you designed Ruppert’s cellar, a building that has become one of the landmarks in Schengen.
That was an adventure! With his talent, Menni [Henri Ruppert’s nickname] reached the point when he could no longer continue making his wines in his father’s garage (see Vinorama no 2, www.vinorama.lu). Since there was no space in the village, we built on the Markusberg. The idea was to make the cellar emerge from the hillside, by planting a green roof. Menni doesn’t want to do this, but I remind him about it every time I see him! The structure is at odds with its environment, so it would be good if it could become more a part of it. The colour blends with the cliff side just below because we took stones from there, ground them up and mixed them into the white cement which covers the building. All that’s missing now is the vegetation…
Previously, you had designed the cellars for the Cep d’Or estate in Hëttermillen.
Since then it has been altered and I’m not very happy with what was done afterwards. The idea that determines a construction is important and if it is developed properly, it becomes very profound. As with painting, the more layers you have, the more depth you get. In architecture, what’s important is not the immediate image but the fact that it is going to last. And to achieve this, you have to add a second, a third layer. This extra layer is the vegetation and here again it hasn’t been given the importance it should have. That said, building this cellar was still a great step forward. At the time, the approach taken was very innovative.
So in your eyes this idea of integrating buildings into the landscape is vital.
Absolutely. There was a reason why poplar trees were planted in the Moselle Valley. In the 19th century, especially in Germany, people were aiming to create landscapes that looked like Italy, our cradle of culture, the reference point for the arts. Tuscan landscapes formed part of this philosophy. The poplars in the Moselle were planted to make people think of Italy, the cypress trees at Menni’s too. These trees can grow here thanks to the Moselle’s microclimate. Vegetation does not hide the architecture, it’s an important component. Those towns and villages which are harmonious are the ones where you can see that they successfully embrace their environment. Since you have to destroy nature before you start building, you have to give something extra back to the environment as you construct. Having destroyed the harmony, you have to put it right again.
You’re also working on the new Wine Museum in Ehnen.
Yes, but I don’t want to talk about that.
There’s a growing trend for great architects to design prestigious wine estates the world over… What are your thoughts on the worlds of wine and architecture coming together?
It’s what you’d expect and that’s how it has always been. Even the Vinsmoselle cooperative wineries have a very clear and defined look. These buildings were born of their time [the 1920s and 1930s]. Next to the church, the cooperative winery was the most important building in the village. That has changed, and from my point of view, this is perhaps a shame for both. It makes sense that a wine producer should use their premises and their space to make a statement about who they are. However, care needs to be taken: if you want the idea of the wine to find expression in your building, you have to be purist in the architecture. It has to be in symbiosis with the wine. If there is any disharmony in the building, people might well think that it’s there too in the wine. This is why, renowned producers invest a great deal of money: it isn’t superficial, there’s great depth.
Would you like to design the cellars for a leading producer?
Of course, it would be a great challenge! Both cellars that I’ve built in the Grand Duchy were for new estates, new names. To build something when there’s already a significant heritage, that’s something else. I did the Haus für Mozart in Salzburg, a very long-established institution in an ancient city: there everything was already determined, you can’t change everything. As the centuries have gone by the template has been laid down. There are codes and they have to be followed even if you reinterpret them. It’s exciting to understand the spirit of the place.
How do you define the spirit of a place?
By its harmony. Good architecture has to be harmonious. Some people prefer contrasts, but not me. Defining harmony is simple – it’s materials, colours and light. Imagine the outline of a village when the light falls upon it, everything reflects the same information even if the shapes are different. Construction guidelines, which have been drawn up to create harmony, are daft. You create a shape that looks like an old shed or an old winemaker’s house but then you add aluminium shutters and windows everywhere, but no slates on the roof and so you end up with something that is in profound disharmony with the place – even if its shape is like the other shapes. As far as I’m concerned, in a rural environment shape isn’t actually important. You can have different shapes; however, the materials have to be in harmony with the place.
Care needs to be taken: if you want the idea of your wine to find expression in your building, you have to be purist in the architecture
And for you what is the Moselle’s spirit like?
If you were to put this question to winemakers or architects, many of them would struggle to give you an answer. This approach is not fashionable. There’s a preference for expressive shapes which have no connection with the spirit of the place. The Moselle has been developing since the Romans came to made wine here and drank it here. We still have traces of this: church towers, the walls in terraced vineyards, the plantations and so on. This Tuscan aspect has lasted for centuries. It was only when new materials made an appearance that the heterogeneity we currently have became commonplace. Before that, the technical possibilities were limited. It was very expensive to build a vaulted roof or to work with stone. People worked on a smaller scale sticking to beams that would have come from a single tree. It wasn’t possible to cover a space spanning more than five, six or seven metres.
Your work, like that of winemakers, has a long-term perspective. When winegrowers plant a vineyard, it’s for their children. Your buildings also create an environment in which future generations will live. Nowadays this relationship with time is no longer so common.
I’m lucky to have a friend, Jean-Bernard Métais, who is a winemaker and artist living in France near Le Mans [in the Loire Region]. Since the 14th century, it has been the tradition in this winemaking family not to drink your own wine. You make it, you put it away in the cellar and you then enjoy the wine made by your father and grandfather. Yesterday [mid-May], Jean-Bernard explained to me that he was getting ready to bury his excellent 2018 vintage in the ground, in the tufa stone. In the same vein, Colbert – who was minister under Louis XIV – had a forest of oak trees planted in the same area that were to be turned into masts for Royal Navy boats in… 2011! So you find, side by side, mouth-watering 200- or 300-year-old wines and ramrod straight oak trees thirty metres high which are growing thanks to the work that has been carried out over the centuries: we’re getting into another dimension here! Technical developments have shaken everything up. Today it’s “now and immediately”. So I’m very happy to have clients who see things differently!
Something else you share: you’re creators. However, this imagination has to be founded on a very dense knowledge base. Your creations will only be successful if you have managed to assimilate all this information.
You’re right. Whether you’re a winemaker, a baker, a carpenter, a musician or an architect… first of all these are professions, but if done well they can turn into art. However, mastering your trade takes time. You have to learn and keep on learning and never stop learning. Very young artists do produce masterpieces and I go along with the idea that everything has been thought of before the age of 22 or 23. It’s just that at such an early age you’re not always able to bring your great ideas to life. In my line of work, you need time to get to understand all the individual professions. An architect is a conductor and when you can play with the talent of professionals, that’s when the magic happens! I see a difference between Asia and Europe: in Asia I get asked to do the design, not the architecture. But for me, the design is superficial, whereas the architecture has to be a project before it becomes a shape.
Drinking water with lunch or dinner just doesn’t work
Let’s get back to wine. Do you have your own cellar?
No (he laughs). I live in my grandparents’ house and they didn’t have one because they weren’t winemakers. However, I don’t really need one as Yves Sunnen is my neighbour and I’ve got other friends who make wine!
And do you enjoy wine?
Yes, of course, I always drink wine when I eat. For me, wine is connected to food. In the same way, drinking water when you eat lunch or dinner just doesn’t work.
What do you like?
I like wines when you’re aware of their terroir. I like to feel the rock and mineral quality, but that doesn’t mean the wine should be too hard either. There are different ways for mineral quality to find expression and the wines produced on Luxembourg Moselle limestone are not the same as wine from the German Moselle schists. I enjoy wines when you can feel the schist, for example, Rieslings from the Danube. And when they have been well made, Gewurztraminers are wines that make you feel happy. I can drink Gewurztraminer throughout a whole meal.
So far you’ve only mentioned white wines, do you also drink reds?
I like red wines that fill your mouth. Pinot Noirs are not really my thing, I go more for Bordeaux. You can drink Bordeaux right through an evening, which isn’t the case with Italian wines which are denser and heavier. I went to university in Vienna, and my professor, who is now 88 and never leaves a bottle unfinished, would say to me at each party: “You should drink a Korrekturwein.” After drinking red wine for four or five hours, he would recommend drinking a glass of white before going back to the reds! At the start I was very naïve and I thought that this “Korrekturwein” really did exist!