In the spring of 2020, when the whole world suddenly came to a halt, city dwellers began concocting all kinds of escape fantasies. Some imagined moving to a rural area and becoming sustainable farmers; a number nursed long-dormant artistic ambitions; still others devised plans for new tech ventures, with visions of blockchains dancing in their heads.
But one Parisian couple, Victoire de Pourtalès and Benjamin Eymère, dreamed up a project that combined all three of these scenarios, plus a few more. Their bold new venture, as Eymère explains while steering his Citroen Ami electric buggy toward their hemp field in the French countryside, is a kind of highbrow ecological amusement park: “an open-sky R&D laboratory” that links art, nature and science.
It helps that the couple’s new base of operations is Le Château du Marais, a magnificent 980-acre estate in the French countryside that’s been in de Pourtalès’s family for generations—and that gives their enterprise, 91.530 Le Marais, its name (the number is courtesy of the local zip code). De Pourtalès grew up in its extraordinary Louis XVI-era château, encircled by a moat. But for her and Eymère, the main draws of the place are the forests and fields that surround it. And although wheat has always been the area’s chief crop, hemp got the couple’s attention for its potential as a sustainable super-plant: It requires no pesticides, grows quickly and can be used to make eco-friendly alternatives to pretty much anything, from construction materials to face creams. It’s biodegradable, of course, and because the entire plant can be used in various ways, there’s almost zero waste. They harvested their first crop in September. (Like marijuana, hemp is a cannabis, but its cultivation is not restricted since it contains minimal amounts of the psychoactive compound THC.)
To those who knew the couple well during their previous lives at the heart of the Paris cultural scene, their new roles are only mildly surprising. Granted, they weren’t exactly farmer types: de Pourtalès cofounded VNH Gallery and was a director of David Zwirner’s Paris space until 2020, while Eymère is CEO of L’Officiel Inc., the international magazine group, and cofounder of the blended-sake brand Heavensake. But they and their two young sons have always spent weekends at the château, an hour south of the city. De Pourtalès’s father was an avid naturalist and homeopath who treated her childhood sniffles with potions made from herbs he gathered in the woods. She still likes to take invigorating dips in the moat.
Whenever they’re in work mode, both de Pourtalès and Eymère tend to think big. One of their early moves was hiring Kulapat Yantrasast, the Bangkok-born, Los Angeles– and New York–based architect who’s a favorite in the art world, to devise a plan for an outdoor arena adjacent to the hemp fields. Built primarily of wood and “greencrete”—a hemp-based answer to concrete—and surrounded by a newly planted bamboo forest, with two soaring portals at the entrance, the space will host cultural and community events, and maybe the occasional fashion show, after it’s completed next year. “You can do concerts, art shows, festivals, farmers markets, anything,” says Yantrasast. A former disciple of the Japanese architect and concrete master Tadao Ando, Yantrasast is gung-ho about hemp’s promise as a green building material. “Concrete is great, but it has its limitations,” he says. “It’s not recyclable. And hempcrete is much more porous, so it’s better at absorbing heat and sounds.”
Part of what drew Yantrasast to the project was de Pourtalès and Eymère’s innovative approach to keeping the château’s history alive. Grand ancestral properties, Yantrasast points out, have a way of becoming money pits, and aristocratic families often fumble in their attempts to keep them going: “How do you sustain the glory of the past while bringing something new to it?”
The answer for de Pourtalès includes a year-round arts-and-culture program, which she sees as a natural extension of the estate’s terroir. The château has been a haven for artists and writers since the early 19th century, when memoirist Madame de la Briche hosted a well-known literary salon here and intellectuals such as François-René de Chateaubriand were frequent long-term guests. De Pourtalès’s great-grandmother, American-born heiress Anna Gould, continued the tradition after moving in in 1897 following her marriage to Count Boniface de Castellane. Today, de Pourtalès says, more and more artists are feeling a primal urge to live amid nature while using it as inspiration. Meanwhile, the Paris contemporary-art scene keeps gaining prominence worldwide, which is “great for the galleries and for the city—but sometimes we forget about the artists,” who don’t always have good spaces to create.
In 2019, de Pourtalès began a residency program, hosting artists in some of the estate’s outbuildings. Last year, young French painter John Fou spent two months prepping an equestrian series that he exhibited in the form of a conceptual merry-go-round, inspired by the property’s 100-odd horses, with all the canvases positioned in a circle and facing inward. In October, Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt displayed a large piece of fabric that she’d buried on site for three months, part of her ongoing explorations of the mutability of everyday objects. Later this year, alongside a creek next to the arena, construction will begin on a village of at least two dozen “artist stables”—small studio dwellings, also made of greencrete and designed by Yantrasast. They’ll be available for overnight stays to all kinds of visitors, including school groups and nature-starved weekenders, as well as artists, musicians, architects and writers hungering for what de Pourtalès describes as a “creative community.”
On the technological front, the couple have turned to the latest science to reimagine the old-school agrarian château model. Although the French countryside is dotted with picturesque farm plots, many outsiders don’t realize that the agricultural system here was industrialized decades ago. Eymère and de Pourtalès are looking to reestablish a more holistic, more sustainable connection between grower and land through the use of precision farming methods, which aim to increase productivity while reducing the environmental impact. A Russian company called Acron created a custom fertilizer for the hemp field’s clay-rich soil. Digital monitoring devices installed atop the portals of the arena will gather climate data that can be shared with neighboring farms. And instead of just selling the crop at harvest time, the pair are heavily involved in developing the products that will contain their hemp, partnering with established small-scale manufacturers. In addition to the greencrete, they’re working on textiles and yarns, as well as natural oils for beauty products. A blockchain system will allow full traceability, “from the seedling all the way to the final material,” Eymère says.
“Bringing tech to the rural environment is a good business proposition, but it’s also a good artistic proposition,” he adds. “We are seeing more artists working with scientists.” The château’s inaugural art exhibit last summer, Phytocene, was the brainchild of two musicians and a biophysicist. After placing probes in the hemp field to track the intricate ways that individual plants communicate with one another, the artists turned the data into a video-and-sound piece and projected it on a giant wall in one of the estate’s stunning old granaries. At the time of writing, the couple are still planning the 2022 calendar, but already on the lineup is a dual residency by the young artists Bianca Bondi and Guillaume Bouisset, who intend to collaborate on an “alchemic installation” in the granaries involving halo-bacteria, minerals and crystals.
Like more and more French people their age and younger, de Pourtalès and Eymère, both 40, possess an entrepreneurial instinct that runs counter to the rigid and retrograde stereotypes that have often plagued their countrymen (particularly the ones who live in castles). Eymère has a law degree from NYU, and de Pourtalès has organized art exhibits on multiple continents; their social circle skews predominantly creative and international. “Without the foreigners, Paris is not Paris,” de Pourtalès says. “Of course, some Parisians will say that they’re very happy without foreigners, but they can’t survive without them.”
A few of the couple’s more cautious friends have asked them if they’re attempting to tackle too much. Among their latest product ideas is a hemp-based artisanal gin. De Pourtalès smiles and shrugs. “Yes, it’s ambitious,” she says of 91.530 Le Marais. “But we’re doing it little by little. It’s really a lifetime project.”
De Pourtalès and Eymère have also just renovated and moved into the château’s 18th-century carriage house, which is closer to the farm than the grand main residence (where de Pourtalès’s mother and aunt still live). They’ve stocked the place with contemporary artworks—ceramic pieces by Eric Croes, a painting by Cy Gavin, a tiled installation by Mimosa Echard—and enrolled their sons in the village school. From their garden they can hear the tractors, smell the horses and monitor any storm clouds that threaten the fields.
“I used to find it boring when farmers talked constantly about the weather,” de Pourtalès says. But after the couple planted their first round of bamboo seedlings last summer, they endured several straight days of downpours. “It just kept on raining! So of course that’s all we talked about. Then we totally understood. Farming becomes your life.”