The British designer Thomas Heatherwick is probably best known for his Olympic Cauldron for the 2012 London games, but his design, and increasingly his architecture, goes beyond installation and spectacle. He and his studio of some 80 designers and architects have also produced designs for buses, cafes, artworks, power stations and, now, a distillery for gin brand Bombay Sapphire in Southwest England. Jonathan Bell reports for uncube.
The modern factory offers the canny brand an opportunity for all sorts of architectural gymnastics. As we become increasingly detached from the manufacturing of the devices that consume us – phones, computers and televisions – there is a resurgence of interest in traditional manufacturing and how it works, ranging from artisan crafts right through to the preparation of food and drink.
Bombay Sapphire is a constructed brand, carefully assembled in the late 1980s to evoke the heyday of the British Raj, the sound of ice cubes clinking in a glass of gin on a veranda on a hot Indian evening. Part of the crafted mystique is the recipe, a blend of “botanicals” that goes beyond gin’s traditional juniper-derived flavour to extend to almonds, liquorice, coriander, angelica and six others. Buoyed by parent company Bacardi, Bombay Sapphire has fast become a fashionable tipple with its own strong identity and close ties to the design industry through collaborations and exhibitions.
A designer brand needs a signature HQ and Bombay Sapphire is now the proud occupier of its own bespoke distillery in Hampshire, a couple of hours south-west of London. Once home to the print works that minted the Empire’s billions, Laverstoke Mill was empty for nearly a decade before being acquired by Bombay Sapphire. The company’s ambitious plans for refurbishing the site and creating a new distillery were handed to Thomas Heatherwick, one of the best-known names in contemporary British design.
Heatherwick’s work is best termed as the architecture of big ideas, with his projects teasing out a unifying concept that finds its expression through structural dramatics. Sometimes these take on a sculptural role – such as the British pavilion for the Shanghai Expo or the 2012 London Olympic Cauldron – at other times it is technology itself that is the star. At Laverstoke, a substantial proportion of the work was the refurbishment of the existing structures, a handsome compound of brick industrial buildings set alongside the river Test. Assembled over 300 years, they form a fine example of industrial archaeology that local authorities were keen to see restored and reused, while simultaneously revitalising the surrounding eco system, its wildlife and vegetation.
At the heart of the complex, which houses a visitors centre as well as the distilling equipment itself, is a suite of elaborate new glasshouses, combining functionalism with lavish display. These are Heatherwick’s most visible contribution to the distillery and they don’t disappoint, appearing to sprout organically from a nearby structure before planting their multi-faceted forms down in the pool at the centre of the buildings. The glasswork is complex, appearing to cascade into the water with slender bronze mullions that rise up, curve and pinch together at the point they intersect with the brick buildings.
Designed to accommodate and incubate the gin’s aforementioned botanicals in a close approximation of their natural environment, the glasshouses use waste heat from the distillery process, a neatly cyclical arrangement that keeps costs and energy use down – the complex is the first industrial plant in the UK to receive the BREEAM “outstanding” rating. The actual stills themselves are equally handsome – tall copper structures that transcend the often obscure relationship between the aesthetics of manufacturing and the process itself.
Bombay Sapphire’s new home is a very modern factory complex for a very modern brand. Just as the drink itself updates a traditional product with modern sophistication and complexity, so the distillery layers technology on history, using design as a means of telling the story that is integral to the brand. It’s a piece of theatre, for sure, but the attention to detail goes beyond the elaborate forms to the quality of the restoration, the re-alignment of the spaces and the care taken to minimise the impact of industry on its surroundings.
– Jonathan Bell