Bombay Sapphire Distillery by Heatherwick Studio
Heatherwick Studio was commissioned to lead the master plan and design of the gin-maker Bombay Sapphire’s new distillery in the south of England. The site hosts the headquarters of the company but also the production facilities.
The site is located in the heart of the rural english countryside, where the village of Laverstoke straddles the River Test, one of England’s finest chalk streams. Initially, it operated as a corn mill, then the land was acquired in 1718 by Henry Portal who developed it for the manufacture of paper to produce the world’s bank notes. Over the next 200 years a large number of buildings were constructed, resulting in an uncoordinated matrix obscuring the river below. The Complex included a series of Grade II listed buildings such as the mill owner’s house, the workers’ cottages and the main mill building but also over forty buildings which made the site chaotic and confusing to navigate around.
Heatherwick Studio wanted to simplify the site not only by restoring the historic buildings but also by revealing the River Test once more and to use it as a device around which to organise everything. The new master plan included the creation of a central courtyard as a gathering area and a point of focus.
Thomas Heatherwick explains the project:
To turn these thoughts into reality we worked with government agencies English Heritage and English Nature to meticulously restore twenty-three of the existing historic buildings, to conserve the local wildlife and also to negotiate the removal of nine of the most recent industrial structures and a poor quality bridge. The other significant move was to substantially widen the river and reshape its banks to form sloping planted foreshores in order to make the water visible and valuable once more. Each careful decision to take away a building structure in turn gave space for the surrounding rich English countryside to be glimpsed again from the heart of the site. At the same time we became very conscious of not wanting to lose a sense of the evolution of the site. So wherever a modern dilapidated building leant against an older historic structure we removed the modern addition but left its mark on the remaining building fabric as a trace of where it had been. This selective process of de-cluttering the site was as necessary on the inside as on the outside.
The initial master plan brief had also included the creation of a visitor centre. However on seeing the vapour distillation process and the sculptural forms of the large copper gin stills, one of which is more than two hundred years old, we became convinced that witnessing the authentic distillation process would be far more interesting and memorable for a visitor than any simulated visitor experience. This production technique, that is different from those used by other gin distillers, is still carried out in accordance with a recipe devised in 1761 and involves infusing the gin with the vapours of ten tropical and mediterranean herbs and spices.
This led us to think about growing these botanical herbs and spices on the site, which in turn pointed us towards a rich British heritage of botanical glasshouse structures. The Victorian curiosity and passion for the new science of horticulture had driven the creation of everything from the extraordinary palm house at Kew Gardens to the craze for Wardian cases, ornate indoor glasshouses for growing and displaying collections of exotic ferns and orchids. We wondered whether this could be the world’s first botanical distillery and whether we could let visitors see the real distillation process rather than having a separate visitor centre.
The studio developed the idea of building two intertwining botanical glasshouses as a highlight of the central courtyard, one tropical and the other mediterranean, to house and cultivate the ten plant species that give Bombay Sapphire gin its particularity. Excitingly, as the industrial vapour distillation process produces excess heat that otherwise has to be taken away, and as the creation of tropical and mediterranean climatic environments in the British context require additional heat, there was a potential virtuous circle if we could tie these two things together.
The resulting glasshouse structures spring from one of the historic mill buildings, now re-appropriated as a gin distillation hall, recycling the spare heat from the machinery to make the perfect growing conditions for tropical and mediterranean plants. The two glasshouses then embed themselves into the flowing waters of the newly-widened riverbed. Working with a team from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as horticultural collaborators, the ten exotic botanical plant types grow in the two structures alongside over a hundred additional plant and herb species that provide the accompanying ecosystem required to maintain them.
The resulting complex geometries of the new asymmetrical glasshouses took many months to calculate, engineer and refine. The finished built structures are made from eight hundred and ninety three individually-shaped two-dimensionally curved glass pieces held within more than one and a quarter kilometres of bronze-finished stainless steel frames. In their entirety the glasshouses are made from more than ten thousand bespoke components.
On arrival, visitors walk to the newly opened-up river, before crossing a bridge and making their way along the waterside to the main production facility located in the centre of the site facing into the courtyard and new glasshouses. Through careful restoration of the historical buildings, widening and revealing the River Test and the construction of a new gin factory system including new glasshouses, this project juxtaposes Laverstoke’s historical past with an interesting new future.
Established by Thomas Heatherwick in 1994, Heatherwick Studio is recognised for its work in architecture, urban infrastructure, sculpture, design and strategic thinking. Today a team of 160, including architects, designers and makers work from a combined studio and workshop in Kings Cross, London.At the heart of the studio’s work is a profound commitment to finding innovative design solutions, with a dedication to artistic thinking and the latent potential of materials and craftsmanship. This is achieved through a working methodology of collaborative rational inquiry, undertaken in a spirit of curiosity and experimentation.
In the twenty years of its existence, Heatherwick Studio has worked in many countries, with a wide range of commissioners and in a variety of regulatory environments. Through this experience, the studio has acquired a high level of expertise in the design and realisation of unusual projects, with a particular focus on the large scale.The studio’s work includes a number of nationally significant projects for the UK, including the award-winning UK Pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo 2010, the Olympic Cauldron for the London 2012 Olympic Games, and the New Bus for London.
Thomas is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects; a Senior Research Fellow at the Victoria & Albert Museum; and has been awarded Honorary Doctorates from the Royal College of Art, University of Dundee, University of Brighton, Sheffield Hallam University and University of Manchester.He has won the Prince Philip Designers Prize, and, in 2004, was the youngest practitioner to be appointed a Royal Designer for Industry. In 2010, Thomas was awarded the RIBA’s Lubetkin Prize and the London Design Medal in recognition of his outstanding contribution to design.In 2013 Thomas was awarded a CBE for his services to the design industry.
images courtesy of Heatherwick Studio & © iwan baan