In 2014, Sotheby’s Hong Kong sold a bottle of whisky for US $628,000. It was, to be sure, big – six litres – and it came garnished with PR gush about the “rich natural colour, complexity and sumptuous intensity” of the rare Macallan malt it contained. It was “meticulously crafted” by 17 craftsmen of the French luxury glass company Lalique. Personally I’d pay not to own this meretricious object, arbitrarily faceted like a Thames-side skyscraper, but the net proceeds of the auction went to charity, so it was all in a good cause.
Such is the power of a global luxury drinks brand, which was also manifested earlier this month when hundreds of cars descended on Macallan’s Speyside home in quest of the limited release of a £495 bottle of whisky. Some of them parked overnight. Police had to take control of what was reported to be “chaos”. Roads were closed. The internet flickered with grumbles from frustrated scotch lovers.
This power finds expression in architecture. From time to time, wineries and distilleries decide to invest their surplus value in buildings by famous architects and designers – Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry in Rioja, Norman Foster for Chateau Margaux, Thomas Heatherwick for Bombay Sapphire gin. Macallan have now brought this concept to Scotland, with a new £140m distillery and visitor centre alongside their existing facility on a 158-hectare site that slopes down to the River Spey. It is designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, the practice founded by Richard Rogers.
With projects like this, the task is to reconcile the global with the local, a worldwide brand with an area whose precise conditions of water or soil are the basis of its fame. There is a question of scale, as the new facilities tend to outrun the visions of whichever past century gave birth to a given house of booze. Their designs are also about combining industry and tourism, about making what is in fact a factory into a place of tours, tastings, dining experiences and, indeed, traffic snarl-ups caused by expensive bottles of whisky.
With Macallan, the architects’ response is to go at it in the only way they know, with the big spaces, transparency and displays of technology that have been in the practice’s DNA for decades. They have made, as is their wont, a temple of production, or a theatre of process, in which the stars are the miraculous paraphernalia that make whisky.
RSHP’s big move, in the manner of their Millennium Dome or Heathrow Terminal 5, is to put everything – both the equipment of production and the visitor centre – under a big billowing roof, whose glass wall then opens the interior to the landscape. On its underside the roof displays its structure, an undulating, complex coffering of hi-tech timber. Big steel Vs stabilise the whole.
This cathedral-sized volume, 120 metres long, is half-buried in a slope, in order to reduce its impact on the soft scenery of hills and trees. Half a million tonnes of displaced soil were then relocated into a big berm, to screen some of the more bluntly functional parts of the Macallan complex. The roof, planted on top with grass and meadow flowers, becomes a row of artificial hillocks, albeit one whose triangular roof lights and long, aerial-like lightning conductors make it also resemble a base on Mars. The idea is not to make it disappear, and it doesn’t, but to make this large intrusion sympathetic to its surroundings.
All of this heavy lifting makes room for the main show, which is of the mash tuns, condensers and copper stills by which barley, yeast and water become alcoholic spirit. And pipes, lots and lots of pipes, the veins and arteries through which it courses, arranged and installed with breathtaking intricacy by the local firm of Forsyths. Pipes are another Rogers thing, going back to the displays of plumbing on the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyds building in London, but rarely can the practice have had so much licence to have so much fun with them.
A certain amount of work goes into this apparently simple concept. The processes of distillation, usually arranged in lines and compartmentalised, are here put in circles in a single space. As distilleries are prone to explosive fires, the seemingly modest decision to allow views from the visitor centre into the working area requires a high glass wall capable of withstanding fire for two hours. It is no small matter to build such a thing.
The effort is sometimes evident, making the building sometimes ungainly, sometimes endearingly so, as much as slick. It is singular – a completely different beast from the workaday sheds in the rest of the Macallan complex. It is also different from Easter Elchies house, dated 1700, the place where the whole business started, now an icon that appears on the brand’s labels. The RSHP design defers to the house by angling its entrance approach towards it, but it intentionally sends out a completely different message.
For this building is about spectacle. It’s about celebrating beautiful machinery, which is why the pipes are laid out with geometry and symmetry that verges on the hieratic. Technology, for this practice, can’t just be there. It has to be seen to be there. Which puts the distillery in other unexpected company from the Rogers oeuvre, the 1980s Inmos microprocessor factory in Newport, Wales, where the aim was partly to announce the forward-looking nature of the region. There too the message was delivered with a flying roof and highly composed pipes.
The big-name wineries by big-name architects haven’t all come off, mostly because a place dedicated to place and smell tends to expose the limitations of architecture that depends too much on sight. There is so much refinement and nuance in the magic substance at the centre of it, such subtlety in the interactions between grape, soil, climate and, say, the wood of the casks, that the formal arrangement of building materials can seem clodhopping by comparison.
Despite appearances, architecture is not just a visual art. This is not to say that an architect can plan the scents of a building in the same way as she or he can its visible shape. There is rather, in the most successful buildings for food and drink, a synaesthetic crossover, an alchemy whereby one sense interacts with another. Temperature and timbre combine with light and shadow to enhance the sensation of whatever you’re putting in your mouth.
RSHP’s choice of materials – the timber ceiling, a black concrete that is polished when used indoors – helps to create an atmosphere that suits the use of the building, but the architects don’t really push the distillery’s sensory qualities. They are innately visual architects who put their energies into questions of look and looking. Some dimensions of the Macallan brief go underexplored as a result. On the other hand the building is, as a spectacle, splendid.
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