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Novel Emergence: The Bombay Sapphire Distillery And Slump/Fear
I recently wrote this essay as part of the coursework for one of my university lecture modules. The brief requested that we choose a piece of art from the Walker or Tate art galleries in Liverpool and a building constructed in the same century. We were then asked to link the two, before analysing how the architecture had been influenced by the stakeholders, site and brief. I chose a painting called Slump/Fear by Alexis Harding and the Bombay Sapphire Distillery by Heatherwick Studio. You can read my earlier article focusing solely on the wonderful architecture of the distillery here. Before that though, have a read of the essay below.
Novel Emergence: The Bombay Sapphire Distillery And Slump/Fear
Slump/Fear, by Alexis Harding, won the John Moores Painting Prize in 2004. In his creation, he aimed to “Present prosaic stuff (paint) in a moment of transformation, allowing one cohering structure to vanish while another emerges”. The idea of materialisation of something novel from the everyday is evident in The Bombay Sapphire Distillery in Laverstoke, designed by the studio of world renowned architect Thomas Heatherwick and completed in 2014. The modern distillery complex has emerged from an eclectic mix of over forty brick and metal buildings into a beautiful and cohesive architectural gem.
Heatherwick describes this materialisation when describing the botanical glasshouses, the centrepiece of the main courtyard,“There’s this thing that’s been owing [The River Test], for centuries and centuries, and there’s this new, sort of water like substance, which glass is, springing out of that”.

Bombay Sapphire selected the site partly due to its rich history. It has been used for over a millennium, originally as a mill appearing in the Domesday Book of 1086. I chose to study the narrative behind the Distillery’s creation as I was interested in how starchitect Heatherwick has responded to the quiet, relatively unknown location. Also, with the distillery stamping such a geographically large mark on the local area, I wanted to explore how the community were involved in the project, and its effect since completion.
A decade after winning a Bombay Sapphire design prize, Heatherwick was approached by the company to provide their first shared headquarters and production facility. The original brief requested a visitor centre, however Heatherwick’s studio suggested opening up the majority of the distillery for visitors to experience the whole distillation process. Fortunately the company agreed, which turned out to be an inspired decision. Allowing visitors to experience the authentic distillation process is more immersive than providing a simulated experience.
The architect had to design the complex for three overlapping functions. Despite being a visitor attraction, the distillery produces approximately two million cases of gin per year. Through intelligent balancing of public and private areas both the industrial part of the complex and the visitor spaces are interlinked. Although the majority of the gin is produced in a large set of industrial stills that are not for public access, the visitor experience features a pair of functioning stills. The third use is administrative duties, which occur in some of the repaired and refurbished buildings, and also on the upstairs balcony in some of the public spaces. The open and welcoming nature of the distillery promotes the transparency of the company, appealing to their customers on a human level.

Due to the prestige of the architecture firm, one might expect the complex to be disconnected from its ordinary British village setting. However from the outset the community have been involved in the project, and the new development has brought improvements to the area. Through employment, trade, and providing visitor experiences the distillery has contributed to local economic gain. It employs approximately 55 people, many of whom are local, to work in production, administration and as visitor guides. Cakes that are made by a local business are sold in the visitor café, and potash fertiliser, a waste product of the distilling process, is sold in surrounding village shops.

In order to improve relations with the community, every year a Locals Event Day is held, on which local people can visit the distillery for free. Also, the estate manager Will Brix attends the monthly Laverstoke Parish Council meetings. This was especially important when the distillery gained its license to serve alcohol and hold late night functions. Many locals were concerned that events could be held daily until as late as 2am, however Brix assured the community that the license had limiting factors that would minimise disturbance.

Through the above examples, it is clear to see that Heatherwick’s team were committed to involving the community in the distillery. By providing economic gains whilst remaining sensitive to the preferences of the local people, the studio managed to create a complex that was welcomed by the client as well as interested stakeholders.
To adapt and develop the site into a coherent whole, Heatherwick’s Studio was faced with a huge challenge. Over the last millennium a number of disparate houses, mills, sheds and huts that had grown up around the complex were derelict and overgrown. Also the lifeblood of the site, the River Test, was almost invisible due to concrete banks. The studio recognised the charm of some of the historic buildings, and set out to preserve many of the original features and buildings where appropriate. Through an extensive program of repair and refurbishment over half of the buildings were retained, and now form the majority of the beautiful complex.
A notable aspect of the site alterations that make the buildings engaging is the huge variety of bricks on display. Original, crumbling, red bricks sit next to modern, dark bricks and old, orange bricks. Also, where an ugly modern addition has been removed from a picturesque building the profile of the extension has been defined in brick. These obvious architectural choices demonstrate the rich and complicated history of the complex and display the engaging narrative of each wall.
Sustainability was a key driver in the design of the distillery, and Heatherwick Studio included a number of intelligent ecological solutions. These range from typical systems such as solar panels, a hydroelectric turbine and rainwater harvesting, to more innovative ideas such as a biomass boiler fuelled by spent botanicals used in the distillation process and waste heat used in the striking Mediterranean and Tropical glasshouses. These smart energy recycling techniques and sensitive management of the site, which is an Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), contributed to the complex being awarded an ‘Outstanding’ BREEAM rating, the first refurbishment and distillery in the world to gain this rating. It also won the 2014 BREEAM Industrial Award, an international sustainability competition.

The Bombay Sapphire Distillery is an understated architectural gem by a world famous architect. Fortunately, the client allowed Heatherwick Studio a lot of creative control, trusting that their expertise would contribute to a sensitive and equally stunning response, despite the contrast of this project to the studio’s more high profile buildings. The result is a complex that has been thoroughly considered, balancing public and private spaces; it retains the site’s rich history yet innovates with futuristic architectural and sustainable technology, marrying the views of the local community with the requirements of the client. Heatherwick Studio has presented the Laverstoke site in a moment of transformation, rejuvenating the prosaic collection of old buildings with a burst of innovative and modern refurbishment.