This is the beginning of a series of posts exploring the ideas underlying the design of the New Belgium Brewery in Asheville. I was the lead architectural designer for the project while working at Perkins+Will. Start to finish it was almost a four year process. Life goes by so fast.
It was midmorning around 2013 at the very beginning of the project. The rustic modern conference room was bright and my headache clouded concentration. I was feeling the craft beers the night before and the altitude of Fort Collins Colorado.
We, the outside designers, were trying to understand what the client needed while I wanted to know their dreams. The team was searching for quantitative information like the number and size of rooms needed. I was thinking about aspirin and subconsciously waiting, searching, and listening for the spark.
As an architectural designer I have my interests and they create a thread of consistency throughout my work. But each project can have its own soul beyond my tendencies if I am open to the specifics of the context, community, and people involved. I know the soul will form if I can see the spark. I fear the spark won’t come but it always has and never when I expected it. Maybe the most important skill a designer can learn is the ability to listen like a monk.
“We’re going to be an elephant in Asheville,” someone said and the leader of the meeting moved on with the agenda.
“Wait! What was that,” I said a little too loudly.
The meeting stopped as the clients explained something they thought should be obvious. Most craft breweries in Asheville are somewhere around 15,000 square feet in area. In fact all the buildings in the River Arts District surrounding the brewery site were about that size. The building we were going to bring to that context was 150,000 square feet.
Our elephant was ten times the size of its future neighbors. The clients worried that the bigness of their brewery would undermine their efforts to be part of the community. It would be like building a house ten times the size of your neighbors and wondering why they didn’t like you.
The meeting went back to the agenda and I fell into my thoughts knowing I had seen the spark. I doodled a dozen small boxes and next to them one huge box. This would be the conceptual challenge of the project. How do you make something huge fit into a context of small?
After weeks of work and contemplation the design team realized we needed to find other words to define this brewery. The word brewery is singular and leads one to think of a singular expression, a big brewery, a big box.
In the quiet of the studio our ideas solidified. This project should not be a box it should be more like a collection of buildings, an industrial village. This new definition better fit the context and would embrace the landscape of the seventeen-acre riverfront site.
This, I began to realize, would not be a diamond building. We had designed some award winning diamond buildings. However, a single form, a diamond, was not appropriate for this place. The profound realization was that this project was asking me to adjust my tendencies. I knew the design team should create a conglomerate of buildings that would be beautiful in their own casual yet complex nature.