This is the second 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 the architecture firm Perkins+Will.
The room was dark. I stood illuminated by a cone of light projecting images onto a large screen. Being an introvert I had to force myself to look into the shadowy faces all around. The conference room was quiet as I started to present the updated design for their new brewery.
My throat tightened as the image of an automobile and a motorcycle appeared. The image seemed absurdly foreign to a presentation about architectural design. Would they think I was wasting their time with unrelated philosophical B.S.?
“There seems to be a fundamental difference between the design of this building and most other buildings,” I said.
The head of engineering leaned forward. His ever-kind face contorted with concern. He was our client contact and would have to answer to the founder if the design team had gone completely astray.
“What we are designing is more like a motorcycle than an automobile,” I said. “An automobile can be design by detached teams. It’s possible for the exterior look, the interior finish, and the mechanics of an automobile to be designed independently.
“Buildings can be designed in the same way,” I continued. “The exterior form and interior spaces can be developed independently of the structural systems and machines that will service the spaces. But a craft brewery is different than most buildings in that the machines cannot be hidden away. The machines for brewing are what people come to see. Maybe more than any other building type the engineers of the machines and the architects of the spaces must work together.”
“Our design challenge is more like the design of a motorcycle than an automobile. The mechanics and aesthetics of a motorcycle are one and the same. Its impossible to consider the architecture of a motorcycle without simultaneously considering the engineering. The engine is what makes the motorcycle move and it is a critical element of its appearance. The tanks and pipes of a brewery are critical to making beer as well as a primary element of the architecture of the building.”
I switched to the next slide and continued. “The raw engineering of a motorcycle is on display not hidden away behind a designed surface and yet there is still design. A motorcycle, at least a good one, is not a random collection of parts and forms it is a carefully organized and designed set of parts. Together, in this way of thinking, we can design a brewery that respects the machines, the structure, and the people who will inhabit this place.”
The head of engineering leaned back and his face relaxed, I knew the gamble had paid off. As I had hoped this analogy became a bridge that allowed the various members of the design team to work together and better understand the need for holistic design solutions.
As the brewery developed it became a living machine. I saw a thoughtful conglomeration of parts in our drawings, yet the design leaders of the firm criticized. The design lacked unity, they insisted.
Ultimately, I realized the general tendency of many architects is to create formal and unified buildings and spaces. Architects usually want to control every element. Architects cannot tolerate the visual noise of nuts, bolts, and pipe hangers randomly arranged by others. Architects want the quiet of a perfectly ordered space where much of life is hidden away. Architects often embrace life as a symphonic performance.
But life is often messy and art need not be formal. I realized the unity we were trying to create would not be a single simple gesture. The unity of this place would be a conglomeration of elements created by like-minded individuals. The unity of this place would be authenticity and complexity. I realized this architecture could live with noise. I realized the architecture that truly reflected the craft brewery culture had more in common with a rock concert than a symphony.