American manufacturing may be on the rocks, but Deborah Berke, principal at Deborah Berke & Partners and designer of the 21c Museum Hotel, believes that by adding a little bourbon, Louisville can make an industrial comeback. Berke is leading a graduate studio at Yale exploring the future of boutique manufacturing in the United States and using an urban distillery in Louisville as a case study.
“I have been passionate about urban manufacturing for a long time,” Berke said. The studio is a continuation of ideas Berke began investigating over ten years ago in a previous Yale studio about boutique industry along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. “We’re looking into the new interest in artisanal industries, everything that could be a spur for boutique manufacturing.”
“We’re looking at Louisville as a case study, a model that can be applied to other cities,” said Noah Biklen, a critic at Yale assisting Berke with the studio. “We were trying to connect the studio with what’s going on in the U.S. now. We wanted to look at the idea of work and how to introduce manufacturing back into the city.”
Students have been asked to design a modern bourbon distillery on a half-block site on Louisville’s Main Street across from a historic row of former bourbon warehouses nicknamed Whiskey Row that were partially saved from demolition last year. The program is flexible within a narrow window, Berke said. For instance, students may choose to incorporate a handful of 19th century buildings into the plan or work with a blank site. In the end, a 40,000 to 60,000 square foot facility including spaces for fermentation, stills, aging, storage, and loading and unloading will be designed for the site.
Berke said small industries like a boutique distillery can be the key to reinvigorating a city’s manufacturing core and to providing hundreds of new jobs as one industry fuels other tangent industries around it. “It’s not small scale as in three people knitting tea cozies, but it is small scale compared to the auto industry,” she said. A bourbon distillery employing 75 people could encourage still makers, custom glass and bottle manufacturers, palette makers, and label printers in the surrounding city to create a jobs ripple effect that adds up fast.
The studio visited Louisville in early February to see the site first hand, study the bourbon making process, and, of course, try a little bourbon along the way. “We had a great time drinking bourbon,” Berke explained, quickly adding, “but we drank responsibly.” The class took bourbon seriously during the trip. They learned about the distilling process by visiting local distilleries such as Woodford Reserve, where students could see the variable scale of the industry. “You could have a still in your living room or you could be producing millions and millions of gallons of alcohol a year,” Berke said. They also sampled different kinds of bourbon, taking in flights at Louisville’s many bourbon bars. Berke previously designed the 21c Museum Hotel farther west on Main Street, converting another former bourbon warehouse into a luxury hotel and art museum.
Students have also visited New York to study existing boutique industries in Brooklyn such as an urban gin distiller and other companies in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Manhattan’s Garment District. While the architecture is just an exercise that won’t be built, the possibilities for reintroducing industry back into Louisville could be valuable for years to come.