Super-Horizontal

RSH+P’s Macallan Distillery Centre may be a boon to Scottish whisky tourism as much as it is a timber-tech wonder, but it also begs questions about such a large structure’s relation to land and landscape, expansively realised green roofs and the future of underground earth building.

Photo RSH+P

Billed as one of Britain’s most ambitious recent, at-scale timber projects, the Macallan Distillery Centre also happens to be in one of the more remote parts of the UK. Dug into the hillside of the Scottish Distillery’s main Strathspey Valley Estate, the distillery visitor centre is an elaborate piece of horizontal architecture, sitting across from rolling hills the other side of the River Spey and larger mountain caps further to the west.

Approaches – this and all photos by Oliver Lowenstein, unless otherwise credited

The ambitious timber structure comes in the form of an adapted double-curvature roof deck which runs the length and breadth of what is, in effect, a piece of semi-underground architecture. Promoted as a gridshell, this description is not strictly accurate – as discussed further in the companion feature  – the structure has been designed to resemble, rather than structurally perform as, the original Frei Otto-inspired, early ‘true gridshells’ of Otto and Cullinan Studios. Still, it is a feat of eco-tech engineering decades after eco-tech was retired from the lexicons of most architectural vocabularies. This isn’t entirely surprising since two of the big names of eco-tech, Richard Rogers Architects – reborn as RSH+P – and Arup Engineering, are the principal forces behind the project’s engineering and design.

Some three years on from its opening, I had reason to visit during the late summer of 2021 as I’d been asked by the Austrian timber architecture magazine, Zuschnitt, to contribute a short feature. The visit, on a languid September Sunday, felt noticeably at odds with various phone conversations with engineers, emails and deadline-harried moments trying to get the RSH+P press machine to respond to requests to talk with the project architect and, from Zuschnitt, to chase up photographs.

I’d arrived with a friend after making our way along the Strathspey Valley from the Moray north-east coast. A relatively flat landscape close to the sea had given way to the Spey Valley; before nearing Grantown-on-Spey, we turned off onto a small spur road up the side of the hill.

Whisky trails and terrain

This is whisky country, with the Speyside region home to over 50 distilleries, many found along the Spey’s valleys and hillsides as it runs north-east towards open sea. Known as Strathspey, it is the driest part of Scotland’s east coast, and the Scottish whisky industry has relied on barley grown on its sandy soils since the fifteenth century. Though the drink no longer leaves Garmouth by boat, whisky is big business, worth £5.5 billion to the Scottish exchequer and accounting for 21% of all food and drink exports. No surprise then that Strathspey is a major tourist region on the Highlands map. If many of the distilleries offer tours of their facilities, none, until Macallan decided on a grand, new distillery centre, were looking to commit quite the level of investment that was needed – £140 million, for a showstopping twenty-first century building. Though nearly 900 kilometres from London, the mixture of Highlands novelty and scenic drama means many kinds of visitors make their way along the valleys, including those wanting to hunt down their favoured shots. Macallan whisky is known across much of the world and a fair few of those visiting are international – at least until Coronavirus arrived in early 2020 – so a quasi-futuristic, distillery-showcase as tourist destination added up to those making the decision to go ahead, back nearly a decade ago.

The walkway approach

For although it opened in 2018, the Macallan Centre began its design life in 2012, when the architects RSH+P and their engineer partner Arup’s entry for the invited competition was selected by Edrington, the whisky producer’s parent company. Part of a larger expansion plan that has been quoted as reaching £500 million, the low lying, super-horizontal design is as much landscape led as it is a high-tech hive showcase of the latest iteration of whisky industry technical kit to make it to public and professionals alike. The long, low building is dug into the hillside ridge on the Macallan’s 485-hectare estate and features the striking timber roof above a double-storey glass frontage that shows off the whisky production stills and machinery. None of this is immediately evident for visitors, the majority most likely arriving by car along the entry road and parking below the building, amidst a row of trees with long-haired highland cattle chomping at tufts of grass in the fields just beyond. Nor, for that matter, is the industrial complex of ruddy brown warehouses and storage set higher up the hillside rim, just out of sight of the road until you’re well on your way up the hill towards the exit gates. Rather, the listed Jacobean manor, Easter Elchies House, the estate’s old centrepiece complete with manicured lawn, meets the visitor’s eye as they orient themselves to making their way to the visitor centre entrance. Off and between, some way up the hill, there are also a huddle of older administration buildings. The day I visited, a balmy summer Sunday, the quiet and stillness was palpable, with only a few other visitors, complete with Macallan goody bags and likely a bottle or two of whisky to take home after undertaking the experience.

Most visitors head for the long passage towards the Macallan’s entrance doors. Paved in slate grey stone, the path takes a sharp inward turn from the car park with a soft upward incline towards the entrance; grassy landscaping rising to the building’s nearside edge on one side and a gradually deepening wall the other. Turn around, and the reason for the sharp angle is immediately apparent: Easter Elchies House is framed at the centre of the path’s vanishing sightline.

Black drum

The other side of the slate paving stones and the corridor entrance, the visitor centre is cavernous. The double height conveys space. Still, what natural and artificial light there is needs to work to offset the sense of cavernous and endarkened foyer. A black drum in the room’s centre houses an information desk, a small sales area and, round the back, a staircase up to the first-floor bar. There, closer to the rising and ebbing diamond timber lozenges of the roof, one can order a tipple of whisky and look out through the curtain wall glazing at the impressive and calming – at least on a fair, late summer day – landscape. Designed with sliding glass doors for outside seating and events, Covid had put paid to such events at least at the time of visiting. One can also look through to, but not touch, the parade of gleaming technology the other side of the fire-resistant glazing dividing the public from the operational zones. For more than a few though, the lure of the immediate entrance facing wall may be the more appealing: a display made up of a showcase of row upon row of glass-encased whisky bottles.

The wall of whiskies

The Sunday I visited, the visitor centre was quiet, the cavernous atmosphere damping down any liveliness. What, exactly, this part of the Macallan ‘Experience’ was felt unclear – beyond wandering around reading the historical posters about ‘our story’ and stopping for an afternoon tea, or a taste of the stronger stuff. In places it felt almost chintzy, in an international airport sort of way, with something rather gaudy and even dissolute about the atmospherics brought on by some of the internal lighting in the entrance corridor, as if, for a moment, you might be entering a casino or a hotel’s late-night bar.

The glazed separation wall between the Macallan’s public and work zones – Photo RSH+P

If you head straight up, though, past the young saplings and towards the external roof structure, you may well feel you’ve done things in the right order. The external elements of the building, though almost part of a disappearing act, conjure something more magical. Once up beside its glass curtain walls, the sheer length of the building becomes apparent, the roof deck running along the hillside, its glazing shadowing the entire 207-metre length. Squinting into the interior, the internal glass wall dividing the public and distillery sections is just about visible. A public upper mezzanine for visitors to take in the valley view is quickly split off by the glass wall from the whisky production machinery, a safety feature given the many chemicals and other risk factors happening the factory side of the glazing.

Nearside upper level

Outside, despite the glulam beams pushing outwards every few metres, the sense of the full timber deck is muted compared to the RSH+P signature combination of glazing and slanted steel pods supporting the canopy. The glulam quickly disappears into the building. Designed around a rectangular grid strip, the deck consists of two layers, an invisible upper layer, providing insulation and supporting the building’s grass roof, while the shell domes gently rise and fall, providing the complex geometric timber drama above the whisky fermentation units.

We walked the length of the building, which once you’re up beside the glazing feels quite a distance, before eventually arriving at the overhanging canopy’s end. Here, at its south-western edge, the distillery centre turns into landscape, though wire fencing continues the canopy line, preventing those who’ve decided to circle the whole building from immediately crossing the thickly matted grass. After the fence ends, my friend and I doubled back on ourselves towards the service road on the far side. A low wall marks the roof line’s western edge, the grass roof rising over the first of the dome mounds. Layered deep into the grass roof are aluminium channels for lightning protection, as well as rainwater run-off and safety fall restraint systems.

Project principal and RSH+P partner, Graham Stirk’s stated aim of emphasising the artificial nature of the mounds felt only partially successful as I clambered up the gentle mound, the scent of warm malt wafting through the triangular vents. The row of grass-tufted mounds, ending in the higher dome over the visitor area at the far end, blurred with the distant mountain-scape horizon, an instance where the visitor centre merged and disappeared into the surroundings.

Although the roof deck wasn’t designed to disappear, rather to sit atop the two floors, the landscape element leapt out. I couldn’t help envisioning adapted and considerably less costly projects creating quasi-underground hillside habitations, using a project of this scale and ambition as one reference starting point. Almost a whole town could live inside and amidst such a structure. Offices, schools, community centres and homes could all be accommodated into the 13,000 m2 Macallan’s deck covers. If Stirk and lead project architect, Toby Jeavons, seemed a mite embarrassed at the expanded nature of the piece of landscape architecture they’d realised, there are surely others who would delight at how such cavernous structures could be more widely adopted.

Turfed, earthed domes

Nor were there technical reasons for the grass roof not to be cultivated, either for horticulture or as arable grassland. Indeed, according to Johannes Rebhahn, Wiehag’s head of timber engineering, the project team had originally wanted sheep to maintain the growing grass and had therefore factored the weight of one sheep per square metre into the engineering. But in reality this didn’t work: “Sheep are so silly that they’d fall off the roof.” Next, they tried goats, but found they only picked at the grass rather than more fully biting and eating. Eventually, apparently, the animal maintenance plan faded away.

Still, on the rear side, away from the main face, just how industrial the building’s set-up is, is that much clearer. The service road, including a one-way ramp down to the lower floor, becomes visible. And with it, a small sea of concrete spills out of the buildings’ immediate footprint. Concrete walls and foundations meet the hillside ground. Off up on the hillside above, warehouses perch over the new splendour. The road rolls softly downhill into the main administration and logistics area. As I walked, on a second circling of the building, a solitary artic rumbled into view along the service road and turned down the ramp into the loading and unpacking bay. The grass-covered roof deck slides down towards the road, a steel and timber supporting lattice extending over the service bay and road.

The building’s south-eastern face runs the far side of the exit ramp and the fifth and largest mound dome, a glulam edge beam rippling along the face. Large and commanding, the glulam is the external timber’s most dramatic moment. In front is more grassy tufts, this time growing over the underground storage and works area, encased in concrete. At its furthest edge and meeting the road just at the junction with the older administration site, a chimney stands vertical.

Road and view into the Macallan administration area and beyond

How green the building is does rather depend on where you’re standing. It’s clear that using timber has given it the required sustainability patina that was surely part of the original brief, not least given its geographical position in woody highlands Scotland. But this is a building which is a long way from many of the more astringent green objectives. Such were the forces, however, that without the supporting steel the timber grillage wouldn’t, the engineers are clear, have stayed standing. A similar case is rehearsed for concrete use, which accounts for over half the total embodied carbon footprint, with timber cutting into the concrete by about a third. The distillery’s main operating floor is a 180-metre long by 54-metre wide basement structure and includes 300-millimetre thick, 10-metre high retaining walls, all decked out in concrete.

Under construction – Photo Angus Bremnar/RSH+P

There’s also something mirthfully – or at least rolling-of-eyes – ironic about all this Austrian Sitka spruce being trucked 1,600 kilometres from Wiehag’s Altheim factory in Upper Austria up to the north of Scotland. But this is the timber industry. It shows up the lack of homegrown expertise needed for projects of Macallan’s scale. Arup and RSH+P ran a scoping exercise looking at what was locally possible, talking with one of the most experienced timber operations, Carpenter Oak & Woodland, who have a Scottish yard. But they were apparently only prepared to provide general consultancy advice. There was a similar story with Green Oak Carpentry, the carpenters on the Savill Gardens visitor centre, who again were up for engaging as technical advisors but less confident about, and declined to consider, a construction role. At first sight, the Macallan feels entirely at odds with everything else around, an apparition of a building appearing, seemingly, out of the skies. This, though, is what these international studios are about – the planet is their oyster, and it’s unlikely they’d hesitate for long at a commission for something similar, say, on Mars or the moon.

There may not be much call for moonshot gridshells and, likewise, it’ll likely be awhile before another whisky manufacturer blows a cool £140 million on a showcase.

What one does come away from the Macallan centre with is a reined-in timber canopy deck adventure, which along the way, also demonstrates the potential of glulam in the service of the horizontal. “Glulam was always a non high-rise technology,” says Wiehag’s Rebhahn. “It’s part of its tradition.”

Downriver on ambitious, if smaller in scale and less deep-pocketed projects, it’s entirely possible to envisage local works developing variants, idiosyncratic or otherwise, out of this big engineering exemplar parachuted into the Speyside valley. Meanwhile there is the original article to consider, critically or otherwise.