The fluid curves of Zaha Hadid’s architectural designs have taken on an iconic status over the last three decades and represent a genre-defining global style for her generation. Scooping up endless prizes for her work, she has been described as the woman who “liberated architectural geometry and gave it a whole new expressive identity”. Such interpretations of fluidity were in vogue when Nicolas Desmazières and Anouk Legendre conceived Bordeaux’s latest landmark attraction - the Cité du Vin museum.
Dedicated to the art, culture and commerce of wine, its torus-like exterior not only symbolises the perpetual movement of wine in a glass, but also of Bordeaux itself, forever in motion. Its aura is embellished with a golden shimmer, a subtle nod to the light limestone classicism of the city; or perhaps, to the silty copper and auburn shades thrown up by the River Garonne as it makes its way along the quayside, to the Gironde estuary.
The exhibition space is spread across a floor space of more than 3,000 m2, with 22 different areas featuring interactive experiences that stimulate the senses. Yet much of the building’s appeal lies in a perceived aesthetic quality. It is a design that functions at every level of consciousness, contributing to our understanding of space, atmosphere and meditative reflection. Buried within the allure is the museum’s seamless integration with its surroundings. It is original yet also rooted in the landscape with confidence, a proclamation of genuine belonging. Perhaps this is what César Pelli meant, when the famous 20th century Argentine architect said “I see my buildings as pieces of cities, and in my designs I try to make them into responsible and contributing citizens.”
Responsibility is a term that underpins much of today’s designs, but it was amongst Bordeaux’s grand chateaux, those carefully curated edifices of wealth, power and success, that wine began its transformation from agricultural staple to luxury product. In classifying vineyards (1855) and their resulting wines, a hierarchy of quality was created, and in the ongoing battle for superiority, winemaking families inevitably leveraged the aesthetic value of their luxurious neo-classical properties. Any upstanding gentleman of discernment and taste surely knew that the finest of wines could only be made on the finest of estates.
The cycle perpetuated until wine, in certain circles at least, was repositioned as a statement of sophistication, civility and of learned culture. By implication the appreciation of wine became an aspiration of the upwardly mobile. Herein lies the foundation of the wine industry’s most recent architectural narrative change. If one strives to make the very best wine around, achieving such a feat must inevitably progress its production from a craft to an artform.
And art, as we know, is exhibited in a gallery.
Wineries are no longer simply production facilities, they are galleries worthy of housing vinous art. At the very top of the trade, amongst the elite, it can be difficult to separate the liquid in the glass from the illustrious settings in which it was both grown and made. Reinforcing the cultural capital of wine, the elite wineries have become temples in which a quasi-religious ceremony and rhetoric is preached. Not only must these temples or churches afford the wine pride of place, they must enable a priest to tell a story. After all, the congregation of consumers stands in anticipation, mesmerised in awe.
Of course, as we peel back the veil, we remind ourselves that winemaking is fundamentally a simple agricultural process. Grapes are harvested and crushed; fermentation converts juice to wine. As such, contemporary winery architecture must blend a myriad of practical production functions with the endless potential for creative expression, be that literal, metaphoric, or symbolic.
All too frequently such expression is focussed on the long and distinguished winemaking lineage of those who preside over the land. Ironically though, some of the most traditional families in the wine business are now pushing for innovation, echoing Daniel Libeskind’s assertion that “to provide meaningful architecture is not to parody history but to articulate it”.
The Antinori family headquarters in the heart of the Chianti Classico denomination breaks with the conventional notions of aristocratic tradition, innovating through the practical application of a range of modern ideas. It symbolises both tradition and modernity, a snapshot of the relationship between architecture and the landscape. Its creator, Florentine firm Archea Associati, points out that “the physical and intellectual construction of the winery pivots on the profound and deep-rooted ties with the land, a relationship which is so intense and suffered as to make the architectural image conceal itself and blend into it”.
Today there can be no discussion of legacy without a commitment to tackle the great challenges of our time, that of environmental degradation. The great winemaking dynasties have an obligation to ensure their activities respect the world that our children will inhabit, and sustainability is therefore rightly at the forefront of the conversation these days. Our understanding of climate change and a deeper, more perceptive view of our relationship with nature means environmental concerns are omnipotent. How fashions change!
Bodegas Ysios in Rioja also symbolises such a pursuit. Santiago Calatrava Vallsa, a Spanish/Swiss architect, structural engineer, sculptor and painter whose design projects include the City of Arts and Sciences of Valencia and the Montjuic Communications Tower in Barcelona, is famed for the design, which has been cited as a “contemporary anomaly in the rolling landscape of the Sierra de Cantabria”.
Sophisticated luxury now sits at ease with a respect for nature and with a confident stance on ethical sustainability. We might well ask where it all goes from here? Desmazières and Legendre are convinced that architecture must anticipate the future. Sensing that the biotechnological evolution will be the third industrial revolution, their firm XTU architects has invested heavily in urban agriculture and experimental research at the crossroads of life sciences, ecology, architecture and town planning. While winemaking clans will continue to accumulate their years of tradition, innovation will remain at the forefront of how we experience the next generation of boutique galleries, proudly producing and exhibiting the star wines of the future.
Frank Gehry, the great Canadian-American architect, noted that “architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness”. Fashions may come and go, but the world’s great monuments to the art of fine winemaking will continue to inspire. The fact that wine lives at the intersection of so many subjects allows for a canvas worthy of some of the greatest expressions of creative thought the wine business, and perhaps architecture as a whole, has ever seen. As to our attitudes on how a winery might look, and indeed behave in future, we might whet our appetites with Zaha Hadid’s insight: “without that element of uncertainty, that sensation of travelling into the unknown, there would be no progress”.