Yale Students’ Designs Balance History, Modernism, Environment and Industry

In Louisville, Whiskey Row now refers to a single strip of buildings. But 100 years ago, Whiskey Row took up most of Main Street.

Most companies distilled bourbon in rural areas, but they took up block after block in downtown Louisville with business offices and storage. Prohibition wiped many of them out. Later in the century, suburbanization finished the job with many other urban industries.

“If you bring manufacturing back into the urban fabric, there might be more workers to repopulate and reinvigorate the downtown,” says Yale School of Architecture student Rafael Ng. Ng and a group of his classmates visited Louisville this week to study the bourbon industry and design an urban distillery that could stand on the block across from the current Whiskey Row buildings at 1st and Main streets.

But creating jobs is just one thing an urban distillery can do.

“For each student, their prerogative might be different. There’s an opportunity to celebrate the act and spectacle of producing whiskey,” says Ng.

“It would be really interesting to create a place not just for the distillery, but to take the downtown life to not be just what happens from nine to five,” says student Seema Kairam.

The class is led by New York-based architect Deborah Berke, who was a lead architect of the 21C Museum/Hotel. She likes the history and landscape of downtown, but thinks it’s too empty, and a distillery could bring some of the life back.

Listen to the students as they take a tour of Main Street:

Audio MP3

“I see a lot of missed opportunities in Louisville,” she says. “I wish I saw fewer abandoned buildings and I wish attention had been paid to that sooner, so it didn’t feel like quite the blight in some of the neighborhoods you drive through.”

Some of the other Yale architecture classes this year are designing projects in Italy, Switzerland and Denmark. Louisville may seem like the least exotic of all the choices, but may be the most practical. The designs have to follow building codes and pollution laws. And they could show how to not only bring jobs and tourists downtown, but how to bring industry to the urban core. But that will take balance. Balance between the need for jobs and the need for clean air and streets that aren’t dominated by large trucks hauling goods out of town.

“There’s a lot of tension there,” says Berke’s co-professor Noah Biklen.

The students will also have to balance bourbon’s romanticized history and the aesthetics of modern architecture.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of the distilleries that tap into backwoods nostalgia,” says Biklen. “We’re interested in looking at that, but what is the image of a modern distillery?”

“I think they’ll be torn from wanting to make something that’s very modern that reflects distilling technology and the 20th Century environment they want to be a part of and responding to the historic context,” says Berke.

And the dilemma the students face could apply to Louisville itself, as preservationists, developers and city leaders try to bring downtown back.

The students’ designs will be presented, judged and graded at Yale in April, but Berke says she’d like to bring the ideas back to Louisville, possibly with a gallery display on Main Street.