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Distilled Industrial Production

Part 2 Project 2009
Simon Johnson
University of Edinburgh Edinburgh UK
Developed in a unit whose theme was ‘the post-socialist city and its material prehistories’, the endurance of material things in the city fabric of Warsaw is the primary focus of this project, which relocates redundant distillation apparatus from an abandoned Vodka factory onto a site in the centre of the city. Initiated by a short project for a House for a Sculptor, an early constructed ‘field of objects’ explored the mass, volume, material and balance of the distilling apparatus to be transplanted. Rusted steel armatures from found objects were reconfigured to support this experimental construction, which became an active intervention in the studio space, forming a kind of ‘second site’ for the project.

In the project the vodka equipment is transplanted into a series of courtyards where it is held in space by inhabited support devices, reconfiguring the urban block to become one building. A reduction in production requirements allows for a rescaling of the apparatus, so that the distillery becomes a celebration of the craft of vodka production in its new neighbourhood context. The fabric of the courtyards is treated to receive the apparatus in specific ways: selective incisions allow installation and removal, whilst exposition characterizes the appropriatation of spaces by the other programs. Insertions become support and bracing elements for the altered fabric.

Public space for social exchange is created above the apparatus on two decks where some components become part of a new architectural landscape: two reservoirs and a boiler feed-tank collect rainwater that is used for production. Living spaces and hotel accommodation for vodka enthusiasts emerge onto the top deck, having risen from the interstitial spaces within the post-industrial assembly below. These use waste heat from the production process, which is also circulated to the surrounding neighbourhood and to swimming pool facilities that lie at the lowest level of the complex.

Inspired by the existing human and non-human inhabitants of the site, a diverse program includes an information centre for Moroccan tourists, a model-maker’s studio, a café, a restaurant and a vodka bar that forms a device for viewing elements of the distillery against the city.

Simon Johnson

In Praga, the eastern district of Warsaw, there is a large and famous 19th century vodka distillery. It is now disused, production of the type and at the scale at which the distillery was set up to operate with now being economically unfeasible. The only choices available seem to be that it is turned into a museum or redeveloped as an arts complex. Either way, the productive life of the plant will have finished. Simon Johnson’s project, however, argues for another possibility, one that sees an opportunity for re-situating vodka production within the shifting economic reality of contemporary Poland.

His argument is that by scaling down production, linking it with subsidiary and related activities (a ‘vodka hotel’, etc.), and marketing it internationally to enthusiasts, ongoing vodka production in Warsaw can be ensured. His project then develops through the displacement of the historic distilling apparatus from Praga into a site in the city centre. Enjoying and celebrating the material and volumetric qualities of the apparatus, the project makes its elements visible architectural pieces within the city. The large scale of these produces a kind of spatial compaction that puts pressure on the existing building typologies on the site, and makes them work in new ways. In addition, the volumetrics of the vats and reservoirs set up new kinds of site conditions, which the project explores through the design of housing and of public programmes (a swimming pool, etc). The project has a Piranesian sectional quality, and the experience of moving up through it from the level of the city’s streets would be remarkable. Emerging at the top, one encounters a panorama of the city, in which the view of distant structures interact with the upper parts of the various elements that the project holds together on the site.

The project evolved through a series of materially rich constructional studies and installations that Simon developed. This incremental way of working was pursued with immense craftsmanship and delicacy, and much of the quality of the project emerged from the way he moved fluidly and intelligently between different forms of representation.

Dr Mark Dorrian
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