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No.15: The Dominus Winery

issue 44 Aug / Sep 2008

Sharon Stammers continues her world tour exploring the best architecture that is built with light. In this issue, Debbie Wythe of Lighting Design International chooses a little known Herzog and de Meuron masterpiece

The Dominus Winery is located in Napa Valley, the Californian wine making region and incidentally, the area of inspiration (for those of you that are old enough to remember) for Falcon Crest.
Conceived and completed between 1995 and 1998, the Dominus Winery is the first work of Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron to capture global and critical attention and is a bold statement that encapsulates the partners approach to design. Winners of the coveted Pritzker Prize in 2001, Herzog and De Meuron are best known for the Tate Modern in London but created this project for a budget of $5.4 Million for owners Christian Moueix and Cherise Chen-Moueix.
The building is divided into three functional units: the tank room with huge chrome tanks for the first stage of fermentation, the Barrique cellar where the wine matures in oak vats for two years, and the storeroom where the wine is bottled, packed in wooden cases, and stored until it is sold. It also incorporates the winery’s offices. The Winery is a powerful and dramatic piece of Modernist minimalism. It consists of a long low rectangle with the dimensions 100 m long, 25 m wide and 9 m high.
“A building is a building. It cannot be read like a book; it doesn’t have any credits, subtitles or labels like picture in a gallery. In that sense, we are absolutely anti-representational. The strength of our buildings is the immediate, visceral impact they have on a visitor.” - Jacques Herzog
The external appearance of the building is brooding and severe with a hard edged silhouette with the “skin” formed of modular gabions filled with locally quarried basalt of different shapes and sizes. This is a technology borrowed from river engineering where ‘gabions’ – baskets of wire mesh filled with stone are used to shore up earth works. The stones are made rigid by the metal casing and create larger building modules. The varying black to green hues of the basalt, from black to green also enable the building to blend into the surrounding landscape.
From a distance, the façade looks to be of a simple construction but up close, there is fine detail in the stacking of stone created by variation in the wire mesh density and in the sizes of the stone filling. High-density mesh and close-packed stones establish robustness at the base; the middle band is created using a slightly more open mesh with less closely packed stones and capped by a top band with a more open spacing of larger stone. This is a solution which overturns the traditional use of gabions. Herzog and De Meuron comment: “You could describe our use of gabions as a sort of stone wickerwork with varying degrees of transparency, more like skin than traditional masonry.”
The technique serves to create the solidity of brick, yet provides an exterior surface that allows light and air to permeate through to the interior, moderating extremes of temperature for the inhabitants and products within. The massing of the façade also serves as a foil to the whimsical nature of the naturally lit interior.
Sunlight and daylight filter through the stones, and form a continually changing light pattern dependant on the weather and the shapes of the stones: “the effect is something entirely new, rather like a fascinating brise-soleil... The dark corridor of a walkway bridging the flat archway opening is magically illuminated with shards of brilliant light, a crystal cave turned of the simple gabions, concrete, and steel.” - Kevin Matthews, Architecture Week

“This building is a simple yet vast rectangular shape that sits within a beautiful landscape – you would think that it would spoil the view but this huge solid lump of a building is made from natural stone that has been collected and trapped in metal cages. The gabions filled with the locally found stone blend into the environment and seem to soften the impact of the scale, allowing it to blend into the surroundings. It’s the inside that I am interested in though – the light spills through the gaps in the stone creating random dappled effects that change according to the weather. I like the contrast between the solidity of the building from afar and the relative transparency from within.”
Debbie Wythe, Associate,
Lighting Design International


Dominus The Dominus Winery in Napa Valley


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