Shrines to shopping

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Jean Nouvel is leading the rush of top architects designing luxury retail outlets – and they show that beauty can have a place in the mall, says Jay Merrick

The French architectural superstar Jean Nouvel has just unveiled his latest building, an enormous three-storey H&M shop on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

And in the City of London, the substantial retail element of his massive One New Change building, with its "stealth" facades, will soon become a shopping hotspot 60 metres east of St Paul's Cathedral. In Hills Place, just off London's Oxford Street, a retail facade designed by Amanda Levete looks like a surreal razor-cut canvas by Lucio Fontana. In Las Vegas, the MGM Mirage CityCenter retail development has been hyper-blinged with huge crystal structures designed by Daniel Libeskind. Welcome to the increasingly spectacular nexus of retail design in the 21st century's experience economy.

"Less is a bore," said Robert Venturi, the arch-guru of architectural postmodernism. And we mustn't be bored, must we? What we really like, if the 2.6 million Oxford Street shoppers who spent £140m in fashion sales alone in the first week in September are anything to go by, is to be seduced by brands. In as many different ways as possible. If you step into Czech & Speake in Jermyn Street to purchase a bottle of their stroke-inducingly expensive No. 88 Cologne, you find yourself in a dark but subtly glinting interior whose design murmurs: "This is a quiet, very private haven, and the smell and touch of every product in here, and there aren't many, reflects that ethos".

The small, otherwise unremarkable room is distinctly mood-altering; and it triggers a very specific feeling of expectancy. If you wander into the Apple store in Regent Street, the effect of its long, vanilla-smooth sightlines provokes a very different emotion: a non-specific, faintly bemused ease.

Wait! It's just shopping! It's simple! People like to buy stuff, and great architects have always designed retail outlets. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright's exquisitely sculpted V C Morris gift shop in San Francisco, whose spiral ramp cloned the architecture of his Guggenheim Museum in New York. And what about the architecturally grandiose 19th-century Galeries Lafayette in Paris, or the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan? Yes, and don't forget Milton Keynes shopping centre – still the only mall in Britain that doesn't induce a Night of the Living Dead atmosphere.

In the face of this evidence, is there really anything new to say about the architecture and mysteries of the shopping experience? The philosopher Walter Benjamin became so obsessed with the arcades of Paris that he jotted down thousands of pages of thoughts and observations about them between 1927-40. Predictably, it is architecture's most fractious intellectual, Rem Koolhaas, who has added something to Benjamin's often impenetrable musings. In his influential 2002 essay, "Junkspace", Koolhaas speaks of "a fuzzy empire of blur, it fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed... Why can't we tolerate stronger sensations? Dissonance? Awkwardness? Genius? Anarchy?"

But we can, and do, when we shop. Is there anywhere more emotionally and profitably dissonant than the internal bazaars of Selfridges in London – so starkly different from the Edwardian monumentality of the building as a whole, designed by the legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Inside it, the commonplace, arrayed in fractured or layered perspectives, becomes sublime: we're very nearly in a Warhol mindset in which mostly unremarkable objects become fetishised. In buildings like this, we don't amble or pause, we mall. We are supplicants of the slightly erotic fusion of disjointed movement, brand overload, big sensations jumbled with smaller ones – and the always impending petit mort of purchase.

When Koolhaas designed the Prada Epicenter in New York, he dipped retail strategy into a radical diagnosis of cultural pathology. Shopping, he argues, is arguably the last remaining form of public activity. Museums, libraries, airports, hospitals, and schools have become indistinguishable from shopping centres, and their adoption of retail for survival "has unleashed an enormous wave of commercial entrapment that has transformed museum-goers, researchers, travellers, patients, and students into customers.

"The result," he adds, "is a deadening loss of variety. What were once distinct activities no longer retain the uniqueness that gave them richness. What if the equation were reversed, so that customers were no longer identified as consumers, but recognised as researchers, students, patients, museum-goers?" The ultra-grungy facade of Commes des Garçons in New York, punctured by a slinky tunnel entrance designed by Future Systems, seems to echo this idea, despite its lead architect Rei Kawakubo's hideously fatuous declaration that the shop was designed for people who "get energy from clothes, who like taking risks".

In Paris, the rationale for the flagship store of Comme des Garçons' creator, Yohji Yamamoto, co-designed with Sophie Hicks, is slightly more interesting: the white-box mixture of shop and gallery was inspired by the subtle ideas in the Nobel Laureate Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's essay, "In Praise of Shadows".

But in super-luxurious retail domains, complexity tends to give way to egregiously svelte architectural aesthetics, or faux avant-garde artistry. This building-as-brand approach has been perfected during the Noughties, at vast expense, by Prada in particular. But in the 1990s, retail buildings such as Toyo Ito's Glass Boulder Tower for Mikimoto turned cultural ideas – building shell as a filter for "profuse floods of information" – into iconic architectural form. The facades of Ito's recent Tokyo building for the leather goods specialist Tod's mimic the branch patterns of elm trees in the street.

Retail buildings like this – and the best examples are all in Tokyo – are specifically meant to be beautiful, and set up suitably beatific consumer expectations. Here, Renzo Piano's Maison Hermes, a taller version of the 1932 Maison de Verre in Paris, whose glass-block walls were designed by Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet, is an object of retro clarity. Nothing, though, has equalled the exquisite Prada store designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Its carapace of diamond-shaped glass panels varies between flat, concave and convex surfaces whose optical effects produce faintly hallucinatory visions of merchandise and the city simultaneously.

The cultural commentator Virginia Postrel is right: "Beauty in its many forms no longer needs justification. Delighting the senses is enough – 'I like that' rather than 'this is good design'." There is no escape from the siren-call of increasingly lurid or bizarre retail architecture. Not even if, wreathed in a dense cloud of No. 88 Cologne, you imagine it has nothing to do with you.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Gravelle on trial for Danny Latimer's murder as Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Review: Broadchurch episode 7

Arts and Entertainment
Barry Norman has predicted a Best Actor win for Michael Keaton at this Sunday's awards

Arts and Entertainment
The right stuff: 'Ukip: the First 100 Days'

Review: UKIP: The First 100 Days TV
Arts and Entertainment
Anastasia Steele with Christian Grey in his offices in Fifty Shades of Grey

Arts and Entertainment
Class act: Julia McKenzie and Keeley Hawes in 'The Casual Vacancy'

JK Rowling's story is a far better drama than it is a book

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers

Arts and Entertainment
The BBC's version of 'The Crimson Petal and the White'


Arts and Entertainment
We will remember them: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' at the Tower of London

Art Police investigate abuse sent to Paul Cummins over Tower of London installation

Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman was named worst actress for her performance as Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, said the UK government ought to honour its subject
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower