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
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?