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23-04-2006
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Buildings to bring in buyers (Financial Times article)
Buildings to bring in buyers
By Edwin Heathcote FT's architecture critic
Published: April 22 2006 03:00 | FT.com
Although the current spate of fashion brands using high-profile architects (think Prada and Rem Koolhaas, Hermès and Renzo Piano, Asprey and Norman Foster) to design their flagship stores and up their creative credentials is often discussed as a relatively recent phenomenon, in fact the crossover between fashion and architecture is nothing new, as a recently opened exhibition at the V&A demonstrates. An examination of the influence of radical modernist architects on retail, The Modern Shop: architecture and shopping between the wars, throws an illuminating glow on what has become a symbiotic relationship.

It can be easily forgotten, after all, that shops provide most people with their first glimpse and physical experience of emerging architectural trends. The up-to-the-minute nature of retail and the responsiveness of chains and shopkeepers to fashion ensures that retail interiors are often ahead of the architectural curve, as it can take up to a decade to realise a significant cultural or public building. In shops, architects have the opportunity to test new, often radical, ideas that may not appear in other architectural settings for years to come - and this has long been the case. From the decorative excesses of art nouveau to the streamlining of art deco, the best examples of architectural decoration are to be found on the most prestigious boulevards, whether it be Louis Sullivan's intricately organic façades of Chicago's Carson Pirie Scott; the delicate art nouveau of the Parisian Samaritaine; or the self-confident art deco monumentality of the recently defunct Barker's in London. Indeed, stores are often the most completely realised manifestations of architectural style.

The V&A's small but utterly engrossing exhibition documents a fascinating, if brief, period in which the sleek stylings of art deco co-existed with the stripped-down aesthetic of modernism. In so doing, the show fits perfectly into a huge surge of interest in the modern movement that includes the opening of a major show in the same museum and another blockbuster at Tate Modern on two of the movement's most influential teachers and artists, Josef Albers and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. As it turns out, Moholy-Nagy, the key theorist of the Bauhaus, actually spent a brief, frustrating sojourn in London arranging window displays for Simpson's of Piccadilly - an extremely odd job that illustrates the fascination and attraction that retail held for the early modernists. Although it is true that the architects, often youthful émigrés, found it easier to get a foothold in the more ephemeral world of retail in what was still a recessionary era between the wars, they also saw no disconnect between visionary, society-changing projects and high-profile shops.

Rather, the latter was regarded not only as a proving ground for architectural innovation but also as the most effective way of disseminating architectural ideas to a conservative public still starved of modern design.

This is still the case and brands are increasingly keen to associate themselves with the intellectual and ­aesthetic cachet of the emerging breed of "superstarchitects". John Pawson introduced the world to his brand of minimalism with a series of stores for Calvin Klein that effectively reinforced the simplicity of the brand, while Future Systems and the younger Sybarite tested their space-age forms on stores for Marni (not to mention Future Systems' extraordinary, extra-terrestrial Selfridges in Birmingham).

And now Tokyo's Omotesando has become arguably the greatest architectural showcase, outstripping the expos that used to disseminate trends. Tadao Ando, architect of sublime and austere houses and temples has turned his hand to the shopping mall, with an overwhelmingly cool creation. Further along, Toyo Ito's complex bird's nest façade for Tod's, Jun Aoki's Louis Vuitton and Herzog & De Meuron's quilted glass at Prada nestle into an extraordinary gallery of architecture.

There has also recently been a re-evaluation of the great stores of the modernist age, the centrepiece of the V & A exhibition. While the fate of the department store seems constantly in the balance, some institutions, notably Peter Jones and John Lewis, have employed architects (in this case John McAslan) to re-invigorate themselves with a contemporary modernism that chimes perfectly with their original intent. Elsewhere, Selfridges has astutely picked up on emerging architects, including David Adjaye and Eldridge Smerin, to design and differentiate luxury departments and lounges.

Still, architecture alone cannot make a brand and there is something uneasy about an architect hawking the same aesthetics to display pants as to house holy rituals. When Vittorio Radice left Selfridges for Marks and Spencer and attempted to use architecture to brand its emerging homewares arm, the result, Homestore in Gateshead, designed by John Pawson, was a disaster. Pawson, who had done so much for Calvin Klein that some globetrotting monks wandered into the NY store and commissioned him to build a monastery in the Czech Republic, exemplifies the problems in architectural retail branding: it is not endlessly repeatable and it can be unpredictable. Pawson has himself become a brand, and brands can conflict.

Not that that is going to stop anyone. Marcel Duchamp, arguably still the defining artist of the age, once referred to window-shopping as "coitus through glass". Architects have, for over a century, been heavily implicit in this act of seduction. For them, boutiques offer the most accessible and public showcases for their work; for the retailers, architects bring intelligence and cool and enhance desire. Just as contemporary art galleries are turning to architects to distinguish themselves from the crowd and become destinations, so, too, retailers are refining a trend that, as can be seen at the V&A, is engrained in the history of modernism.

'The Modern Shop' until June 4,Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7. Tel: +44 (0)20-7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk

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