Story, form and function in retail architecture

Monday 16 October 2017

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Story, form and function in retail architecture

In order to survive in our fast-paced world, you must be able to respond immediately to changes. However, the construction industry seems to be an exception. Urban developments, infrastructure and buildings are planned and built for the long term. An office, hospital or shopping centre has an average lifespan of 50 years, so the construction and materials have to last at least that long. This justifies the investment and is also desirable from the perspective of sustainability. But does it fit well with the requirements of today?

Cities are full of empty office buildings and other unused real estate. There is a surplus of space due to changing demand: people increasingly work from home or in flexible workplaces, and the permanent desk in offices is disappearing. It makes sense to transform empty buildings and make them suitable for these new forms of use. However, a building designed for one particular function often cannot be easily transformed for another purpose.

Form follows function
The principle of ‘form follows function’ has been architecture’s motto for almost a century. The purpose of the building determines the structure. For example, a traditional office building has a regular (column) structure, with separate offices on the window sides, and a passageway in the middle of the building. If you want to turn it into a shop or department store, then you must change the structure rigorously, as columns and daylight are often not desirable.  

Architecture as a brand carrier
When we speak about architecture in the retail sector, however, function is not the only factor that determines the form. One must also ask: what does the building, at that location, mean for the brand and the story?

The role that the building plays for the brand can be divided into four types:

  • Flagship store or Brand store                   
    • Recognisable and distinct, the brand leads the way
  • Stand-alone store
    • recognisable, distinct, functional
  • Brick & mortar store
    • Functional, exchangeable
  • Shopping centre
    • recognisable, distinct, functional

The difference lies in the degree to which the brand is a visible part of the architecture. For a flagship store or brand store, the brand can even be iconic.  Consider, for example, the Prada Epicenter in Tokyo, or the Samsung flagship store in New York. Here, the form is a direct translation of the brand experience or story. The architecture pays little heed to the built environment in which it is located. The products sold are subordinated to the shop, which acts more as a showcase of the brand identity. Such structures would be difficult to convert to another function or brand because of their distinctive character.

The design of a stand-alone store for a brand follows the following circle: form follows story follows function. Functional requirements are translated to a stand-alone store via practical implemention. Here, the brand is a major broadcaster, but the architecture is less pronounced. The stand-alone store maintains a balance between the products sold, the functional requirements and the design of the building in its environment. Converting to another brand with the same function is possible; converting to a building with a different purpose is more complex.

Brick & mortar stores can be found on the high streets of towns and cities. These retail buildings form part of the street’s overall experience and are designed to be used by multiple brands and functions. Stores are often converted; for example, a shoe store into a perfumery, or a bookstore into a butcher. The façade is the only architectural element the brand can use to project itself on the high street. However, because of urban and municipal requirements, the character is often restrained.

Initially, the shopping centre seems different, as it houses multiple functions, stores and brands. It’s essentially a covered, folded high street. A purely functional form would therefore seem appropriate here, as the structure is primarily determined by the environment, logistical routing, layout and customer flows.

But shopping centres will (and must) also position themselves as an umbrella brand whose brand identity is reflected in the building’s architecture. And, thanks to the scale and space the building occupies in its environment, a shopping centre is often the ideal structure with which to make an architectural statement.

This requires a rigorous transformation of existing shopping centres, with their strict construction structure. Closed walls and low ceilings have to be broken up in order to create light and space. The large, sealed boxes in towns and cities are making way for open, transparent, attractive and inviting architecture, suitable for the new functions and brand stories of today and, hopefully, the next 50 years.


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