Much has been written about the idea of iconic architecture or signature buildings by internationally recognized architects. They are, and rightly so, often criticized for their lack of integration in the urban context as well as non-representation of the culture in which they are implanted.
Fashion brands have been using this technique for roughly the past 20 years in order to use architecture as branding material. What good can associating luxury brands and signature buildings bring to today’s architecture? Apart from worldwide fame and recognition through association, it has brought about innovation in construction as well as in the way the users experience buildings.
Luxury brand flagship buildings benefit from unusually high budgets, compared to other buildings of similar size, and have a striking appearance that marks the imagination through shape, size or colors. One of the best examples can be seen with the House of Dior in Seoul, designed by Christian de Portzamparc. Shaped to represent the drape of a piece of fabric, the façades are composed of 5 story-high, huge, white, fibre-reinforced polymer panels that enable the building to distinguish itself from the rest of the rectangular buildings lining up the street. These panels also support the weight of the building, allowing a column-free interior. Though artistically impressive, it is the construction method behind them that makes them such a beautiful sight to see: 11 panels manufactured to fit together to the millimeter, while measuring over 20 meters high and up to 7 meters wide. (See image) Their construction method was inspired by the building of hulls of boats. It is a long and complex molding process of applying layers of glue and resin over tailor-made wooden molds. After a few layers are spread, a structure is added to strengthen the panel and hook it to the building. Such a unique and innovative construction method for a facade could never be used without the time and money the client was ready to invest in making it.
Luxury brand flagship stores also offer a unique user experience derived from the need to bring something more to their clients, in order to counterbalance the rise of online shopping. That is what helped the rise of the “maison” (house) style of retail. It basically gives the user the feeling of shopping in the house of the designer rather than a regular store. This means being willing to sacrifice expensive floor area that could be used to display pieces of clothing or accessories and instead adding plush sofas, coffee tables or pieces of art. This too is also clearly visible in the House of Dior, where despite small site, interior designer Peter Marino, readily sacrificed a lot of space to recreate the idea of having a succession of rooms on every floor reminiscent of French interior design. Through this clever spatial distribution a client can have an entirely individual service experience, never encountering another client while shopping. It is by conjugating product, service and environment design that these spaces take shape and become unique.
Though iconic buildings tend to ignore their context and play by their own rules, it is undeniable that they also bring something good to the architectural discourse. Thanks to the budget and services that luxury brands are willing to invest in their flagship stores, they are helping construction innovation and rethinking space design in order for the architecture to offer a unique user experience. While this might sound farfetched for some, let’s remember that, after all, Koolhaas said it himself in his Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping: “retail is the single most influential force on the shape of the modern city”.