Technical innovations with glass – a material whose transparent properties afford a multitude of potentials for numerous industries – has always played an especially essential role for the retail industry.
Retail, as a commercial enterprise that relies on the creation of desire, has itself played a significant role in shaping the advertising industry and, by so doing, created for itself the possibility to garner the attention of potential customers from a distance. As we know, ‘Soap Operas’ carry this appellation as a direct result of early advertising on television through programme sponsoring. (And let us not forget, without technical innovation in the glass industry, none of this would have been possible.)
However, the ‘bricks and mortar’ establishments from which the retail industry does much of its business – and which are often physically located near to their direct competitors – have always had an equally important role to play in enticing customers. Even with the advent of online shopping, they continue to do so today. However, the role of the physical store has had to evolve in the face of the ‘digital turn’, and it is in this respect that the technical developments of glass craft can still go hand in hand with the commercial goals of the retail industry. As a result, today, more than ever before, architects continue to experiment with the physical and conceptual possibilities of glass, in order to create the cultural effects that can meet the changing needs of the retail industry.
100 YEARS OF WINDOW SHOPPING – DISPLAY AND DESIRE
Over the past century the world of retail has changed significantly in numerous ways. The methods used to physically display goods have also evolved along with these changes. From the first window displays – as can be seen in examples of storefronts in the UK from the 1920s – products were simply displayed as objects placed randomly on the shelf of a vitrine. In essence, little concern was paid to how these goods were displayed, nor indeed, how often the displays were changed. From the 1950s onwards however, various retailers began to realise that the front window could serve as a useful device for enticing customers in more targeted ways into their stores. This was especially true during the Christmas season – with Macy’s display windows probably being the most notable and quoted example of this new approach.
What provoked this change however, can be explained in part by changing building technologies and in part by certain cultural changes that were taking place at the time. In the first half of the previous century (during Hollywood’s heyday in the 1930s), dress forms and mannequins became increasingly popular. Relating oneself to the glamourous stars of the Silver Screen became a cultural norm for many, and as a result, retailers responded by enabling their customers to envisage themselves wearing the idealised ensemble of the fashions of the day. At the same time, displaying new fashions and trends every week created a new level of excitement and anticipation about the products and the in-store displays. Typically weekends were used for creating and dressing and the resulting displays were revealed on Mondays. With the introduction of plate glass however, it became possible for the first time for retailers to display these styled mannequins in large storefront windows; no longer in-house and no longer as disassociated items on a shelf in the window. As such, technological innovation in glass production – namely the craft of producing of larger glass plates – opened up possibilities to bring the retail offer to the fore and entice the passerby, thus using the facade as an attractor in a new and unprecedented way.
Building upon this evolution, during the second half of the previous century, retailers of all kinds began to experiment with their storefronts in order to make these more and more attractive to their customers: not only did mannequins display fashion, but they began to inhabit household scenarios with new products that promised to make our lives more convenient and leisurely. (Emancipation was envisaged in the shopfront). At the same time, lighting was employed to promote night time window-shopping and to direct the gaze to the products on offer. However, towards the end on the century, some retailers started to introduce a holistic approach to their stores: no longer only focusing on the window display incorporated into the shopfronts, but also with respect to how these could be integrated with the overall building.
THE BUILDING AS A HOLISTIC EXPRESSION OF BRAND VALUES
UNStudio’s first retail project of this kind dates back to 1994, when a department store in Emmen (the Netherlands) wished to renovate its existing building and completely change its appearance. In this project, it was decided to play with both the reflective and transparent qualities of glass in order to activate the facade as an integrated whole. For this reason blue-green glass elements were tilted and curved above the display windows, in order to reflect and display the surrounding environment across the facade. The display windows themselves were also tilted to follow this concept through. This approach enabled the context (and the customer) to be superimposed on the facade, whilst giving the appearance of an entirely new building.
During the same period however, the majority of retailers continued to disregard the aesthetics of the building, until a few well-known department stores – such as Selfridges in the UK – and retail brands – such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes and Prada – revealed unprecedented flagship stores, all of which exploited the opportunity to brand their specific company values by way of the display of the full building facade, rather than the storefronts alone.
Over the intervening years, UNStudio has been commissioned to design numerous projects where the architecture of the overall facade is used to reflect and represent the core values of the client’s brand. These have included various strategies for department stores – both renovations and new builds – as well as shopping malls.
With projects such as the renovation of Galleria West department store in downtown Seoul (2003 – 2004) and the newly built Galleria Centercity in Cheonan (2008 – 2010), focus was placed on the idea of the building skin as display. In Seoul, the application of 4300 glass discs with integrated laminated film, alluded to a shimmering dress during daytime, while the envelope became a large-scale pixelated media facade at night. This ensured the attraction of the store during both day and nighttime. The new facade created dichroic reflections during daytime and fast became both a landmark and a ‘place to visit’ in Seoul. Such an approach was unprecedented in the city, as for once a media screen was not being used for advertising in the usual sense, but instead became a surface for the display of a cultural expression that could change over time.
The Galleria Centercity in Cheonan is a large scale department store with integrated communal and cultural functions. The building is organised by a large central void surrounded by rotating platforms at different heights. This design approach was chosen in order to create an open, almost museum-like, experience in all parts of the store interior. However the rotation of these platforms also triggered the creation of a wave-like effect on the exterior glass facade, thereby highlighting the public functions of the building through visual inside-out relationships. The double layered curtain wall facade, comprising large glass plates, principally covers and closes off an inside-oriented programme. However, the effect of the shifting vertical mullions creates a constantly changing, fluid pattern as people move around the building. Since its completion, the building – which was the first to be completed in this new district of Cheonan – has become a meeting point and social hub that is strongly linked to the commercial culture in the town.
In both of these examples, glass is not used by virtue of its street-to-product transparency, and thus its ability to instantly reveal the goods on offer within the stores. It is instead crafted across the entire facade – and with integrated lighting effects – to create an abstraction that alludes to the essence of these products. During the evening, the media facades in both buildings further accentuate this effect, whilst simultaneously ensuring a holistic approach to branding. In both cases, the entire buildings are ‘painted’ and ‘clothed’ in ways that express their meaning and function through abstraction, thus creating a new form of display, attraction and enticement.
21ST CENTURY GLASS CRAFTSMANSHIP
In the first half of the previous century, technological invention brought about an increase in the size of glass elements and new techniques for producing float glass. It may also be noted that at the beginning of this century, innovations in the structural use of glass have also come on to the market by way of retail projects. The use of glass in the Apple stores, along with the testing of different methods for gluing glass, have meant that the architectural dreams of the 1920s, which envisioned all-glass buildings, have come true, albeit on a smaller scale.
The Apple Store projects, which are designed to be as transparent as technically possible, are an expression of the brand that emphasise its technical prowess and innovative approach, whilst also reflecting the design excellence of its products. However, when designing facades for shopping malls, you are not tasked with reflecting the values of only one brand, but of many brands housed in one building. As such, the new mall, with its collection of retailers, still needs to become recognised and to stand out as a brand in itself and as a destination of choice. At UNStudio this has resulted in a new sensitivity and focus on the craft of designing with material, geometry and optical effects.
The experience at UNStudio is also that the integration of architectural lighting and the atmospheric specificities of each project have become an extremely important focus of retail designs. For example, at the Star Place shopping plaza in Kaohsiung, Taiwan (2006 – 2008), fitted glass fins were introduced, which, during the day appear opaque and, as such, blend in with the aluminium clad areas of the facade. At night however, the frit is illuminated and thus dematerialises the glass, creating a hue of colours and soft tones across the facade surface. All of this has been made possible by engineering the lighting fixture in accordance with the glass fins and the fritting type. During design stages, experimentation and testing were carried out using scale mock-ups to manually adjust the set-up, because it was not possible to simulate the visual effect created by the physics of light and glass by using digital tools. This custom designed detail is what makes the project both bespoke and an attractor to the passerby.
From the outset of the design for the Hanjie Wanda Square retail plaza in Wuhan, China (2011- 2013), the idea was to create a visual array through custom-designed and repeated fixtures. These fixtures, which are actually individual lamps on the facade, are mounted on to the back structure and incorporate both the cladding and the lighting fixtures. The 42333 spherical elements cover a surface of 18000m² and are combined with glass plates with laminated film. The specific positions of the spheres in relation to each other create the effect of movement and reflection in water, or the sensuous folds of silk fabric, while the spherical lamps clothe the building in pearl-like jewelry which dynamically guides visitors into the two main interior atria.
THE HERE AND NOW – BROADENING THE PERFORMATIVE QUALITIES OF GLASS
Today we still observe that ideas concerning how to craft and how to assemble glass, alongside ongoing technical innovations for the structural use of glass, significantly impact what we design for our clients. The cultural shift to the digital market has meant that retailers have had to think again about the role and design of their physical stores and this has led to some extremely creative results – including artistically inspired ideas, where store windows become a playground for artists. Interventions such as this open up new possibilities for retailers to make their mark.
Currently UNStudio is working on a structural solution for complex large-scale glass displays for a retail project in Eindhoven. Each display – measuring 5.5 metres wide and 7 metres high and exceeding every international standard format in the glass industry – weighs 3,000 kg. As a result, the desired ‘invisible’ system for mounting and supporting the glass structures made the engineering of this project a uniquely challenging undertaking, but one that with the expertise of ABT Engineering in collaboration Si-X became possible. The individual glass plates will now be seamlessly affixed to one another by means of various types of glued connections. Never before has this type of glass facade construction – at such a scale and without visible metal elements – been realised in the Netherlands.
For another retail project, located on the PC Hooftstraat in Amsterdam, UNStudio, in collaboration with Arup and Octatube, has recently experimented with the fluid properties of glass to create the effect of vertical drapery on the storefront. The facade is a celebration of textiles, both in form and function; three curved glass panels flow down from the upper floors in a design that mimics billowing transparent cloth. In a fluid gesture, fashion and architecture come together to represent and celebrate the geometry of high-end, tailored clothing,
Alongside projects such as these, UNStudio continues to experiment with different ways to craft glass, such that we can continue to push the material and its potential effects beyond simple glass plates. With our sister company UNSense we have recently brought to market a new glass product in the form of printed BIPV modules called ‘Solar Visuals’. The aim of the product is to integrate PV in order to be able to use the full facade surface for energy harvesting, whilst simultaneously creating an aesthetic layer that is based on an algorithmic principle of pixilation. This approach enables endless design possibilities: the cladding modules can be used to mimic other materials, such as bricks, in order to be able to blend in with existing buildings, or they can be printed with more abstract, geometric or colorful patterns. The choice is completely left up to the designer of the building. UNStudio’s Knowledge team originally worked on the research, design and development of this new technology as part of a European research project and in collaboration with the Construct PV Consortium. However, as it needs to go to market in innovative ways, UNSense joined forces with the printing company TS Visuals and ‘ECN, part of TNO’. Currently companies are being selected to partner with and to invest in this product, including large glass companies, while the modules undergo further development.
Today, in a world where a large portion of the retail business has shifted over to the digital world, one could be forgiven for questioning how important the traditional shop window actually is, or indeed, whether holistic facade displays are still required. But when we consider the human experience and how potential customers will still navigate within both the physical and the digital worlds, the tangible elements that encourage us to enter a space are still connected to materiality and tactility – perhaps even more so than ever before. I would argue, in fact, that to be connected with the real world and to experience how things are made has today become more important in fashion, design and architecture. It is therefore not so surprising that when retailers are developing their stores, what architects and designers can offer are the skills required to create a design that incorporates the art of crafting materials and making this feature an integral and important part of the brand experience.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Autumn 2019 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Astrid Piber is a Partner at UNStudio and Senior Architect in charge of several large-scale design projects globally. Since joining UNStudio in 1998, she has worked on numerous projects, from the initial urban study and competition phases through to realization. In projects such as the Arnhem Central Station masterplan and the Raffles City mixed-use development in Hangzhou, China, the interdependency of functional, economic and future-proofing criteria has led to building organizations that go beyond segregated typologies.
Working with a trans-scalar approach – from large-scale projects to their interiors – designing to add value through user experience has been key. Sophisticated place-making strategies have also been part of the design approach for the retail developments on which Astrid has worked. These include department store projects, such as the Galleria Luxury Hall West in Seoul and the Galleria Centercity in Cheonan (both South Korea), shopping mall projects such as Talee Star Place in Kaohsiung (Taiwan) and Hanjie Wanda Square in Wuhan (China), and boutique retail projects in Amsterdam (Netherlands). In all cases, the projects are designed to be inherently contextual, while commanding their own unique presence.