- May 2017
- 20 Designers and brands that define our tomorrow
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Author: Even Jehl
- Publisher: Frame Publishers
Cheungvogl was named one of “20 designers and brands that define our tomorrow” alongside OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, led by Rem Koolhaas), Snøhetta and Olafur Eliasson by Frame Magazine.
Frame Magazine, 116, 20th Anniversary Edition, Frame Publishers, May/June 2017.
In conversation with Evan Jehl for Frame Magazine, Judy Cheung and Christoph Vogl, founding partners of Cheungvogl, describe how their work overcomes traditional categorizations by re- interpreting definitions and typologies to create contemporary socially relevant architecture.
Judy Cheung and Christoph Vogl of Hong Kong-based firm Cheungvogl take ‘social relevance’ as a guiding principle in their design of physical retail. Their approach is the product of a sensitivity to dialectical materialism and technological futurism. For physical spaces to retain their relevance in a world where the functions they host are increasingly supplanted by digital media, design must be viewed as a means of actively communicating with its users rather than as a static container or scaffolding. It must become more fluid in its adaptability to different contexts. Cheung and Vogl elaborate on these ideas in a conversation about how they see future projects and the field as a whole.
Even Jehl: The Au Pont Rouge restoration is an ambitious example of the efforts retailers make to keep physical retail spaces relevant in the digital age, both mirroring the comfort and convenience of online shopping and going beyond the online shopping experience to offer immersive social and cultural experiences. You have also in the past created more conventional retail concepts that are driven more heavily by aesthetic ingenuity, such as the Aesop stores. Do you see yourself working on any new retail concepts in the near future?
Christoph Vogl: Au Pont Rouge enabled us to manifest our idea of social and cultural relevance in a “retail experiment”. As our fundamental design philosophy derives from the social and cultural implications on the usage and qualities of physical space, especially in the digital age, we could employ robotic automated technologies to re-inform and enhance the spatial experience and to re-create the social and cultural meaning of the historic structure and the urban context.
It is the conceptual response to adapt to changing customer behaviours and the role of the department store in a time where online stores affect not only the traditional retail model, but also the urban context and what defines inner cities, in which retail has always been the catalyst for central urban activity and public life. By applying postmodern technologies, we are able to revert the process - instead of trying to keep up with changing communal patterns influenced by advancing technologies we are able to create an ambiguous hybrid platform to influence public activity, while creating a socially, culturally and economically relevant precedence. This conceptual and associative plurality is one of the main focuses to create social catalysts. Currently, we are working on different retail projects, where these theoretical explorations enable us to implement new approaches to overcome predefined thinking patterns and re-inform coherent spatial qualities.
Judy Cheung: The responsibility of reviving Au Pont Rouge not only as a commercially successful and significant retail project, but also as a cultural landmark to Saint Petersburg, especially as the role of the classical department store has to be re-interpreted in general, moves our approach to create essential projects through architectural re-programming into a particular focal point. This project does not only have to answer the questions a normal retail project is confronted with, but also has to perform holistically and substantially on many different levels. The multi-faceted concept demonstrates how architecture is not only limited to spatial, aesthetic or programmatic approach in isolated solitude, especially in a time where social, cultural and economic complexity is increasingly rising and changing. The meaning of a project becomes more valid the more it relates, embraces and communicates all these different aspects. The sum of all these facets configures social relevance and therefore the success or failure of a project.
In our strategy for Aesop, the aesthetical design language with a clear focus on craftsmanship, materiality, detail, haptics, etc. forms a strong identity, moving the brand from being a niche brand to a stronger global presence. We developed and implemented the design guideline for the brand in the course of creating over a dozen flagship and concept stores as case studies, forming a starting point for the re-branding of Aesop’s store concept in Asia and its information of store concepts in Europe and the Americas. The creation of aesthetic and functional integrity forms the guiding principle to inform the brand’s future expansion. Nevertheless, the underlying strategy of the store concepts and design guidelines for Aesop is deeply related to the investigations of interactions and communication. We have described our design approach for retail projects and the translation of brand essentials and values into architectural design as “branding by operation”.
Even Jehl: In projects such as your Aesop store in Cityplaza, the display was a direct affirmation of storage, conveying both an industrial ruggedness and honesty. Are traditional typologies of retail and workspaces outmoded, or can they be recontextualized to generate new meanings, as this project seems to do?
Judy Cheung: The traditional “staged” retail experience with over-the-counter consultation and back-of-house operation bound staff is certainly outdated in a time where internet and social media have nurtured educated customers who know brands, products and competitors better than the sales team themselves. In Aesop Cityplaza, we wanted to create a case study of human interaction and consultation focused retail experience. The homogeneous packaging design of Aesop allowed us to combine display and storage in one entity without aesthetical contradiction, while creating an honest, sophisticated yet simple, design language for the brand. However, the social, educational and foremost consultational component is the key factor, which validates the existence of the physical store. The re-definition of display and storage, as well as the elimination of counter hierarchies – there is no front or back to the counter – enables us to put the staff into the responsible role as professional consultants, rather than store keepers or sales personnel. The social component of personal dialogue and interaction is what we see as the distinctive justification of a physical store against the online competitor. The store concept has to follow these values, transport and communicate them in the way that the aesthetical quality informs a consistent environment. The re-interpretation or adaptation of traditional retail models only becomes compatible in the coherency with common relevance and adequate interpretation and quality of the physical space and design. Otherwise online shopping will always be the more successful retail option and experience.
Even Jehl: If you do see yourself working on new retail concepts, will they continue in the same vein as Au Pont Rouge, where the actual 'retail' experience takes a backseat to the social experience, or will your projects continue to draw on both approaches?
Christoph Vogl: The retail sector is almost like looking at society in general through a lens. It is like a model, which reflects changing social and cultural perceptions and communications and especially where information and future technologies directly influence codes and standards. Retail is the field, where you see changing social behaviours and contextual response directly being translated into numbers: the turnover and profits. In our responsibility to create advanced concepts, which are commercially successful by being relevant to customers, we see our work strongly related to the social experience. Creating successful retail models is like creating case studies of social interaction and communication to inform a responsive build environment. Within this model, the actual design language is a communication tool. In our work, we see the meaning of physicality becoming more important than the appearance and aesthetics. Aesthetical aspects become a transporter of information and influencer of action and interaction.
Judy Cheung: The retail sector is highly related to information and communication. The challenge, which emerges for physical retail is the connection between information, communication and social behaviour through information technology. Any sector, which is in any form related to the above, will face similar challenges, the media sector for example. You see how publishers and the entertainment and music industry have changed their entire philosophies to stay relevant in the market and to their customers. Engaging social experience is one facet of social relevance, but it could also be translated into different concepts. The main issue is that we don’t see offline retail being successful, without re-informing itself with a true meaning beyond mere consumption related information and communication. The online world is way more advanced in these aspects for the offline world to compete with it anymore. The true beauty in this challenge is that we are now enabled to rethink the meaning of the physical space in so many aspects and possibly create better architecture.
Christoph Vogl: A general re-thinking in architecture and design is indispensable. The enhancement of our build environment does not only have to be an interpretation of direct indications of technologies. There are far greater possibilities in exploring the indirect implications. Social habits and perceptions are probably the most substantial factors to re-inform and enhance spatial qualities. Retail is one of the sectors, which is first and foremost obviously affected by these changes, but inevitably other fields and typologies will gradually transform. We are currently experiencing two major industrial revolutions transforming our societies: the digital revolution and the interlinkage between information technology and automated processes. These changes will not only affect societies, but subsequently the urban context and architecture. We are probably just at the beginning of a long process of re-interpretation of values and terminologies. This is why we put “social relevance” so much into the centre of our process, in order to apply and introduce new thinking in our architecture. In a way we are “theorist in disguise” as we are not trying to confront and overload the users with too much complexity, but to provide integral and essential solutions.
Even Jehl: One of the main aspects of your vision for Au Pont Rouge was to restore its status as a social and cultural forum and not just the transactional space to which most modern retail concepts are limited. Considering that technology allows us to carry out most everyday tasks – work, shopping, education, etc. – from anywhere, is the social aspect of a physical space crucial to its continued relevance, since that is the one thing that technology cannot fully replicate? If so, how does this guide the design process?
Judy Cheung: The mobile internet is in many ways a simulation and replica of the analog world. It is in many ways the direct translation of the physical world and infrastructure, its market places, public streets and squares, libraries, theatres, parliaments, brothels, private homes and advertisement billboards. Subsequently, there are also many aspects, which information and communication technology have taken out of the physical world and therefore created “free” space. In Au Pont Rouge, we wanted to demonstrate how we could focus on the spatial qualities by creating a hybrid, where technology, online and offline, would handle the entire operation and logistic processes in the background. The spatial quality is indirectly the consequence of applied technology.
As the mobile internet is a replica of the physical world, it is a redundant effort to replicate it back into the real world, which is a common misconception, especially in retail design. Advanced technologies will ultimately help us creating better physical spaces. We should concentrate on the classification between online and offline. The only space, which will never be replicated digitally, is the physical space with all its sensual, cultural and social experiences and qualities.
Christoph Vogl: To understand the implications of postmodern technology and the possibilities for the physical space therein, it is worth to investigate the term “Public Domain” as it has won such relevance with the introduction of the internet. The term "data highway" manifested the equality of digital information to physical infrastructure lingually, and puts the digital information in closeness to the transitional public space metaphorically. Indeed, transitional spaces transform with the mobile internet to equally efficient and meaningful spaces.
The transitional space, or circulation area inside a building, is the least use-specific defined space in the build environment and therefore it could develop into the most interesting place within a building. It could host any physical or digital exchange and interaction in any form as it is not designed to one specific need or use, therefore it also does not exclude any form of use. The interpretation of circulation areas translates best into the use of mobile information technology, as it is an in-between space, neither here nor there. The ambiguity of the circulation area holds great potentials to become the central spine of any public, institutional or commercial building, whereas more defined spaces could form silent capsules and retreats around it, designed for specific needs, like private Chatrooms. The former "empty" space in-between two other spaces is now filled with content.
Our office is young and old enough, to know the physical and digital world as being seen as separated entities, as we experience it as the merging hybrid unity that it is today. The great challenge is to re-inform the build environment with these new meanings and transforming social behaviours.
Even Jehl: What is the importance of flexibility of function in a design, where a retail space or a parking garage also serves as an art gallery, or a school campus hosts a mixed-use development, as in your submission for NEW AARCH?
Judy Cheung: In the traditional model, architectural and urban programming follows a categorical approach: use specific areas are proportional defined and allocated and set in relationship to each other. In the digital age, the perception of space by the user has completely shifted and advanced. The specification of space by function seems obsolete to a certain degree when the (digital) activity completely overcomes these predefinitions. The classical categorization of rooms does not describe the flexibility, of how we live and organize our lives anymore. The labelling of areas inside a building or zoning in the urban context does not reflect the perception of space anymore.
Christoph Vogl: The mobile internet has also dissolved the spatial definition of public and private. The classical telephone booth is the perfect symbol of how private communication was once space allocated and defined within the public realm and privacy was granted by closing of the door. Telephone booths have disappeared since not only technological advancement, but also altered social behaviour has redefined the notion of public, private and communication. These changing behaviours have led to a point, where specific spatial definitions are not necessarily described anymore within the classical architectural and urban categories. User activities and consciousness have become ambiguous and overlapping. We see the need for architecture and urban planning to respond to these changes to be socially relevant. Flexibility and ambiguity in our thinking and doing should be reflected in the spaces we inhabit. By combining different aspects and providing flexibilities, we are able to re-prioritise hierarchies and form contemporary and relevant models, where the build environment actually relates to the lives of people.
Even Jehl: Do you see flexibility becoming even more important in the future for design, and why?
Judy Cheung: If you look at successful contemporary museum concepts for example, you will find that the art alone is no longer the sole driver of their success. Art is a social catalyst, surrounded by events and happenings, architectural sensation and integration of community. If you visit the Tate Modern in London, seeing the art might only be one of the reasons why you are drawn to the place. The social activity, the communal experience and the extraordinary architecture and location are equally important. Not only the perception and definition of space by the user has changed, but also the expectation of what a place has to offer in order to be attractive. The specification of uses and definition of spaces and their functions seem outdated in a time where you can handle your business on your smartphone on the train, from your bed or from your holiday destination. Only 20 years ago, you had to physically go to your workplace to access your email. The mobile internet has completely dissolved all these spatial borders and function related definitions and as a result, singular use specified spaces and places will not satisfy people's mind-sets, expectations and demands anymore. Because of these changes, we are only at the beginning to understand how they will influence the perception of the build environment, especially as they are indefinite and in constant flux.
Christoph Vogl: In our work, we overcome predefinitions as the key to move forward and to re-define traditional interpretations and thinking patterns to create truly social relevant architecture to form holistic and sustainable concepts. Future technologies, such as virtual reality, augmented reality, automatization and the further development of smart homes will change the perception of space fundamentally and way beyond our imagination. We have to overcome traditional thinking patterns to create architecture, which accommodates these transformations. At the same time this re-definition of the build environment allows us to develop the qualities of the physical space to an unprecedented extend, relating to the sensations of materiality, haptic, detail, light, etc. The adaption to current and future technologies allows us to build better architecture with better spatial qualities than ever before in history.
Even Jehl: In Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas introduces the concept of 'architectural lobotomy', in which the envelope of a structure becomes completely alienated from whatever multifarious functions and activities it contains, and thus giving no indication as to what sort of human activity it hosts. In Koolhaas’ manifesto, the livelihood and energy of these activities is lost in the homogenous façade of a skyscraper, but perhaps as the flexible spaces such as those your studio has pioneered accommodate more functions, the design instead becomes an entity, a statement in its own right, when not tied to a particular function. Do you see yourself potentially implementing a concept such as this one in your designs? If so, does this freedom open up design to entirely new typologies?
Christoph Vogl: You are absolutely right. Rem Koolhaas compares the relation between building envelope and growing building volume and concludes, that at some point the relatively small portion of surface does not and is not capable of representing the inner life of the building anymore. The main reason for this disconnection is disproportion. If you think this equation further, there might be a wider truth in it than just a mathematical one. Disproportion in any way leads to disconnection.
Since the implementation of the New York skyscrapers, as described by Rem Koolhaas, the disconnection between emotional and rational aspects in architecture has further widened, although the emotional aspects are now expressed in the outer appearance as architecture is widely judged by its aesthetics and formal aspects and therefore becoming increasingly important to developers and architects likewise. Rational aspects, such as developers’ demands and regulatory requirements have instead generalised the inner life of architecture. Again, the reason for this discrepancy is disproportion.
In our approach to create social relevant architecture, we apply architectural re-programming to re-inform architecture by programme and aspect associative parameters. We disassociate ourselves from use and form specific predefinitions and replace those with interpretations. We try to overcome pre-occupation to inform the content and the physical representation. Therefore the performance, program and appearance of the building are the result of theoretical explorations and avoid the influence of typology related definitions. The flexibility in use and interpretation results from user specific association. In that sense our design approach could be described as a direction towards a new typology or even new typologies, but as it is open for interpretation also as a non-typology. As we are still working to enhance the original brief specific use of each project, we could also call it super-typologies in an act of provocation. We find the true beauty in the openness for interpretation and therefore somewhat standing outside any traditional categorizations. Ultimately, we see traditional typologies, at least in the urban context, being dissolved by future technology developments and resulting social, cultural and economic shifts anyway.
Even Jehl: Do you see a greater emphasis on both reconnecting the public with and making use of nature and the organic, through sometimes highly unconventional interjections such as the Shinjuku Gardens, in future projects? If so, what is the significance of this?
Judy Cheung: Shinjuku Gardens is seminal in the formulation of our approach as it manifests the idea of “social relevant architecture”. The project shows how radical re-thinking could be very pragmatic in terms of cost efficiency and still result in a poetic appearance, which would be related to and embraced by the common public. Technically the green “wall” creates a visual barrier between the car park and the community. At the same time, it does not enclose the building physically, so the car park is still naturally ventilated, avoiding costly mechanical ventilation and smoke extraction. By thinking the concept forward, we concluded that the plantation should be wild growing flowers and grasses, creating an environmental microcosm for local flora and fauna in the densely populated urban context. The natural biotope is maintenance-free. In all these aspects of performance, appearance and acceptance, the integration of the biotope creates the significance of the project.
Christoph Vogl: At the same time, we are sceptical of the current general trend to integrate plantation into and onto buildings. Firstly, a green appearance does not create a sustainable building, especially if the integrated plants are mostly for aesthetical reasons or are directed to the environmentally concerned consciousness. The energetic performance of a building is a technical and engineering result and plantation can only perform within a holistic concept to add to the overall energy balance sheet in a passive strategy. Secondly, we feel the integration of plantation onto building envelopes can often distract from the clarity of the architectural qualities. This issue illustrates our central aim and our commitment to creating social relevant architecture - not to ignore complexity or to find comfort in simple formal answers, just as current political trends try to blend out the complexities of society and economy and avoid reality in apparently simple, but untrue answers. Architecture which is self-justified fails. We have to re-think predefinitions in this changing environment and society and confront all the complex challenges our profession is presented with to find solutions, which improve upon our lives and our build environment. Most of all, architecture must be relevant to society. We don’t develop architecture in a monologue sense – we understand architecture as a dialogue with society.
- March 2017
- Retail Revolution - How to get physical in a digital age.
- Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Author: Jonathan Openshaw
- Publisher: Frame Publishers
Retail Revolution - How to get physical in a digital age.
Frame Magazine, 115, Frame Publishers, Netherlands, March/April 2017
Jonathan Openshaw in conversation with Judy Cheung and Christoph Vogl, founding partners of Cheungvogl.
Jonathan Openshaw: How did the project first come about and what was the brief?
Christoph Vogl: Au Pont Rouge is part of a larger development. Our client acquired almost an entire city block of which the old department store is a part of. The original plan focused on the renovation of the development, creating offices, residential and within Au Pont Rouge the creation of a commercial shopping complex.
In 2012, the idea emerged that the project has potential of being more significant to Saint Petersburg then just being a commercial department store and raising the expectation to a higher level. Experts and consultants from the high-end retail and fashion sectors later joined the team. In the process, over 200 architects and designers were considered of which a team of architects, including Kengo Kuma, LDS and Cheungvogl, were invited to create different aspects around the open and flexible brief to rethink Au Pont Rouge as a holistic and revolutionary new concept. The only constraint was that, by the regulations of Saint Petersburg, the original appearance of the building had to be maintained and restored to the original building plans.
The brief got refined in the process. The economic situation changed dramatically from the beginning of the project. The Crimea crises and the following sanctions, as well as the falling prices for natural gas and oil at the international markets sent the Russian economy into turmoil. Despite the difficult situation, the client was brave enough to uphold the vision, including the instalment of the robotic system.
Jonathan Openshaw: What are some of the special requirements of designing for a luxury consumer in Russia? What are the main similarities and differences with other markets?
Judy Cheung: Russians are very friendly and warm-hearted people and what can be said about Russians generally, applies especially to the people of Saint Petersburg. There is a deep love and admiration for art and culture, and there is a broad knowledge and awareness about their heritage. Russians love their writers, poets, philosophers, composers, artists and above all the famous ballet. In terms of presence and density of culture throughout the city, probably only Paris can compare to Saint Petersburg. Au Pont Rouge is located in closest proximity to The Hermitage, the Admiralty, Saint Isaac Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, the Saviour of Spilled Blood Church and many other historically and architecturally important theatres.
In addition, Saint Petersburg has 5 million residence and over 5 million visitors per year. By restoring the glory of the over 100 years old structure within the culturally rich context of the city, we have always understood the project has an equivalent significant cultural aspect, both locally and globally, as it is a retail project.
Christoph Vogl: Even though the original department store is 110 years old, the brand itself is new and we were literally equipped with great freedom to test and develop a new thinking that we believe would work to set new benchmark locally and internationally. Established brands sometimes lack the bravery to go further and explore experimental ways to develop the brand, architecture, and/or product, as they can be afraid of being estranged from their existing customers. In this project we felt, that if we made the project relevant to the city and the people, we could make it successful and memorable beyond commercial terms.
As new and experimental the concept is, it is also meant to be timeless, which is especially important in the historic context of the architecture and the city. The robotic system for instance, is a completely new stance in retail, but definitely, a viable future concept as automated process becomes more and more a part of our daily life.
Judy Cheung: Au Pont Rouge is culturally too significant to be just a common retail project. We always wanted to create something people could relate to as a Saint Petersburg institution. If they felt its significance, they could love it as a space as they would love the meaning of the old restored structure to the city.
Jonathan Openshaw: What was the design process – how did you respond to the brief and evolve the concept?
Judy Cheung: We started the design process by reviewing the meaning of the classical department store in the late 19th century. It is interesting to see that the creation of department stores had a much wider social and cultural relevance to society than the modern department store concept would suggest. For instance, the ability to buy clothes in a general store broke down social barriers. The working class could afford to buy ready wear clothes, which until then were tailor made and only accessible to the upper class.
More importantly, department stores became social catalysts within the cities, defining the inner city and city life. People would spend time on this social stage, where restaurants, bars and cigar rooms would invite customers of different social classes and backgrounds to spend time, to socialise, to see and to be seen. This social transformation was revolutionary and one of the main points, which caught our interest. Could we create a space, which could be a social catalyst? Also, is the old concept still relevant to society or should we review the entire meaning, socially and technically?
We wanted Au Pont Rouge to become a social hub with a meaning to the city rather than just being another place of consumption. The aim was not to create an empty historical shell, but to recreate its meaning with relevant content. The product range is exquisite, including niche products, down to the scale of handcrafted timber toothbrushes from Japan or sandals from Korea. We wanted the retail concept to focus on the individual product itself. In a sense, the curated products become an architectural material. We did not want to create a conventional “market concept”, where products are sold from huge piles of stock. We wanted to reduce the display to the essence of presentation, almost museum-like. This would allow us to create spacious flexible areas to accommodate other activities or multi-functional.
Christoph Vogl: At the early conceptualisation stage, we envisioned to utilize a robotic system to handle all logistics, including stocks and purchases. This would not only free up the space, but also enable the staff to engage with people, rather than being sales staff and stockist. The robot would enable people to focus on interhuman exchange.
Interestingly enough, the development of the classical department store at the end of the 19th century came after the first and the second Industrial revolution, when more people moved to the cities, which were in need of labour forces to work in factories. These new jobs generated a certain income, which created demand and ability to purchase more and better products.
Today we are experiencing the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution, the age where digital information is interlinked with automated processes. In a way, this new era reconnects us to the old department store concept of the 19th century. That was probably the most exciting aspect of the project, to take part in actively shaping and applying such historic terms, which normally is very abstract.
Jonathan Openshaw: Can you talk us through some of the key design details?
Judy Cheung: Atypical to most department store design, which natural light and city views are blocked, we aimed to create a strong relationship between the four main ingredients: the outside city context and life, the historical building, the new spaces and the historical atrium. We wanted the new and to the old to coexist and strengthen each other respectfully. The structure was heavily damaged and most historical ornamentations on the ceilings and beams were lost. Within the restoration, the distinctive art-nouveau staircase and balustrades were carefully restored and repaired to their original conditions.
Christoph Vogl: To express the authenticity of the architecture, we decided to created quiet and calm spaces between old fragments and restored structural elements, which could define areas but not boundaries or presume a path through the building. We wanted visitors to experience the interweaving of old and new, the city life and the historic structure. We overlaid the partially irregular historic grid with the new grid, one that is based on defining sequence of spaces that interlink with one another. Semi-transparent glass panels are used, which allow at any point within the space, a co-relation to the old structure, adjacent spaces, and the city context.
The natural light of Saint Petersburg animates the spaces depending on the time of day and season. The light condition during winter is very crisp and clear, whereas in the summer time, the space transforms into a very warm and subtle setting. No matter where you stand in the space, you are always connected to the external environment. The almost water-like reflecting industrial concrete floor supports the tranquillity quality of the space, while the utilitarian metal-mesh ceiling spares any design expression to substantiate the serenity.
The key design aspect however, which makes this approach possible, is the integration of market specific research and technologically thinking. We integrated a robotic system in the background of the store, which operates all logistics and purchases silently. Therefore, we were able to design product specific exhibition spaces with a strong focus on the experiential quality of space, which spares of stocks and shelves.
Jonathan Openshaw: How did the idea for the robotic system come about and can you talk us through its functionality?
Christoph Vogl: When we analysed the department store concept, we asked ourselves if technology could be applied in a smarter way than simply used as a superficial communication and promotion tool. We found that the robot could help us to allow us to redefine the entire store operation, which would connect online and offline shopping and create a completely new interpretation of retail.
If a customer decides to purchase a product, a consultant scans it through a mobile application and it is automatically added to a virtual basket. The customer can continue the journey throughout or even outside the store without having to carry the selection of products. Upon purchase, the robotic system proceeds the order to the point of sale. The mobile application will further be available to access the system online from outside the store and the purchase can be delivered to any location outside the store. The ecosystem of operation connects online and offline shopping and informs an entirely new store concept, where the classical trading process, stocks and logistics are removed from the display area to create a place for intellectual exchange, consultation and spatial experiences.
Jonathan Openshaw: Introducing robots has freed up the shop floor for use in other ways – describing it as an ‘exhibition space’. Can you tell us more about the thinking here?
Judy Cheung: Au Pont Rouge offers a range of uniquely handpicked niche products from around the world. It appeared natural to understand and present these products in a singular and focused manner to express their history, ingredients and artisanship. With the help of the robotic logistics, stocks are removed from the display areas, so the space can be curated and designed to unfold stories more specifically about the engineering and creativity that are imbedded within the products. The displays are product and sensory specific. For instance, fragrances are placed on filigree stands of different heights that sway slightly when you test the samples. Paired with the scents of perfumes, many visitors resemble flower fields when they walk through this installation. We curated each exhibition around the product range. Even auditory sensory is distinctively composed and mixed for different areas throughout the different floors. This creates the experience of an undefined journey.
For the spaces are designed with an open exhibition concept in mind, the flexible multi-functional spaces also serve different forms of exhibitions and events. Since its opening Au Pont Rouge constantly presents art exhibitions, the Saint Petersburg Fashion Week exhibited in there and a major Paris fashion house held a banquet event. The Selfie Room is very popular place for screening, workshops and fashion photography as well.
Jonathan Openshaw: You mention that the store is designed as ‘museum format’ – can you say some more about the convergence of retail and culture here (stores such as Selfridges in London have run a Shakespeare season recently)
Christoph Vogl: Andy Warhol predicted that someday, all department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores. If you look at the global commercialisation of art and art institutions, this prediction is certainly true. In terms of department stores as being museums, I would not be too certain, as commercial products cannot replace the intellectual discourse and social aspect of art. The irony in Andy Warhol’s art would also suggest seeing either development very critically.
Judy Cheung: People refer to the term “art” with all kinds of consumption related products and behaviours, the art of coffee making, for example. Someone who indulges in this “art” will certainly relate to coffee in a deeper way than the mere act of consuming it, but still it does not make the act of making or drinking coffee an art form. The comparison between retail, museums and art is certainly true when you refer to products, which borderline and cover both fields, in fashion, Comme Des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto or Alexander McQueen are great examples.
However, in terms of connecting a product within a space and in the awareness of customers’ engagement, it is definitely an interesting way to put the focus back onto knowledge, meaning, artisanship and background data. The reference to a museum in the retail sector has to be understood as a comparison of how space is used.
Christoph Vogl: We refer to the “museum format” firstly for the spatial quality and secondly for the cultural and social meaning of the institution and its interpretation. Selfridges itself is known as a cultural and social institution by its history and historical importance. The greater challenge for such an established institution is less on how to relate to culture, which can be achieved through events and branding, but may not represent a formula for success in the long run in itself. For department stores to stay socially and culturally relevant, understanding the changing social habits in parallel with reviewing the holistic store concept, we see is probably the greater challenge in the long-term development. This is exactly how we redefined the department store concept in Au Pont Rouge.
Jonathan Openshaw: What happens to the human touch here and those more emotional interactions in retail – does it allow the shop assistants to take on different roles too?
Judy Cheung: Indeed, with the new store concept we were able to put the team into a much more important and responsible role. Now they can really concentrate on consultation and customer relationship rather than being bound to sales and logistics. For this reason, the team is specifically trained in every aspect of product knowledge, engagement and services. Most team members have a background related to the arts, fashion, design or other art related fields, in order to be able to relate to the subject and communicate on an adequate level. Most importantly, the team is composed of very open and friendly personalities, which we feel makes the greatest difference. Performance is conceptualised down to the smallest detail. The simple uniform includes designer sneakers to support healthy postures and comfort through the daylong routine of servicing.
Christoph Vogl: The physical store is the place where a brand can connect best with its customers, where it can communicate and interact directly with the customers on a personnel level. The employment of a robotic system only enabled us to strengthen the human side of operation and interaction, which employment of information technology and automatization should really be about.
Jonathan Openshaw: Why is it important to integrate aspects of digital innovation and technology (such as the Selfie Room) into physical retail spaces? How can physical spaces blend the physical and virtual worlds better?
Christoph Vogl: People like to share their experiences in the social media and brands constantly try to break into these circles of friends, as personal recommendation is more successful than anonymously targeted promotion campaigns. We extended the idea further to create a social interactive space by providing visitors with the self-reflection in huge mirrors within an exceptional space with perfect light setting, to animate mirror selfies, which carry the geotag of the store when shared online. This works the same with any landmark, like the Louvres, the Eiffel Tower – any image shared on the web is fundamentally an advertisement for the city, the institution or brand – and/or oneself.
Judy Cheung: What was more important to us than simply to create an advertisement space was the idea to explore a new kind of connection between the online and offline experience. Some brands integrate computers, iPads or screens into their stores to achieve some sort of online/offline experience, which seems rather irrelevant specific to users’ experience. The Selfie Room shows how this connection could work very effectively and naturally, even in the absence of technology designs. The connection between the physical world and the digital one is in fact very simple - it is already in place, here and everywhere. The connection is in fact less a technological challenge, but a question of how to make it relevant to users. In social media, you will find interesting ways of how people use this space creatively, enjoying themselves and eventually sharing it with the public or friends.
Jonathan Openshaw: Although technology is used, it never becomes too dominant and the overall impression of the design is one of space and serenity. You mention ‘space is the new luxury’ could you talk more about this?
Judy Cheung: Providing a physical space is a luxury in a world where every information, every item is constantly available and updated online. In a time where the online world literally creates a virtual space, filled with information and data, which connects people with people, places and things on a non-physical level, therefore, the presence of a physical space must have a strong focus in contrary to the online experience. We now have the great opportunity to rediscover qualities of physical space as we are freed from the necessity to provide analog information.
Before the internet, you had to visit different stores physically to compare products and then decide on what to buy. Today you do not have to leave the house at all to purchase anything. You might visit a store because most likely you have already checked its offers online.
At the same time, stores can predict customer demands and behaviours by analysing online data. These changing dynamics create a completely new environment of how people interact or how people act within a physical store.
Christoph Vogl: Analog information requires space and infrastructure. By not having to allocate space to information as a key component, the design can focus much more on curating spatial qualities and users’ experiences.
Retail is only one of the examples. You might think of all kind of spaces and places where information is required and exchanged such as offices, libraries, schools, infrastructure, stations and airports, etc. In the future, the main function of public libraries will not be of providing quiet reading and archival of books, but rather the provision of communal spaces for researching, learning, working and co-working. The human interaction will be more important and the space itself will have to adapt to these changing behaviours. The library of the future will not be visited because of the information it stores, but for the quality of space, it provides for people to exchange intellectually on different levels. It will gain a greater communal and social importance. When all information is available online and when every product is purchasable online, then why having physical spaces to offer either? Providing a space is luxurious and it only makes sense, if this space is socially, communally, and culturally sound. The digital world has really challenged the physical world’s definition and in the future architects will not only work with engineers and consultants, but equally importantly with IT experts to redefine the meaning of these institutions and buildings.
Judy Cheung: Many department stores have been weaken due to steep online competitions and many are trying to regain momentum with events, promotions, face-lifts and makeovers instead of understanding and evaluating the greatest advantage they have over online stores: the physical spatial experience and all the possibilities within. It is fundamental to radically rethink the qualities and meaning of what timeless physical space can provide.
Jonathan Openshaw: What were some of the challenges of creating such an innovative redesign in a 110-year-old heritage building like Au Pont Rouge?
Christoph Vogl: Technically, the historic structure itself created the greatest challenge. In Au Pont Rouge, the introduction of the massive robot required deep investigation of the existing structure and its capability to uphold such heavy weight. It is not without obstacles that we were able to construct the system within the existing building structure. In addition, the irregular historic structure made planning for mechanical and electrical engineering more complicated due to its inherit floor to ceiling height, regulations coupled with the design aspirations. However, the greatest challenge was to introduce such innovation into the historic context with a key emphasis and respect for the cultural meaning and history. We believe that the robotic system and the connection between online and offline experience resembles the historic innovation of the classical department store, and therefore are the continuation of its historic heritage in Saint Petersburg.
Jonathan Openshaw: What is most exciting about the department store retail format today – why are we seeing so much innovation here? They were put under a lot of pressure by the internet and e-commerce but seem to have come through this process transformed into something far stronger than before, taking the best of both worlds.
Christoph Vogl: You are absolutely right. Every challenge also presents a great opportunity to transform in order to survive. It is an almost evolutionary process. I think we are currently only witnessing the beginning of this transformation in many aspects of everyday life. Many institutions will not be able to operate anymore the way they used to, as old concepts will gradually be rendered unnecessary in the face of new technologies.
At this point, the future development in retail is quite unpredictable, as current political changes globally might trigger economic changes over and above the challenge the online market presents. It is not unthinkable anymore that within the next decade, more local products and markets might evolve, simply by the possibility of changing international trade agreements and possible rising taxes on cross-border trade.
Judy Cheung: The online challenge to retail has certainly created a desperate need for department stores to adapt and to rethink their strategies, but we find that retailers are still searching for the right model. It is one thing to implement new technologies, but how to use them effectively and intelligently might be the more critical question. I believe the most exciting aspect of today’s state of department stores is that with the ongoing Industrial Revolution of automatization, we will see much more technological advancement in this sector in the upcoming future.
It is inevitable augmented reality, robots, drones, user interfaces, first attempts of artificial intelligence, etc. will change the retail sector and life in general.
At this moment, we are working with different clients on new concepts and interpretations of retail models in which we are exploring concepts further than Au Pont Rouge; however not for the sake of change or the integration of technology, but rather to making these new concepts more relevant for customers and users experience. The redefinition of cultural, social, and economic relevance is surely the most exciting aspect in this transforming world and a key factor in our work.