Exploring the narrative of shopping

I try to shop locally, favouring smaller groceries, the butchers and fishmonger, fruit and veg markets, the independent bookstore and the few boutiques in my neighbourhood who support smaller designers. It involves a little more effort trekking from shop to shop and navigating crowded markets in the rain, but the experience is hugely rewarding. Each one of these establishments offers a very different experience, an unexpected find, fun conversation, a laugh, a cry… I come away with much more than a transaction of money for goods.

I’m not alone in actively wanting to return to the old culture of shopping – you know when you’d made a trip to the town market to buy the weekly groceries, did a little bartering, caught up with the politics of the day, learnt the latest gossip, married off your sons and daughters. Shopping was an event yet somewhere along the way we have lost that element of fun. Allowing for Amazon to decide on our reading list, Spotify to predict our listening and Ocado to deliver our food to me is soul destroying.

Earlier this week I caught up with the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, founder of the exciting practice OMA, who seems to share a similar belief. Recent political events, the ‘digital representations of reality’ as he rightfully says, should be a good wake-up call to pop the liberal bubble and make some fundamental changes. ‘There’s a lot of disruption going on in the world. These events demand that we have a rethink. Do we address consumption in the world?’

Koolhaas was talking at the Vision: Future Retail, a symposium in Amsterdam attended by various companies and creatives. In reality, it is time to reinvent the retail narrative not only from a nostalgic viewpoint, or political, but simply because the current model is no longer commercially working. We connect and consume products in a very different way than we used to. Access is replacing the physical – we are still buying products but for very different reasons. Experience is our new status symbol and it is having a profound impact on how we shop.

What this means is really rethinking the retail space to engage with the consumer, provide excitement, experiences, friendship and a sense of community, help share thoughts and ideology. This could involve experimental retail, spaces that are artistic, pop-ups and temporary structure in unusual locations purely for the purpose of brand awareness. Perhaps they don’t sell anything but brand experiences. It means more and more collaborations with artists and creatives who share a similar vision, and working with social and political causes that also identify with the company’s underlying principles. In the new age of retail, stores need to be become more glocal so the design of the shop floor is locally responsive even if the brand is global.

Although theoretically the digital age should have made shopping easier, more than ever consumers want to connect with the brand in order for a purchase to take place. They want to feel, smell, touch the object, but also bond with the brand itself be it ideologically or otherwise. The internet has become that last purchasing tool, the last click-and-pay.

Some brands are actively doing this. OMA’s Fondazione Prada in Milan is a cultural complex with huge gallery spaces replete with a cinema. More recently the firm has worked with KaDeWe in Berlin, Repossi and Boulevard Haussmann in Paris and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, a homage to the old market square. Collectively they are not only making strong architectural statements but are also expanding the customers’ retail experience into an urban architectural experience. They provide retail as part of your ‘city wonder’ says the firm.

Car companies are also reviewing how to sell cars going forward. On the one hand the collections are now so huge that no physical space, certainly none in congested city settings, can house the full range. Added to this the auto world is in a bit of a puzzle as the next generation refuses to connect emotionally with cars and even less with individual car ownership. Audi City in London, for instance, is a fully digital car salesroom built on the Apple model that hopes to connect with the millennials. In the same way, BMW says it will like to work closer with the likes of OMA to explore shopping as an experience.

Michele Fuhs, head of Premium Retail Experience believes that by 2020 the BMW Group will need to be the ‘point of experience. We cannot remain simply sales focused but address what is mobility in the future, what is car ownership. We are competing with the entertainment industry. For this we need partners. Our brand will be at the centre but it has to move forward.’

Koolhaas says we have been pampered and should be more ambitious and more interesting. ‘We are too placid and predictable’ and need to engage with choice, alternatives and reality and ‘discover pleasures outside the immediate comfort zone.’

In the future we will see more and more of a shift towards brands as media, ones that offer other services, that are inclusive, spaces that are more fluid and flexible in their delivery, and crucially companies need to offer a personal, bespoke experience. Perhaps the shop of the future will be a gallery of sorts, an interactive and exciting exhibition space, and maybe at the end of that experience, that city wonder, we click a button and make a purchase, much like we would a souvenir.

Nargess Banks

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Preview: 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale

Next week sees the start of the Venice Architecture Biennale, curated this year by the outspoken Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The chosen guiding topic is Fundamentals with all 66 national pavilions exhibiting responding to a theme.

Koolhaas’ concern is that over the last century national characteristics in architecture have given way to a more universal language resulting in somewhat homogeneous architecture. At Venice he has asked countries to reflect on their relationship with modernisation over the past 100 years. This is a big departure with recent Biennales that have been dedicated to the celebration of the contemporary.

The three interlocking exhibitions – Absorbing Modernity 1914-2014, Elements of Architecture and Monditalia – will focus on the past and present, and look into the future of architecture. This will be very much a research-driven exhibition with close collaboration with a range of architecture schools including Harvard, MIT and Shenzhen University.

Koolhaas feels that Venice should observe history, and try to analyse where architecture finds itself today, as well as speculate on its future. ‘Architecture, not architects… An umbrella theme for the national pavilions: from national to universal… The Arsenale as performance space…,’ he says of his chosen theme.

He would also like to express the lighter side of architecture. ‘What we hope to do with this biennale is to lift the pressure of constant seriousness of the profession of architecture.’

Biennale president Paolo Baratta adds: ‘With Rem Koolhaas, our aim is to create an exceptional, research-centred architecture biennale. It will be significantly innovative as Rem has conceived a project that involves the entire biennale, which fully exploits its potential.’ He hopes that the event will serve as ‘a reference point and source of inspiration for architecture.’

First held in 1895, the Venice Art Biennale soon attracted international exhibitors with countries creating national pavilions – a format that remains in place today. The Biennale was from the start concerned with the international avant-garde and worldwide movements in art and architecture, and although architecture has been part of the exhibition since 1968, a specific Biennale dedicated to Architecture was only established in 1980. The number of participating countries has increased from 55 to 66 this year.

Highlights this year include the British Pavilion’s A Clockwork Jerusalem by FAT Architects and Crimson Architectural Historians that explores the diverse cultural influences that shaped and were shaped by British modernism in the post war era and over the last century. It will examine how it emerged from a modernity that combined traditions of the romantic, sublime and pastoral with a fascination and fear of the industrial, technology and science fiction to create new visions of society.

Last, loneliest, loveliest… at the New Zealand pavilion, exhibiting for the first time at Venice, will analyse Pacific architecture’s complex response to European modernism.

‘Pacific architecture is light-weight,’ says David Mitchell, of Mitchell & Stout Architects and creative director of the exhibition. ‘It’s made of posts and beams with panel infills, and big roofs. You can see this architecture expressed over the course of the last 100 years, from the M?ori meeting house to the new Auckland Art Gallery Toi o T?maki and Christchurch’s Cardboard Cathedral.

‘I believe there is a great unsung Pacific architecture that has become more distinctive in New Zealand over the last century, as the influence of England has declined,” he says.

Elsewhere, the Swiss Pavilion will see Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery, work with famed architects Herzog and de Meuron to design a retrospective based on the ideas of the Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read an excellent review of the Biennale so far in the FT.

The 14th la Biennale di Venezia will take place from 7 June to 23 November 2014 at the Giardini and Arsenale venues, with satellite exhibitions dotted in various other locations around the city.

Also visit The London Festival of Architecture which starts next week throughout the capital city.

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Book: Project Japan, Metabolism Talks

Japanese minimalist architecture has had a profound impact on European building design, particularly private housing. Yet there is a complex ideology coming out of a more contemporary Japan that has been one of the most influential, yet elusive, movements in modern architecture. Japanese Metabolism is considered to be the first non-western avant-garde.

This spirited movement was pioneered by a small group of young architects in the late 1950s whose utopian visions for cities of the future were characterised by mega flexible structures that symbolised organic growth and relied on modern technology. This is the last moment when architecture was a public rather than a private affair.

Rem Koolhaas is a big advocate of Metabolism. ‘Every architect carries the utopian gene,’ wrote the avant-garde Dutch architect and founder of Office of Metropolitan Architecture.

In ‘Project Japan, Metabolism Talks’, co-written with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Koolhaas sets out to explore this movement through a series of nine interviews conducted between 2005 and 2011 with the surviving members of the movement and those who had a crucial impact on the movement. The result is an oral and visual journey through nine chronological chapters that tells the story of Metabolism in the context of the history 20th century Japan.

Project Japan begins almost like a suspense thriller as the authors Koolhaas and Obrist in turn describe how they came to write such a concise history and analysis of Japanese Metabolism and the journey in which they entered to do so. It makes for quite an exciting opening few chapters teasing the reader to enter what promises to be an exciting journey of discovery.

‘Once there was a nation that went to war, but after they conquered a continent their own country was destroyed by atom bombs. For a group of apprentice architects, artists, and designers, led by a visionary, the dire situation of their country was not an obstacle but an inspiration to plan and think… after 15 years of incubation, they surprised the world with a new architecture – Metabolism – that proposed a radical makeover of the entire land,’ write Koolhaas and Obrist in the book.

Project Japan features some fascinating never-before-seen images including master plans from Manchuria to Tokyo, astonishing sci-fi urban visions and intimate snapshots of the Metabolists group.

This is an intelligently designed book by Dutch designer Irma Boom too, where black-and-white images are interspersed with splashes of orange and hot pink – pages marked by pink bands on the edges represent the nine interviews.

This is an absolutely fascinating read that tells the story of 20th century Japan through its architecture, from its post-war devastation to the establishment of Metabolism, the rise of Kisho Kurokawa as the first celebrity architect, to Expo ’70 at Osaka, the tech wonderland that cemented Japan’s image as a technological utopia and marked the end of Metabolism.

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