Project DescriptionOn its opening day in May, some 75,000 people passed through the oversized glass doors of the Uniqlo flagship store in Shanghai, filling every inch of the 38,751-square-foot emporium. Booming Shanghai has a population of over 19 million, so architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson (BCJ), while not expecting quite such a turnout, knew the store would be busy. And for principal Peter Bohlin, despite all the complexities to consider in the design—including an unforgiving project schedule of three months from start to finish—the locals drove the scheme. Bohlin, known for engaging retail environments, wanted to create a sense of activity and wonder for shoppers.
When the architects first arrived at the site, wonder was in short supply. The location was good—an intersection at the edge of Shanghai’s main shopping district. But the vibe was strictly negative when it came to the shabby, vacant shell of an office building on the site, which the architects had no choice but to reuse.
BCJ partnered with Shanghai-based Jiang’s Architects & Engineers, the building’s original designers, to get a handle on its tectonics. Code negotiations, on the other hand, proved thorny, and the woolliest regulations governed the building envelope. BCJ wanted to unify the façade—a jumble of openings and setbacks—but city officials kept reducing the space with which they had to work. The architects were left a zone less than 1 foot deep in which to construct a new skin.
Ultimately, the architects transformed the exterior by wrapping it with a shallow light box. Fluorescent fixtures backlight a metal skin, which is perforated in a pattern that resembles draped fabric. “Our goal was to create an icon,” explains BCJ principal-in-charge Robert Miller. “We masked the structure with a translucent veil slipped over the existing façade. It didn’t change the thermal envelope, and we got an even glow across the skin of the building.”
Conditions provided challenges, but also creative opportunities: The top of a ramp leading to below-grade parking projected into the ground-floor shopping area, so BCJ integrated it into a topographic stairway leading to the upper levels. And rather than disguise a subway entrance hidden at the rear of the building, the architects opened up the station corridor with a glass wall, allowing commuters to see into the dramatic Uniqlo atrium.
“We asked ourselves, ‘How do you get people to go upstairs?’ ” says Bohlin of the five-story store. “In my early years I did a good deal of cave exploring—spelunking—and for a young architect it was an object lesson: I learned about titillation and about how to draw people into a space.” Bohlin’s cave analogy is closer to the truth than you might expect: A 67-foot-tall atrium, called “the shard,” sculpturally cuts through the floor plates of the existing structure, bringing in daylight and luring people upstairs. Its geometry is not unlike Bohlin’s cave, but made out of steel gravity tubes and glass panels.
On the ground floor, mannequins—in futuristic acrylic capsules that move along a circular track—ring the bull-nosed front of the store. Robotic lighting tracks both the mannequins and customers, putting everyone on display. Ultimately, in a space packed with as many challenges as the shelves are with colorful products, the architects orchestrated a playful experience.