Re­tail in the Raw

A Mon­treal fash­ion re­tailer's ul­tra-spare web­sites it's neo-bru­tal­ist flag­ship, David Chip­per­i­field's first project in Canada

Azure - - CONTENTS - By Austin Mac­don­ald

For his first project in Canada, David Chip­per­field goes am­bi­tiously – and au­da­ciously – aus­tere

Af­ter 11 years in busi­ness, the Mon­treal-based fash­ion re­tailer Ssense de­cided to over­haul its web­site, set­tling on what was, in 2014, an early ex­am­ple of web bru­tal­ism, an aes­thetic that shuns con­ven­tional frame­works in favour of stripped-back de­sign. Sim­ple and un­clut­tered, such pages load more quickly, fit all screens and are easy to nav­i­gate and digest. The fol­low­ing year, Ssense (pro­nounced “essence”) com­mis­sioned David Chip­per­field Ar­chi­tects to de­sign a new home­town flag­ship. The re­tailer asked the ar­chi­tects to recre­ate its on­line ethos in phys­i­cal form. The re­sult – a five-storey, 1,200-square-me­tre space de­signed by Chip­per­field’s Mi­lan of­fice and un­veiled in May – cer­tainly does that. In­stalled be­hind the ex­ist­ing walls of an or­nate Sec­ond Em­pire struc­ture in Old Mon­treal, the store is re­ally a build­ing within a build­ing, its sand­blasted con­crete in­te­rior frame­work poured in place. “When you en­ter the build­ing, it’s like en­ter­ing a new realm,” de­clares Thomas Sch­weitzer of Mon­treal’s Aed­i­fica, the project ar­chi­tects who ex­e­cuted Chip­per­field’s plans. “David Chip­per­field and Ssense wanted a very min­i­mal aes­thetic, so es­sen­tially only three ma­te­ri­als [were used]: con­crete, stain­less steel and glass.” As they poured the new con­crete shell, which has dif­fer­ent floor heights than the orig­i­nal build­ing and in­cludes a new base­ment, work­ers pro­gres­sively stripped the 1866 struc­ture of its wrought-iron columns, steel beams and big wooden joists. “This project was a mine­field with all kinds of con­straints,” Sch­weitzer says. “It was quite an elab­o­rate con­struc­tion process.” Among the chal­lenges, Chip­per­field’s de­sign called for low­er­ing the ground floor so that the front door – 3.5 me­tres high by 1.85 me­tres wide – would be at grade with the side­walk. On the top floor, a third dormer was added to the zinc mansard roof to cre­ate a vis­ual align­ment with the fa­cade’s other open­ings below. In­side, there is lit­tle about the store – from its un­re­lent­ing aus­ter­ity to the ane­mic mer­chan­dis­ing – that echoes tra­di­tional re­tail mod­els. Al­though walk-ins are wel­come to me­an­der the cool, al­most damp pas­sage­ways and to browse the sparsely fur­nished dis­play spa­ces (se­lected mer­chan­dise is ar­ranged in float­ing glass cases and on stain­less steel racks that are an­chored by ca­bles to the ceil­ings and floors), the place is tai­lored pri­mar­ily to by-ap­point­ment guests. “You can­not be more cus­tom-made than this project,” Sch­weitzer says. “It was very pur­pose-built.” To wit: eight change rooms ded­i­cated to pri­vate shop­ping ses­sions and akin to gi­ant walk-in clos­ets oc­cupy the en­tire third and fourth floors of the build­ing. With as lit­tle as 24 hours’ no­tice, on­line clients can set a time to come in and try on items from their wish lists. Once shop­pers are en­sconced in their per­sonal sanc­tu­ar­ies, a ver­ti­cal lift mod­ule (VLM) de­liv­ers de­sired gar­ments from the base­ment to a back room on the ap­pointed floor, where Ssense’s stylists then pick them up and trans­port them to the clients in their change rooms. The process mim­ics the ease and speed of shop­ping on­line. Af­ter­ward, some of those high-spend­ing clients (plus any walk-ins who have made it up that far) might head to the café and book­shop on the up­per­most level, where all of the con­crete fur­ni­ture – in­clud­ing a mam­moth pic­nic ta­ble – was pre­fab­ri­cated in Italy. “It’s some­what like an out­door space in the sense that it has a glass roof,” Sch­weitzer says of the top floor. “It’s very much some­thing to dis­cover.”

Pho­to­graphs _Do­minik Hodel

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