On Fifth Ave., glamour in glass and steel
It's a paradox of our time that while the Internet keeps making disembodied shopping quicker and easier, actual shops make ever more impassioned pleas for attention. At a time when anyone can buy virtually anything from anywhere, Fifth Avenue's newest landmark is a see-through cube of glass that acts as a walk-in sign for Apple's subterranean showroom.
At the same time, the French handbag-maker Longchamp has opened a SoHo boutique with an orange, cascading staircase that upstages the merchandise. Though one is baroque and the other austere, each of these new stores blares the triumph of a single modernist material - glass for the computer maker, steel for the accessorizer - and each creates a wow by illusion.
Apple's cube, designed by its regular architectural team of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, dispenses with a traditional framework, making the glass look simultaneously solid and immaterial. For Longchamp's Busby Berkeley-worthy staircase, British designer Thomas Heatherwick makes 55 tons of inert metal appear kinetic and liquid. The steel river begins at the ceiling, slides down a wall, flows from one story to another, splits into terraced streams that act as stairs and finally stops dead at the sidewalk.
Other components also appear to pour and eddy. The staircase rails are made of sheets of Plexiglas melted to make them billow like clear drapes. Upstairs, the bags are displayed on curving wooden panels that peel away from the ceiling, hanging in sheets of laminated ash like strips of falling-off wallpaper. Heatherwick's architecture bespeaks expense: Curves do not come cheap and neither do Longchamp's bags.
The theatrics of shopping
Spending money is a performance art, and stores provide the sets. Someday, these theatrics may seem outdated. We may all soon shop in bed, clicking "Add to Cart," letting the computer fill in our credit-card numbers and then lying back and waiting for products to arrive. Meanwhile, glamour still depends on the ability to ogle expensive goods. In Manhattan, where real estate is an object of carnal desire, the storefront remains a basic human need.
A simple plate-glass window festooned with goods is no longer enough to stimulate the desensitized public. To compete with soulless megamalls and the Internet, shops are returning to their loyal old helpmeets: architects. The ancient Romans concentrated their stores in dense arcades, an idea that the 19th century picked up with enclosed gallerias, which in turn begat the modern indoor mall 50 years ago.
Like everything else meant to make money, the mall has recently acquired a new upper limit of signature design: The low-slung megalith of Omotesando Hills, which recently opened in Tokyo, was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando. (Ando's few American commissions include an expansion of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis.)
Icons of capitalism
Architecture has long been a handmaiden to advertising. America's best skylines are the product of benevolent megalomania: Media titans, robber barons and politicians erected buildings to glorify themselves or project a corporate image onto the world. Long before banks and airlines began slapping their names on baseball stadiums, corporations had namesake skyscrapers. Woolworth, Tribune, John Hancock, Sears, Transamerica, Pan Am, Seagram, AT&T, Hearst: These are the names of capitalism's monuments.
The Longchamp store, with its flamboyant come-on, belongs to a long commercial tradition of indoor drama. Olivetti's 1954 Manhattan showroom combined ultra-high modernist chic with the tactile grit of a famous sand-cast wall by Costantino Nivola. This was not just a place that sold typewriters: It was an environment in which to contemplate the quintessentially modern activity of writing by machine.
More recently, Frank Gehry provided his signature metallic sails for the Issey Miyake store in TriBeCa, and Rem Koolhaas gave Prada in SoHo an interior so coolly deluxe and fabulously pricey that it made the shoes and handbags seem slightly déclassé. Like those haughtily stylish environments, Heatherwick's store intimidates the sloppy shopper. His design seems to demand appropriate attire and suggests a measure of muted veneration that a purse might not necessarily warrant on its own.
Apple's house of glass
While Heatherwick's tumbling staircase halts at the store's front door, leaving SoHo's streetscape undisturbed, Apple's new store represents a particularly aggressive attempt to impose a single manufacturer's brand on the cityscape.
Just as Apple has compressed various forms of leisure and work into a series of elegantly plain multipurpose containers, it has taken over Fifth Avenue with a totally transparent box. The glass panes do not hang from cables, struts or beams. No columns interrupt the wraparound clarity. Aside from inconspicuous steel joins, sheets of glass support other sheets of glass, sandwiched together for strength in the manner of plywood. The all-glass elevator slides down a glass tube, wrapped by a spiral of frosted glass stairs fastened to a glass rail. This is architecture at its most extravagantly self-effacing.
The store sits surrounded by a range of midcentury peaks: Edward Durell Stone's GM Building, Gordon Bunshaft's Lever House and all the stark, rectilinear titans of midtown. In this company, Apple's cube reads as a small-scale apotheosis of modernism. By comparison, Philip Johnson's 1949 rural Glass House, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, is a steel-girded clunker. (A citified version, the Urban Glass House, is under construction in SoHo, and the concept has not aged well.)
While all those towers are compromises between purity of intention and the demands of gravity, the Apple cube does all the things the modernists said architecture should do: It dematerializes, its geometry is pure, it is lightweight and gleaming, it honestly expresses its materials.
And, like all self-respecting accomplishments in the "form follows function" tradition, the store is a headache to maintain. To preserve the shine on its new toy, Apple employs an army of sweepers, wipers and buffers who work as ceaselessly as a mainframe server. The investment appears to be worthwhile, because as Jonathan Ive, Apple's chief product designer and creator of the iPod, has demonstrated again and again, simplicity may be expensive, but it sells.
By Justin Davidson, Newsday Staff Writer