Friday, February 27, 2009

Rock Me Like a Hurricane

We have a truly incredible new addition to this city, by one of the most talented architects around at this point. It's the new Armani store at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Sixth Street by Doriana & Massimiliano Fuksas, which opened last week. It's Fuksas' first completed project in New York, and I couldn't be happier that he's made it here. Evidently I'm not the only person to feel that way, because all week they've had visitors stopping by just to look at the interiors, if not to shop.

--All Armani images courtesy Studio Fuksas.
I was hoping to get my own photos of the store, but that's prohibited, unless I want to travel down the long, bumpy road of dealing with Armani Corporate's PR department. Luckily, it was photographed beautifully by the Fuksas people, and I'm not convinced I'd have taken significantly different shots, myself. The employees were extremely nice and helpful, though, perfectly willing to chat with me and offer advice ("take the elevator to the top and walk down"), information, and their impressions. Most of them seem to really adore working in such a stunning space. I know my own reaction every time I climb the similarly, albeit not as elaborately sculptural stairs at the Metropolitan Opera. As many hundreds of times as I have, I never get sick of it.
--Photo courtesy New York Cliché.
The grand gesture of the whole thing, which everyone is buzzing about, is of course the staircase. Fuksas conceived it as a whirlwind sweeping up through the center of the space and thereby connecting all the different levels. 
A second, smaller staircase down to the lower level greets the visitor right upon entering the front door, but this is only an hors d'oeuvre.
The real magic happens further inside.

On the ground floor, it reads more or less like a true spiral. 
It gradually widens as it reaches the top floor, stretching and elongating its lines like gloriously white pulled taffy. 

This as much as anything amplifies the drama of the procession up or down the stairs. Every step offers a whole different perspective, lines converge and diverge; its forms continuously shift making the experience ceaselessly intriguing. 
It was constructed in sections with a tube metal frame covered with steel mesh and then sealed with what, according to the press release, sounds like a kind of polymer resin. 
It was then brought in in pieces, and assembled on site like a giant puzzle.

If I had to find something, I'd say I wished the concept had been more fully integrated into the spaces on either side of the staircase. There was a wonderful design opportunity presented by this tornado that could have extended into the layout of the adjacent spaces, even the furnishings. Wind-swept walls and displays cast out from the spiraling wind storm. Ramps and stairs permeating through the volume, undulating sensuously from level to level and morphing into shop floors. Continuing the spiral out into the surrounding spaces would've helped it feel more like a cohesive part of the whole interior. I'm particularly thinking of another very recent project by UNStudio, which I feel accomplished this beautifully: their MUMUTH Music Center in Graz, Austria. At Armani, the staircase instead reads as a somewhat isolated sculptural event stuck into an otherwise commonplace stack of shop floors. 
Granted, some of the display cases respond directly to the curves of the stair, but they border on looking like a forced afterthought.

On the other hand, perhaps the staircase becomes considerably more dramatic because of its singular feel in the design. The angular, without question beautifully designed display racks and relatively rectilinear floor arrangements create a foil, a simple backdrop against which the highly sculptural staircase can truly reverberate. It stands posed in the center of the towering volume like a gorgeous runway model in an exquisite Armani gown, frozen in time. Its sinuous curves ribbon and fold and drape down around one another as if perfectly tailored to do so. 
And in its defense, perhaps an entire store treated to this kind of folly would be far too overwhelming, disorienting, and distract from the merchandise--though I do believe a careful handling of surface textures and materials could have counteracted that--the architecture already threatens to upstage the clothing, as it is.
If you find yourself in the neighborhood, I highly recommend stopping in to see this majestic interior. I only glanced at the menu, but the caf√© looks delicious, refined, and very classy. 
That's if you need a culinary excuse to go.

Armani Fifth Avenue
Doriana & Massimiliano Fuksas, 2009

©2009, Ryan Witte

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