Few projects have challenged GreenbergFarrow more than the building of Uniqlo’s global flagship store in Manhattan.
Consider the stakes: Uniqlo is Japan’s leading apparel retailer. The 36,000-square-foot, warehouse-style outlet in SoHo would be the world’s largest Uniqlo store and the district’s largest single-brand fashion store. My company, a national architecture, planning, engineering and development consulting firm, was charged with executing concepts created by Wonderwall, a Tokyo design firm, and delivering Uniqlo’s Japanese-flavored retail experience to New York shoppers.
We were to manifest a vision of modern Japan, offering a store environment that’s beautiful, clean, well-lit and well-organized. The project encompassed the cellar, ground and second floors of a SoHo landmark, requiring full-scale renovation of a century-old building with 7000 square feet in additional support space.
And then there was the timing. Uniqlo had already mounted a massive marketing drive publicizing the opening date. Committed to this intractable timetable, and dealing with a client half a world away, we were forced to adopt a 24/7 approach to integrating our operations. To minimize possible future disruptions, we resolved as many details as possible “up front,” including management of personnel schedules.
Ready, Set, Go
An expedited design and drawing process took only four months and construction was then completed in another four months – half the normal time for sites this large. But a lot of detail was packed into those eight months. Working with Wonderwall designers, we had to convey Uniqlo’s style within a historic façade. We needed to unite two disparate cultural and retail environments.
Design factors that work in Japan had to be altered to suit American customers. Elements such as exposed brick, large white columns and vast space were used to add historical dimension to the store’s streamlined simplicity. The design had to coordinate the vibrant, cutting-edge style of Uniqlo’s Japanese outlets with the neighborhood’s architectural landscape.
The building’s exterior (though not its interior) had landmark status. To obtain landmark permits, GreenbergFarrow had to add rooftop mechanical systems that would remain invisible to pedestrians.
Language barriers were compounded by time-zone differences. We did have staff on both sides who spoke fluent Japanese and English and, initially, incoming Japanese correspondence was translated into English. As workloads expanded and time tightened, however, all correspondence began to transpire in English until we stopped translating altogether. But we had to press ourselves to clarify any communications ambiguities.
Then, as with other multilingual, cross-global projects, words themselves were replaced by drawings and sketches as the means of monitoring progress and conveying design ideas. Daily e-mails of images were our sole communications conduit. We compiled hundreds of sketches to help us adapt Japanese ideas for American consumption. At milestone moments, a Uniqlo representative would fly to New York to ensure that information was being fully understood.
Educating the Clients
The urban setting made documentation particularly complex. Even domestic companies are often stunned by the complicated paperwork involved in urban development, especially in dealing with a retailer’s first urban location. Our six-person team provided detailed explanations of documentation, zoning and siting demands. The group worked for two months – including nights and weekends – to organize construction documentation. We prioritized drawings describing major design elements and left many details and coordination tasks for the construction administration phase.
But for the best retail architects, the cardinal rule – for any project, simple or complex – remains the same. Architects must be able to think like a retailer to fulfill a retailer’s vision. Distance, language barriers and other hurdles can’t be allowed to get in the way of successfully delivering a project for a client, even if they are housed 6700 miles away.
Navid Maqami is principal, architecture, and founding director of the New York office of GreenbergFarrow.