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Selfridges

It's the Blob!

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Selfridges' new department store in Birmingham, U.K., pushes the understanding of how a store should look.

Variously described as a “silver blob” or “the spaceship,” the new store that opened at the beginning of September is like nothing else. The British department store group, previously best-known for its iconic, traditional building in the middle of London's Oxford Street, has strolled into the architectural avant-garde with a structure that challenges what we expect of a shop.

The statistics alone are impressive. The store, which first hit planners' drawing boards more than five years ago, cost $66.4 million to build and involved remodeling a large portion of Britain's “Second City” (also known affectionately in the U.K. as “Brum”).

Inspired by a Paco Rabanne chain-mail dress from the 1960s, (according to its London architects, Future Systems), the 250,000-square-foot store has become one of the keystones of a brand new city-center retail scheme in Birmingham known as the Bullring. It is crammed into a space alongside fine examples of Brum's 20th Century industrial past, as well as St. Martins church, the relic of a much-earlier age.

The exterior view is remarkable. The building is curvilinear, with not a straight edge in sight, no windows and a royal blue shell. On its surface are 15,000 anodized aluminum disks, creating an armadillo-like appearance. Above, a skybridge takes shoppers from the store into an adjacent multistory car park. Future Systems chose to make the bridge curved rather than straight. Support for it comes from cables attached to a single point on the store's exterior.

Inside, the exterior's promise is fulfilled. Because the store is built on a steep slope, there are entrances at different levels from the streets outside, including a number from the Bullring mall. According to general manager Sarah Halsall, the intention was to maximize accessibility on every level so that no one floor would dominate another.

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But the first thing that hits shoppers as they try to get to grips with the asymmetric interior is the atrium, with its high-gloss white balconies and dizzying array of escalators. (The balconies are not for vertigo sufferers, as you have to lean precipitously over: they slant into the atrium void from bottom to top.) A glass roof tops the atrium.

As with the store Selfridges opened in Manchester in 2002, the retailer used a different architectural practice to design each floor. In any other British department store, the lowest level would be known as the food hall, but this store's footprint can accommodate a range of different eating options, a cookshop, a luggage department and the kids' clothing area. The curved interior space (designed by Future Systems) effectively creates departments and differentiates areas. Adjacencies prove to be no problem.

Much of this floor takes its cue from the atrium's curved high-gloss fittings. There are 10 “eatover” counters, serving Indian, Japanese and Italian cuisine, among others, and a wine department contained within what looks like a red plastic oil barrel turned on its end and split in two, then fitted with shelves internally.

Lighting for the space is also unusual, with outsize suspended balls of twine serving to diffuse the light from spots above.

Riding the escalator to the second level, the vista is courtesy of another design consultant, Eldridge + Smerin (London), and contains the young fashion industrial-chic of Selfridges' Spirit department. With exposed metalwork, a seamless poured-resin floor and silver photographers' reflectors overhead, the feel is resolutely urban. There is a significant number of branded concessions on this floor, each different but each fitting within an overall Selfridges envelope. The retailer's chief architect, Martin Illingworth, laid out design guidelines in a pack sent to each brand.

Also of note on this level is the Technology Department, with a floor consisting of “crumbed” green rubber not unlike artificial turf in look and feel. Techno-geeks can enjoy themselves in an area where the walls are fashioned from expanded foam, similar to that used by photographers in their equipment cases. There is access at this level to the Bullring mall.

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The third level has been designed by Stanton Williams, the London firm responsible for much of Selfridges' Manchester store. It's a floor of obvious contrasts. Menswear is stark with a stripped-for-action combination of dark gray resin floor and an exposed ceiling with overhead cable trays. Beauty has a cool green resin floor. Shoppers can access this area via the skybridge.

The fourth and top retail floor, created by Cibic & Partners (Milan) in conjunction with Lee Associates (London), features international designer names and the Gallery restaurant, which provides a bird's eye view of the Bullring interior. Luxury is the keyword with a combination of resin and carpet for the floors, curved walls and a series of split-level zones.

The temptation is to wonder if this marvelous space will stand the test of time. Illingworth, Selfridges' head of store design and development, has no doubts: “We set out to create a first-class contemporary retail environment and really move things forward,” he says. “The response has been very positive. It's a major contribution to Birmingham and I'm sure there are lots of other U.K. cities that would like a building of this stature.”

For the moment, then, Selfridges has redefined the boundaries of retail design.

Client: Selfridges, London – Martin Illingworth, director, store design and development.

Design: Future Systems, London; Lee Associates, London; Stanton Williams, London; Eldridge + Smerin, London; Cibic & Partners, Milan.

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Outside Design Consultants: Arup, London (structural, mechanical and electrical engineers); DHA, London (lighting design); Faithful & Gould, London (project management); Boyden & Co., London (quantity surveyors).

General Contractor: Laing O'Rourke Midlands Ltd., Dartford, U.K.

Suppliers: Specialist Ceiling Services, Wakefield, U.K. (ceilings); Birmingham Tile & Mosaics Ltd., Birmingham, U.K., Bolidt, Ambacht, Netherlands (flooring); AMS, Redditch, U.K., Umdasch Concepts, Amstetten, Austria, Dula U.K. Ltd., Chertsey, U.K., Mivan Ltd., County Antrim, Northern Ireland, U.K. (fixturing); Haden Young Ltd., Amington, U.K., (lighting); Proportion London, London (mannequins); Holloway Plastics, Walsall, U.K. (props/decoratives); Bull Signs Intl. Ltd., Horley, U.K. (mall signage); Rivermead Signs Ltd., London (directional signage).

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