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Retail Revolution - How to get physical in a digital age.

Jonathan Openshaw in conversation with Chui Lai Cheung and Christoph Vogl, Frame Magazine, 115, Frame Publishers, Netherlands, March/April 2017.

Cheungvogl has created an open exhibition, retail and event space around a robotic system within the restoration of the 110-year-old iconic department store and UNSESCO World Heritage, Au Pont Rouge in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Completed in 1907, Au Pont Rouge located along the Red Bridge on River Moika was built in the tradition of great European department stores. Following the revolution in 1919, the building was renamed and converted into Volodarsky Sewing Factory and in the 1930s, the original cupola was demolished.

Read more about Au Pont Rouge here.



Jonathan Openshaw: How did the project first come about and what was the brief?

Christoph Vogl: Au Pont Rouge is part of a larger development. Our client acquired almost an entire city block of which the old department store is a part of. The original plan focused on the renovation of the development, creating offices, residential and within Au Pont Rouge the creation of a commercial shopping complex. In 2012, the idea emerged that the project has potential of being more significant to Saint Petersburg then just being a commercial department store and raising the expectation to a higher level. The only constraint was that, by the regulations of Saint Petersburg, the original appearance of the building had to be maintained and restored to the original building plans.

Jonathan Openshaw: What are some of the special requirements of designing for a luxury consumer in Russia? What are the main similarities and differences with other markets?

Chui Lai Cheung: There is a deep love and admiration for art and culture, and there is a broad knowledge and awareness about their heritage. Russians love their writers, poets, philosophers, composers, artists and above all the famous ballet. In terms of presence and density of culture throughout the city, probably only Paris can compare to Saint Petersburg.  Au Pont Rouge is located in closest proximity to The Hermitage, the Admiralty, Saint Isaac Cathedral, Kazan Cathedral, the Saviour of Spilled Blood Church and many other historically and architecturally important theatres.
In addition, Saint Petersburg has 5 million residence and over 5 million visitors per year. By restoring the glory of the over 100 years old structure within the culturally rich context of the city, we have always understood the project has an equivalent significant cultural aspect, both locally and globally, as it is a retail project.

Christoph Vogl: Even though the original department store is 110 years old, the brand itself is new and we were literally equipped with great freedom to test and develop a new thinking that we believe would work to set new benchmark locally and internationally. Established brands sometimes lack the bravery to go further and explore experimental ways to develop the brand, architecture, and/or product, as they can be afraid of being estranged from their existing customers. In this project we felt, that if we made the project relevant to the city and the people, we could make it successful and memorable beyond commercial terms.
As new and experimental the concept is, it is also meant to be timeless, which is especially important in the historic context of the architecture and the city. The robotic system for instance, is a completely new stance in retail, but definitely, a viable future concept as automated process becomes more and more a part of our daily life.

Chui Lai Cheung: Au Pont Rouge is culturally too significant to be just a common retail project. We always wanted to create something people could relate to as a Saint Petersburg institution. If they felt its significance, they could love it as a space as they would love the meaning of the old restored structure to the city.

Jonathan Openshaw: What was the design process – how did you respond to the brief and evolve the concept?

Chui Lai Cheung: We started the design process by reviewing the meaning of the classical department store in the late 19th century. It is interesting to see that the creation of department stores had a much wider social and cultural relevance to society than the modern department store concept would suggest. For instance, the ability to buy clothes in a general store broke down social barriers. The working class could afford to buy ready wear clothes, which until then were tailor made and only accessible to the upper class.

More importantly, department stores became social catalysts within the cities, defining the inner city and city life. People would spend time on this social stage, where restaurants, bars and cigar rooms would invite customers of different social classes and backgrounds to spend time, to socialise, to see and to be seen. This social transformation was revolutionary and one of the main points, which caught our interest. Could we create a space, which could be a social catalyst? Also, is the old concept still relevant to society or should we review the entire meaning, socially and technically?
We wanted Au Pont Rouge to become a social hub with a meaning to the city rather than just being another place of consumption. The aim was not to create an empty historical shell, but to recreate its meaning with relevant content. The product range is exquisite, including niche products, down to the scale of handcrafted timber toothbrushes from Japan or sandals from Korea. We wanted the retail concept to focus on the individual product itself. In a sense, the curated products become an architectural material. We did not want to create a conventional “market concept”, where products are sold from huge piles of stock. We wanted to reduce the display to the essence of presentation, almost museum-like. This would allow us to create spacious flexible areas to accommodate other activities or multi-functional.

Christoph Vogl: At the early conceptualisation stage, we envisioned to utilize a robotic system to handle all logistics, including stocks and purchases. This would not only free up the space, but also enable the staff to engage with people, rather than being sales staff and stockist. The robot would enable people to focus on interhuman exchange.
Interestingly enough, the development of the classical department store at the end of the 19th century came after the first and the second Industrial revolution, when more people moved to the cities, which were in need of labour forces to work in factories.
These new jobs generated a certain income, which created demand and ability to purchase more and better products.
Today we are experiencing the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution, the age where digital information is interlinked with automated processes. In a way, this new era reconnects us to the old department store concept of the 19th century. That was probably the most exciting aspect of the project, to take part in actively shaping and applying such historic terms, which normally is very abstract.

Jonathan Openshaw: Can you talk us through some of the key design details?

Chui Lai Cheung: Atypical to most department store design, which natural light and city views are blocked, we aimed to create a strong relationship between the four main ingredients: the outside city context and life, the historical building, the new spaces and the historical atrium. We wanted the new and to the old to coexist and strengthen each other respectfully. The structure was heavily damaged and most historical ornamentations on the ceilings and beams were lost. Within the restoration, the distinctive art-nouveau staircase and balustrades were carefully restored and repaired to their original conditions.

Christoph Vogl: To express the authenticity of the architecture, we decided to created quiet and calm spaces between old fragments and restored structural elements, which could define areas but not boundaries or presume a path through the building. We wanted visitors to experience the interweaving of old and new, the city life and the historic structure. We overlaid the partially irregular historic grid with the new grid, one that is based on defining sequence of spaces that interlink with one another.  Semi-transparent glass panels are used, which allow at any point within the space, a co-relation to the old structure, adjacent spaces, and the city context.
The natural light of Saint Petersburg animates the spaces depending on the time of day and season. The light condition during winter is very crisp and clear, whereas in the summer time, the space transforms into a very warm and subtle setting. No matter where you stand in the space, you are always connected to the external environment. The almost water-like reflecting industrial concrete floor supports the tranquillity quality of the space, while the utilitarian metal-mesh ceiling spares any design expression to substantiate the serenity.
The key design aspect however, which makes this approach possible, is the integration of market specific research and technologically thinking. We integrated a robotic system in the background of the store, which operates all logistics and purchases silently. Therefore, we were able to design product specific exhibition spaces with a strong focus on the experiential quality of space, which spares of stocks and shelves.

Jonathan Openshaw: How did the idea for the robotic system come about and can you talk us through its functionality?

Christoph Vogl: When we analysed the department store concept, we asked ourselves if technology could be applied in a smarter way than simply used as a superficial communication and promotion tool. We found that the robot could help us to allow us to redefine the entire store operation, which would connect online and offline shopping and create a completely new interpretation of retail.
If a customer decides to purchase a product, a consultant scans it through a mobile application and it is automatically added to a virtual basket. The customer can continue the journey throughout or even outside the store without having to carry the selection of products. Upon purchase, the robotic system proceeds the order to the point of sale. The mobile application will further be available to access the system online from outside the store and the purchase can be delivered to any location outside the store. The ecosystem of operation connects online and offline shopping and informs an entirely new store concept, where the classical trading process, stocks and logistics are removed from the display area to create a place for intellectual exchange, consultation and spatial experiences.

Jonathan Openshaw: Introducing robots has freed up the shop floor for use in other ways – describing it as an ‘exhibition space’. Can you tell us more about the thinking here?

Chui Lai Cheung: Au Pont Rouge offers a range of uniquely handpicked niche products from around the world. It appeared natural to understand and present these products in a singular and focused manner to express their history, ingredients and artisanship. With the help of the robotic logistics, stocks are removed from the display areas, so the space can be curated and designed to unfold stories more specifically about the engineering and creativity that are imbedded within the products. The displays are product and sensory specific. For instance, fragrances are placed on filigree stands of different heights that sway slightly when you test the samples. Paired with the scents of perfumes, many visitors resemble flower fields when they walk through this installation. We curated each exhibition around the product range. Even auditory sensory is distinctively composed and mixed for different areas throughout the different floors. This creates the experience of an undefined journey.
For the spaces are designed with an open exhibition concept in mind, the flexible multi-functional spaces also serve different forms of exhibitions and events. Since its opening Au Pont Rouge constantly presents art exhibitions, the Saint Petersburg Fashion Week exhibited in there and a major Paris fashion house held a banquet event. The Selfie Room is very popular place for screening, workshops and fashion photography as well.

Jonathan Openshaw: You mention that the store is designed as ‘museum format’ – can you say some more about the convergence of retail and culture here (stores such as Selfridges in London have run a Shakespeare season recently).

Christoph Vogl: Andy Warhol predicted that someday, all department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores. If you look at the global commercialisation of art and art institutions, this prediction is certainly true. In terms of department stores as being museums, I would not be too certain, as commercial products cannot replace the intellectual discourse and social aspect of art. The irony in Andy Warhol’s art would also suggest seeing either development very critically.

Chui Lai Cheung: People refer to the term “art” with all kinds of consumption related products and behaviours, the art of coffee making, for example. Someone who indulges in this “art” will certainly relate to coffee in a deeper way than the mere act of consuming it, but still it does not make the act of making or drinking coffee an art form. The comparison between retail, museums and art is certainly true when you refer to products, which borderline and cover both fields, in fashion, Comme Des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto or Alexander McQueen are great examples.
However, in terms of connecting a product within a space and in the awareness of customers’ engagement, it is definitely an interesting way to put the focus back onto knowledge, meaning, artisanship and background data. The reference to a museum in the retail sector has to be understood as a comparison of how space is used.

Christoph Vogl: We refer to the “museum format” firstly for the spatial quality and secondly for the cultural and social meaning of the institution and its interpretation. Selfridges itself is known as a cultural and social institution by its history and historical importance. The greater challenge for such an established institution is less on how to relate to culture, which can be achieved through events and branding, but may not represent a formula for success in the long run in itself. For department stores to stay socially and culturally relevant, understanding the changing social habits in parallel with reviewing the holistic store concept, we see is probably the greater challenge in the long-term development. This is exactly how we redefined the department store concept in Au Pont Rouge.

Jonathan Openshaw: What happens to the human touch here and those more emotional interactions in retail – does it allow the shop assistants to take on different roles too?

Chui Lai Cheung: Indeed, with the new store concept we were able to put the team into a much more important and responsible role. Now they can really concentrate on consultation and customer relationship rather than being bound to sales and logistics. For this reason, the team is specifically trained in every aspect of product knowledge, engagement and services. Most team members have a background related to the arts, fashion, design or other art related fields, in order to be able to relate to the subject and communicate on an adequate level. Most importantly, the team is composed of very open and friendly personalities, which we feel makes the greatest difference. Performance is conceptualised down to the smallest detail. The simple uniform includes designer sneakers to support healthy postures and comfort through the daylong routine of servicing.

Christoph Vogl: The physical store is the place where a brand can connect best with its customers, where it can communicate and interact directly with the customers on a personnel level. The employment of a robotic system only enabled us to strengthen the human side of operation and interaction, which employment of information technology and automatization should really be about.

Jonathan Openshaw: Why is it important to integrate aspects of digital innovation and technology (such as the Selfie Room) into physical retail spaces? How can physical spaces blend the physical and virtual worlds better?

Christoph Vogl: People like to share their experiences in the social media and brands constantly try to break into these circles of friends, as personal recommendation is more successful than anonymously targeted promotion campaigns. We extended the idea further to create a social interactive space by providing visitors with the self-reflection in huge mirrors within an exceptional space with perfect light setting, to animate mirror selfies, which carry the geotag of the store when shared online. This works the same with any landmark, like the Louvres, the Eiffel Tower – any image shared on the web is fundamentally an advertisement for the city, the institution or brand – and/or oneself.

Chui Lai Cheung: What was more important to us than simply to create an advertisement space was the idea to explore a new kind of connection between the online and offline experience. Some brands integrate computers, iPads or screens into their stores to achieve some sort of online/offline experience, which seems rather irrelevant specific to users’ experience. The Selfie Room shows how this connection could work very effectively and naturally, even in the absence of technology designs. The connection between the physical world and the digital one is in fact very simple - it is already in place, here and everywhere. The connection is in fact less a technological challenge, but a question of how to make it relevant to users. In social media, you will find interesting ways of how people use this space creatively, enjoying themselves and eventually sharing it with the public or friends.

Jonathan Openshaw: Although technology is used, it never becomes too dominant and the overall impression of the design is one of space and serenity. You mention ‘space is the new luxury’ could you talk more about this?

Chui Lai Cheung: Providing a physical space is a luxury in a world where every information, every item is constantly available and updated online. In a time where the online world literally creates a virtual space, filled with information and data, which connects people with people, places and things on a non-physical level, therefore, the presence of a physical space must have a strong focus in contrary to the online experience. We now have the great opportunity to rediscover qualities of physical space as we are freed from the necessity to provide analog information.
Before the internet, you had to visit different stores physically to compare products and then decide on what to buy. Today you do not have to leave the house at all to purchase anything. You might visit a store because most likely you have already checked its offers online.
At the same time, stores can predict customer demands and behaviours by analysing online data. These changing dynamics create a completely new environment of how people interact or how people act within a physical store.

Christoph Vogl: Analog information requires space and infrastructure. By not having to allocate space to information as a key component, the design can focus much more on curating spatial qualities and users’ experiences. Retail is only one of the examples. You might think of all kind of spaces and places where information is required and exchanged such as offices, libraries, schools, infrastructure, stations and airports, etc. In the future, the main function of public libraries will not be of providing quiet reading and archival of books, but rather the provision of communal spaces for researching, learning, working and co-working. The human interaction will be more important and the space itself will have to adapt to these changing behaviours. The library of the future will not be visited because of the information it stores, but for the quality of space, it provides for people to exchange intellectually on different levels. It will gain a greater communal and social importance. When all information is available online and when every product is purchasable online, then why having physical spaces to offer either? Providing a space is luxurious and it only makes sense, if this space is socially, communally, and culturally sound. The digital world has really challenged the physical world’s definition and in the future architects will not only work with engineers and consultants, but equally importantly with IT experts to redefine the meaning of these institutions and buildings.

Chui Lai Cheung: Many department stores have been weakening due to steep online competitions and many are trying to regain momentum with events, promotions, face-lifts and makeovers instead of understanding and evaluating the greatest advantage they have over online stores: the physical spatial experience and all the possibilities within. It is fundamental to radically rethink the qualities and meaning of what timeless physical space can provide.

Jonathan Openshaw: What were some of the challenges of creating such an innovative redesign in a 110-year-old heritage building like Au Pont Rouge?

Christoph Vogl: Technically, the historic structure itself created the greatest challenge. In Au Pont Rouge, the introduction of the massive robot required deep investigation of the existing structure and its capability to uphold such heavy weight. It is not without obstacles that we were able to construct the system within the existing building structure. In addition, the irregular historic structure made planning for mechanical and electrical engineering more complicated due to its inherit floor to ceiling height, regulations coupled with the design aspirations. However, the greatest challenge was to introduce such innovation into the historic context with a key emphasis and respect for the cultural meaning and history. We believe that the robotic system and the connection between online and offline experience resembles the historic innovation of the classical department store, and therefore are the continuation of its historic heritage in Saint Petersburg.

Jonathan Openshaw: What is most exciting about the department store retail format today – why are we seeing so much innovation here? They were put under a lot of pressure by the internet and e-commerce but seem to have come through this process transformed into something far stronger than before, taking the best of both worlds.

Christoph Vogl: You are absolutely right. Every challenge also presents a great opportunity to transform in order to survive. It is an almost evolutionary process. I think we are currently only witnessing the beginning of this transformation in many aspects of everyday life. Many institutions will not be able to operate anymore the way they used to, as old concepts will gradually be rendered unnecessary in the face of new technologies.
At this point, the future development in retail is quite unpredictable, as current political changes globally might trigger economic changes over and above the challenge the online market presents. It is not unthinkable anymore that within the next decade, more local products and markets might evolve, simply by the possibility of changing international trade agreements and possible rising taxes on cross-border trade.

Chui Lai Cheung: The online challenge to retail has certainly created a desperate need for department stores to adapt and to rethink their strategies, but we find that retailers are still searching for the right model. It is one thing to implement new technologies, but how to use them effectively and intelligently might be the more critical question. I believe the most exciting aspect of today’s state of department stores is that with the ongoing Industrial Revolution of automatization, we will see much more technological advancement in this sector in the upcoming future.
It is inevitable augmented reality, robots, drones, user interfaces, first attempts of artificial intelligence, etc. will change the retail sector and life in general.
At this moment, we are working with different clients on new concepts and interpretations of retail models in which we are exploring concepts further than Au Pont Rouge; however not for the sake of change or the integration of technology, but rather to making these new concepts more relevant for customers and users experience. The redefinition of cultural, social, and economic relevance is surely the most exciting aspect in this transforming world and a key factor in our work.

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