David Chipperfield on the New SSENSE Flagship and the Appeal of the Extreme

The Celebrated English Architect Speaks with SSENSE Director of Retail Talia Dorsey

  • Interview: Talia Dorsey
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm (Portrait images)
  • Photography: Dominik Hodel (Architecture images)

On May 3rd, SSENSE opened its new flagship, designed by David Chipperfield Architects. Nestled in the heart of Montreal’s Old Port, it is a true synthesis of old and new—in both form and function.

While the historic facade of 418 rue Saint-Sulpice was preserved, its interior has been recast as a sleek, emphatic expression of aesthetic economy, rendered in seamless black concrete and stainless steel.

Over five floors, it has been conceived to offer a brick-and-mortar retail experience that interfaces intuitively with our increasingly digital behaviors. Clothing can be selected online and shipped to the space where a stylist will be available to assist shoppers. The fifth floor houses a cafe and a eclectically-curated bookstore. And throughout, the space will be continuously activated with installations, lectures, and other programming—currently, portions of a site-specific performance by musician Arca and artist Carlos Sáez are on display.

For DCA, the SSENSE flagship is typical of a practice known for crafting elegant spaces that manage to have real aesthetic presence without verging into spectacle. Founded in 1985 and now operating internationally with offices in London, Berlin, Milan, and Shanghai, DCA’s portfolio is especially well-regarded for its work in the cultural sphere, such as the redesign of Berlin’s Neues Museum.

The morning of the space’s first day of operations, the day after it was inaugurated with an opening party, Talia Dorsey—Director of Retail Strategy at SSENSE—spoke with Chipperfield about the new flagship and the changing significance of communal space.

Talia Dorsey

David Chipperfield

Something I’ve been asked is, “Why David Chipperfield Architects?” How did we arrive at working together? And we’re wondering—why SSENSE? What attracted you to this project?

Our growing attraction was to find a physical expression for a virtual organization. An organization that probably doesn’t really have to have a physical presence somehow wanted it.

It seems to be a trend among the big, online players to move into physical retail. Do you think that’s misguided?

As an architect, one is slightly assured that however much people can exist on their individual bubble, finally we all want to get back together again. Why do people sit on their laptops in cafes? Why don’t they just stay in their houses? Because they’re living out this paradox that we’re increasingly individualized, and yet intuitively and instinctively, we are collective creatures. And clearly the structures, and urgencies, and necessities that used to collectivize us are not necessarily the same ones they are now. And therefore we somehow reinvent that.

The notion of a retail space being somewhere to congregate was certainly on our minds as we started to think of what retail could and should be today. Is that something you feel also, given your legacy of work in retail?

Well, retail has changed. The first project I ever did was for Issey Miyake in 1983. That was really the beginning of the shop as identity. The fashion world hadn’t considered the scenography of the shop as being a fundamental part of a brand, and the Japanese reinvented that—Yohji, and Comme, and especially Issey. They brought that, from my experience, to London, the retail environment being important to the fantasy of buying clothes. Before, it was more about the necessity of buying clothes. I was born in 1953, so I’ve seen the post-war evolution of consumerism go from nothing to everything. Now, when my kids say, “I need a pair of trainers”—no, you want a pair of trainers. You’ve got trainers. So, retail has had to address the idea that we don’t need anything.

The whole environment of retail and consumerism has been moving since the 1950s, when the idea of buying something luxurious was the privilege of a very small group of people. The upper-class always had unnecessary luxuries, and now it’s expected by all. It’s become entertainment. Shopping is part of leisure time. Shopping and eating. No one collects butterflies or has stamp collections. [Laughs]

"Museums have realized that they can be a bigger social offer than just a treasure box of objects.”
"The only place we give discourse value is where it’s delivered.”

So, do you think that makes a case for retail space? SSENSE is in the business of providing and building out systems for consumption, but the question we’ve been asking is: consumption of what? Cultural content has become a big part of our offering, which is something that we felt was important to translate into the physical space. Is that potentially a return to the butterfly collecting?

There’s not one client I work for now that doesn’t say, “We are a museum but we’re more than a museum.” Or, “We are a bank but we’re more than a bank.” Everybody is trying to embed their core activity in a looser, generalized activity. Because everybody knows that nobody really goes to a bank anymore. Banks want you to go there, so they then have to say, well, of course, we’re a bank, but this is also where you can hang out and have a coffee. It’s a very difficult thing for them to do convincingly. Museums, it’s not just a matter of people coming in and looking at the collection—they want to offer people diverse experiences. They want the museum to become more societally embedded, and for it to be more embedded, it has to be slightly more vague and open in what it offers. That’s partly out of survival instinct, because museums have to justify their financing by visitor numbers, but it’s also out of an understanding of the way that society is changing. Museums have realized that they can be a bigger social offer than just a treasure box of objects.

The fluidity you’re talking about in terms of institutions extending and questioning their boundaries—how does architecture respond to a questioning of boundaries? There’s obviously an inherent physicality to our architecture and urban fabric. What do you think the implications are?

I think we always regarded the public sector as being responsible for determining social structures and infrastructure. As the public sector becomes less powerful, and less resourced, it’s incumbent that the private sector takes on that responsibility more so. We can’t romantically imagine that the public sector is going to look after us in the way that we might have wanted it to.

Interestingly, I heard a talk recently by the head of Siemens, who reminded the audience that in the German constitution, it’s written—Article 14, Section 2—that property comes with obligation. In other words, if you own a company, you have a responsibility to society. A company has to serve its own needs, but it also has responsibilities to society. Now, I think that’s the shocking idea, coming from England where we’ve gone the other way. The private sector has just become more and more short-termist, more interested in sucking out as much money as it can. The tendency for companies to have a longer-term attitude, to be concerned with the people who work for them and concerned about what they might put back into society—this is a really fascinating thing. That’s not incompatible with contemporary society. This is the opportunity of this generation: to think about how can the private sector take more responsibility, and what it can do societally. What is their external ethos? What can they give back?

How would you define your company ethos today?

I think we gravitate to projects that can give us the opportunity to talk about meaningful things. Museums are easy. It’s not that difficult to find people within museums who have right-thinking—or, left-thinking—purpose. Finding common purpose in cultural institutions like that is easy.

The difficulty is doing anything when you’re building a speculative investment project. Most of the projects which are now changing our cities are not headquarters for nice companies, or museums, or libraries, or schools for kids. Most of them are towers or big blocks which are motivated by the forces of investment. It’s the optimization of land value through building. That’s not a great way of building cities. No one builds without there being some financial logic behind it, but when those rules are more important than any others, then we’re in danger.

What do you think was most meaningful for the SSENSE project?

It was fascinating to have a client who, coming from a virtual environment, wanted the most extreme physical environment. It’s a beautiful paradox, that a company built on much more virtual structures embeds itself in this monolithic physical space, which is about experiential qualities. That’s what one believes architecture has. That is our potentiality: to make architecture into a profound experience. Last night, with 300 slightly inebriated people, with booming music—did the quality of the building have any effect? I’d like to believe that the physical contributes to the atmospheric, and the atmospheric contributes to the spiritual. And not in a linear way. That is the experiential quality of architecture. It engages you without fully encasing you. You don’t want the architectural audience to be an audience. I hate the idea that architecture becomes the object. It’s meant to be the background. You should forget it, but I do think, subliminally, it creates a sense of contentment.

The other thing that’s strong about this project is that it demonstrates a commitment. It’s not just decorative. To make a building inside of a building, in this monolithic way, is a commitment. That communicates itself somehow. If we had dry-walled the spaced and put gold leaf on the walls, we could’ve spent the same amount of money, but I don’t think it would’ve demonstrated the same holding of nerve. It looks like you’ve put down a marker. You’ve taken it more seriously than you need to. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed, the idea that you elevate a small task into a big task. We can’t change the world, but we can do things close to us that might inspire. I think that’s what the store does. It’s the singularity of the physical presence that makes the project interesting.

It’s such a permanent entity.

Good luck when you want to change anything.

Which is in stark contrast to the fleeting nature of the fashion industry, and also the creative industries that surround it—the speed of consumption, and production, and engagement. Do you think that relationship will continue through time? Will the juxtaposition of those two things continue to work?

There are two ways of looking at architecture. It’s a bit like your behaviour going to a party, and there are two attitudes about going to a party: one is that you find a position and you stay there for three hours; the other is to just keep moving around. And, of course, the anecdotal reflection is that you meet more people by staying in the same place. That’s a bit like architecture. Do you make it flexible so it can be lots of things? Or do you just make it one thing and see to what degree you can do different things in it? There are lots of great architectural projects that are done slightly without program—they’re just a nice series of rooms. And then you work around it. The danger is that we’re in a sort of world where no one wants to take responsibility for that. In a normal company, there would have been all sorts of indecision. And indecision pushes you towards flexibility, which pushes you towards a less singular realization. Because of that, you move towards a more compromised and maybe more sensible solution. This is not a sensible project. And that’s why it’s interesting.

The building pushes back.

I was talking to the guys from the cafe, and I was nearly apologizing, saying that I know how difficult it is to work in a space like this, because clearly, it hasn’t come out of analyzing all the flexible things that they need. It’s the other way around. Can you work from such a space? Could you think about delivering food from an austere mausoleum? Can you serve food on a sort of religious altar? Most of it is about willingness. And he gets it. It doesn’t purport to be anything but extreme. That’s what’s quite nice about it. The extremeness is a specific ideal.

The reduction of choice is an interesting thing, too, in a saturated field of expressions and voices. I was listening to an interview of yours where you’d remarked that within the discipline, we’ve transitioned from an era where discourse had been limited to the theoretical—practice was practice, and theory was theory—and entered an era where discourse was being tackled directly through practice.

Now there is no parallel discourse or critique, which I think is a shame. The only place you could possibly find it, the only place we give discourse value, is where it’s delivered. Let’s take someone like Rem [Koolhaas]. Rem is the champion of this. He creates the discourse and then creates the project which fulfills the discourse. He doesn’t just build a library; he makes the history of the library, and describes what the library is, and then delivers it. He doesn’t do a retail shop; he does an analysis of what retail is, and what retail means, and, presto, he pulls the rabbit out and it just happens to fit exactly the discourse. And he’s a great discourser. He’s the best thinker we have. It’s interesting that our best architectural discourser is also a practitioner, which would not have been true 25 years ago. But there is no real voice out there anymore. You don’t wait for critique anymore. The discourse is coming from social media or certain journalistic tendencies, and it’s either hagiography or it’s vicious. There’s nothing in between. As architects, we have to critique ourselves, and we have to articulate that critique better.

Do you see this project as critical?

It’s a contribution. I think that’s all architecture can be. It’s a really interesting contribution. It’s coming from left field—it’s more radical than any of the conventional retailers can do. And, coming from the physical point of view, the realization of this idea in this particular, extreme form is an interesting example. The two of these things going together creates a sort of resonance.

Going forward, how do we avoid the pitfalls of traditional retail?

Well, your next shop shouldn’t be black concrete. The conventional retail brand has to take the flagship as a logo and recreate it as part of its identity. SSENSE does’t need to do that at all. You’re free. Your next shop could be plywood. The context will be totally different. But the ethos should be similar. It should be an extreme idea.

Talia Dorsey is Director of Retail Strategy at SSENSE. Prior to joining SSENSE she founded a strategic design practice, The Commons Inc, and worked with Rem Koolhaas as a lead architect within AMO, the creative think tank of his architectural firm, OMA.

  • Interview: Talia Dorsey
  • Photography: Rebecca Storm (Portrait images)
  • Photography: Dominik Hodel (Architecture images)