It's a decorated shed. That's what authors of the seminal book, "Learning From Las Vegas," would call the new Burberry at North Michigan Avenue and Ontario Street. It fits. What does it mean? The book's architect authors,
That is precisely the case at Burberry. The actual Burberry building is a black glass box designed to disappear beneath a slipcover of screaming chrome ornament evoking the Burberry design brand: plaid.
This very aggressive, shiny, five-story little building — occupying the site of the old demolished Burberry building — takes the intertwining of architecture and identity to a distressing new level. It compares unfavorably with the Apple store just a few blocks to the north. That store is impossible to mistake as anything other than an Apple store, but it is also a fine and compelling piece of architecture with an arresting yet mannerly presence on the street. So, it is possible to do all these things at once. Nobody wants to be the noisy drunk at the party. So, why be such a boor, Burberry?
The question is not frivolous. If brand-architecture is supposed to express the essence of a company's product, the message this store is conveying is confused. Burberry was founded in 1856 and established its reputation on clothing that performed in tough conditions. Explorers to the North and South poles wore Burberry anoraks and occupied Burberry tents. Burberry is said to have invented the trench coat. The company's clothing has long since been driven by fashion, luxury and the exclusivity that comes from spending $500 on a plaid scarf. The trench is still on the menu, although it can cost more than $3,500 these days.
Burberry works hard to hold on to an upper-crust image and to look forward at the same time. The clothing, accessories and ads do all that. But this building, with its backlit, angled, checked pattern is the dissonant score in the company repertoire. It is loud and vulgar. It's the car salesman who won't go away. Worst of all, it's not architecture — it's a building as billboard.
This is not the kind of building one lives with, it is for people to visit. Like Las Vegas is a place to visit. Its draw is novelty, but that wears off fast; and then what? Ratchet up the noise, and think of something more outrageous? This store is more
All that being said, there are some things to like about the Burberry building; all of them much more subtle than anything taken in on first impression. The proportions of the cubed building, for example, are wonderful on the street and an example of appropriate scaling for a street that is still dominantly pedestrian. The great series of windows on the south side that extends the height of the building showcases the store's staircase. At night, especially, with people backlit as they climb and descend the stairs, the building is animated in a way that is wholly new for Michigan Avenue. (Sadly, the plaid makes a noisome reappearance as a lighted backdrop to the stairs.) Throughout the day and night, the building exploits the store's corner location brilliantly. The elevation facing the side street — usually the throwaway — at Burberry is the featured entertainment, enticingly visible from several blocks south.
The front of the store that faces Michigan echoes the windows on the south elevation in a lower register. Continuous windows — narrower than those on the side — climb from above the entry to just short of the top of the building. Two display windows flank the entry at the ground. We have the city to thank that this facade was not decibels louder. Early designs called for a four-story screen showing continuous recordings of Burberry's runway shows. Thankfully, the city put the kibosh on that.
The black box that actually houses the store is interesting for its disappearing act and its structure. The store was designed in-house at Burberry and then translated into a workable set of plans by Callison Barteluce architects in New York who also supervised construction. Burberry wanted the black box to appear to be seamless. That meant the four upper stories could not touch the exterior of the building as they would in a conventional building. The 27-foot-wide stair appears to float without visible connections to any structure. There are no support columns in the building making the interior very flexible. But all that, coupled with the tremendous open window slots required strenuous structural accommodation. There is a lot more steel here than is customary for a building of this size.
The cost of the building is not being shared, but it was plainly very, very expensive. Burberry has owned the property the new store occupies for decades. The interior — which is too cluttered and noisy to let the clothing come forward — is furnished with custom Burberry-designed furniture and fittings that play on the plaid theme.
If only Burberry would tone down its slipcover, switching out the plaid EAT sign for something more suitable, say, TASTEFUL ...
That's sort of a bad joke like the Burberry store is a really not-funny, bad joke.