Back to Essentials: SSENSE Montréal, Old Montreal, Quebec

An online high fashion retailer open an immaculately detailed store in an Old Montreal greystone.

The greystone façade of a five-storey, 150-year-old building in Old Montreal has been carefully maintained and enhanced for the edifice’s new life as the sole physical outlet for a global online high fashion retailer. Photo: Dominik Hodel for SSENSE

PROJECT SSense Montréal

ARCHITECTS David Chipperfield Architects (design architect) with Aedifica (local architect)

When you call the SSENSE phone number, the machine says, “For service in English, please press one;” then something unintelligible to me, then “Pour le service en français, faites le trois.” I am told that the unintelligible part translates to “For service in Mandarin, please press two.” Then you get lost in the usual maze of extensions and selections. Welcome to the world of modern high-fashion retailing.

Of course, the reality of that world exists online, and the SSENSE website immerses you in it completely. It showcases huge arrays of apparel and accessories, all of it beautiful and/or surprising. Some of it is by familiar houses, more by designers whose names you don’t yet know.  The site claims 76 million monthly page views.

SSENSE (pronounced “essence”) is a Montreal-based distributor of high-end fashion. The company was founded in 2003 by brothers Rami, Firas, and Bassel Atallah. Revenues are now reported to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They have just one brick-and-mortar (or, rather, stone-and-concrete) outlet. It sits just below the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Vieux-Montréal, behind the exuberant greystone façade of a 150-year-old commercial building.

You enter easily from the street, through a door you hardly notice because it fits so well with the old stonework. But what a door! Eleven feet high and half as wide, a single sheet of glass in a profiled steel frame. Its top corners are radiused to fit the stone. It is hung on not four, not six, but on eight 5” x 5” stainless hinges.

The store displays select items from an online treasure trove. The clothing—along with the minimalist mannequins, racks and shelves that it is hung from—is presented with the precision of museum exhibitions. Photo: Dominik Hodel for SSENSE

Once inside, you are confronted with a few tall, grey mannequins sporting the latest fashions, posed against a concrete wall 22 feet high. You are standing on a stainless grate that exactly matches the ceiling. There are concrete walls to the right and left, and concrete panels behind you that reflect the exterior stone. You realize that you are in a five-storey concrete box erected within the shell of the old building.

The wall before you is divided by a six-foot, full-height opening, which throws you onto the centre line. Then you are pulled forward into a room with an artsy installation surrounded by displays of clothing. By now you realize that the plan is bilaterally symmetrical, and rigidly so.

A comparative drawing showing symmetrical plan compositions. Top row, left to right: Temple of Khons, Karnak, Egypt, 1198 BC; Temple of Poseidon, Paestum, ltaly, 460BC; Palazzo Valmarana, Vicenza, Italy, Andrea Palladio, 1563-64. Bottom row: Sainte-Marthe-de-Vaudreuil, Victor Bourgeau, 1865, measured by Peter Lanken; Robie House, Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1908-09; Ssense, Montreal, David Chipperfield, 2018. (Drawing by Peter Lanken)

Look at the little drawing above. Each example looks like capital-A-Architecture, because each is based on right-left symmetry. This is the basic principle of architectural design. It gives these plans power: you can imagine the ceremonies that take place in each. It is the first step in avoiding the difficult corners that diminish calm participation in whatever activity is underway. It is also difficult to achieve: it requires an exceptional intelligence rarely seen today.

At SSENSE, confusion is avoided by design. The intention, after all, is to throw wonderful pieces of apparel into sharp focus. Beautiful garments of leather, wool, or transparent vinyl are displayed against grey concrete, on stainless racks suspended on floor-to-ceiling cables, or on concrete shelves mysteriously cantilevered from the walls.

Superb workmanship and disciplined design is evident in the store’s concrete and stainless steel surfaces. Photo: Simon Menges

The rigour of the plan extends to the details. Formwork attachments are on a 60-cm square grid (close enough to 24” to not be disturbing to this reviewer, whose sensibilities were formed in the imperial system). The grid continues across the floor, with plugs for the cables or for other display apparatus. And, across the ceiling, general lighting, spots, sprinklers and cute little surveillance cameras are all regimented to the grid.

SSENSE’s top floor is occupied by a skylit public café. Furnishings throughout the building—including the café’s long bar, table and benches—are made of Ductal, a high-performance, fibre-reinforced concrete. Photo: Corey Olsen for SSENSE

Floors are of polished concrete, slightly different in colour from the walls, but not discordant.  That colour is picked up on the concrete shelves, and on a thirty-foot counter, and table, in the skylit fifth-floor restaurant. Amazingly, they are formed in only one piece each. The stools are in matching concrete.  The sales tables required drawers. Here the chamfered edges of their front panels, superbly executed, render them almost invisible. The overall aesthetic remains unbroken.

And then there is the stainless. Doors without escutcheons. A continuous dividing wall between flights of stairs, 2-1/4” thick, with perfect 1/16” reveals between face and core all around. Changing room partitions are of more flawless stainless.

Customers can book appointments for which staff curate a personalized array of clothing. The change rooms, located on the second and third floors, are framed with stainless steel partitions. Photo: Simon Menges

Only once does the design fail: four-foot doors to some utility rooms are made of concrete. When the logic of your design leads to concrete doors—or transparent beams or paper exterior cladding—it is time to recalibrate your thinking. Especially when the model of an elegant stainless door exists just across the passage.

The project is the work of David Chipperfield, an English architect now operating out of London, Milan, Berlin and Shanghai. Again, the modern world. When I called the Montreal firm which carried out the project for information, I was referred to their communications coordinator. He sent me, not to a designer eager and excited to talk about his/her work (and the work is very good), but to the real estate department at SSENSE. They, in turn, handed me to the SSENSE press division. Welcome to the world of modern media management, of confidentiality agreements and concealment.

Such suppression of information is not helpful to the cause of architecture in Canada.

On the other hand, staff at the store (all young, handsome, well dressed, and with a live smart phone in each hand) were unfailingly pleasant and helpful. Every member was happy to be there and eager to share their enthusiasm. In this they were like individuals in almost every other great building I have ever visited: they were proud. Great architecture has that effect on people.

Peter Lanken is a Montreal architect who still works, and believes in, feet and inches. He is currently studying the buildings of nineteenth-century Montreal architect Victor Bourgeau.

CLIENT Les Investissements Atallah Inc. | ARCHITECT TEAM David Chipperfield, Giuseppe Zampieri, Giuseppe Sirica, Adolfo Berardozzi, Pietro Bagnoli, Claudia Faust, Corrado Bongiorno, Filippo Carcano, Francesca Carino, Carlo Federico Cattò, Fabiano Cocozza, Paolo Dell’Elce, Anna Frigerio, Tsukasa Goto, Nicola Guercilena, Maris Kojuharov, Cristina Massocchi, Eugenio Matteazzi, Sofia Nobis, Filippo Serra, Letizia Somenzi, Pietro Torricini | STRUCTURAL Latéral | MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL Bouthillette Parizeau | CUSTOM CONCRETE Il Cantiere srl, Lafarge Canada | ARCHITECTURAL METAL Carritec | ACOUSTICS Acentech Inc. | LIGHTING Artemide spa | FURNISHINGS Cuciflex srl | CONTRACTOR Decarel Inc. | AREA 1,200 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION May 2018