Shop Lift

Project Lansdowne Park Shopping Centre, Richmond, Bc

Architect George Yu Architects

Text George Wagner

By the time the curators of the US Pavilion at the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale asked George Yu Architects to explore emerging trends in the design of shopping centres, the office was already well versed in the conventions of North American retail. Between 1998 and 2003, Yu’s office designed and built over 50 stores for the women’s clothier, MAX STUDIO.COM. That exercise, besides providing a steady and dependable stream of work to the office for five years, was essentially a serial operation–Yu’s office produced a prototype, a white liner for the retail void that both established brand identity and displayed product. While variations obviously existed between different stores, it was the continuities and similarities that established the global visual presence of MAX STUDIO.COM.

Of course, this is not especially unique or remarkable in itself–this is how retail works. The Gap is always the Gap, Club Monaco is always Club Monaco. But it helps to articulate the mind-numbing repetition of North American retail environments. In a recent lecture, Yu offered his perspective on this ubiquitous phenomenon: “After doing 60 stores for this client–it took me a while, I figured out there is something missing in how shopping malls are made…and that is that they are not cities. What is good about cities is everything that is missing in the shopping centre. The diversity, malleability, the kind of exchanges that you have in the old kind of markets like bazaars and markets in medieval cities are all things we reference as the good aspect of cities.”

Hearing these sentiments voiced by a young, vanguard practitioner from the West Coast stirs up anxious recollections of the frequent occasions in the 1960s and ’70s when architects turned towards the ineffable complexity of the pre-industrial city as a method to imagine the re-enchantment of the vulgar, corporate, suburban and bland. But Yu doesn’t invoke the historical city in order to mount an episode of nostalgic reverie or ideological absolutism. For this is a moment when the critical impulse of young architects is qualified and molded by pragmatism, optimism, and the belief that in an era of globalization and rapid technological innovation, architectural practices have an unprecedented opportunity to galvanize innovation–and to do so in a broadly interdisciplinary context. For Yu’s office, this new context begins with material research and being, in his words, “in control of the total production process…how you fabricate, present and rationalize the whole thing. In order to do that well–and this is where research of the other kind re-enters the picture–you must be able to understand the larger project in as comprehensive a way as possible. As a young small office, you must bring something authoritative to the table, and for us that is our ability to understand and execute the project on more than one level.” The comprehensive vision described here is deeply suggestive of the sort of holistic process observed in great conceptual artists like Walter De Maria or Sol LeWitt.

Cut to Richmond, British Columbia. As a native of BC and a former resident of Vancouver, Yu was familiar with the commercial landscape of Richmond, and especially the spate of shopping centres and malls constructed during the mid-nineties Hong Kong exodus. These centres are not remarkable for their architecture or planning, but for their divergence from North American norms–no Gaps here, just small storefronts and seemingly random juxtapositions: fish market, salon, sweets, slinky sequinned dresses, computer bits. In fact, as Yu has pointed out in lectures, it is from the legal specifics of occupancy that the uniqueness of the Richmond malls is generated: the storefronts are individual commercial condominiums, and their use is determined by the unit’s buyer and not masterminded, as in standard practice, by the mall’s lessor–who typically strives to assemble lease packages that correspond to pre-existing formulas and guarantee longevity. In this way, an urban precinct has developed in Richmond that has been uniquely responsive to the proprietary instincts of a wave of new immigrants.

For the Biennale, Yu selected the 50-acre Lansdowne Park Shopping Centre in central Richmond as a site for the project known as Shop Lift. Once the home of the Lansdowne Park racetrack, this fading mall sits in the middle of a mammoth underused parking lot, and adjacent to the route of the Vancouver-Richmond transit line scheduled for completion prior to the 2010 Olympics. The site’s current uses are limited to the business hours of the mall’s tenants. In recent years, big-box discount retail stores have opened around the mall’s edges, with the effect that one no longer even needs to enter the interior of the forlorn mall to shop.

Yu’s proposal is pretty straightforward: extruding the entire footprint of the site, he stacks uses upward in response to ground conditions that preclude excavation due to the high water table on this river delta island, and height restrictions of 12 storeys imposed by the flight paths of the adjacent Vancouver International Airport. The columnated ground floor is dedicated to big-box retail; the next level, occupying the waffle frame of a long-span structure, provides smaller retail spaces. The undulating roof above is a public landscape, and above that floats housing inside free-form extruded “noodles.”

Put another way, in Yu’s highly focused parlance of the North American commercial landscape, the stacked ingredients of this multi-decker are big-box power centre, lifestyle retail, public landscape and residential noodle. While the representations of the project remain essentially schematic and accepting of established retail formulae, some attention is given to the points of connection between uses–the spoils that this layered hybridity produce become the functional nuclei for a new urbanity.

Much attention has recently been given to new paradigms of research in architecture that are innately connected to its practice, to the inevitable constraints through which both reality and imagination must be filtered. One of the most intriguing aspects of Yu’s Shop Lift can be extracted by analyzing what form reality takes in the project. At many levels, much is missing from the project: specifics of the project’s relation to context, details regarding vertical circulation, and in what possible way might a noodle be understood as a dwelling unit? Does the absence of refinement of the project mean that the project is unrefined?

So what is there? The drawing suggests some characteristics of the distinct typologies that compose the whole, and graphic conventions are used to force those juxtapositions. The three-dimensional drawings are cropped so that we see parts of the project and not the whole, and thus suggest urban continuity and not architectural objectification. While structure, space and circulation are clearly presented, there is no attempt to render visible the commercial sign. This might be populist, but it is not Pop; absent is the intoxication of the sign characteristic of Venturi and Warhol.

The large model of the project offers a bit more. First of all, it is big, designed to fill the gallery in the American Pavilion. All white and eerily translucent, its methods are surreal and misleading. Escalators, shelves, cars, structure, and humans are clearly represented. The space of the big-box power centre appears continuous, as if to cover all 50 acres with a really super store. The lifestyle retail is read not as space, but as discrete masses brightly wrapped as presents. Most peculiar are the upper levels, where the ground of the public landscape is rendered in some new and very soft marriage of white shag and cotton balls. The housing noodles are covered in a tailored sheath of white chenille fabric textured with circular tufts, most recently seen on grandm
other’s bed.

This model shows a building (or is it a city?) that we have not seen before, and the intrigue it fosters stimulates an imagination that finally moves to another level, beyond the reality of the project as a proposed construction for the city of Richmond, BC to the very real problem of the model’s transportation to Venice, Italy.

As a realized work of architecture, Shop Lift does not only simulate the disciplinary reality of a comprehensively described, but decidedly speculative, commercial project for Richmond, but also as a large model (12 W x 24 L x 8 H at 1/2* = 1-0*) transported from Los Angeles to Venice as checked baggage by Yu and three colleagues. Made to be assembled in two days, the model is constructed from laser-cut hollow-core plastic, cardboard, fabric, wrapping paper and wood. Since the Biennale, the model has been halved, and the bits have found their way to subsequent exhibitions.

There is about the Shop Lift project an impressive realism. Not a realism that simulates reality, but one that estimates and understands the multiple occasions of the project, its multiple sites, dimensions and audience. And even if the architects argue that the project be conceived comprehensively, that is only to ensure its robust and divergent iterations are calibrated effectively in space and time.

George Wagner is a professor at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture. Shop Lift was commissioned originally for Transcending Type at the US Pavilion in the 2004 Venice Biennale. The exhibition was curated by Robert Ivy, Cliff Pearson and Suzanne Stephens, editors of Architectural Record.

Architect Team George Yu, Konstantinos Chrysos, Marianthi Tatari

Research and Communications Linda Hart

Installation Owen Gerst, Yosuke Sugiyama

Fabricator Carole Yu

Economic Analysis Economics Research Associates (David Bergman)

Executive Advisor An Te Liu

Photography Elliott Kaufman