A newly unveiled 89,000 square feet, three-story retail space on Fifth Avenue in midtown is a feat of technology, scale, and bold design decisions, worth a visit even you don’t plan to shop. Uniqlo, one of Japan’s leading clothing retail chains, envisioned its first U.S. global flagship to be a futuristic and monumental space. That meant a trio of 60-foot escalators soaring straight up to the third floor, a grand staircase lit with neon-bright LED risers, a series of spinning mannequins, and over 300 LCD screens—a complex job that required the Japanese design team, Wonderwall, to join forces with a local firm that could ensure that the design is compatible with most recent New York City-enforced code regulations, especially regarding energy consumption. Gensler New York’s retail studio took on that role, implementing energy-efficient products such as UV-coated insulated glass and the high-tech Japanese Daiken mechanical system, uncommon in the U.S., in addition to making sure that every moving part runs smoothly. According to Gensler principal Kathleen Jordan, the project was very demanding but exciting, often requiring last minute design changes that seemed nearly impossible—“But ‘no’ wasn’t an option,” said Jordan. A bright, metal-floored tunnel, evoking a James Turrell sculpture or high-tech subway platform, was one such design solution inserted late in the game; it pierces a counterproductive floor plan leftover from the building’s original use as an office building, connecting the southern and northern halves of the space and facilitating circulation.
Cindy Yewon Chun/AN and Courtesy Gensler (Far right)
The notorious “how do you get people up?” dilemma that stymies multi-story retailers was countered by one major design decision: in the beginning of the project, Wonderwall principal Masamichi Katayama took one look at the space and declared his intentions to carve out the core of a massive volume (8,000 square feet worth) to create a dramatic grand foyer. What the store lost in square footage with its atrium-like center was made up for in vertical circulation—almost the entire first floor is dedicated to it—and visual connectivity, with wide-open vistas that inevitably encourage a trip upward upon entrance. In fact, the four glass elevators topped with LCD screens and rotating mannequins (air-conditioned to counter the heat gain) are constantly moving about the Fifth Avenue facade, a dynamic and unexpected form of signage fitting of the fashion-forward brand.