Cheungvogl on the social relevance of physical space

Frame 116 – Judy Cheung and Christoph Vogl of Hong Kong-based firm Cheungvogl take ‘social relevance’ as a guiding principle in their design of physical retail. Their approach is the product of a sensitivity to dialectical materialism and technological futurism. For physical spaces to retain their relevance in a world where the functions they host are increasingly supplanted by digital media, design must be viewed as a means of actively communicating with its users rather than as a static container or scaffolding. It must become more fluid in its adaptability to different contexts. Cheung and Vogl elaborate on these ideas in a conversation about how they see future projects and the field as a whole.

Taghaus is a German dwelling built around an art collection. Translucent walls allow for experiencing art under natural lighting conditions. Semi-transparent walls of varying opacities define the interior.

Your recent retail projects are great examples of what retailers are doing to keep physical retail spaces relevant in the digital age. They mirror the comfort and convenience of online shopping, but go beyond the digital to offer immersive social and cultural experiences. But you’ve also created more conventional stores, driven more heavily by aesthetic ingenuity.
CHRISTOPH VOGL: The retail sector is like a miniature version of society in general. It reflects the changing social and cultural perceptions and communications, especially where information and future technologies directly influence codes and standards. In retail, changing social behaviours and contextual response are directly translated into numbers: turnover and profits. It’s our responsibility to create advanced concepts that are commercially successful by being relevant to customers, so our work is strongly related to the social experience. Creating successful retail models is like creating case studies of social interaction and communication to inform a responsive built environment – the actual design language is a communication tool. We’re now working on some retail projects where these theoretical explorations allow us to overcome predefined thinking patterns and reinvent coherent spatial qualities.

JUDY CHEUNG: The challenge in physical retail is the connection between information, communication and social behaviour through information technology. Any sector related to these things will face similar challenges. Engaging social experience is one facet of social relevance, but it could also be translated into different concepts. The main issue is that we don’t believe that offline retail can be successful without transforming itself. The online world is too far ahead in consumption-related information and communication for the offline world to compete with it anymore. The true beauty in this challenge is that we’re now able to rethink the meaning of physical space and possibly create better architecture. The underlying strategy of the store concepts and design guidelines for our projects is deeply related to the investigations of interactions and communication. We call it ‘branding by operation’.

Are traditional typologies of retail and workspaces outmoded, or can they be re-contextualized to generate new meanings?
JC: The traditional ‘staged’ retail experience – with over-the-counter consultation and back-of-house, operation-bound staff – is certainly outdated now that internet and social media have nurtured educated customers. They know more about brands, products and competitors than the sales team themselves. In projects like the Aēsop Cityplaza store, we wanted to create a case study of human interaction and consultation-focused retail experience. Aēsop’s homogeneous packaging design allowed us to combine display and storage into a single aesthetic entity, while creating an honest, sophisticated and yet simple design language for the brand. The consultational component is the key factor though, it validates the existence of the physical store. The redefinition of display and storage, and the elimination of counter hierarchies – there’s no front or back to the counter – make the staff into professional consultants, rather than storekeepers or sales personnel. The social component of personal dialogue and interaction is what a physical store has to offer and its online competitor doesn’t. The store concept has to follow these values, communicating them in a way that the aesthetic quality informs a consistent environment. Otherwise, online shopping will always be the more successful retail option and experience.

The Shinjuku Gardens car park will invite street artists to leave their mark on floors and walls.

What is the importance of flexibility of function in a design, where, for instance, a retail space or a parking garage also serves as an art gallery, or a school campus hosts a mixed-use development?
JC: In the traditional model, architectural and urban programming follows a categorical approach: use-specific areas are proportionally defined, allocated and set in relationship to each other. In the digital age, the perception of space by the user has completely shifted and advanced. The classical categorization of rooms does not describe the flexibility of how we live and organize our lives anymore. The labelling of areas inside a building or zoning in the urban context no longer reflect our perception of space.

CV: The internet has also dissolved the spatial definition of public and private. User activities and consciousness have become ambiguous and overlapping. Transitional space, the circulation area inside a building, is the least use-specific defined space in the built environment and therefore it could develop into the most interesting place within a building. It could host any physical or digital exchange and interaction in any form, as it is not designed for one specific need or use. Because of its ambiguity, the circulation area holds great potential to become the central spine of any public, institutional or commercial building, with more defined spaces forming silent capsules and retreats around it, designed for specific needs, like private chat rooms. What used to be the ‘empty’ space between two other spaces is now filled with content. In that sense our design approach could be described as a direction towards new typologies, but as it is open for interpretation also as a non-typology. Since we’re still working to enhance the original brief-specific use of each project, we could also call it a super-typology in an act of provocation. The true beauty is in the openness for interpretation that stands somewhat outside of any traditional categorizations. Ultimately, we think that traditional typologies, at least in the urban context, will disappear because of future technological developments and the resulting social, cultural and economic shifts.

A rendering depicts Shinjuku Gardens in Tokyo. To reduce exhaust emissions, the car park will inject nature into its dense urban context.

Even with all of this focus on technology, do you see a greater emphasis on both reconnecting the public with and making use of the natural environment in future projects?
JC: Projects such as our recent Shinjuku Gardens car park in Tokyo demonstrate how incorporating organic elements, in this case walls made of plants, can be very pragmatic in terms of cost efficiency and still result in a poetic appearance that appeals to the common public. Technically, the green ‘wall’ creates a visual barrier between the car park and the community. At the same time, it doesn’t enclose the building physically, so the car park is still naturally ventilated, avoiding costly mechanical ventilation and smoke extraction. The natural biotope is maintenance free. In terms of performance, appearance and acceptance, the integration of the biotope creates the significance of the project.

CV: At the same time, we are sceptical of the current trend to incorporate plants in buildings. First of all, the fact that a building looks green doesn’t mean that it’s sustainable, especially if the integrated plants are mostly for aesthetic reasons or are there to appeal to the environmentally concerned. The efficiency of a building is the result of technology and engineering and plants can only perform in a holistic concept. Besides, we feel that the integration of natural elements often distracts from the clarity of the architectural qualities. Our central aim and commitment is to create socially relevant architecture – not to ignore complexity or to find comfort in simple formal answers. Architecture that is self-justified fails.

Cheungvogl has been nominated in the Frame Awards 2018. Check out the nominees here

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Frame 116

The May/June issue of Frame is a special one, as we celebrate our 20th anniversary. We present 20 designers and brands – from household names to emerging talents – that we expect to lead the way in spatial design in years to come. We showcase 20 interior projects that represent 20 strategies for designing spaces, and go beyond the conventional scope of design to find 20 visions that frame the future.

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