Studio Anne Holtrop
NR Magazine, Vol. 13 


Dutch architect Anne Holtrop started his eponymous studio in 2009. Anne designed the Bahrain pavilion for the World Expo in 2015, without having visited the country beforehand. Now, the architect divides his time between his hometown, Amsterdam, the Kingdom of Bahrain, where he is working to refurbish heritage sites, and as a Professor of Architecture at the ETH in Zürich, Switzerland. Anne’s work spans temporary installation to permanent structures, but it is his use of tactile and organic materials for which the studio is both recognised, and recognisable. Having started out as an assistant to Krijn de Koning, the Dutch artist known for his site specific installations, Anne’s first project was the Trail House in Almere. As part of an exhibition by the Museum De Paviljoens in 2010, the installation consists of a series of paths that make up the house’s structure – described as ‘A house that curls, bends and splits through the [vegetal] landscape’ surrounding it.

Alongside his work in Bahrain, Anne has worked with John Galliano since 2018 to redefine the brand identity of the Parisian fashion house, Maison Margiela – culminating with the remodelling of the label’s London store earlier this year. The curved gypsum walls and fabric-cast surfaces are evocative of both the studio’s signature feel, and of Margiela’s recent in-store presence. But, as Anne explained over Skype back in February, his work process is limited to neither the studio, nor Galliano’s vision for Margiela. Rather, he heralds the disappearing craftsmanship of specialists and family-led artisans. ‘For Margiela,’ he explains, ‘almost everything is produced in Italy. Around the time I started working in Bahrain, I started working a lot in Italy with small workshops that were specialists in the different materials I’m interested in.’

The gypsum casting that embodies Anne’s work with Margiela? It comes from a small company in Veneto; the profession almost died out, I’m told, because house molding is no longer en vogue. When Anne started working with the company, they had only two employees; they’ve since re-hired former collaborators. That’s not to say that irreparable damage hasn’t been done to artisanal craftsmanship though; despite enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years, Anne is quick to point out that ‘because of our lack of interest for a long time, these industries, which are often small family-based companies, have died out.’ The aluminium that features in the Green Corner building in Bahrain (2020), was cast at a foundry in the Netherlands, where their specialism allows for the experimental techniques that Studio Anne Holtrop employs.

Central to Anne’s design approach is an innate belief in the ‘gestures’ that define materials; the source of those very materials, and the ways in which they’re used to construct spaces and the architectural environment. And as our conversation below demonstrates, these are themes that inform Anne’s vision for the temporary, the interior and the exterior.

Does your practice take on different approaches depending on whether you’re creating something temporary versus a permanent?

With [Maison] Margiela, we did a catwalk show in 2018, shop windows in Osaka and a pop-up store in Tokyo. So these exist for one week, one day, a month – and in architecture, that’s a very short time. What I like about temporary work is it can be more radical in a way, because we have less to fulfil for a permanent use. So for instance, with Margiela, the [display] in the shop windows in Osaka, we made them out of very thick felt that we let hang. So it was a kind of architecture that’s literally soft; that has no rigidity. To make architecture that is literally soft is very difficult to maintain or to use. Although Margiela would love that idea, the practicality of it is just more difficult to manage. The driving force behind both temporary and permanent work is similar; it’s about the performance. You know, how can we form space and how can we also discover space?

The Margiela store in Paris has crooked columns (textile-cast gypsum), which was a process of making, where we deliberately searched for an undefined outcome. It redefined the process of making, and the outcome is different every time you produce it. In that sense, we can discover and invent spatial conditions. John Galliano describes this kind of pyramid where everything starts with the artisanal collection, and then it trickles down. With architecture, we build maquettes of projects with the materials that we want to construct with. So that’s also a kind of temporary building – to scale, but it exists. It has a reality. Even if a project is permanent, that’s its temporary state.


I was looking at images from your work with the Charlotte Chesnais jewellery store in Paris from late last year; the acrylic sheets you use have these really organic shapes. I’d love to know a bit more about the kinds of materials you work with, and how you translate these into organic forms?

I have a liking for irregular forms like the Rorschach inkblots, the butterfly inkblot tests that are basically just ink on paper. But because of its form, you imagine things in it and for me, the irregular or organic forms of things have more possibility than a purely rectangular form. You can project more into it. That’s the way that we work because we have form that is not necessarily architectural. So, we can start to imagine how we’ll use something; how can we read the architecture? And for visitors, that happens [all over] again.

With the Charlotte Chesnais store, [the approach] came from a project before that, where we started casting materials directly in sand, using sand as a natural relief. So we cast another material in it and it takes the imprint of it in the material. We started doing that with gypsum, concrete and aluminium. For the store, we used acrylic but we didn’t cast it; we scanned a 3D relief of the sand. The irregular relief diffuses the light a lot more than it would a flat surface, which works more as a mirror.

[But] the irregular relief starts to diffuse the light so you cannot see through it anymore; the ceiling has this irregular form, and that diffuses light into the space and onto the display. Then we repeated the exact same thing with the display table, which works as a backdrop for the jewellery. So with the specific treatment of a material, we benefit from certain characteristics of it. By changing the relief, we have different characteristics that we can work with. So the material is the same, but the way it is formed and treated enhances, or brings forward, other properties. That is something I call material gesture; to work with the gestures that are intrinsically bound to a material, but also the gestures that, in the process of making things, are formed with the material.

And this is the same process you used for the Green Corner building in Bahrain?

Yes – in the Green Corner building, all the concrete (so, the façades, the walls, the floors) are cast on land next to the building. So we cast it directly in the sand; every time the sand has been worked on by the workmen on the site, and so every time we had different reliefs in the concrete. It was also very efficient, so in that sense it contributes to an idea of sustainability because most of the form work is just in the sand, in the ground that is already there. We didn’t have to transport building materials, just the concrete. I think up to 50% of the energy [to build] is used in making form work, and the other 50% to cast it. So, by shortcutting that first 50% of formwork, we reduced the energy consumption used to make a building. But that’s not the only driving force.

The driving force is that we can building something that feels very local, and very [site specific]. The site itself producesthe building, and leaves its mark on the building. With the façade, each one is a fragment of the landscape, but also a moment in time. One was done in March 2019, another in April. So you have this time recording in it as well. The building isn’t static; it becomes a time document and a process. With the Green Corner building, we also have aluminium doors and windows that are also sand casted, but we did that in a foundry. But with aluminium you can’t cast solids so, with the doors, the front side is an imprint of the sand and the back side is hollow.
 
By changing the material, you get something else. Suddenly you have the negative of the sand that you could never see in concrete. For that reason, we placed the doors and window shutters facing the other way. So when you see the sand cast concrete, you see the aluminium as a hollow version, so they are in a kind of juxtaposition with each other.

You’ve been living and working in Bahrain for seven years now – how has this time allowed you to use different techniques like, for example, the sand casting?

I mean, I was already doing that when I was [still] in Amsterdam. I was visiting Jordan, and going to Petra, a few years before I moved to Bahrain. So, for me there was definitely an interest in the type of landscape and conditions there. It’s very minimal – it’s rock and sand, and that it’s base. And I like that base because that’s also the base of building material; when I see a building standing in that landscape, I just see two versions of the same thing. And I was very excited to work in a place where I can research that kind of relationship.

So the Green Corner building is a very clear building for me in that way because it builds hat relationship between the soil in which it is built, the material, and the matter of it – the building itself and its construction.

The aluminium was also chosen because Bahrain has one of the largest aluminium smelters in the world. I saw it as being a local material, a vernacular material. When we look back in history, we say, you know, we built with clay, stones and things like that. But over the past 50 years, aluminium [has become] one of these materials. It’s a process [rather than a material], but nevertheless still part of it. And I like to build up that relationship. It’s all part of that investigation of material gesture; from the sourcing of material, the process, the craftsmanship of working with the material.

April 2021
Sumayya Vally, Counterspace
NR Magazine, Vol. 13 


When Sumayya Vally founded the Johannesburg-based architectural studio Counterspace in 2015, it was against the backdrop of a deeply entrenched narrative of western hegemony. As an architectural student in South Africa, at the University of Pretoria and then the University of the Witwatersrand, Sumayya found the curriculum pivoted around a western worldview. And as the name implies, Counterspace seeks to redefine such a narrative, to amplify the lived experiences of those who have, historically, been overlooked. Earlier this year, Sumayya’s efforts to incorporate marginalised and underrepresented architectural ideas into an existing lexicon were internationally recognised when she was included as one of the TIME100’s most influential people.

Sumayya’s architectural perspective is one shaped by her experience growing up in a place less openly inclusive, though equally diverse. Now 30, Sumayya’s early life was spent in the final years of Apartheid-era Pretoria. And as child, she experienced first-hand the impact that architecture and design can have on people’s lives. As South Africa nears 30 years since Apartheid’s end, it’s a country that remains deeply segregated by race, class and wealth. Architecture and city planning is not an innocent bystander here and have been used throughout history as tools for control, subordination, and exclusion. Sumayya’s exposure to this complicated reality informs the interdisciplinary, and often imaginative, work that Counterspace does.

In 2019, the studio unveiled Folded Skies - a series of three sculptural structures made from interlocking tinted mirrors. The iridescent glow captured in the surfaces of the structures appears to represent the history of a city built on the vast gold deposits discovered in Johannesburg in the 1880s. While the legacy of this glittering past is reflected in the city’s colonial architecture, Folded Skies recalls instead  the ecological aftermath of the gold rush. The city remains blighted by toxic pollution emanating from the equally vast number of waste dumps left behind from abandoned gold mines. The presence of these dumps is a reminder both of the aphorism that ‘everything that glitters is not gold’ and of the country’s history of segregation and suffering.

Johannesburg was a city divided right from the start, with mine-owners, wealthy from the gold rush, living separated, then segregated, lives from a black population who were eventually forced into townships in the city’s suburbs. The hangover of that gold discovery continues to wreak havoc. The large domineering heaps act as a physical barrier between rich and poor, black and white neighbourhoods; a reminder that segregation still exists. Toxic fumes from the dumps, which are themselves now being mined for the fragments of gold they may contain, are carried south by the wind, poisoning the black communities who live in their path - environmental racism in practise. Though human-made, the waste heaps demonstrate how materials can be used to control, to divide, to enslave people; as tools to construct a built environment, or as resources to build global trade.

By engaging with Johannesburg’s complicated history, Sumayya and Counterspace’s practice is as much social history as it is about designing for a better future. Uhmlaba, a film made in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, will explore South Africa’s history of segregation using soil (as land) as both its catalyst and focus. The studio often uses film and photography (archival and contemporary) to animate their ideas; visual evidence to demonstrate the fluidity of life and people in an urban environment. And if Johannesburg exemplifies how the architecture is used to control and segregate, the architect’s plan cannot always anticipate the unpredictability of the lived city experience. Counterspace celebrates, and designs, with small acts of subversion in mind. And so, as Sumayya explains in our conversation below, a new approach to architecture and the way we look and engage with urban spaces begins with interweaving unheard and overlooked histories into the fabric of our built environments.

Would you be able to share some insight into the upcoming film Umhlaba?

Umhlaba translates to land in Zulu. The land in South Africa, like many places in the majority world has been implicated in our histories of movement, dispossession and displacement, empire and extraction. The film considers the depths, scales and layers of connection (and violences) in our relations to land - through the narration of recipes, stories and ingredients that become part of our cultures and constructions of belonging - to the violence of breathing toxic dust and the zoomed out segregation and separation of bodies from land in Apartheid city planning. The film is a collage of these various scales and entities, and weaves together connections and links between what was assumed unconnected and innocent.

How did you develop the approach that Counterspace takes through research, practice and pedagogy?

Johannesburg has served as a source of immense inspiration for the practice. Because so much of the city exists below the surface, so many ritual, economic and other practices have developed incredible resistances and are able to surface and exist, despite being excluded by our city's histories and infrastructures. There is so much that lives beyond the limits of traditional planning, design and beyond the tools of the architectural plan, section and elevation. These ways of being invite us to imagine different ways to draw - to find tools to learn, absorb, understand, listen to and interpret our conditions. Many of them are aural, oral, atmospheric - which has given rise to drawing through film, performance, choreography, the digital, sonic and atmospheric field notes, temperature, colour, etc., to develop an expanded lexicon and ways of reading and seeing Johannesburg.

What informs your approach as an architect to incorporate performance, the medium of video/film, cultural histories into the practice?

Rituals, ways of being and the lives of people in my city - and this intent to draw, make visible, amplify and sharpen aspects of our histories and cultures that cannot be included in the traditional tools and ways of archiving that the discipline and the profession of architecture has inherited.

Counterspace’s work delves into materials like sand, soil, everyday detritus, so I’d love to know what you see as the cultural importance of “material”?

I very much see materials as shifting earth and land; constantly being negotiated, reconstituted and reconfigured. Whether implicit or explicit, all projects stake a political claim in their approach to materials. I am very interested in the use of detritus, in traces and reconfigured leftovers, in how these give us a reading of our relationships to the earth. Materials are not neutral - everything, from cane and cotton, to concrete and gold - is a reading of our ties to each other and our histories (and consequential futures). I am also interested in blurring the binaries that we have drawn between ourselves and the world we are in, and a part of. Johannesburg has also given me an implicit desire to be resourceful and to piece together a lot with very little.

How do you navigate the kinds of architectural malpractices/Western authority that shaped the studio’s raison d’être?

I see my practice as an effort to realise design languages from places of difference - different ways of being and seeing, different histories and stories - and in that sense it has always existed tangentially to the dominant canon. I think things are changing now, but for a long time this meant that the work was quite invisible to the dominant canon. I very much see myself as part of a generation and a movement working to translate and embody our own positions of difference and bring a critical mass of them into the world. Any identity that is different to the dominant discourse is a lens with which to see the world from a different perspective - which is so needed, now more than ever.

It’s interesting to think of spaces where people gather as places that weren’t always envisioned as serving those very purposes. How did growing up around Johannesburg shape your understanding of this?

Our city, of course, has a history of clandestine meeting and organising -  from pirate radio setups on kitchen tables to underground jazz during Apartheid. The city has such a divisive understanding of what public is and looks like. In many regards, we never had public spaces that are truly designed for everyone and that have truly drawn on our ways of being and our understandings and cultures of what 'public' is and looks like. But, in many other ways, the resilience of practices and gathering that exist outside of, and despite formal limitations, has been a revelation. Being able to see and read these, and learning from the atmospheres and spaces that are created by people and their practices of gathering and constructions of belonging - whether at a carwash, at a petrol station, for a lunchtime gathering, or church on a patch of leftover veld grass in the centre of the inner-city - has been deeply fundamental to my practice.

April 2021
Nanushka’s New Store 
Nr Magazine, Online

Nanushka’s new store in Mayfair had been open barely two weeks when, on Saturday 19th December, the closure of non-essential retail along with fresh coronavirus restrictions was announced with almost immediate effect in London and the South-East of the UK. This wasn’t the first set-back the Budapest-based fashion brand has faced whilst trying to open its third ever store. Originally, the London flagship was earmarked for opening in June, then November (around the time of the second lockdown), and finally, December. Nonetheless, as Nanushka’s Founder and Creative Director, Sandra Sandor, tells NR, the decision to open a physical store in a year as turbulent for retail as 2020 remains important. ‘We would like to be closer to our community and create a space [our customers] can visit, have a coffee or tea, and enjoy it.’ At its core, the vision for the new Nanushka store is one that isn’t ‘just a retail space; it’s more than that. We have big plans to create a residence that supports our community, artists - a space where people are connected.’ 

When Sandor speaks of the brand’s community in London, she speaks from personal experience and a history of living in, and loving, the city. As the press release for the stores opening rejoices, it, ‘marks Nanushka’s natural return to, rather than arrival in, London’. An alumna of London College of Fashion, Sandor graduated in 2005 before going on to launch her brand back in Budapest the following year. As a sworn favourite of Instagram influencers and street style regulars, it’s easy to forget that the brand has been around for nearly 15 years - such is the powerful lure of never-ending newness and seeming immediacy on social media. Rather, Sandor has been slowly growing the brand’s scope over time; only in 2016 did Nanushka begin to appear on the international fashion scene. And yet, the opening of the London flagship really does feel like the brand’s return. ‘It’s my second home,’ Sandor explains, ‘and I couldn’ be happier to have more reasons to visit the city.’ It was in London, as a student, that she learned more about style and experimentation - unteachable qualities in a designer - that would influence her design evolution.

Aside from London, Nanushka has two other locations, its first store in Budapest in 2018, then New York in 2019. The core concept remains the same at each: it’s not just about selling, it’s about building up relationships and community. As the part few years have shown (no more so than this year), the survival of brick-and-mortar retail is increasingly dependent on its ability to capture the attention of a customer inclined to browse in store and shop online, or not to go in store at all. Queue the rise of the Instagrammable pop-up, or the store as an experience - a gallery space, a hangout, a café. Nanushka, with its café space, then, is no exception to the trend, and the choice of interior design company behind the New York and London fittings suggests it’s something Sandor is actively aware of. Paris-based studio Festen Architecture were the obvious choice and the ‘perfect team to help our vision come to life,’ Sandor says. ‘We knew before we even started selecting the location of our first international store in NYC that I [wanted] to work with the Festen team. They were part of the process very early on.’ And it because the studio didn’t specialise in retail design that Sandor saw Festen as the perfect fit for the Nanushka stores.

‘I think good retail is about hospitality, not selling more. So Festen, who excels in hotel design, was the perfect choice.’ When it came to the customer experience in the London store, Sandor wanted it to ‘feel like you are stepping into our home, where you feel comfortable to sit down.’ She describes the store’s layout as being ‘a little like a big house,’ made up of a series of little domestic universes. There’s a ‘string of rooms, like lounges,’ on the second floor, and on the ground floor, the space is organised around a café, its marble counter taking inspiration from an original fireplace in the building. A connection to history is important at Nanushka, played out in relation to the brand’s origins and to the legacy of the store’s location, too. When it comes to the café space in each store, that’s a reflection of Budapest’s historical significance of the city’s coffeehouses. ‘Serving coffee, talking to each other while sitting in a public space which is almost your second home, is very much a Hungarian thing.’

And though the aesthetic cues in the newest store are taken from those ‘first established’ at the Budapest store, each location is designed with site specificity in mind. In Budapest, there’s a bohemian feel to the open interior space; there’s a sweeping staircase worthy of the Guggenheim in New York; and in London, the store is situated within a Grade II listed Mayfair townhouse. ‘As each Nanushka store is unique, the challenge is to remain faithful to the context, location and the history of the building.’ In London, that meant a Victorian house in the heart of the city’s West End. ‘We wanted to preserve and enhance the historical decorative elements of the building, like the Modillion cornices, the moldings, doors and fireplaces, while remaining sober and refined, [in keeping] with the Nanushka aesthetic.’ The space’s original features are paired with soft colours, mid-century furnishing and that Ultrafragola mirror by the Italian architect, Ettore Sottsass - a certified sweet spot for the design-inclined Instagram cool girl you’ll find wearing the brand. But, as Sandor says of the Instagram aesthetic, ‘I think the store very much proves that it’s more than that, while [letting] our community engage with the Nanushka lifestyle and its core values.’ And namecheck some of the iconic designs included in the London flagship - Marcel Breuer and Paul László - and you’ve hit upon some of the most influential Hungarian designers of the last 100 years.

Any association between the store and design goes beyond the current trend for mid-century anything; Sandor’s graduate collection at LCF made reference to
the Bauhaus school, of which Breuer was a part when he designed the famous Wassily chair that you’ll find at the London store. ‘One of Nanushka’s core values is the key message of the Bauhaus movement, “form follows function,” which is not only important in my design process, but reflects everything we do. The clothes and the spaces are not just beautiful, they have to be functional - they have a purpose to fill.’ And part of that purpose is the brand’s commitment to sustainability (the brand plays no small part in the popularity of buttery vegan leather in recent years), which was crucial to the design of the London store. Seating made with regenerated leather, reclaimed and sustainably-sourced wood, for example, contribute to making this the ‘most refined and mature [store] so far, where we were able to incorporate more sustainable practices’. Most of all, though, the opening (and temporary closing) of the brand’s third store is a significant milestone. When the doors reopen, Sandor, Festen Architecture and co, have created a space for people to ‘feel comfortable [and] step into the world of Nanushka.’

December 2020
The Instagrammable Shopping Centre
Vestoj, Online

By the time the philosopher Walter Benjamin embarked upon the Arcades Project in 1927, the nineteenth-century shopping arcades at the centre of his magnum opus had all but disappeared from Parisian life. That was Benjamin’s contention; the arcade, an architectural phenomenon made possible by the latest technological innovations, had become a relic of modern life. With mass-industrialisation in the early nineteenth-century came glass and iron, materials that irreversibly changed the urban landscape into a space of spectacle and consumerism, a space that city-dwellers could experience at their leisure. Modernisation transformed the city, and the arcades embodied a culture of capital that came with it. But just as quickly as the glass and iron passageways appeared throughout the city, they would be rendered redundant by newer, more exciting innovations. As the art historian and critic, T. J. Clark, wrote in his review of the first English translation of Arcades Project in 1999, the arcades ‘were old-fashioned almost as soon as they declared themselves the latest thing.’[1] Along came the department store, and then, as the twentieth century progressed, the mall.

In the twenty years since Clark’s review, today’s shopping destinations face the threat of their own extinction. At the turn of the millennium, the expansion of internet shopping was already posing a threat or, at best, an alternative, to physical retail space. The idea was floated in Rem Koolhaas’ mammoth Harvard School of Design Guide to Shopping in 2001 that, perhaps, e-commerce could alleviate the problems retail faced at that moment, when retail space was becoming oversaturated and new space was running low.[2] For the most part, however, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have proven to be a bleak time for the physical shopping experience. The exponential growth of online shopping, alongside unprecedented technological advances that have made consumerism possible not only at the click of the mouse, but at the tap of a finger, has been devastating for brick-and-mortar retail. And even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, a change in consumer behaviour was affecting the sustainable future of shopping spaces, with a trend in spending on services overtaking that of goods by the end of the second decade.[3] Over the past couple of years, department stores on both sides of the Atlantic have faced closure, shopping centre chains in the UK have fallen into administration, and the great British high street has been on the brink of collapse. The retail decline was not caused by Covid-19, merely sped up by it.

What, then, does this mean for physical shopping spaces? It’s a question that resounds through the (digital) pages of newspapers, business and fashion journals.[4] With the emergence of pop-up stores, Instagram-savvy brands have identified a possible solution. The millennial pink in-store experience cultivated by beauty brands like Glossier is one such example of how the retail sector has cottoned on to consumer shifts towards the service industry.[5]

It’s clear, as Amanda Hess wrote for The New York Times in late 2019, that, in the post-shopping mall era, the ‘retail imagination has been transposed to Instagram, and shuttered storefronts have been infiltrated by “pop-up experiences” primed to monetise the selfie.’[6] But the pop-up phenomenon is more a material manifestation of contemporary culture, than evidence of a permanent solution for physical shopping spaces.

As the retail crisis creates a growing retail wasteland, an alternative kind of shopping experience (one that isn’t quite so temporary) emerges. Koolhaas’ Guide to Shopping suggests that the reuse of ‘existing typologies’ could alleviate the looming retail crisis if e-commerce didn’t.[7] And, sure: opening in 2018, Coal Drops Yard, in London’s King’s Cross’s recently-redeveloped Granary Square, is a high-end shopping destination combining two parallel nineteenth-century warehouses under one semi-covered arc-like structure, designed by Thomas Heatherwick (it’s worth noting that Heatherwick is responsible for the Vessel, a kebab-shaped ‘interactive sculpture’ in New York’s Hudson Yards – a $25bn private housing and shopping complex in the Lower West Side that opened in 2019). But reusing existing infrastructure isn’t such a recent phenomenon; in the 1990s, the former Birds’ Custard factory in another British city, Birmingham, was redeveloped into the Custard Factory, a space for creative start-ups and independent stores.

At both Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory, the connection to an industrial past is central to their image construction: the former boasts that innovation and creativity is built into its Victorian heritage; the latter cultivates a hipster-y charm that stands in stark opposition to the overtly-commercial Bullring shopping centre just down the road. Embedded within these spaces is a connection to the past and a lucrative, aestheticised placemaking that emphasises authenticity – an especially important factor in a digital, social media-driven age. There’s an attractiveness attached to ‘authenticity,’ something that has prevailed since old factory spaces in dilapidated areas of cities, like New York, were made into cool loft apartments for a generation of bohemian creatives in the 1980s. As urban sociologist Sharon Zukin observes, ‘No longer is seediness ugly, it is now a sign of authenticity.’[8]

As the service industry has taken over goods, the parameters of conspicuous consumption have also shifted. The ‘lifestyle experience’ is how architectural theorist, Brian Lonsway, describes the subtle aesthetic choices used to complement the interests of target consumers.[9] And for spaces like Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory, where a creative, ‘edgy’ lifestyle is cultivated through its authentic-slash-heritage infrastructure, digital technology has been as essential as the buildings themselves. Photos of the public art murals and graffiti at Custard Factory often appear on the official Instagram account, encouraging users to experience the space’s ‘authenticity,’ which, in turn, is used to market its attractiveness. Meanwhile, the branding and marketing for Coal Drops Yard has been painstakingly strategised to be the opposite of ‘cookie-cutter’ malls;[10] posts tagged by users on Instagram mimic this official strategy of celebrating quirky angles, carefully positioned coffees, and posed shots with the space’s nineteenth-century infrastructure in the background. One tagged photo sees the user pose with the brands of clothing he’s wearing also tagged, and the caption ‘Industrial Realness.’

In Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures, internet culture specialists, Tama Leaver, Tim Highfield and Crystal Abidin, note that, ‘Locations become recognised for their aesthetic potential.’[11] Aestheticised placemaking at both Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory provokes users to take, and share, carefully stylised images of the space on social media, whilst also identifying with the lifestyle that these shopping destinations market. Undoubtedly, as visually cultivated as these spaces are on social media, they are also pleasant to wander around in real life (that is, if you’re the intended customer and not seen as a threat to the chilled-out atmosphere).[12] And that photogenic quality is something that predates Instagram; as the architectural historian, Beatriz Colomina, argued in Privacy and Publicity, in the twentieth century, modern architecture has been fundamentally shaped by mass media.[13] More recently, fellow architectural historian, Claire Zimmerman, has made this idea more explicit, stating that photographic practices are embodied within the architectural framework of buildings themselves. She takes up Reyner Banham’s concept of ‘imageability’ – that buildings should ‘perform like an image’ and thus be ‘retained like an image.’[14] Today, as shopping destinations like Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory incorporate the visual literacy of social media into their brand identity, perhaps the term now is Instagrammable; the Instagrammable shopping centre.

There’s a nuance to the Instagrammable shopping centre that sets it apart from the pop-up store. The visual cues provoking users to ‘create content’ aren’t quite so overt; think, the way the upper glass facade of Coal Drops Yard catches the afternoon sun, or how a string of fairy lights glisten in the evening at Custard Factory, rather than, say, a giant Adidas shoebox pop-up. To the digital theorist, Lev Manovich, the term ‘Instagrammable’ describes a specific style of Instagram image, one that shares the abstract characteristics of the New Vision photography of the early twentieth century.[15] The movement’s ambition to view the world through the distorted lens of mechanical technology is mirrored in the images created through Instagram today. Of course, Instagram is more vernacular than an artistic movement, and a shopping centre is used by more than just those who want to capture its image.

What fascinated Benjamin about the Parisian arcades was the hunch that this nineteenth-century invention was a visual embodiment of history in the making, at the moment of its becoming and disappearing. Under the enchantment of the ‘phantasmagoria of capitalist culture,’ we are caught up in the magic of the arcade, of the department store, of the mall. The historian Bernd Witte sees Benjamin as being concerned that history, in a commodity-based society is unable to ‘generate anything qualitatively new, [but] perpetuates itself as a fashionable renewal of a corrupt and forever unchanging world condition.’[16] All this is to say, the Instagrammable shopping centre has neither sprung up from nowhere, nor is it likely to save the retail sector from the real crisis it faces. But, in this moment of extreme change, the Instagrammable shopping centre presents a good indication of where we were, and where we may now be headed.


  1. T. J. Clark, ‘Reservations of the Marvellous,’ London Review of Books, 2 June 1999: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n12/tj-clark/reservations-of-the-marvellous
  2. Juan Palo-Cascado, ‘e-urope,’ The Harvard School of Design Guide to Shopping, ed. by Rem Koolhaas and others, Taschen, 2001, pp. 366-369.
  3. Austan Goolsbee, ‘Never Mind the Internet. Here’s What’s Killing Malls,’ The New York Times, 13 Feb 2020: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/13/business/not-internet-really-killing-malls.html
  4. See: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/professional/what-will-stores-look-like-post-pandemic: https://hbr.org/2020/06/what-will-the-retail-experience-of-the-future-look-like
  5. Rebecca Liu, ‘Inside the millennial church of Glossier—the beauty brand that wants to be your best friend,’ Prospect, 15 January, 2020: https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/london-glossier-pop-up-shop-rebecca-liu
  6. Amanda Hess, ‘Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall’, The New York Times, 27 December 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/27/arts/american-dream-mall-opening.html
  7. Palo-Cascado, Guide to Shopping, p. 369.
  8. Sharon Zukin, ‘Consuming Authenticity: From outposts of difference to means of exclusion,’ in Cultural Studies, 22.5, 2008, pp. 724-748.
  9. Brian Lonsway, Making Leisure Work: Architecture and the Experience Economy, Routledge, 2009, pp. 159-161.
  10. See https://www.designweek.co.uk/issues/19-25-november-2018/coal-drops-yard-branding-its-not-just-fancy-shops-its-a-public-space/
  11. Tama Leaver, Tim Highfield and Crystal Abidin, Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures,Polity, 2020, p. 72.
  12. See https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jul/24/revealed-pseudo-public-space-pops-london-investigation-map
  13. Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, reprint, MIT Press, 1996, pp. 13-14.
  14. Claire Zimmerman, Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. 6-7; pp. 288-9.
  15. Lev Manovich, Instagram and Contemporary Image (2017), p. 122: http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/152-instagram-and-contemporary-image/instagram_book_manovich_2017.pdf
  16. Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography, trans. by James Rolleston, 2nd edn, Wayne State University Press, 1997, p. 186.

September 2020