New York, USA
Studio Fuksas Architects

Armani animates 5th Avenue

On a crisp evening before Christmas, New York City’s Fifth Avenue was packed with shoppers hurrying to pick up last-minute gifts. The stores — appropriately decked out with the subtle signage and tasteful decorations mandated by the city for businesses here — beckoned customers with softly glittering LED bows, stars, and supersize trimmings. But none conveyed the dynamic aura of the year-old Armani/5th Avenue boutique, a four-story glass-enclosed box on the corner of 56th Street wrapped in a virtual blizzard of LEDs that cast reflections of its fleeting light storm onto the glazing of the adjacent Trump Tower.

The carefully planned display evolved from a close collaboration between the client, Giorgio Armani SpA, and a design team headed by architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas. Working from Armani’s own brief, the Fuksases employed a holistic strategy for the 43,000-square-foot shop, a new concept that integrates Armani’s numerous fashion brands for men and women. Located in a recent extension of the 1959 Corning Glass Building by Harrison Abramovitz & Abbe, the New York flagship store includes an area for Armani Casa and top-floor real estate for the company’s culinary ventures: a sweets shop, Armani/Dolci; and an urbane restaurant, called Armani/Ristorante, with views of Central Park. The architects called upon Speirs and Major Associates (SaMA), a London-based lighting-design firm they had worked with on previous Armani flagships, to assimilate the lighting with the architecture so it would be imperceptible yet effective.

This understated approach begins with the animated facade, for which SaMA devised a 30-foot-high, low-resolution video screen composed of polished-chrome aluminum profiles spaced at methodically plotted intervals around the sides of the building’s top three floors. Channeled to accommodate LED pixels that appear to multiply in the mirrored finish, these slender bars are slightly rounded with a radius that provides a 150-degree viewing angle for visibility across the way or down the block. But this envelope was not designed to be signage, says SaMA director Keith Bradshaw. While programmed to treat passersby to parading visions of sugarplums, fashionable accessories, or models in stylish garb, there are no specific logos or brand names in the lit media. “It was given planning consent as an artistic statement in terms of intensity of the light and content,” Bradshaw explains.

 “It is a way to communicate with the city,” explains Doriana Fuksas, the project’s interior designer. “Of course, it is also meant to invite people inside.” When they enter, visitors are greeted by a deep space that is a study in contrasts. Surfaced in a mix of glossy and matte black, the 45-foot-high volume above the basement level is dominated by Massimiliano Fuksas’s monumental white staircase spiraling up a central atrium. Structurally independent, this resin-coated, plaster-clad, steel-and-stone construction serves as the primary access through the store and links the front and back sales and dining areas of the upper levels with ramps and bridges. It is an ideal meeting place and vantage point from which to take in the various departments.

“From a lighting perspective, it is very challenging when you get confronted with an object like this,” says Bradshaw. “If you make the shadow play too complicated, you create new forms.” So his solution was simple — to reveal the shape of the stair in a single movement, with a continuous line of LEDs expertly concealed on the underside of both handrails. The warm (3000K) light bouncing off its treads and walls casts a creamy glow that generates adequate light levels and highlights the stair’s occupants and sculptural quality.

To ease the transition into the darker selling floors, SaMA created a buffer zone of medium-level illumination on either side of the stair. The lamping and the fixture configuration are identical to the metal-halide downlights directed at the merchandise displays further away — discreetly tucked into apertures above the baffles in the ceiling plenum — but at a slightly higher wattage. Most of the clothes are crosslit, a tactic used to create “wonderful shadowing that shows off the texture and quality of the material,” says Bradshaw. This scheme continues in the dressing room, where Fuksas-designed mirrors edged with cold-cathode backlighting add a gentle light to the viewer’s face.

Never obvious, the lighting and architecture at Armani/5th Avenue are cohesive and always defer to the legacy of its eponymous proprietor and his design sensibility, which is classic, elegant, and quietly opulent. Perhaps nowhere in the building is this more apparent than the restaurant, where a sensor-controlled wall of modulating red LEDs greets guests, and a pearlescent glass bar and tabletops shimmer via strategically placed lamps. Even the slender strips of the facade, which elsewhere face outward only, feature a reverse channel of twinkling (nonmotion) LEDs for diners. Diffused by a sheer white shade, this final, luminous detail accentuates the view and — as with the lighting throughout the store — the experience.