Not every architect would compete to renovate a department-store facade situated between a supermarket and an Applebee's on a sign-saturated, multilane highway 6,000 miles from home. But in 2008 when Eric Bunge and Mimi Hoang, principals of Brooklyn'based nArchitects, received an invitation from Lebanese high-fashion retailer ABC to submit a proposal to update the south, west, and north exposures of their,Dbayeh location six miles north of Beirut, they couldn't resist.
The existing blue-glass and yellow-aluminum-paneled building from the 1980s looked more like a corporate headquarters than a shopping destination. And it hadn’t kept pace with a 2005 redesign of the ABC brand that had rounded the corners of the well-known triangular logo and recast it in a sleek silvery monochrome.
“We quickly understood that the ABC building and brand [which dates from 1936] were an icon in Beirut and we were excited to have a chance to help them in the transformation,” says Bunge.
The architects admit to being initially overwhelmed by the chaotic collage of Western and Arab retail and restaurant brands, auto-body shops, new structures, unfinished concrete shells, giant billboards, and LED screens that line the highway from Beirut. How would they, as an early e-mail from the client requested, keep the façade iconic, “accessible—not too futuristic looking—and inviting to their customers,” among all that noise? They had two options: try to shout louder (which the client had already been doing by covering large swaths of its exteriors in vinyl signs) or find a way to let less be more.For this project—the architects’ first retail commission—they chose “a design strategy that was driven by a goal to decrease the role of the signage” on the façade, says Bunge. Yet in an unwitting nod to the
Lebanese gift for flouting the rules and getting away with it, the architects ingeniously created “a veil of thousands of signs, that taken together would express [the ABC] brand more subliminally.”
Bunge and Hoang didn’t so much clad the building as drape it in a cantilever-supported aluminum screen laser-cut in a repeating pattern of rounded triangles recalling the ABC logo. The aperture of the triangles from bottom to top vary in size, creating a sense of sheerness and an illusion of undulation that invokes analogies to fine metallic fabrics or even silk crape. The screen also significantly reduces heat gain on the western exposure.From the front, the building appears to float above the ground, owing to a 197-foot-long glazed display that runs the length of the bottom of the façade. Four glazed entrances provide access to the
store from parking lots on the north and south sides. At night, 139 LED projectors mounted at the top and bottom of the facade backlight the screen, taking the building from day to night as seamlessly and stunningly as a pair of sparkly diamonds would any little black dress.
Before construction began (but after the construction documents were complete), ABC changed the scope to include an extension—on a steep slope—that would house a new multiplex theater and more retail space, bringing the total area to 500,000 square feet. Bunge and Hoang accepted the challenge, reworking nearly half the prepared construction documents as well as changing the massing of the project so it would look like four buildings—not one—and account for the three-story vertical drop between the extension and the main building.
While the scope of the project doubled, the budget did not. To keep costs down, nArchitects left the cast-in-place concrete exposed, except for a coat of paint. They used the waste from the logos of the main façade to stud the exteriors. Triangular cutouts mounted on stainless steel cylindrical spacers project every few feet from the facades, animating them with shadows at all times of day. Dramatic nighttime lighting design transforms the concrete again into something more reminiscent of a Phoenician or Roman wall you might see elsewhere along the coast.
But pretty is as pretty does, the saying goes. For ABC the real test of the building’s success was whether their investment would pay off on the sales floor. So far, so good, says head of retail and marketing Tania Ezzeddine, who reports double-digit increases in both foot traffic and sales since the official opening in July 2012. “It’s always been an iconic building, but now with this new design, it’s a shopping landmark,” she says.
Jessica Dheere, a former editor at Architectural Record, now works as a freelance writer based in Beirut and Washington, D.C.