Myer Flagship Store

August 11, 2011

Situated at the heart of Melbourne’s retail culture, the new Myer Flagship Store by NH Architecture is an undisguised temple to the narcissistic delights of shopping.

The architectural ambition propelling the renewal of the Myer building on Bourke Street, at the core of Melbourne’s retail precinct, was to return to this department store the glamour attached to Galeries Lafayette in Paris, Harrods in London or New York’s Fifth Avenue. This ambition situates the ‘rejuvenation’ in the centre of a discourse on shopping that opened in 1926 with the publication of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant [01] – an early documentation of the reveries induced by ambulant shopping. So does the location of the store at the centre of the web of arcades that thread through the length of the four laterally divided super blocks of the precinct, from La Trobe Street in the north to Flinders Street in the south. Aragon’s account of his wanderings captures the wonder of a youth emerging into the world as a flaneur: we realise that he is as captivated by the reflections of himself in the windows of the shops as he is by what he finds behind them, on them or abandoned on the pavements below. Ten years later, Walter Benjamin was analysing this narcissistic wonder and pin-pointing its central role in a capitalist economy [02] Thirty-five years later, Guy Debord recorded how those seemingly individual wanderings were being ritualised as mass events: The Society of the Spectacle [03]. The engines of industry, these thinkers argued, were powered by our individual desires: ‘Try on your love like a new dress, the fit and the cut, your friends to impress,’ as Bryan Ferry was to sing in Roxy Music’s song ‘Psalm’, 47 years after Aragon’s youthful meanderings.

In the physical manifestation of the ‘through the looking glass’ world of capitalist consumption, arcades spread like a web through the city, and at their centre rise tiered galleries. It is as if at the apex of our search for our purchasable selves, the lanes we wander wind up into the air in an ecstasy several storeys high. So it is in Paris, in London, New York, in Singapore, in Seoul, in any self-respecting retail city – and so it is now in Melbourne, too. The architect’s statement captures accurately what they have achieved: ‘The shopper is (first) greeted by an inclined and tapering atrium at the centre point of the busy ground floor of the store. From here, the eye is led upward through a visually and spatially dynamic volume to a large diamond skylight bringing daylight into the depths of the store.’

I have put ‘first’ in parenthesis because this is not in fact the case. The atrium, which is indeed a diamante wonder, spreading its triangulations through the ceilings of every floor of the store, reveals itself to the shopper only after the thickened out arcade of the ground floor has been penetrated from the original face of the building on the broad mall of Bourke Street, or from the new facade on the narrow Little Bourke Street halfway through the super block. But once in the atrium, it is exactly as the architect states, and ‘…a busy flow of customers on the vertically stacked escalators play their part in this kinetic connection.’ We might add that they are now in flaneur heaven, catching glimpses of each other and themselves in pursuit of the new. But before losing ourselves in this pleasing activity, think for a moment of what has been done to the faces of this emporium of delight. On Bourke Street the eyes of the original 1920s Art Deco building have been opened again after decades of being blinded by whitewash, and the clunky, dark and sombre canopy has been replaced by an elegant transparency. Under this, the old ritual of the Christmas window displays play out to queuing crowds as before. The rear facade of the Bourke Street building now has an urgent new function: it must express MYER to the city, where previously that was done by a grand facade on Lonsdale Street, a half block away. In rising up through its atrium, the retail needs of the store no longer need to amble laterally through to the twin to the north. Links to that building at upper levels have been severed; it has been cast adrift to find a new destiny. So:

‘…the Little Bourke Street facade has been completely rebuilt as a contemporary counterpoint to its 1920s Bourke Street companion. The distinctive harlequin pattern across the facade is a geometric interpretation of the Art Deco motifs found throughout the old store.’

In a move that is so very familiar to Australians, used to adding living areas to the rear of their bungalows and thus eliminating any sense of there being a front and a back, the architects give us a restored 1920s front and a soaring top-lit back, with a contemporary public face. The new facade pattern is cut into and bulged out of, affording views down to the street and up into the store. Seen from the ends of Little Lonsdale, the facade elbows into the space as it asserts its presence, and it reveals hints of interior delights through slash cuts and lifted skirts. A virtuoso accomplishment with the means perfectly tailored to the ends. Wisely, the refurbished David Jones next door (the direct competitor in peak shopping experience) with no internal wonders to reveal, houses itself in what purports to be a glazed orthogonal box with a flat roof deck. This illusion dies at David Jones’ old Bourke Street facade – the windows so out of mind that some material has slipped between the inner skin and the glass, and shows untidily onto the mall.

Which brings me to the roof. Hotels and apartment buildings surround the retail centre, and the high rises of the financial district loom beyond. Roofscapes are the new urban landscape. There are civic competitions promoting good neighbourliness-on-high. Here the architect – mindful that in our Google Maps world the roof is now the prime facade of any building, and prepared to tackle the technical difficulties of keeping services off the roof – justifiably claim:

‘The most striking emblem of Myer’s new face to the city is its faceted gold roof as seen from a number of tourist sky-decks or as the backdrop for a panoramic postcard of Melbourne. The pavilion roof has been architecturally sculpted with gold metal and glass to choreograph certain city views from within and to bring the cityscape of Melbourne into the heart of the store.’

And indeed it does just this, with one particularly fetching view straight on to the old GPO clock tower, which – at the very top of the atrium – we encounter face-to-face, so to speak. This split-level space at the top of the store is a handsome and expansive space, the best in the city since the flowing lozenge of St Michael’s Church (1867) – built at the height of the gold boom. And yet, even as one revels in this crowning architectural glory, something surely is amiss. There are beverage stations on the way up through the atrium; they perch there rather insecurely. Surely we should all be sitting up at the top of the new store having the tête-á-tête of a lifetime, as we might be in the analogously placed dining room at the top of the Tate Modern in London? Not wandering disconsolately up the hastily added ramp of a computer floor that enables a sprinkling of screens to dot the space, surrounded by peering nerds who have seemingly no interest in the city beyond, or even in their own reflections in the glossy surfaces that lined their route to this palatial space in the sky. They would be happier in the basement! I suspect retail theory 101 has trumped the spatial and experiential sense of the design, and a major opportunity to bring people into the store has been muffed.

Back to the discourse. It is an irony of course that what began as an account of looking out into the world was so soon revealed as a looking into ourselves: the narcissistic propellers of capitalist consumption that we are. This is a worthy temple to that drive, but it could so easily take us out of ourselves and reconstitute us as beings in a communal life. Perhaps that is what the retail advisers fear?

[01] Louis Aragon, Paris Peasant, Jonathan Cape, London, 1971 (translated from the French Le Paysan de Paris, originally published by Gallimard, Paris, 1926)
[02] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts & London, 1999
[03] Guy Debord, ‘Society of the Spectacle’, Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red, Detroit, first published in French in 1967, in English in 1970, revised in 1977

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