Thursday, September 18, 2008

Experience in Architecture

It does not matter whether you want to renovate a home, office building, retail store, or even revitalize a has-been downtown, the one design ingredient that is imperative to use in order to make a lasting impression and cause the user to sense the significance of the “place” is Experience. Everyone has had their own experiences in life. Emotional triggers differ from one person to another. While one may perceive a space as being cozy and safe, another might view it as cramped and lonely. But, there are some social norms and proven architectural design tools that can be used to make a positive impact.

I was the project architect for Niketown, NY. The store is located on East 57th Street in Manhattan. It is next door to Tiffany’s and Trump’s famous Tower.

The first step that Nike Image Design made was deciding what they wanted their customers to experience while visiting this major flagship store. Some of the descriptive words and phrases that they came up with were: movement, nostalgia, uplifting aspirations, teamwork, connection with the community, progressive, technologically advanced thinking, and being decisive (“Just Do It”).

Nike also choreographed the experience that they wanted their customers to have. The customer was to experience the anticipation that one would have while entering a old monumental school gymnasium that was built in the 1930’s. An old gym was found in middle-America that had a large arch with windows and large vertical pilasters on either side of the arch. This became the architectural model to follow. As the customer approached the bronze revolving front doors, they would pass large antique lanterns and display boxes that looked a lot like ticket sales booths. After entering into the “Nike Museum” at the front of the store, they would pass through turnstiles in order to be in the ever-expanding 5 story atrium. The old scuffed up gym floor could be seen below a more modern elevated floor. Walls and ceilings were made to move on cue in order to have a “show” every 15 minutes. During the “show”, projected images of balls would appear to bounce off of walls, floors, ceilings and was synchronized with sounds of impact coming from speakers hidden in columns and resonating low tones under the floor. Customers would watch a brilliantly produced video during the “show” that continued to give the customer the experiences that Nike Image deliberately planned long before building this memorable place.

This building was to be like no other building in the world. Yet, it borrowed a lot of classical architectural elements to help tell its story. Curves were used in the public areas, including the shape of the elevator cabs, because they give one the feeling of accelerated movement. The façade had vertical flutes that led one’s eyes upward to the soaring flags that were on top of the building. Next time you visit the store, notice that the name of the building is PS 6453. If one was to dial that, they would spell NIKE on their phone.

Having a building that is so deeply based on creating an experience affected even those who were building it. Although the steel arching beams at the top of the atrium were welded, the steel fabricator dusted off their obsolete rivets manual and located black painted plastic caps exactly where they would be if the same steel beam was connected only with rivets – in order to maintain the 1930’s era experience.

When I talked with Donald Trump, the Duchess of York, and Spike Lee during the grand opening, it was evident that they were positively affected by the designed experience.

Experience is contagious. It affects all of us. Focus on how you want your customers and clients to feel and react while doing business with you and your company. Otherwise, you are just another forgettable commodity.