The ultra-spare website of Montreal fashion retailer Ssense inspires the design of its neo-brutalist flagship by famed London architect David Chipperfield.
After 11 years in business, the Montreal-based fashion retailer Ssense decided to overhaul its website, settling on what was, in 2014, an early example of web brutalism, an aesthetic that shuns conventional frameworks in favour of stripped-back design. Simple and uncluttered, such pages load more quickly, fit all screens and are easy to navigate and digest. The following year, Ssense (pronounced “essence”) commissioned David Chipperfield Architects to design a new hometown flagship. The retailer asked the architects to recreate its online ethos in physical form.
The result – a five-storey, 1,200-square-metre space designed by Chipperfield’s Milan office and unveiled in May – certainly does that. Installed behind the existing walls of an ornate Second Empire structure in Old Montreal, the store is really a building within a building, its sandblasted concrete interior framework poured in place. “When you enter the building, it’s like entering a new realm,” declares Thomas Schweitzer of Montreal’s Ædifica, the project architects who executed Chipperfield’s plans. “David Chipperfield and Ssense wanted a very minimal aesthetic, so essentially only three materials [were used]: concrete, stainless steel and glass.”
As they poured the new concrete shell, which has different floor heights than the original building and includes a new basement, workers progressively stripped the 1866 structure of its wrought-iron columns, steel beams and big wooden joists. “This project was a minefield with all kinds of constraints,” Schweitzer says. “It was quite an elaborate construction process.”
Among the challenges, Chipperfield’s design called for lowering the ground floor so that the front door – 3.5 metres high by 1.85 metres wide – would be at grade with the sidewalk. On the top floor, a third dormer was added to the zinc mansard roof to create a visual alignment with the facade’s other openings below.
Inside, there is little about the store – from its unrelenting austerity to the anemic merchandising – that echoes traditional retail models. Although walk-ins are welcome to meander the cool, almost damp passageways and to browse the sparsely furnished display spaces (selected merchandise is arranged in floating glass cases and on stainless steel racks that are anchored by cables to the ceilings and floors), the place is tailored primarily to by-appointment guests.
“You cannot be more custom-made than this project,” Schweitzer says. “It was very purpose-built.” To wit: eight change rooms dedicated to private shopping sessions and akin to giant walk-in closets occupy the entire third and fourth floors of the building. With as little as 24 hours’ notice, online clients can set a time to come in and try on items from their wish lists. Once shoppers are ensconced in their personal sanctuaries, a vertical lift module (VLM) delivers desired garments from the basement to a back room on the appointed floor, where Ssense’s stylists then pick them up and transport them to the clients in their change rooms. The process mimics the ease and speed of shopping online.
Afterward, some of those high-spending clients (plus any walk-ins who have made it up that far) might head to the café and bookshop on the uppermost level, where all of the concrete furniture – including a mammoth picnic table – was prefabricated in Italy. “It’s somewhat like an outdoor space in the sense that it has a glass roof,” Schweitzer says of the top floor. “It’s very much something to discover.”