Sunday, August 30, 2015

Junkspace Museum on Mag Mile: Victory Monument for The Architecture of the Age of the Supply Chain

And you thought the Verizon store was bad?

This is the rendering accompanying a Saturday report by the Trib's Gregory Karp on the 60,000 square-foot Chicago flagship store for Japanese retailer Uniqlo. This is the latest addition to 830 North Michigan, just north of the Water Tower.  And this, again courtesy of the Trib, is where we started, back in 1949.
Believe it or not, this is the same building as in the rendering.  It's been a long trip.

Mies van der Rohe saw his architecture as the expression of the industrial epoch of his time.  As Miesian minimalism evolved, however, the great tsunami of construction bearing his influence, if not his approval ("What went wrong?" he asked near the end.  "We showed them how to do it.") became an expression of a much larger movement, the Age of the Supply Chain, which stretches all the way back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Its core values are the creation of wealth through the mass manufacture and distribution of cheap goods through consolidation, standardization and the minimizing of human labor.

And so Mies's elegant towers grew into glass box office warehouses, huge floor plates, hermetically sealed, going from offices, to cubicles to extruded benches to cram the largest numbers of workers into the least volume of space.  The elegant department stores that let consumers feel they were part of the elevated classes were killed off by big-box retailers, massive warehouses with bare metal shelving and product stacked on pallets.  Local stores that were pillars of the community are replaced by standardized, numbered outlets of huge national chains. Bricks-and-mortar retailers across entire categories - books, records, video rentals and the like - were all but wiped out by on-line behemoths, Amazon above all, as the physical product is replaced by streaming digital files.  To paraphrase Keynes, "We are all warehouses now."
click images for larger view
There are exceptions - Target's rescue of Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott store is a prime example - but they are exceptions, a boutique cream-off-the-top to the larger world of supply-chain consumption.  The evolution of North Michigan Avenue is a prime example.

After the opening of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the former Pine Street became the city's premiere upscale shopping street, with retailers flocking to the lower floors of a succession of 1920's classically-styled Art Deco buildings, personified by architect Philip Maher's 1928 Chicago's Woman's Athletic Club.
 That wasn't enough, however, for real estate developer Arthur Rubloff, who was determined to take it to the next level, turning Michigan Avenue into the "Mag Mile".

As described in a 1947 Chicago Tribune report . . . 
The over-all architectural plan for the "mile" proposes medium-height buildings on Michigan Avenue for shops and stores and taller structures at the rear for office buildings, hotels and apartment buildings.  Landscaped promenades would run between the avenue buildings and the taller structures, enhancing the "openness" of the development and avoiding the "canyons" of the closely built downtown section.
 Rubloff said more than $25,000,000 in private capital has been earmarked so far for the various projects.
The Great Fire-surviving Chicago Water Tower would get to stay, within what would be the Mag Mile's only real public square, but . . . 
The city's pumping station on the east side of the avenue would be replaced by a civic hall of music, a landscaped outdoor swimming pool-skating rink, and a subterrean parking garage for 1,500 cars. Another underground parking area for 3,000 cars is suggested for construction under the lake shore playground, extending eastward from the armory [current site of the Museum of Contemporary Art] on Chicago Avenue to Lake Shore Drive.

"All plans for development of the area," Rubloff says, "hinge upon provision of adequate parking space."
And the building that is to be Uniqlo's new Chicago flagship was where Rubloff's first began to become reality.  On January 5th of 1947, the Tribune reported . . .
Alfred Shaw, of Shaw, Naess and Murphy, Chicago architects and engineers, has been comissioned by Bonwit-Teller, Inc. of New York City, to design the new store of that organization to be built at the northwest corner of N. Michigan av. and E. Pearson st.
The 45,000 foot site, purchased for $575,000, included the old Senator Charles Farwell home and stables, which evolved into apartments in which a young Bertrand Goldberg made his home in what the architect described as commune-like conditions.
John and Charles Farwell mansions, behind Water Tower, along Pearson;
image courtesy The Chuckman Collection

Shaw said Walter Hoving, whose corporation owned Bonwit-Teller, Inc., told him he wanted the new store building to be the finest of its kind in the country . . ."It will be six stories and probably will cost about 2 million dollars", Shaw said.  "Completely air conditioned, lighted by the newest methods, and equipped with the latest in modern merchandising, it will be an outstanding addition to the city's retail store facilities"  The exterior probably will be of Indiana limestone to harmonize with buildings to the north and west.

When excavation began the previous December, the AP reported that . . .
Instead of the usual show windows, frontage on both streets will be covered with plate glass, enabling passersby to look directly into the main floor.  There will be no street displays of merchandise.
The actual building, as shown in a Chicago Tribune illustration shown near the top of this post, seemed to have dropped the continuous plate glass, but was still the epitome of restrained elegance when it opened on August 24, 1949.   An extensive history on the indispensable website Forgotten Chicago says the windows had white marble surrounds.  The selling areas were more like salons, with merchandise displayed sparingly, as if it consisted of museum pieces.  All but four of the fitting rooms that lined the perimeter of the second floor had windows overlooking Michigan Avenue or the Water Tower.
When the John Hancock Center was completed just up the street, Bonwits moved to a new flagship there in 1969.  It's been pretty much downhill for its former store ever since.  An additional floor was added, and the building reconfigured by Solomon Cordwell Buenz into a fairly brutal concrete box, with a continuous skylight and a sequence of squared buttresses at the top.  West coast high-fashion retailer I. Magnin became the new anchor tenant in 1971.  I Magnin was purchased and run into the ground by Macy's, which closed the store in 1992.  Bonwit Teller was sold for $100 million to an Australian corporation in 1987, which quickly ran it into the ground with a misguided expansion effort that resulted in liquidation of the chain and closing of the John Hancock store in 1990.

Michigan Avenue retailers fought the coming of discounter Filene's Basement to the upper floors of 830 North Michigan, fearing its impact on the street.  They lost. In addition to Filene's, a Borders book superstore took over the lower floors.  On the lowest two floors, Shaw's original facade with its large central window on Pearson was replaced with a continuous curtain wall putting the Borders interior on full public display.  It wasn't long before all the other area bookstores - Kroch and Brentano's, Waterstones, Rizzoli - were out of business.  Borders, itself, proved less the wave of the future than a big-bang blowout death of the bookstore.  The chain was eventually liquidated and closed its Michigan Avenue store early in 2011.  Filene's was eventually liquidated and closed up shop early in 2012.  All that liquidation - it sounds a bit like a series of Stalinist purges.

The fears of those traditional Michigan Avenue retailers were fully justified.  The death of Borders and Filenes haven't stopped fast fashion discounters from taking over the Mag Mile.  A Zara flagship had already opened on Michigan a few blocks down in 2009.  The Borders space was taken over the Topshop in 2011.  An H&M outlet opened just a few doors north in a space originally occupied by FAO Schwarz.  And now there's Uniqlo. 

Nabbing Uniqlo for its upper-floor space represents a major coup for General Growth Properties, which in 2013 purchased the entire building, which also houses Columbia Sportswear and a Ghiradelli Chocolate shop, for $166 million, when nearly half of its 126,000 square feet of space was empty.  The General Growth folk must have treated themselves to a really expensive lunch the day they unloaded that second-class space to Uniqlo.

Uniqlo, of course, is determined to make it first class space.  USA CEO Larry Meyer is quoted as saying "We're spending a fortune" to get it all ready for the October 23rd opening deadline. The company is a leader in what is called fast fashion retailing, getting designs to market quickly, using the most innovative supply chain techniques.  The company also talks of reconceptualizing interactive purchasing in a way that revives bricks-and-mortar retailing.  Shoppers will be encouraged to use the Uniqlo smartphone app while shopping in the store.

Founder Tadashi Yanai built the Uniqlo chain - and a $24 billion fortune that's made him the richest man in Japan - out of his father's suit business, opened in 1949 in Yamaguchi.  The first Uniqlo store opened in Hiroshima in 1984.  In Japan, the chain became known more for cheap prices than quality or fashion.   For its global expansion, Uniqlo is working to make itself not just cheap, but cool.

In a Wall Street Journal interview, Uniqlo U.K. CEO Takao Kuwahara commented "Our competitor is Apple.  At Apple, as at Uniqlo, the customer service and the customer experience is all important. "

For its design director, Uniqlo brought in Naoki Takizawa, former head designer at Issye Miyake.  In an interview for a 2012 Fast Company profile of Uniqlo, his vision seems Miesian-minimalist.  "The only things that stay are the things you need: it has to protect you from the rain, and the heat has to escape"

According to a Huffington Post report, Uniqlo's emphasis on standardization is relentless.  Employees must dress entirely in black, pass a garment folding test, memorize "Six Standard Phrases" and hand back credit backs with both hands.  Each store should look the same.  All displays must run from light to dark.

The number of styles is minimized - fabric over fashion - creating the kind of huge orders that give Uniqlo added leverage when negotiating with suppliers.  No seasonal fashion themes, increasing product shelf life.  Instead, color choices are maximized - 50 colors of men's socks.
We've yet to set the interior of Uniqlo's Chicago flagship, but it won't be hard for it be an improvement.  The Tribune report describes the multi-story escalator whisking shoppers to their store  in just 85 seconds as "a signature element of Uniqlo stores", but in reality it's an ongoing necessity.  For previous tenant Filene's, 830 North Michigan was their "Basement" in the sky, hard-to-rent upper floor space connected to Michigan Avenue via a sliver of a ground floor entrance, just wide enough to accommodate escalators and elevator.

Uniqlo's most visible contribution to the Chicago architecture is glazing over the upper floors of 830 North Michigan, giving the store maximum presence in the view down the Mag Mile past the Water Tower.  If the actual facade is anything like the rendering, the design doesn't seem to have a brain in its head, other than a few massively overdeveloped cells devoted to Sellah, Sellah, Sellah.  What was once one of the most elegant buildings on the Mag Mile has devolved into a chaotic series of stackables, each going their own way: the dark facades of Topshop, the hyperactive glazed cells of Uniqlo, and the lingering remnants of SCB's buttresses.

Every last inch of Shaw's original design has been destroyed.  In place of a graceful expression of upper-crust elegance, we have a Screaming Mimi pastiche.  Uniqlo built its huge Tokyo flagship in the dense Ginza district, with its blazing Times Square signage, and it's bringing the same kind of energy to the Michigan Avenue.

Things change.  Although exuberance isn't really a substitute for quality, these are the choices we made, and here are the results. They have their own attraction. Few will remember, much less miss, what was lost.  Welcome to the new Fab Mile, at the junction of Times Square and Blade Runner.

Read More:

Lump of Coal in Chicago Architecture's Holiday Stocking: Verizon lands with a Thud on the Mag Mile

Addendum:  Uniqlo and supply chain labor

One thing we haven't discussed is the role of supply chain process design in growing a company like Uniqlo.  To keep costs low, manufacturers roam from country to country in search of the cheapest labor.  Bad things often happen.

When it comes to issues of social responsibility, Uniqlo has often chosen to go its own way.  It initially declined to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord, committing 80 major manufacturers to standards of safety and fairness after a 2012 garment factory fire in Dhaka killed over 100 workers, with another 1,000+ perishing in a Dhaka factory building collapse the next year.  (Fast Retailing is now listed among the companies on the Accord's signatories page.)
Uniqlo CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) has its own extensive website, with increasingly lengthy and detailed annual reports. In search of lower labor costs, the company's manufacturing has spread from China to lower-wage states such as Vietnam (52 cents an hour wages in the city, 36 cents rural), and to Bangladesh (21 cents an hour).
from Uniqlo CSR report
For fiscal 2011, Uniqlo inspections found major to severe labor violations in 82 of the 188 factories monitored, with a goal of 100% compliance by 2015.  In 2012, when 229 factories were audited, 83 major to severe violations were found.  By 2014, the company was reporting the monitoring of 332 factories, with a total 149 major or serious violations.  Only 7 instances of violations were severe enough for a contract with an individual manufacturer to come under immediate review, and while the report states "Contracts were terminated with factories that showed no improvement", I could find no figure for the number of contracts actually involved.

Uniqlo's manufacturing expanded to Cambodia, In April of this year, the group Human Rights Now reported substandard working conditions there as well.   CSR responded with promises of enhanced workplace monitoring.  It also pledged to improve conditions at its own plants in China, where another NGO, Hong-Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Misbehaviour, documented major workplace violations in a report issued this past January.  Even with all this, third-world manufacturing remains a world where even the definitions of reform seem to infer abuse. Uniqlo's own Cambodia inspection report defines "evidence of long working hours" as "24 consecutive hours of work."

To be sure, these are conditions that are pandemic throughout the entire global garment industry. Especially in the U.S., prosperity is based on exploiting our seemingly insatiable appetite for ever-cheaper goods.  As consumers, we trade free access to low prices for a a committed incuriousity about how the sausage is actually made.

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