On February 6, a pink concrete structure by Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye will officially enter the Los Angeles landscape. Part of a $500 million multi-year renovation of the Beverly Center, a nearly 40-year-old super-mall with outposts of everyone from Foot Locker to Fendi, the new location of The Webster sits at the corner of Beverly and San Vicente Boulevards with a curvilinear pink facade. It is the seventh branch of the multi-brand clothing and design boutique founded by Laure Hériard Dubreuil in Miami in 2009.
While Dubreuil commissioned Adjaye, who’s perhaps best known for his National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., to design a store, he responded with a building that transcends the idea of a boutique, “because I think retail on its own is just not interesting anymore,” he says. He’s conceived it as a sculptural landscape for objects, an experiment in material and color, and a destination to return to over and over again, as one does to a favorite park. Ahead of its opening, Surface caught up with the architect in New York to learn more about his approach to high-end retail, The Webster L.A.’s connection to Noguchi playgrounds, and his experiments with pigmented concrete, which stretch back to the beginning of his career nearly two decades ago.
How did you meet Laure?
The introduction was made at her request by the fashion designer Duro Olowu, who’s a dear friend of mine and knows Laure very well. I didn’t know Laure before that, but after Duro explained her vision and what she has done in the fashion world, and I looked her up, I was excited to speak with her [about The Webster L.A. project]. It seemed like she was a fresh voice in the system.
Every Webster store has a distinct personality that reflects its location. How involved was Laure in directing the look and feel of the L.A. shop?
Laure was kind of amazing. Traditional clients give me look boards; Laure just told me about the space and her requirements and said that, more than anything, she wanted to see an idea that really captures people’s imaginations because she didn’t want to do a normal store. I just loved the way she made that brief. She wasn’t focusing on merchandising or fine lines. She was asking how good I was at making a space and working within an existing building to design something that creates its own identity. That’s right in my wheelhouse.
It is. Given that brief, what was your process of translating The Webster’s DNA into a physical space?
I meditated on the Beverly Center’s history—it’s one of those iconic places to go shopping that’s now undergoing renewal and change. Then I thought about the idea of California, and Mexico, and my love for [Luis] Barragán. Mexico City is like a twin city to L.A.: they’re on different sides of the border, but they’re the same kind of world to me.
In the past five years I’ve started to work with a lot of saturated red and pink hues, which extends back to the early color experiments I did at the beginning of my career. Pink felt like fashion, but I wanted to make something that was tough and gentle at the same time. So I thought we could use that brutal material called concrete and color it with a pink pigment—somehow pink in L.A. makes sense, whereas pink would not make sense in New York. It has to do with the light. [The result is] an ode to the color.
The interior and exterior are both the same salmon hue. It looks like you carved the store out of a single block of concrete.
There are fashion stores that are made with so many materials, and so much waste. I wanted to see if I could just use one colorway for the primary palette as a background to the multi-colored clothes and merchandise featured in the store. The space is almost like an [Isamu] Noguchi playground, which uses platonic and architectural forms to make a landscape. I’m just transferring that idea of architectural thinking to a programmed space that gets inhabited by the shop in the ways it chooses. It’s a field of opportunity for display.
How did Laure react to your proposal?
She loved it. She’s someone in that new generation of buyers—post-Barneys, post-department store—who creates small, curatorial moments. She’s not just buying clothes. She’s buying homewares, things that she loves and sees in the world. This is a space for her to put the things she thinks are aesthetically important.
When I think of your work, I think of your public projects: institutions, housing projects, things that benefit society in a meaningful and powerful way. High-end retail is a public space of a different kind. How is your approach to a store different from your approach to a museum?
In all my work I seek a kind of public-ness, and I talked to [Laure] about that. We took a portion from the front of the site that would have been for the interior retail space and gifted it back to the city as a new public water feature—a fountain—which is something you don’t see in California because it’s not a walking city. The idea is that the store is not just a destination because it’s a brand; it’s a destination because it’s a place. So somebody could be waiting for their Uber and he could wait by the water for his car, or you could meet a friend there.
Right. The store has a dedicated entrance and its own private valet parking. You can drive right up to the front door.
And within the entrance there is a super wide-screen digital wall.
Wait, the bright light above the covered area where you drive up to the store comes from a screen, not the sky?
It’s a panoramic digital screen that is high resolution horizontally and low resolution vertically. The light is reflected off of a series of architectural coves, creating a soft-focus-image. It’s all about the delivery of a place—I’m really trying to negotiate and blur this very difficult area, because I think retail on its own is just not interesting anymore.
It’s why a high-end retailer would commission someone like you do to their space. Because it’s not just about the space—it’s about the experience, and the architecture is one of the things that facilitate that.
I didn’t realize you had experimented with colored concrete earlier in your career. The first time I’d seen it was in your design for the Ruby City art center that opened in San Antonio, Texas, last fall.
About twenty years ago I did a small house in London where I made a red pigmented concrete wall for a garden. I took out all the plants. It’s one of my earliest projects, called “Concrete Garden.” I’d just finished the Elektra House at that point, but I didn’t publish [the concrete wall]; it didn’t get press.
How was the store constructed? Ruby City is cast-in-place concrete, right?
Ruby City’s facade is made of precast concrete. But The Webster uses precast concrete, glass fiber reinforced concrete, and cast-in-place concrete with a variety of finishes. The top of the exterior is precast concrete with a custom textured finish, and its bottom part is cast-in-place concrete with a form finish for the walls and a brush-hammered finish for the fountain. The interior features honed cast-in-place concrete floors with a black cherry aggregate, and the first seven feet of the walls, the benches, and the counters are made from cast-in-place concrete with a form finish. The upper walls and ceiling are made from textured acoustic plaster, which is a very rough, industrial plaster, in the same color as the pigment.
I love the juxtaposition of the rough, crumbly plaster with the smooth, moon-like texture of the concrete in the store’s interior. There’re also built-in benches and shelving. Did you design any other furniture for the space?
The concrete benches, upholstered in leather, are all the seating there is. There’s not going to be any other furniture. I know it probably looks empty to you, but that’s all that’s going to be there. The store is a sculpture, an abstract landscape.
You’ve done stores for Proenza Schouler, Valextra, Selfridges, and a handful of other high-end clothing brands. Does fashion ever influence your work or your ideas?
I don’t follow fashion for an influence, but I have many friends who are fashion designers. I love designers who use fashion to talk about ideas. I’m not a nerdy fashion person who knows about the stitching, or the details; it’s not my world and it’s not my interest. But I am interested in it when it’s conceptual, and I’m interested in owners who are conceptual—and for me, The Webster is that. Alára [a concept store in Lagos, Nigeria] is another. Reni [Folawiyo], Alára’s chief executive and founder, is not a normal shop owner. She wanted to make a public event space that happens to have clothes in it, and it’s since become one the most important spaces in Lagos. Another example is [my] work in Beirut for the Aïshti Foundation, which is a very large version of this idea. It’s more than just a mall; it’s a place. People who visit it can create a memory about something other than just the program function.
You remember it for the experience, not for what you bought there.
Exactly. And you develop a fond relationship with it that gets deeper as time goes by. My biggest criticism of fashion stores is that they get tired very quickly. I want to make spaces that become something bigger, like that great space you always go to whenever you’re in a certain place. So when you’re in L.A., you’ll go to The Webster, not because you necessarily want to buy clothes but because you want to experience the space, like a church. I love churches. I’m not religious, but I love going to church buildings when I go to Italy, just to enjoy the volumes of the space. And that idea of architecture as artifact is, for me, very special.
There’s so much consumption in fashion. When you have a client that can move beyond that, I feel it is the architecture’s responsibility to deliver something that becomes more of a place.