Wednesday23 July 2014

Dramatic overheads at Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ refit of La Rinascente, Milan

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The dramatic honeycomb ceiling for top Milan retailer Vittorio Radice inspires a sweet response. Photographs by Chris Gascoigne

Milan’s Piazza Duomo, already home to the world’s second-largest gothic cathedral, is fast establishing a new place of worship — albeit for a slightly different style of devotee. The fashion capital’s main department store, La Rinascente, which has stood adjacent to the Duomo since it opened in 1917, is undergoing a high-profile refurbishment courtesy of its new chief executive Vittorio Radice, the man who transformed Selfridges in the late nineties. Shoppers are fast making pilgrimages to pay their respects.

The store had a long tradition of investing in contemporary design, including an exclusive furniture collection commissioned from Gio Ponti. Radice has now called in an impressive array of architects and designers to help revitalise a local landmark that had become drab and down-at-heel. Italian architect Aldo Cibic, formerly in practice with Ettore Sottsass, is restyling the 1950 exterior, Paris-based India Mahdavi has designed the ground and mezzanine floors, Vincent Van Duysen of Belgium has accelerated the fast fashion store, and London’s own HMKM is taking care of the lingerie department.

Although there is still some way to go before it is finished (the need to keep the store open throughout the works means that Radice is tackling the building floor by floor) the showpiece seventh floor food hall opened last November. Designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, this is rooftop refreshment as Europe has never before experienced, and marks the return of La Rinascente as a serious retail force in the city.

Its main feature is undoubtedly the multifaceted acrylic ceiling, which takes its structural and colour cues from the idea of a honeycomb. The three-dimensional expanse of back-illuminated acrylic panels also unites and animates the entire space. “We wanted to celebrate the fact that this was at the top of the building, but it wasn’t possible to raise the ceiling height and we couldn’t bring daylight in,” says practice director Paul Sandilands. “So we decided to illuminate the whole ceiling, using the light to convey that we are the very top of the building.”

Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands was a natural choice to take on the job. The practice had designed one of the first restaurants to combine fine design and fine dining at the top of the Oxo Tower in London. Later, it became integral to Harvey Nichols’ ab fab transformation, designing both the Leeds and Edinburgh stores, as well as the phenomenally successful fifth floor bar at the London flagship store, a new concept that brought together farmers’ market-grade food produce and a hospitality offer.

Creating a successful new retail destination goes beyond the basic equation of a nice location, good view and high-end food. It’s up to the retailer to procure exactly the right mix of products and concessions, but it’s the archi-tects’ task to create a space where people can comfortably shop or settle down to a meal without the sense that they are going to a restaurant in a department store. Many places have tried to recreate Harvey Nicks’ formula, but not always successfully, and never previously in Milan.

The notion of hospitality has shifted dramatically. While it used to be about customer service, now it is about customer attraction.


“The notion of hospitality within a department store has shifted dramatically,” explains Sandilands. “While it used to be about customer service, now it is about customer attraction. When we work with retailers, we are very aware that the idea is not to create an architectural edifice but to construct a machine for retailing profit.”

Sandilands believes the secret is in creating an environment that is flexible to the store’s constantly fluctuating needs, while also accommodating a shift in atmosphere from day to evening. “The key is to offer a different experience at different times of day,” he says. “You visit on a Monday lunchtime and you will have a very different atmosphere to the one you’ll find on a Saturday night.”

The seventh floor had previously been refurbished in the eighties, when it was given the glazed conservatory along the terrace, supported by curved steel members. In its latest incarnation, it houses a series of concession shops and eateries, each with its own brand identity. These are arranged around a central area given over to aisles of gift-focused food, as well as La Rinascente’s own-brand produce. The intention was meant to emulate an intimate souk rather than an impersonal supermarket.

The architect dramatically changed the floor plan — twisting it into a trapezium shape — in order to accommodate all the new facilities and direct customers more coherently through the store. “The shape of the building is fairly awkward. Previously, the solution had been to lead people down a long corridor in order to reach the front of house,” says project architect Germano Di Chello. “This plan more effectively links the geometry of the site to the cathedral.”

Visitors arriving from the escalator are immediately oriented by views of the Duomo square ahead of them. The chocolate counter presents instant temptation, while the long glass-topped bar lies on the other side of a glazed screen. Tables spill out onto a terrace with views of the cathedral that — even without an excess of Campari — will knock you sideways.

Shoppers are also offered a choice of eateries arranged around the perimeter of the food hall, including a sushi bar, sandwich bar, two restaurants and the latest in gastro chic — mozzarella bar Obika. The atmosphere is one of a bustling café by day, sophisticated restaurant by night.

The only problem with the ceiling was that people spent so much time looking up at it that they ran the risk of bumping into each other.


The ceiling is a tour de force, adding sunshine during the day and drama at dusk. Discreetly integrating spot lighting, ventilation and sprinkler systems within its frame, it gives a strong and memorable identity to the seventh floor which is neither dependent on constantly changing store displays nor detracts from them. The only problem noticeable during my visit was that people spent so much time looking up at it they ran the risk of bumping into each other in the aisles.

The design itself evolved from the same trapezium geometry as the floor plan, and is made up of a series of triangular elements, all pointing towards the front of the store. “There’s a very dynamic direction to it,” says Di Chello. The ceiling also has depth and layering — by lowering one point of each triangle, the architect has created a series of folded planes and an undulating ceilingscape.

As the artificial lighting shines through and reflects off the 70% translucent acrylic, shoppers gets a very different effect depending on the angle of viewing. In real life, the effect is slightly subtler than it appears in the photos.

La Rinascente’s top floor has been a stupendous success since it opened, with the restaurants and food concessions taking several times the turnover predicted on the business plan.

“People are really enjoying the space,” says Sandilands. “It’s packed out at lunchtimes.”

As he says, working for a retail client such as Vittorio Radice may have more to do with creating a machine to separate customers from their cash than actual architecture. But for a machine that looks as memorable and stunning as La Rinascente’s ceiling, an architect is the only possible answer.

In the architect’s own words: Germano Di Chello, project architect at Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, on the eye-catching food hall ceiling

The ceiling is made up of a frame of aluminium extrusions. On the underside of the extrusion, we inset a lighting track to illuminate the products below. On the other side, above the panels we have a concealed fluorescent fitting that shines light onto the existing soffit. From there, it bounces back down through the translucent panels, so the panels radiate a diffused light rather than direct light.

The 4mm-thick acrylic panels have around 70% light transmission. But there had to be enough opacity in the panels so that shoppers would not see all the clutter above, which wasn’t what we wanted. The actual effect is less orange than in the photos; in the store, the light only has a hint of amber when it hits a white wall.

In some areas where we don’t have a light track, we have a cut-out slot for ventilation. So warm air goes into the ceiling void above the panels, from where it’s extracted.

We also have a concealed drop-down sprinkler system — you can see the tubes if you look carefully on the photos.

The geometry came initially from the trapezium-shaped plan. We initially thought of the ceiling as a flat quilt, but then we decided to play with an undulating 3D quality by lowering one of the panel corners below the others to create depth.

There are four types of triangular panel, each with four visible facets. We modelled everything in 3D, randomising the distribution pattern to create irregularity.

Honeycomb was a design reference in terms of the organised pattern, with its subtly irregular com-ponents, colour and even the sense that the ceiling was almost edible! It makes a change from the cool and modern environments you see in so much contemporary retail.

We worked directly with a local sub-contractor, Camagni Arredamenti. It had worked on various contracts at La Rinascente, and the client felt it could do the feature ceiling well.

We commissioned the extrusions from a local fabricator, going through one or two iterations.

The panels were also sourced locally. We were initially going use clear acrylic sheets spray-painted on one side, but the fabricator was able to create the specific amber colour we wanted.

See attached graphics ’Ceiling detail through light track’ and ’Panel types’.

Vittorio Radice’s market values

La Rinascente’s transformation is a showcase of design talent

After transforming Selfridges in London and TsUM in Moscow, Vittorio Radice is turning his attention to the group of 13 La Rinascente department stores across Italy, whose name, appropriately enough, means “rebirth”. In Milan, with serendipitous timing, the project has proceeded in tandem with the restoration of the Duomo on the other side of the square.

The first element was the store’s ground floor beauty hall and fashion accessories mezzanine by Paris-based architect and interior designer India Mahdavi.

Her work is soonto become more widely known to at least a section of London society — she is redesigning the restaurant at the Connaught hotel.

For the boudoir
On the fifth floor, London-based HMKM has created the lingerie department, encompassing everything from boudoir brands to sensible hosiery.

Textures are mostly hard, including champagne aluminium display screens, which contrast with the goods on display. Changing rooms feature a mink laquered MDF wall and metal curtains of tiny bronze beads. The ceiling is softened with illuminated coffers surrounded by a bronze gauze fabric.

Design for sale
The final stage of the transformation is to devote the lower ground floor to design and homewares, selling local brands such as Alessi and Kartell. “Milan is considered the capital of design, but there is no one place where design pieces are sold in an interesting way,” Radice has explained. There will be also be lighting from the likes of Flos and Artemide.


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