Street, shop, sign

Street, shop, sign

The high street has always been the main thoroughfare of commerce in the city—shopping being its raison d’être. As its name implies, it is noble, dignified, a place of high culture representative of a specific city. Yet, nowadays, all around the world, high streets have become the stage of the mundane, the typical, the everyday—transforming into universal and banal places. Not for nothing, ‘high street chic’ stands for ‘mass-market fashion for the masses.’

The high street has the highest footfall of any place in the city, but only a handful of people live there. Everybody loathes it, yet keeps on going back. It has been taken over by commercial activity to the extent that all other programs it once shared buildings which are driven out. The result is problems of security, vacancy,

“Rather than shopping (as an activity) taking place in the city (as a place), the city (as an idea) is taking place within shopping (as a place).”

—John McMorrough, “City of Shopping,” Project on the City 2: The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, Cam-bridge: Taschen, 2001, 194.

neglect, but ultimately the city exchanging its specific characteristics and expe-rience for cheap mass-market retail aesthetics and thematics. It is the epitome of what the city is compelled to become. The ongoing com-mercialization of the urban ground floor is turning it into a potemkin city, an amusement park, a shopping outlet. Designed for experience and filled with intoxicated visitors, but devoid of inhabitants.

Fig. 1
Photograph taken in Rue Neuve in Brussels, December 2016.


Fig. 2 & 3
Drawings of part of Rue Neuve’s ele-vation before (top) and after (bottom) the intervention of delamination and reinstatement.

By using Rue Neuve in Brussels as the main case-study, this project proposes a new model for the high street so to put a halt to the trans-formation from a dignified and representative street of its city to a generic shopping mall through subtle adaptations to plan, elevation and perspective.

Street is not the expression of commerce but provider of a multifaceted urban experience.
The high street’s quality lies in the heterogeneity of its building and the potential of its multi-occupation. The facades lining the street, the architectural plane, are removed from identikit signs and storefronts. Through delamination and reinstatement, buildings, diverse in age, style and materiality, touch ground, with front doors among rampant commerce, connecting (residential) floors above to city below.

The result is a high street more mixed both economically and socially—occupied by a even larger and more diverse crowd, both before as well as after closing hours—solving the problems of safety and vacancy. With its experience and architecture representative of the city, the high street can equally distinguish itself better from the generic online realm of shopping. Both consequences supply the inner-city shopping boulevard with a more successful long-term outcome—it not falling into despair with the slight possibility of commercial activity shrinking or, ultimately, going completely digital. By reintroducing other programs, it does not solely rely anymore on shopping.

Fig. 4
Rue Neuve and surroundings showing public accessibility of the ground floor. Orange for Catering; Purple for Druggist; Pink for Hotel; Yellow for Leisure; Red for Retail; Blue for Service.

Fig. 5
Section perspective drawing of Ginza, Tokyo’s high street revealing its current mono-cultural state.

A shop is not an enclosed unit, but recess to the street—highly accessible public space.
With footfall soaring in the high street, gaping at exhibited goods becomes a difficult endeavor. Furthermore, opening a door to enter a shop is an unfavorable task in the contemporary fast-paced shopping experience. As a matter of fact, a shop acts as recess, an extension of the street—as a break from the continuous flow of masses. Discarding window display and door results in the increase of the shop being a highly accessible public space designed for undisturbed exploration and consumption. The shop itself becomes the exhibited space, together with the goods in it. Keeping threshold amid interior and exterior to a minimum is a commercially attractive action.

After hours the window display can return. Retailers only focus on daytime activity—when closed not taking any effort of engaging with potential customers. With window shopping by day complicated, it could become a treat after peak-hours. This way extending the expe-rience of shopping beyond the nine-to-five schedule of the retailers.

Fig. 7
Section perspective of Rue Neuve in Brussels, showing it with the interventions implemented.

Signage is not merely an attractant, but also serves a public role as device for orientation.
Commercial signs, parallel or perpendicular to a facade, primarily act to attract. But next to that it has always functioned as device for orientation and navigation within the urban environment. They serve their purpose from a specific distance in perspective, being irrelevant from up close and redundant when in excess. Yet as excessive quantity rather than thoughtful quality prevails the exertion of its public role is thwarted. Facades are clad in logos and brand marks for no other reason than to lure, even intoxicate the masses. For the sign to be relevant, a shop should have just one, visible from a certain distance, perpendicular and not concurrent to the architectural plane, the facade. As a shop’s unit size generally corresponds to its scope of influence, dimensioning and positioning of its sign should thus be analogous, catching the eye of its audience from a relevant distance.

“It is the unity which “maintains, but only just maintains, a control over the clashing elements which compose it. Chaos is very near; its nearness, but its avoidance, gives … force.” ”

—August Heckscher quoted by Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966, 104.

As the city’s most visited place, the densest and most costly in retail space, and often, the most expensive street when playing Monopoly, the high street is the city’s social and economic heart. Through these subtle interventions, the coexistence of the elements of the high street—street, shop, sign—is tweaked so to prevent chaos and reach a difficult whole through inclusion. The high street thus is turned into a distinctive place, and the relationship between city and shopping is turned upside down—prioritizing the city, under which shopping, like any other program, operates.

No more towards the city of shopping, of the badaud intoxicated by spectacle. Instead, shopping in the city, a model which instead gives place to the flâneur, a figure who gazes purposefully, while maintaining identity and autonomy.

Fig. 6
By decluttering the high street’s elevation to reveal its idiosyncratic character, along with orienting commercial signage perpendicular from it, a multi-faceted experience is guaranteed. The passerby actively controls what is fore and background, not commerce.
Close-up photograph of scale model.