ENTERTAINMENT AND EATERTAINMENT: ENTERTAINMENT/RETAIL DESIGN
It's not news that entertainment and consumerism are thoroughly enmeshed in every aspect of life; or that entertainment and consumerism are symbiotic--we consume entertainment at Disneyland and consumer goods are sold in the Disneyesque atmospheres of malls and malled urban districts.1 But what is in a constant state of flux are the architectures and designs of where consumer goods and entertainment are sold. I've recently visited two captivating spaces, one in retail and one in the entertainment industry, that represent the state-of-the-art in their respective (and overlapping) fields: the new Nike Town in New York City and the newly renovated Harrah's Atlantic City Casino and its Fantasea Reef restaurant.
NIKE TOWN NYC
"The amount of selling space per American shopper is now more than double what it was in the mid-seventies, meaning that profit margins have never been narrower, and the costs of starting a retail business--and of failing--have never been higher." 2 These factors necessitate that store design maximize the sales potential of every square foot and they've given rise to a science of "retail anthropology" which analyzes and collates data about the consumer's predilections and behavior within stores. Corporations use this information to hone their store's design and, when successful, the retail store, product and image become inseparable--The Gap would be a good example.3
Another step taken by retailers has been to incorporate entertainment into their store design, thus creating their own tourist destinations. In New York City the tourists who once schlepped themselves to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building are more likely to visit Warner Bros. Studio Store or the Hard Rock Cafe--both on 57th St. Although there was no master plan, it's no coincidence that these corporate retail/entertainment chain stores are built close together, and are transforming one of the most pricey shopping blocks in the world into an urban mall. The model they emulated was the one responsible, in part, for their success--the suburban mall. After a long search It was here that Nike found the perfect location to build their flagship store, just a half block from Tiffany's and only a mall stroll from the aforementioned attractions.4 The building that once housed the upscale retail store, Bonwit Teller, was razed for the creation of Nike Town NYC.
NT NYC opened on November 1st, 1996 and it's truly a remarkable construction. It's an entirely new building, built from the ground up, but its conceit is that a contemporary building has been built inside the shell of a depression era public high school gymnasium. The WPA gym is treated as a landmark building which Nike, out of consideration for the proud tradition and history of athletic endeavor, preserved. Here-and-there details like wooden floors, bleachers and a score board are revealed through the new construction. Nike describes the concept as "a ship in a bottle" but it is really more like a microwave oven placed inside an old gas range.
One enters at street level through the PS 6453 (tel. code for Nike) facade and passes into a vestibule where there's a curvilinear, fluorescent light, mausoleum of Nike footwear--then through subway turnstiles into a vertical atrium enclosed by five separate shopping levels. On the atrium's ground level is an information desk, a flipper board and a bank of video monitors displaying scores and live feeds from athletic events around the globe. Just to the right are escalators to carry the customer to the upper floors. All of these elements follow the basic tenets for store design as described by Paco Underhill, the leading light of retail anthropology.5 The vestibule creates a decompression zone that allows customers time to slow down to shopping speed--this is a good place for display but not for sales. The atrium creates a clear visual field which attracts the shopper to the upper levels of the store. And because people invariably circulate to the right upon entering a store, that is where the escalators that move shoppers up-and-into the store are placed. The further into the depths of a store customers penetrate, the more likely it is that they will make a purchase.6
Within the atrium is a gigantic sports clock which makes a 30.00 minute countdown. When it hits 00.00, a curtain lowers over the gigantic Palladium window on 57th St. and a mammoth scrim descends the length of the atrium. The morphed store darkens and an inspirational Nike commercial with superb production values is projected on the scrim. The ingenuity here is that the shopper will stay in the store for the next show thus having more time to consume--to be given entertainment that shows them what to consume.
The atmosphere of NT NYC is a little like that of an accelerated museum. The uniformed sales people stand by like polite and informed guards, and customers reverently study the product displays in a kind of excited silence. There are quite a few wonders sprinkled throughout NT NYC. The shopper can use the NGAGE digital sizing system to make highly accurate infrared scans of their feet. And if one decides to purchase shoes, they are carried from the basement to anywhere in the store in one of 26 transparent Lucite tubes. There are interactive touch-and-feel displays for Nike fabrics and sole materials, and lots of product within easy reach--shoppers are more likely to buy clothes that they've been allowed (encouraged) to touch.7
There are no architects credited for the building--rather it is "designed" by Gordon Thompson III and John R. Hoke III. This surprised me, given the size of the project and the sophistication of the design, until I saw that Hoke used to work for Michael Graves. In my mind, the student has surpassed the teacher. Graves's architecture is cloying because he doesn't give up the pretensions of formal architecture, and while it suggests the fantastic, it barely indulges it. NT NYC has few pretensions and is fully fantastic. Even though it could be argued that 57th Street is a theme park, this is the only non-theme park building I can think of that creates such a complete narrative without being corny. I loath "witty" when used to describe fashion and architecture--it almost never is and it smells of phony sophistication--"smart" may be the word for NT NYC.
Products take on the attributes of the environment and vice versa.8 Inspirational quotations, written in steel and inlayed in the terrazzo floor, exhort the shopper toward self-improvement: One can never consent to creep when one feels the impulse to soar--Helen Keller.9 Nike not only co-opts the spirit of Keller but also the durability of marble and the strength steel. Buying Nike will not only make your tennis game more like Agassi's or Seles's-- it will make you like the building itself; a sleek, smooth-running, and clean machine. NT NYC is so animated and so wired, that metaphors to the body and brain are unavoidable. I was so exhilarated by my visit that I needed to buy a Swoosh stocking cap just to participate in the health and excitement of the building.
I would like to digress on a matter of style. One block south of NT NYC is the recently refurbished Sony showcase store where sterling framed photos of Garbo and sumptuous satin settees surround behemoth Home Entertainment Systems. I'm struck by the similar combination of design periods used in both stores--Sony mixes Hi-tech with Art Deco, Nike mixes it with WPA. These blends of prewar and 90's design remind me of Syd Mead's design for Blade Runner and the cyberpunk aesthetic. Just as modernism's look was commercialized and transformed into Art Deco, cyberpunk fiction's romantic vision of the near future urban landscape--a trashy dystopia brought on by the excesses of consumer culture and accelerated technology10--was eagerly appropriated by the entertainment industry and, now, used in corporate design. P.K.Dick might even appreciate the irony in the transformation of his politically radical visions into retail store design.
HARRAH'S ATLANTIC CITY CASINO HOTEL and the FANTASEA REEF restaurant
Perhaps the most famous and graphic examples of how entertainment/retail design responds to the shifting relationships between seller and buyer can be seen in the evolution of casino marketing and design. The competition between casinos for the gambler's dollar is so intense that the sophistication of the lure they must offer--the reward in entertainment and comfort given to the gambler-- grows in proportion to the customer's resistance, passive though it may be. For a moment it seemed that a mutation, the family oriented casino hotel, would rule the jungle. Casinos rushed to put in roller coasters and video arcades in order to attract families with children. That thinking simply did not generate big enough profits--family services were expensive to run and parents, with children in tow, were too busy or tired to invest their time in the casino. Plans for casino amusement parks filled designers' trash cans, money was lost and the family casino now occupies a secondary niche in the market. The mutation that did pay off was Steve Wynn's Mirage Hotel and Casino--an adult oriented, luxurious casino hotel that is still the model for nouveau casino design.
Harrah's Atlantic City recently employed Daroff Design Inc. of Philadelphia to completely renovate their casino and to create a new theme restaurant. The refurbished casino is saturated with a blue marine glow and adorned with lots of transparent surfaces. Wide aisles, long, abstract, aquatic curves and bubble machines lend an almost serene quality to a room that is the leisure equivalent of the floor of the NY Stock Exchange. It's sometimes assumed that good circulation patterns ran contrary to good (profitable) casino design. Not so according to DDI's president, Karen Daroff; "We manipulate in order to reinforce a sense of comfort and orientation. We tried to have continuity of theme lead you through the space so that you're never disoriented. We also tried not to have visual disruptions but rather to have interesting ends of vectors." 11 Daroff also noted that the calmer palette and easily navigated aisles reflected their client's desire for a gender friendly environment.
Here, I'm reminded again of Paco Underhill's observations. Interesting ends of vectors translate to greater penetration into the depths of the store and the likelihood of a sale (purchasing a chance). Giving customers interesting destinations, which are easily reached, will keep them in a casino longer than scrambling their sense of direction and running them like rats in a maze that continually loops back to the casino--although the casino is still the origin for those vectors. Underhill observed a phenomena that could account for wider aisles in gender friendly design--le facteur bousculade. During his extensive studies of shoppers he noticed that if a woman's behind is brushed while she's looking at merchandise (or a slot machine), she will exit the establishment soon thereafter.12
Harrah's has something interesting to compel the customer to make these long traverses--the Fantasea Reef restaurant. The Fantasea Reef is a buffet restaurant and small gift shop situated in a faux coral grotto. The customer is greeted at the entrance by an employee costumed as either Marina the Mermaid or King Neptune (Marina was on duty for my visit) and directed inside. On the ceiling shifting pattern-lights suggest the movement of light on water and above the banquettes one views ultramarine dioramas through plastic kelp. Multiscreen television-aquariums are sunk into the glittering curved walls and fixed to them are hundreds of realistic, silicone sea anemones with interior fiber optic lights that shift through the spectrum in unison. It feels like the shared dining room of Dr. No and Captain Nemo. $7 million was spent to create this buffet and it is money well spent--I think an underlying principle of all casino design is to inspire one to think, "What does the lousy $200 I'm down (or up) mean compared to what it cost to build this spread?" It's a testament to the indomitable spirit of all gamblers that we don't choose to make the next logical step in that reasoning.
Entertainment/theme restaurants like Fantasea Reef represent one of the hottest trends in the food service industry--it's called "eater-tainment.13" This concept probably dates back to the first prepared meal ever sold; restaurants have always tried to create an atmosphere that allows the customer the pleasure of food and company and distinguishes their version of it from their competitors'. I think what seems different now is simply a matter of degree. Even though restaurant profit margins are modest, the restaurant corporations are big. They can design and build multiple eater-tainments while making relatively minor variations based on location, and market their mid-to-upscale product on a level that used to be reserved for mass produced consumer goods and fast food. Where it used to be only an occasional restaurant that would merchandise a souvenir cocktail glass, it is now the norm for restaurants to make a good profit merchandising self-promoting tee-shirts, caps and more specific and bizarre memorabilia.
I'd like to digress once again. The Fantasea Reef is tame compared to one of DDI's newest commissions, the design of three Rainforest Cafes.14 Plans for the Rainforest include an elevator, to be built inside a waterfall, that will raise diners from ground level into a fantastic world beneath a canopy of artificial foliage and fiber optic constellations. There's to be a menagerie of animatronic gorillas, elephants, hippos and talking trees, as well as live fish and birds. There will be simulated rain storms and the cafe's ventilation system will emit a natural rain forest aroma that's been specially developed from natural floral extracts by the Aveda Corporation. Rainforest Cafe already offers an extensive line of private label merchandise including clothing, personal care products, glassware, and Rainforest Cafe coffees--among many other items.15 As one can see, Eater-tainment restaurants are prime examples of how blurred the distinctions between the selling of services, entertainment and merchandising have become.
These restaurants place the eater-tainee in a geography far away from anything resembling the mall or casino, which are themselves fantasy worlds. The loss of sense of place--the pleasure of escape--is central to the idea and critical when the place is a stressful environment like a mall or casino. The design programs of these larger closed systems specialize in the number and placement of these islands of calm where the diner vacations from consuming, while consuming. The success of eater-tainment is certainly related to the failure of conversation and the passivity engendered by television (the marketing of everything is reliant on TV). In fact, these islands resemble TV worlds that the consumer can enter and enjoy--with different channels available at the other end of the mall or casino.
People sometimes feel threatened by the manipulations of entertainment/retail architecture and design--usually the same people who don't care to shop for leisure or to watch television. Critics bemoan the conversion of urban neighborhoods into malls and what they perceive as corporate thought control and mindless consumerism--good points that have been made by minds finer than mine. But once one accepts that corporations have taken over space that used to be public and that history gets pretty warped through the lens of entertainment, the science of this design can be efficient and the results, fantastic. Pei's renovation of the Louvre is a good example of successful application of entertainment/retail design in a space that retains many civic qualities. DDI has applied knowledge accumulated through corporate and entertain/retail design to the design of urban parks and a post office. And many of us will cherish our memories of a visit to a Nike Town or a meal in a Fantasea Reef.
1 Margaret Crawford, "The World in a Shopping Mall," Variations on a Theme Park, ed. Michael Sorkin. This topic has been analyzed from quite a few different viewpoints. Crawford's is to my liking and aspects of her perspective run throughout this piece.
2 Malcolm Gladwell, "The Science of Shopping," The New Yorker (Nov. 4th, 1996) p. 67 Gladwell's excellent article which profiles Paco Underhill, "retail anthropologist," was the source for all my information about Underhill and for much information concerning shopping behavior and store design.
4 According to a conversation with Nike Town designer, Gordon Thompson. See Elein Fleiss's and my interview with him, "Fast on His Feet," Purple Prose, #12, Spring 1997.
6 Gladwell, p. 67.
7 Gladwell, p. 68.
8 Crawford, p. 15.
9 Helen Keller was an American writer and lecturer who was blind and deaf from infancy. She learned to read and write.
10 Andrew Ross, Strange Weather, (London: Verso, 1991). Ross's chapter "Cyberpunk in Boystown," gives a really thorough genesis and analysis of cyberpunk style.
11 See my interview with Karen Daroff, "Better Than Life," Purple Prose, #12, Spring, 1997.
12 Gladwell, p. 67.
13 Karen Daroff (see #10) speculates that it may have been Ecklein Communications, publishers of trade newsletters and producers of urban entertainment conferences, that coined this term.
14 Six other Rainforest Cafes, not designed by DDI, are already in existence.
15 Information from Rainforest Cafe literature.