BIG's Galeries Lafayette and the revival of the Champs-Élysées

Words by: Anna Sansom

Let’s call it Act 2 of the Champs-Élysées this year. After being the site of violent confrontations between the Gilets Jaunes protesters and the police, the prestigious 2km-long Parisian avenue has rebounded, thanks to two new additions: the Galeries Lafayette department store, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and six fountains by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. The projects signal a new vision for the Champs-Élysées, and indeed Paris, in the lead up to the city hosting the Olympic Games in 2024.

The Galeries Lafayette building is an art deco structure dating from the early 1930s that was first occupied by the National City Bank of New York and later by Virgin Megastore. In 2016, the Galeries Lafayette group, a family-owned business led by CEO Philippe Houzé, commissioned BIG to metamorphose the building and create a 21st-century retail experience.

BIG has created a golden tunnel with flashing lights to greet visitors at the entranceto the store. Credit: Delfino Sisto Legnani & Marco Cappelletti

‘This is our first store and we were so lucky that Galeries Lafayette had the courage to select us, despite us being beginners,’ says Jakob Sand, a partner at BIG who managed the project with Ingels in collaboration with local architect, SRA Architectes. ‘They needed this other view on retail, regardless that we weren’t experts at all.’

The Danish practice had never designed a department store before. The fact that Ingels had worked for OMA before establishing BIG could have inspired Galeries Lafayette to hire him; OMA designed an exhibition space for the group which opened last year. ‘The [Houzé] family is very familiar with architecture and could see us in the same world as Rem Koolhaas as we share views on architecture and art,’ Sand says. ‘It’s an important link and they liked the fact that we came with some surprising ideas.’

Retail displays include stacked boxes in a pixellated effect, a recurring motif for BIG. Credit: Michel Florent

Before channeling these ideas, Ingels and Sand first tackled ‘the DNA of the building’ and how to restore its original shape. ‘In the 1980s, Virgin Megastore covered the beautiful glass cupola and many of the windows with plastic boards, making it much more introverted,’ Sand says. ‘It was a completely different business model back then, that wasn’t about daylight or urban space.’

BIG envisioned an ‘urban agora’ — a four-storey, 6,800 sq m meeting place where people would shop, eat, drink and hang out. The aim was to lure consumers into a stylish venue, away from online shopping, by promising multi sensoriality, social interaction and discovery. The first decision was to reveal the hexagonal cupola and six marble columns and floor in the atrium. Against this art deco backdrop, BIG set to work creating geometric ‘architectural statements’ that encompass the signatory expressions of the practice’s visual language.

A golden ring wraps around the marble columns in the main atrium of the store. Credit: Delfino Sisto Legnani & Marco Cappelletti

The first statement greets visitors at the entrance to the store: a golden tunnel with flashing lights which Sand refers to as ‘the Stanley Kubrick tunnel’. The next ‘powerful gesture’ is the enormous golden ring that wraps around the marble columns, encircling the atrium. A staircase leads up to the first floor; disbanding with the shop-in-shop formula, BIG suggested a new visual identity using a uniform font for all the brands which has been designed by Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, founders of design agency M/M (Paris). M/M’s new logo for Galeries Lafayette also appears on the facade. Rectilinear structures display collections in a fluid, seamless manner, uninterrupted by the logos of brands.

The curvilinear wall installations in which trainers are displayed on carpet-clad squares in a pixellated repetition of shapes, and the presentation of hundreds of pairs of sunglasses in fibreglass boxes, recall BIG’s 2016 Serpentine Pavilion. Certainly, repeated Donald Judd-like cubes have long played an important role in BIG’s aesthetic and feature throughout Galeries Lafayette in varying scales and in a diversity of materials.

The Bourrellec brothers’ fountains feature 3,060 crystals and 13m-high bronze masts. Credit: Claire Lavabre - Studio Bouroullec

A vast ‘podium’ staircase in illuminated glass and golden cubes at Café Citron — the first-floor restaurant designed by Simon Porte Jacquemus — ascends to the second floor. More powerful gestures are found here too, where six blurred-glass, illuminated cubes are cantilevered over the atrium in sci-fi fashion. ‘It’s true that BIG has a fascination with glass as a material,’ Sand says. ‘Here it’s linked to the shape of industrial glass used a lot in art deco times. We added a silver film behind it, changing a quite industrial product into something exclusive.’

Elsewhere on the second floor, BIG has drawn inspiration from the mechanics of watchmaking in its design of horological pieces of pale grey furniture in fibre-reinforced concrete, presenting watches and jewellery whilst designer shoes are shown on long, undulating stretches of golden carpet. The playful mix of materials and pixellated cubes continues in the golden food court and bar in the basement. Bringing this range of functions to the store is about ‘architectural alchemy’, says Sand.

‘It took a long and steep learning curve to be able to do this,’ Sand concludes. ‘It’s a little crazy that we started out [in retail] doing the biggest flagship store on the Champs-Élysées, but that’s what made it super exciting.’ So what did he and Ingels learn from the experience? ‘What we’ve learnt is where retail is going at a time when it’s challenged by the internet; how future stores should be places to meet and integrate, becoming more of a part of the city.’

And this part of the city has also seen a new, geometric perspective brought by the Bouroullec brothers in their design of six tree-like fountains for the nearby roundabout on the avenue, Rond-Point des ChampsÉlysées- Marcel-Dassault, to replace fountains that had been closed in 1998.

Featuring 3,060 crystals cut by Swarovski in Austria, the fountains comprise the largest project yet by the French designers. Each fountain is composed of three branches of diagonal lines descending into verticals that are positioned around a 13m-high bronze mast. Water rises through the mast and trickles down through the branches into the basin. The fountains constantly rotate and are lit by LEDs in the evening. ‘We aimed to give symmetry and a sense of balance between the monumental and the delicate back to this square,’ says Ronan Bouroullec. ‘The roundabout had become chaotic. The idea was to find the geometry again and make something vertical that gave a precise vision.’

Costing €6.3m (£5.6m), the project was financed by Fonds Pour Paris, a foundation to restore Parisian heritage and support contemporary art that was set up by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo in 2015; donors include Groupe Galeries Lafayette, Groupe Dassault and the State of Qatar.

The foundation is also financing the €3m (£2.7m) ‘artistic lighting’ project of Olafur Eliasson set to be inaugurated in early 2020 on the top of the Arc de Triomphe; this will see red, blue and white lights evoking the colours of the French flag beaming out from the iconic structure. Meanwhile, city authorities are working on a new bike lane to improve the avenue, which will open in 2020. All eyes are firmly set on 2024, and the image Paris will present to the world when the Games come to town.

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