Storefronts for Architects

John Hill | 09.10.2012
Outside the office of Schemata Architects - All photographs are courtesy the respective architects, unless noted otherwise.
A noticeable trend in recent years is the growing number of architecture firms moving into ground-level storefrontsspaces formerly occupied by stores, restaurants, or other traditional storefront uses. In recognition of this trend, World-Architects.com conducted a short international survey to find out why architecture offices moved into a storefront space, how it affects their practice, and if they'd recommend the same to others. The responses are varied, and while these and other offices are responding to increased retail vacancies and a desire to fill them, there is a shared desire on the part of the architects to engage with life on the street.


Schemata Architects
Tokyo, Japan
2-30-6 Kamimeguro
Outside the office of Schemata Architects
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?

From the start we were looking for a space that we could share with Shuhei Nakamura’s paint company Paint and Paint, and we wanted a storefront Nakamura could use as a showroom. We were lucky enough to find property that was bigger than we had hoped for. The previous occupant was a freight company, and the ceilings are over 4 meters (13 feet) high. This type of space is really unusual in Japan. Because it was so large, we needed to find a third partner to share it with, but we didn’t want the whole place to be filled up with desks. We ended up sharing with a gallery. The gallery basically uses the walls, so it’s been a good match - each of our needs is quite different. The result is HAPPA, a collaborative workspace shared by Schemata Architecture, Paint and Paint, and the Aoyama Meguro gallery.

Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?

The fact that we renovated the space ourselves (and that passersby can look inside and see the projects we’re working on) turns the office into a showroom. It’s slower than other forms of media, but I think our tastes and way of thinking definitely get through to the public. When we make models we display them in the storefront to get an immediate reaction from the public. By exposing our work in that way, our own perspectives become more detached and objective. Another effect of being in a storefront is that in a way the street becomes part of our sphere of activity. That not only allows us to use the available space more effectively, it also plays a big role in our communication with the neighborhood.

The office environment and the fact that we share the space with a diverse group of professionals have also influenced our work. The building used to serve as the office, storage area, and parking garage for a transport company, so it has concrete floors and is an easy space to work in. We’re often able to make one-to-one scale models, and that affects how we design. We’ve also gotten to know a lot more about paint as a result of sharing the office with Paint and Paint. Both of those things played a role in the launch of our FLAT TABLE line of furniture.

Normally, when each company has its own office and people are working in an environment where they're cut off from the outside world, it's easy to get stuck in hierarchical relationships with the boss. On the other hand, in a situation like we have at HAPPA, relationships between staff and boss are mediated through the various other people who share the space, and everyone becomes more like an ordinary person. The fact that it's easier to form non-hierarchical relationships is another merit of this kind of setup.
Inside the office of Schemata Architects
Inside the office of Schemata Architects
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?

Yes, I would. The open environment of the storefront space gives the staff a sense of independence and freedom. We’re constantly looking out at the street so we never forget the scale and everyday concerns of the real world. Architects tend to forget those things when they’re facing their computers all day. The fact that we’re in a storefront also relaxes the boundary between interior and exterior. It makes a big difference that we can step outside any time we feel like taking a break and clearing our minds.

Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?

Since the gallery faces the street people come inside all the time. For a long time their standard reaction was, “Wow, what a cool space, but what are they doing in here?” Recently though more people are starting to learn who we are and what we do.


Bernheimer Architecture
Brooklyn, New York
331 Court Street
Outside the office of Berheimer Architecture
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?

My lease was expiring in Dumbo ("Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Underpass," also in Brooklyn), and after 11 years it was time for a new space. I had looked at many spaces in Manhattan, trying to find an in-between spot midway on public transportation between my home and Parsons, where I teach. I was close to signing a lease and decided against it, and had a Sunday night epiphany about looking for a storefront in the neighborhood where I live. In a stroke of luck, a nearly perfect space was available in an optimal location.

Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?

We have only been in the space for a month. It’s a different experience from the typical artist’s loft, and we are in the process of figuring out how to take advantage of the openness. We certainly get some odd looks, and can overhear many comments about the “new real estate office” in the neighborhood.
Inside the office of Bernheimer Architecture
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?

If you don’t mind the noise of the street, and the openness/exposure, then sure. It’s been invigorating, even though it has only been a month.

Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?

Not yet, but we do get odd looks and peering in the window.


gh3
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
55 Ossington Avenue
Outside the office of gh3
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?

There is a simple answer to this — we like bright, open and light spaces. The most direct way to achieve this in a narrow and deep building such as ours was to open up the streetfront facade as much as possible. Beyond the literal, of course we were aware of the transparency that would result. That's okay; we wanted to feel part of the neighborhood, to have a presence on the Ossington strip in the same way that a gallery or cafe has. This stretch of Ossington Avenue is interesting due to the mismatch of businesses and activities that coexist at street level within a short few blocks. We're happy to add to the mix.

Regarding our choice of the actual space, this building became available to us at the right time. Beyond that, the tall ceiling height was definitely an attraction. Or maybe it was just having a Vietnamese restaurant right next door dishing out hot Pho all winter long.

Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?

Maybe we should make more use of the exposure, but that's an interesting thing in itself. We don't advertise with a sign, yet it never ceases to amaze us how much people will stop and stare in, trying to solve the mystery of what's happening in here. That's funny, given the number of architecture studios you have in a city like Toronto. I guess people just don't get a window into what we do very often.

We do use the window as an exhibition space from time to time. For example, we had Chicago artist Willy Chyr make a piece called "Eye Candy" for the window in 2011. Kids really loved that. There are murmurings of something exciting happening in the window for the upcoming art event in Toronto, "Nuit Blanche"...watch this space.
Inside the office of gh3
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?

That depends on the architect. It works well for us, but maybe certain aspects of the exposure might prove annoying to others. I think if you are going to do it, embrace the idea and go for it! It brings an element of fun, unpredictability and spontaneity to office life. We also got a contract from somebody who just happened to be walking by and was surprised by the space. I suppose that's a recommendation in itself.

Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?

It seems that there is still a healthy market for Internet cafes, even in this smartphone age. People see computers and think, "Great, for a dollar I can check my emails!" Perhaps we should keep a computer free and start charging!

However, not everybody needs to think it's something in particular; some will just walk right in and ask straight out, "So, what is this place?" That's great, especially to break the tension right before a deadline!


Futurafrosch
Zurich, Switzerland
Zentralstrasse 47
Outside the office of Futurafrosch
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?

It seems as if the space had been waiting for us. We had been looking for a place with an inspiring context and related to our major interest: a place that feels cozy and demanding at the same time. Working long hours and weekends often means being disconnected from what architecture and urban planning is all about. Spending these hours in the direct context of street life, having coffee and lunch breaks in front of the shop, friends popping in every now and then, add to the work/life balance as well as for a professional exchange.

Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?

It is the exposure to daily life that makes the place so attractive to us. Observing the impact of minimal urbanistic interventions makes for a compensation for the often very long-term periods of planning and realization of projects. Replacing the parking lot in front of our storefront by a bench, made it to a public place. The regularly changing window decoration is attracting different people and provoking reactions in the neighborhood. Structures and facades in our street became part of several of our projects.
Outside the office of Futurafrosch
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?

It is an ambivalent thing. Being part of the street life is great advantage, personally and professionally. Nevertheless our understanding of urban quality includes a lively and public-related ground floor use. In a wider point of view, the tendency of storefronts converting into office space cannot be of public interest.

Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?

Yes, this happens — and even more often, people walk in and ask any kind of favor from hanging space for advertisement up to tourists looking for a toilet.


Leroy Street Studio
New York, New York
113 Hester Street
Before and after outside of Leroy Street Studio's office
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?
 
In 2000 we needed to move our office to a larger space and found an industrial building close by to renovate. During the renovation we discovered that the front façade had large steel lintels that allowed us to put in a two story storefront with a conference room above office space below. The large area of glazing allowed us to bring in abundant natural light. Most of our clients live elsewhere in the city and abroad so giving our office a street presence wasn’t a primary concern.
 
Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?
 
After the events of Sept. 11, we noticed an economic downturn in our neighborhood (we are about one mile away from ground zero) and that inspired us to start a not-for-profit (Hester Street Collaborative) aimed at making design services more accessible to our community.
 
For Hester Street Collaborative the storefront not only provided a well-lit workshop but gave us a notable presence on the street. The open workshop subsequently became a highly visible symbol of our mission: to empower residents of underserved communities by providing them with the tools and resources necessary to have a direct impact on shaping their built environment.
Inside the office of Leroy Street Studio
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?
 
The movement toward a more accessible public-interest design practice goes hand-in-hand with establishing a more public face in the city. Maintaining a street presence is an opportunity for architects to show that they are offering design services in innovative and unexpected ways.
 
Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?
 
We are on a Chinatown block alongside a sausage factory and hair salons.  No one has come in for a haircut or meat, but we do get a lot of people staring in and wondering what is going on. The relationship between client design meetings, the community design workshop and Chinatown street life is a never ending source of unexpected experiences.


LENS°ASS Architects
Hasselt, Belgium
Dr. Willemsstraat 19

Brussels, Belgium
Schildknaapsstraat 34
Outside the Brussels office of LENS°ASS
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?
 

Headquartered in Hasselt, we are housed in a building at street level. This allows us to actively participate in city life, and "what you see is what you get." We do not have to use lots of business cards, since everyone knows where the office is located. In Brussels we had the opportunity to purchase either an apartment or a shell-level storefront space for the same amount. With our positive experience in Hasselt the choice was not difficult.
 
Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?
 
See previous answer: The people know where you are (no need for business cards); one experiences the style; and being in touch with your work environment is inspiring. I do not think we have clients who "accidentally" came along, and decided that way. It does not work like that.
Inside the Brussels office of LENS°ASS
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?
 
Yes, for the reasons mentioned above. It is true that actively participating in your life-work environment may be a moral obligation for an architect who has to inspire others.
 
Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?
 
In Brussels, someone once popped in to get an appointment for a new haircut; probably the "earchairs" by Jurgen Bey have contributed to that question.


Magnus Ståhl Arkitektbyrå AB
Stockholm, Sweden
Linnégatan 19
Outside the office of Magnus Ståhl Arkitektbyrå AB
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?

The address was just right and the space where previously rented to an Artist’s Association with a gallery and a relatively large back office. We moved the architect’s office into the office space and use the gallery to exhibit our own work as well as inviting artist’s and furniture design companies to exhibit there. So there is the storefront but there is also the gallery space, before entering the office area. The gallery space runs under the name “Main Gallery.”

Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?

People wander in when the gallery is open, checking out the items on display – people are especially drawn to our wooden models when they are shown, and once in a while we get a request to do a job there and then.
Inside the office of Magnus Ståhl Arkitektbyrå AB
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?

Yes, if it’s carefully maintained it might be a good face for your firm.

Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?

Oh yes, especially since a beauty shop and a jewelry shop have the same street number (for some reason). That makes up for some confusion. Also, there are a few people thinking the address is still housing the Artist’s Association.


José Adrião Arquitecto
Lisbon, Portugal

Rua Gilberto Rola N' 41
Outside the office of José Adrião Arquitecto
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?
Our first office was already on a ground-floor level. Two years ago we moved into an old and empty steelwork fabricator shop in the same neighborhood. We’ve transformed it into our studio and opened a storefront. It was an opportunity.
 
Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?
Our office is located in small traditional and friendly neighborhood of Lisbon. There are restaurants, grocery stores, a bakery, a shoemaker, and cafes. When we arrived two years ago, we naturally started to relate with the community. Today, whenever we host a venue, all drinks and food are provided by our neighbors.
Inside the office of José Adrião Arquitecto
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?
It depends on the type of research and architecture the office is producing. A practice should look for places that both inspire and reflect its position toward profession and life. We enjoy to be directly involved within the city, street, and community life. When we arrived at our present location, we also refurbished the building next to our office. New people came to live here and diversity was brought into the neighborhood.

Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?
Yes, people just come in and ask,  "What kind of store is this?!" Our neighbours realized that we like to reuse things, so now, before throwing anything away, they first come into our office and ask if we would like to have it. Things like furniture, books, music records, etc. We have the opportunity, in the future, of making a business change (smile).


Vamos Architects
Brooklyn, New York
100 North 3rd Street

Outside the office of Vamos Architects
Why did your firm move into a storefront office space and how did you select your current one?
 
Our firm engages with the realities of human behavior in public and commercial spaces. We have designed and built retail spaces, storefronts, shop windows, temporary pop-ups, and kiosks. It was a no-brainer for us to move into a storefront space. We moved into our [Williamsburg] neighborhood and met the developer of our building. She had a retail space available in the new building and gave us the opportunity to test drive the space. We have been here for the past 3-1/2 years.

Has occupying a storefront space influenced your practice in any way? Do you take advantage of the exposure?

We thrive on the way the space allows us to engage with the street outside and we learn every day from what we see out our windows. We know the subtleties of our environment, from the patterns of garbage pickup, to the staggering paths of local drunks; the relative health of our street trees, to parking enforcement schedules; even the age of the abandoned bicycle chained to the pole outside. These innocuous details feed our creativity every day and provide a powerful parallel reality to our day-to-day practice.
 
We have hosted and produced a number of temporary exhibits, events, and installations and we maintain an active and visible studio environment that showcases our current work and process. We serve as a community meeting space for the building, whether for our monthly board meetings or for building parties. We also display our design concepts, material studies, and physical models of our projects in the windows.
Inside the office of Vamos Architects
Would you recommend a storefront office space to other architects? If yes, why, and if no, why not?
 
I do not think a storefront practice is for everyone. It requires a constant attention to the aesthetic of the space and demands a very flexible attitude about dealing with the public. The visibility encourages people to come in and ask questions, so we are often interrupted. While sometimes annoying, this is also one of the key values of the storefront space. The constant reminder of the outside world helps to keep our design ideas grounded and keyed in to practical and engaged solutions. It is very helpful to be able to explain our ideas to anyone who happens to walk by.

Has anybody ever entered your office thinking it was something else?

Almost every day. We have had some really funny requests ranging from a couple asking if they could buy models out of the window to a teenager coming in with her school group asking “What do you think of the Art Movement?” The constant visibility keeps us on our toes.

Email interviews conducted by John Hill