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Published in World Architecture, January 2003, p55-60.

Jun Aoki's Tokyo store for Louis Vuitton resembles a pile ofrandomly stacked trunks. But the bulkiness of its structure is offset by intangible metal layers that seem inspired by the French designer's own watery fabrics.

Omotesando Avenue is Tokyo's prime street of luxury brands, a sloping vista lined with keyaki trees. Styled as a boulevard on faintly Parisian lines, it was intended to be a tribute to the Champs Elysées. At the same time it is a residential area. At its southern end Herzog & de Meuron's towering new building for Prada is taking shape, and Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Kazuyo Sejima, Kengo Kuma and Kisho Kurokawa, are all designing nearby, for brands including Dior (Sejima is designing Christian Dior, on the former site of a nurses' home) and Todd's. Jun Aoki, 46, whose career began working for Arata Isozaki, scooped arguably the best site when he won the international competition for Louis Vuitton's intended ten-floor Omotesando store.

Aoki has schools and museums under his belt as well as private houses. Responsible for the brand's earlier shops in Ginza and Nagoya, he also designed the seaside house at Katsura of Kyojiro Hata, the president of LV- Japan, in glass, teak and black lacquer. In Omotesando, however, the stake is capital. 1400 shoppers, overcome with fetishistic passion for the LV monogram and its blue chip stock, and not to be deterred by seven years of economic crisis, camped outside the 3,327 square metre store before the opening. One and half hours after the opening, the tills had taken 43 million yen.

The ambition of fashion brands to invest in and use international architectural talent to extend their reach, reaching its zenith recently with Miuccia Prada's patronage of Rem Koolhaas for all the brand's US stores, is part of a strategy of multicultural marketing. Louis Vuitton, known as a leading malletier (manufacturer of trunks) since the late 19th century, principally for French explorers, needed to affirm a new image of both luxury and craftsmanship but also international modernity.

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That language is not about uniformity, but increasingly requires engagement with the local as well as the global. Aoki wanted the building to express this double layer of values, but not at the expense of its relationship with Omotesando. Both architect and client desired 'a conversation with the environment, the city'. Aoki had the idea of 'making the building a jewel box' with the image of a pile of trunks stacked at random. The trunks, each representing a unique space, are connected internally with a labyrinth of corridors providing journeys between trunks, an effect that breaks up any notion of a standard hierarchy between floors and rooms.

The façade is a double skin with three different kinds of metal mesh fabric and two kinds of polished stainless steel panels in rose and gold. Behind these are an inner layer of glass panels with a striped pattern, which lend a subtly luminous depth to the building's appearance. By overlaying the silver colour of the metal fabric with the rose and gold tinted back panel, the colour becomes ambiguous, losing its sense of materiality. In the context of a street of 'noisy' facades, Aoki decided he wanted a 'background façade, a void, silent space'. Through its very abstract mystery, it lures the eye much more powerfully than its overlit, nondescript fascias of its neighbours. 'The idea of using metal fabric was initially derived from the idea of piling up trunks. I thought the surface could be covered in fabric like trunks. At same time, because I did not want to realize them literally as enlarged trunks but as mirages, the double skin was proposed'.

The effect is reminiscent of Louis Vuitton's damier fabric which has a patterned appearance like moiré, or watered silk. Its visual impact is not unlike that of limestone, Aoki points out, which you would commonly see walls made of in Paris, Louis Vuitton's home. In Japan, such an effect reads as European, yet at the same time approaching Ito's abstract, ethereal surfaces. Aoki describes it 'as a mass of mist floating on a volume of air'.

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Its 'random stacking of trunks' in ten stages screening the nine floors of the building relates in scale to the mixed residential and commercial area of Omotesando, with the soft texture of the metal fabric on the façade conveying the texture of fallen leaves from the big zelkova trees in front of the building. By articulating the building's form in this way, Aoki succeeds in suggesting at the same time size and intimacy. It can be seen as homogenous, but not monolithic. This impression is accentuated by the material richness that reads as a play between tradition and high tech, implied layers of screens (of moiré fabric, and lattice checkerboard) and the vertically composed box structure, between immateriality and durability.

Inside the store the structure of assembled volumes that refer to trunks continues. It is an assemblage of various spaces, largely arranged inside with bespoke retail fittings designed by Eric Carlson and David McNulty of Louis Vuitton's Architecture Department, apart from a double height multi-purpose hall on the top floor designed by Aoki. The basic units are not floors but spaces: right-angled boxes of various scales, proportions and natural light conditions structured. Treating the various sized volumes as if they were the interiors of trunks, Aoki 'lines' them with stainless steel mesh, very fine like silk, an industrial material originally used to make conveyer belts hung singly or doubly against walls, steel panels, glass windows and apertures on stairways, which give the walls a moiré effect of many different graduations. Spray painted cream or red, in three types of density, each promotes a subtle, translucent nuance as a veil that blurs perspectival boundaries at windows, and at the limits of the retail spaces.

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The first five storeys of the building are dedicated to public retail space. At the top of the building the multipurpose hall, designed by Jun Aoki, is a extraordinarily tactile space like a padded box. The luxury of white velvet ceilings and cream terrazzo floors are offset by windows hung with the same fine white stainless steel mesh as in the retail spaces below. Aoki plays on dramatic diminutions of scale in the connecting stairs and passages of the building, and here on this floor applies a large scale trompe l'oeil parquet pattern to line the entire surfaces of the hall's entrance lobby, so that the visitor 'keeps finding new worlds'. He maintains the connection to the city most powerfully through verandas on two floors lined in mirrored glass Aoki calls them an 'in-between space for smoking and reflection'. The lush greenery of the trees, reproduced all around the inside of these 'boxes', brushes right up against the windows. These inviting mirrored enclosures - small but at the same time urban in reflected scale - erase the visual division between interior and exterior is dissolved and encouraging the trees to appear as a carpet across the avenue.

The building affirms Louis Vuitton's standing as cultural patrons, yet little can prevent the dilemma that an architectural statement in the form of a store, once part of a fashion cycle, may become redundant sooner than had it been a museum, for instance. Procuring a building in its entirety, as Louis Vuitton did, and including other facilities like a double height multi- purpose hall in the brief, helps offset that risk, by giving the brand an environment that relates to its wider context, that is not purely retail but a hybrid community. As one community finds its architecture, another design has long since lost its. Opposite the building stands the Dojunkai social housing project, erected in 1925 and Japan's first introduction to European-style collective urban housing. First threatened with demolition and replacement by a high rise in the early 1980s, the buildings were gradually colonised by gallerists, artists and micro-boutiques. Now they are apparently likely to be replaced by a new building by Ando in the near future, a sign of many that urban change is the norm in a city driven by property speculation. Aoki's approach grasps and turns into effective architecture the many contradictions between longevity and the need for a contemporary statement, and risk and permanent change as a given.


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