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Inspiration from the past, is the future

Paul Finch
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Living in the moment needs to work alongside slow-cooked architecture, says Paul Finch

In Rome for the World Retail Congress, it was fascinating to hear speakers discussing the way in which online retailers are starting to … open real-life stores! For the tidy-minded, the idea of combining the virtual and the real is a form of apostasy, since white-heat technological thinking is supposed to support online to the exclusion of everything else.

This silly attitude is being undermined by what people actually want, which explains why some of the bright young online brands in the US are opening stores in Manhattan to display their wares – not to sell them on the spot, but to let people sample and order, with guaranteed super-fast delivery. In the world of fashion retailing, it helps that shoppers can use ‘miracle mirrors’ and computer technology to see what garments look like, or would look like, from all angles. The point is that the real and the virtual combine very well.

More evidence that silo thinking is being challenged comes from James Dyson, who has announced his group is to open its first store. Again, despite the claim that everything is going virtual, here we have an example where things are going physical, and it looks as though the world of retail design is going to get a shot in the arm as a result. Out goes bulky storage space, and in comes an approach to display more akin to gallery or museum interiors than the traditional clutter of shop displays.

Ironically, a branch of retail that is relatively new – the airport shop – may be the last bastion of the market where you almost always take with you what you have bought. I had the pleasure of chairing a session at the retail congress with Massimiliano Fuksas, who has designed plenty of retail in his time, and recently incorporated large amounts of it in a new airport in China. He made the distinction between necessity and luxury, the latter being the informing idea for airport shopping, of course.

But what about more ordinary shopping? A fascinating presentation by Google vice-president Jonathan Alferness noted the failure of too many retailers to adapt or even respond to the possibilities of the virtual retail environment. Google believes that people ‘live in the moment’ when it comes to shopping, and there are multiple opportunities for retailers to respond to multiple opportunities, particularly at a local level. He noted trends towards decentralisation of product storage, based on predicted demand, and the monitoring of individual spending habits.

He wondered what people would think if they opened their door one morning to find a drone delivery of exactly the sort of lavatory paper they liked, because they were about to run out but had forgotten to order some. Scary or helpful?

In the world of interactive technology, from contact lenses that can help diabetics with their eating programme to jackets with digital facilities woven into the fabric, the world of Artificial Intelligence keeps on growing.

The question for the congress, raised by world-wide web founder Tim Berners-Lee, was: who is AI working for? Incidentally, he also thought people prefer to use big screens to take most advantage of the web, even if data is increasingly supplied on mobile phones or watches.

All this talk of instant responses to shopping moments left me longing for some architectural slow cooking, and Rome is just where to find it. I managed to visit San Giacomo degli Incurabili (1592-1600, by Francesco da Volterra and Carlo Maderno) near Piazza del Populo, a church whose plan informed the exhibition layout for World Architecture Festival in 2012, and is still doing so. Inspiration is not the same thing as purchase.

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