He designed the Shard in London and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, but for his latest project, Italian architect Renzo Piano has taken his impressive legacy to the unsuspecting city of San Ramon in order to build a suburban shopping center.
Completed for a reported cost of $300 million, City Center Bishop Ranch is located in a Bay Area suburb, about a 45 minute drive from San Francisco. Retail spaces have begun opening their doors, and one can expect to find mall staples like Pottery Barn and Williams Sonoma coexisting alongside Bay Area favorites such as the Slanted Door—the famed San Francisco Vietnamese restaurant—and local brewery Fieldwork Brewing Co.
As the latest champion of a new kind of mall culture, the creators conceived of Bishop Ranch, not just as a luxury shopping complex, but as a downtown area and modern public space for the suburbs. “We’re trying to avoid the traditional sort of shopping center model and create a place that feels a little bit more endearing and beautiful,” City Center’s senior vice president of retail Jeff Dodd told the local paper. “You don’t have to consume; you can come and just play around or read the newspaper,” he added.
For Mr. Piano—who’s spent the past couple of years working on urbanizing the outskirts of Italian cities—building the suburban shopping mall into a real urban space was a central aim of his design. In an early promotional video for the project , the architect proudly asserts that “this is not a shopping mall, it is something completely different.”
What Piano lends to the project is an artistic hand and material choices reminiscent of the many civic works that have given him his ‘Starchitect’ label. In doing so, the ensemble does remind, as Alexandra Lange writes, of his “galleries at LACMA, without the art, but with the same indoor-outdoor flow, gourmet restaurants, and landscaping.”
Naturally, the Italian architect’s scheme is entirely conceived around a large piazza—or ‘social hub,’ as described in the press release. Six pavilions surround the generous one acre outdoor area, helping to animate the space which will double as an outdoor theater for concerts, outdoor projects, and other types of civic events.
With the objective to create a friendly walking experience, both inside and around the perimeter, one of the biggest hurdles has been the expectation of cars, and more specifically, where to put them. Even here, the project is able to preserve a human centered approach by metabolizing 940 parking spaces and tucking them inside the building.
According to John King of the San Francisco Chronicle, who visited the shopping center upon its opening, this civic presence has been genuinely pulled off. “What San Ramon now has is a well-constructed center where the design and materials were thought through with care. This level of attention shows respect for the people who come to visit — and it’s the kind of message that can pay dividends,” he writes.
In 2001, Rem Koolhaas asserted in The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping that shopping “is arguably the last remaining form of public activity.” If this is to be taken as true, then as traditional retail wrestles with accusations of being on the brink of extinction, we find ourselves weirdly at risk of losing more than just an escape from having to buy all our things online.
Perhaps this is why, throughout the fear mongering headlines, it has been those retail experiences that provide more than just the latest trends that have sustained the most success. LA real estate developer Rick Caruso, who is known for his faux-Italian open air malls in Southern California, recognized this when he made the dire prediction that the typical U.S. mall was at risk of becoming a “historical anachronism.” The most famous of his projects, the Grove, features an electric trolley and a dancing fountain, and sees an average of 49,000 visitors daily.
What makes Caruso so successful in the retail industry and what he “gets” is the economic power in providing spaces for people to linger. With City Center Bishop Ranch, the developers seem to understand as much, albeit with a much more artful approach than that of Caruso’s—whose projects, for all their popularity, have the same architectural merits of the Cheesecake Factories located at each one. Bringing in Piano gives this same inclination towards urbanism a more sophisticated architecture. And for him, a chance to step away from the confines of high culture to impact on the centers of everyday life.
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