“Can architecture serve as a way to reconnect parts of the city or enhance human experience?” asks architect Michel Rojkind, founder of Mexico City–based Rojkind Arquitectos. The question is ambitious, even a little outsized, considering that we’ve sat down over coffee to discuss the firm’s remodel of an outpost of Liverpool, a Mexican department store. But Rojkind is sincere and determined to create designs that give back to the community.
Located on the southern part of Avenida de los Insurgentes, one of Mexico City’s longest streets, the original Liverpool building followed a typical big-box strategy: A blank stucco wall facing the busy street, with all the retail activity turned inward. Over the years, the site’s meager outdoor plaza was encroached upon by additions or left unmaintained. When a new metro station opened in 2012 on a corner of the site, bringing increased pedestrian traffic, it was clear that a beige façade had no chance of enticing people into the store or contributing to the urban environment.
“Where city planning failed, can we do something with architecture?” Rojkind asks. With the original Liverpool store, the failure was one of imagination, and the store was desperately in need of an identity that would engage the street. The “something” that Rojkind and his team developed is a habitable façade that wraps the old department store in a honeycomb of eye-catching design and activity.
The three-layered façade system—what appears to the passerby as merely a pattern of overlapping, glazed hexagons—covers the top five floors of the six-story building. At roughly 10 feet deep, the façade extension adds 8,800 square feet of floor space to the store and opens up the inside retail departments to the urban environment. Shoppers enter the space at ground level, traverse the traditional department store layout, and then, surprisingly, re-emerge into daylight at the perimeter, where they can occupy the room-sized hexagons and navigate between them via a series of stairways and ramps. A square, hollow-section steel structure attaches to the building’s existing steel beams and supports the hexagonal layers of black fiberglass, white steel plate, and matte gray aluminum. The final layer is a glass-and-aluminum curtainwall for enclosure. During the day, the playful patterning on the façade unifies the street corner, offering a few glimpses of its depth. At night, Rojkind’s design turns the department store inside out. The façade transforms into filigree accented with neon, the interior departments showcased through the hexagonal vitrines.
In his office in the Mexico City neighborhood of Condesa, Rojkind shows off the concept models; each is a lacy, laser-cut affair. There’s even a nearly full-size mock-up of one of the hexagonal pods—a fabrication test of complex geometries. The aesthetic is undeniably computational, but Mexico is still a place of craftsmanship, with a long metalwork tradition. Although the plan was to use a CNC router to cut out the hexagons for the façade, in a city where labor is plentiful, it was actually more cost effective to cut each piece by hand—all 1,193 of them. The result is a building that is equal parts digital and analog.
With the flagship at Insurgentes, Liverpool and Rojkind are betting on a simple axiom: Design adds value. Liverpool was founded in the latter half of the 19th century and it reaches a broad market without being a discount retailer. Rojkind Arquitectos first worked with the store’s parent company, El Puerto de Liverpool, on the design for Liverpool Interlomas in suburban Huixquilucan de Degollado, Mexico. There, they created a dynamic double-skin façade, but it was the roof terrace and event space that proved the real success: Rooftop spectacles of the gastronomic and fashion persuasion allow the client to extend its hours of operation late into weekend evenings. According to the client, the new space accounts for a 30 percent increase in store revenue, and it was this proof of concept that convinced Liverpool to take a further risk with the façade extension in Mexico City.
At Insurgentes, the formal qualities of the façade recall motifs and techniques drawn from the global architecture marketplace, but Rojkind’s scheme aims to create an experience unique to this urban environment through temporary programs that reflect the store brand. In drawings of the building, the voids in the façade are described generically: booth, terrace, or showroom. Ask Rojkind and he paints a more vibrant picture: a local radio station spinning records, a high-tech co-working space, a cooking demonstration, or a yoga class. The opportunities are endless, the trick is figuring out how to and who should curate them. In this case, the architects are incredibly involved in the populating of the space, proving that their job was not complete once the final punch-list items were finalized.
If any architect were to contribute in such a way, Rojkind is particularly well-suited: Having spent a decade as a rockstar drummer in Mexico, his interests extend beyond architecture and into food, art, and music. Those proclivities are what led him to convince the Liverpool client to ditch the mannequins and let people fill the show windows in the first place. He struggles with the idea that architecture’s influence is primarily limited to the building itself, and his work tends to blend design with culture and strategic branding. “Architecture and the profession are evolving,” he says. “Architecture is the hardware, but who designs the software—the experience?” At Insurgentes, the architects are lending a helping hand. —Mimi Zeiger