Lifting the Lid on Boxpark

Recently, growing a bit too cosy in our warm offices, we wrapped up against the London chill and ventured east to open the lid on Boxpark, a new pop-up retail space in the hip Shoreditch area. The “pop-up mall” is created out of a collection of shipping containers, reclaimed and refit for vendors, galleries and cafes. What we found in the box all struck us as a bit incongruous. In fact the only congruous thing about the space is its rigidly geometric layout.

Boxpark London (boxpark.co.uk)

The craftsman aesthetic of many of the spaces seems to clash with their industrial exteriors. Clearly trying to cash in on the current “pop-up” capital, the spaces are meant to look ‘put-together’ – but by woodworker or ironworker, we couldn’t tell. The overwhelming majority of male-centric brands (Oakley, Etnies, DC Shoes, Evisu, etc.) seemed alienating to female clientele, or at least non-inclusive. We expected to be able to browse easily, wandering from shop to shop. This is the behaviour that the term ‘mall’ promises, no? But instead, the discrete boxes, heavy glass doors, and uni-directional layout left us feeling as if we were dipping into test-tube after test-tube in this retail experiment, with the same clinical disinterest as a scientist.

Perhaps most incongruous of all is the slightly awkward fit of Boxpark with the character of the fiercely independent Shoreditch neighbourhood. While it was envisioned as a low-risk space for emerging brands, Boxpark is simply a new shipping container for the same old fare (Diesel, North Face, Levi’s). It sits on the fringe of the area in more ways than one.

ReStart Mall, Christchurch, New Zealand (restart.org.nz)

That’s not to say that we don’t like the idea. A similar venture in convalescing Christchurch, NZ used the cheap and readily available shipping containers as a blank canvas to paint an interesting retail portrait. It was a creative and compelling response to the aftermath of the earthquake. Like Lego blocks, the containers were stacked and restacked in creative ways to fashion open spaces and inviting shapes that encourage visitors to spend valuable time at the mall, and not just money.

Time means exposure, much more worthwhile to emerging brands than a one-off purchase. A case in point is a fantastic shop in the London Boxpark. Urbanears, a new headphones manufacturer, used the help of 42architects to create a space-age space complete with a rotating back wall somewhere between an airlock and secret passage. All their sleek-tech was on display to test and play with. We spent twenty minutes in the tiny space just looking, and while we didn’t buy anything, we will the next time.

Boxpark could be great if it just practiced what it preached. The notion of the pop-up is about the unexpected. It should be full of excitement and energy, the kind of energy that makes you want to come out and take a look. Boxpark needs to carry the energy of the idea into the actual experience. It needs to pop.

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