Accompanied by much media fanfare, Apple have recently opened a specially designed store in Hangzhou, near Shanghai. It’s one of 40 new stores they hopes to build in the next two years, forming part of a massive retail expansion into China’s urban heartland.
The building is essentially a giant hyper-optimised box, divided by a single sliver of a floor – 10 cm at its thinnest point – that appears to float in the air without any visible support. The design – by the architectural firm Foster + Partners in collaboration with Apple’s own designers – has been hailed as a pioneering feat of technical innovation and smart design. According to the architects, “Every aspect of the store has been optimized, minimized, and de-cluttered”, making it a perfect embodiment of the Apple brand and a reflection of the products sold within.
Apple is renowned for its physical, design-led marketing. Through encounters with its products and aesthetic, consumer’s most meaningful interactions with the brand take place in the physical rather than digital realm. This has helped make it one of China’s top luxury brands. And Apple has made no secret that these stores are supposed to make a dramatic physical imprint on China’s city centres. They even claim the Hangzhou store will become a ‘new living room for the city’.
This is a clever move in China, where dramatic architectural statements have become especially important in projecting the power of brands. The country’s rapid urbanisation has seen public space become a battle ground where brands – both corporate and personal – vie for the public’s attention with ever more bombastic, often downright eccentric, architectural feats. These range from CCTV, the national broadcaster’s, headquarters in Beijing (nick-named ‘big boxer shorts’) to a giant teapot shaped building in Wuxi built by China’s richest man.
But the nature of this love affair with statement architecture is changing – and Apple’s new buildings may come just at the right time. President Xi Jinping recently called for there to be ‘no more weird architecture’, reflecting a broader turn away from ostentation towards discernment and subtlety in the country’s aesthetic preferences. (It’s no coincidence that Apple took over from Louis Vuitton as the country’s favourite luxury brand).
Apple’s new stores certainly fit the bill – grabbing attention with their unique design, whilst avoiding ostentation entirely. Though they may not turn out to be the ‘new living rooms’ of China’s cities, these new stores can only add legitimacy and cultural capital to the brand, cementing its status at the pinnacle of Chinese luxury.