Where Brooks Brothers once stood you now have Uniqlo, the ultra-hyped Japanese clothiers whose advertisements in recent weeks have achieved an almost unparalleled degree of saturated ubiquity on billboards, buses and in subway cars throughout the five boroughs. All of those ads announce the opening of their new flagship (and their third New York City store) at 666 Fifth Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd streets. That store, which opened a few weeks ago, stands in clamorous discordance next door to the recently opened Hollister flagship, whose darksome façade is enlivened with shallow pools of water and live video feed of the California surf.
Architecturally, the most remarkable thing about Uniqlo’s façade is the fact that the company was allowed to peel off some of the building’s signature embossed aluminum panels at the third story and in the process diminish somewhat the overall effect of the building, which was completed in 1957 to designs by the firm of Carson & Lundin. Given the relentless, corrugated rationalism of its façade, this tower on a base was never one of the loveliest structures in Manhattan, but it has become even less so through this admittedly minor revision.
As for the store’s façade, it presents itself as a gleaming three-story curtain wall whose glass is so clear that you almost feel you are inside the store even from across the street. The exterior is most conspicuously adorned with a rainbow of neon lights, and appears incongruent with the pale wood that dominates the décor, both on the floors and in the abundant cabinetry. The interior is more spacious than that of Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch a few blocks north, but it has little of their conceptual or visual daring.
Perhaps the best part of the design is the towering escalator that rises up three stories, its glass sides revealing the mechanical core at work. Less successful are the unadorned and exposed bare ceilings, whose relentless white paint covers the pipes and electrical apparatus. Presumably suggestive of the aggressive honesty of the products themselves, the ceilings look simply drab. The stairs are only a little more interesting, their risers covered in glass in varied hues of pinks and lavender. This high-tech sensibility is reflected in the repeated use of wall-sized flat-screen displays buzzing contemporary cultural references that, presumably, put the young in the mood to buy some clothes.