How well have your ideas worked over time? If a building design evolves, it means others have taken it on and been able to work with it. That’s success in my opinion. That’s a building that lives. The natural state for spaces is to change.

One way to see this stuff is to return to an old project. This week I went to see Timberland Boot Company in Spitalfields, London. I did a project in 2007 to design a new retail space at this site, but in a very old building. Its a truly unique Georgian structure. One wears its evolution on its sleeve.

Originally a Huguenot house, it had been converted to a shop sometime in the nineteenth century and through many lifecycles became a banana warehouse and grocers on the ground floor in the sixties and seventies. Amazingly the warehouse interior was still intact, a utilitarian and workshop like space.

The project was a wonderful combination of entrepreneurial client, interesting and well designed product, and an insightful approach to the whole idea selling products.

The idea. Could you set up a community orientated store and layer it into an established context. Could you make it part of the fabric of the city and give it relevance. Could you hire a curator/manager with creativity and passion who would run it like an independent business.

I was interested in what I might find. The Boot Company had been taken back under the wing of the bigger Timberland brand some time after opening. How had big brand mentality tempered the desire to innovate and tell a story of place and ideas through products?

I made some notes;

Evolution?
-Layout change to front space, no big table as cash desk/meeting area any more. A more traditional counter takes its place.
-Window seat overclad to enlarge the depth of window bed. No social space anymore at the front of the shop.
-Customisation workshop and machinery mothballed but still in place.
-Storage shelves to the rear space have gone, replaced with hanging rails/product display.
-Furniture re-arranged.

Additions?
-Infrastruture of steel scaffolding poles in ceiling utilised to install new hanging rails for clothing. A nice adaptation that show flexibility.

Working well?
-Hanging ‘banana bunch’ boot displays. A unique concept that was inspired by something from the site, and of the place.
-Lighting provides patches of light and dark. A moody and dappled effect which enhances with the kind of building this is.
-Blending of new and old. It’s impossible to tell what is original and what went in 2007.
-The original fabric of the space.

From my notes you can see what has melted with time. It’s all the bespoke stuff, gone in a couple of years. Those specific features tightly dedicated to a particular pattern of use. The brave stuff that needs effort gives way to the mentality of the chain store. Generic is manageable and controllable. Generic is flexible until the need to specialise comes around again.

You can’t pretend that you’re run like an independent store if you’re not any more. As the design evolves, it’s subtly communicating the organisational changes going on in the background. This said, it can take change well this building though. It still looks and feels like a ‘place’, not just another sales outlet. It has a visible life accumulated over time like rings in a tree trunk. Treasure authenticity if you can find it. It’s hard to make.

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