Reimagining the Future of Retail

Interview: Leisure Center
Editor: Jason Siu
Photography: Stew Z

A rebel architect's philosophy on art and the story behind the Leisure Center interior.

To bring the vision fully into fruition, particularly with its innovative and revolutionary nature, Leisure Center required a team that was going to see the full story, and would be able to translate, and bring it light. The team feels incredibly honoured to have found and worked with London-and Berlin-based architecture firm, Casper Mueller Kneer. Their broad knowledge of impactful materials, and how people see and feel space and circumstance, has certainly awarded CMK high-praise from well acknowledged thought leaders and critics spanning across the fashion industry—from private flats in London and buildings in Korea, and Celine’s most cherished stores and fashion presentations. Earlier this year we had a few moments to have a conversation with founding-architect Olaf Kneer, highlighting some pertinent details about the space; where planning and magic danced in tandem to create a memorable and unique experience within the space of Leisure Center. We hope that you enjoy.

Leisure Center (LC)

Olaf Kneer (O)

LC: What are some of your favourite aspects of Leisure Center’s design?

O: This is one of my favorite moments, actually. There’s nothing for sale in this space of Leisure Center but in a way, it captures what we wanted to achieve. We worked a lot with found conditions such as this wonderful floor. There’s a great ceiling grid and structural grid here, and we thought, we need to keep that. We added very little, actually. Just a few walls; very strong geometric interventions at 45-degree rotations against the building grid, so you end up with triangulated spaces and pockets of triangular qualities.
The other thing that’s really important is the material effects. We used thick sheets of raw, untreated aluminum which reflects the environment and the people who walk through the space. It does this in a way that’s different from the mirrors, in a sort of ghostly way. That is why I love this space; you’ve got this relationship to the walls, and you can see yourself, but it’s a distorted image.

LC: Where did the idea for brushing the metal for its “ghosting” effect come from?

O: There’s a sort of ephemerality we like about this. On the one hand, there’s luminosity about the reflectiveness of the material. The lighting grid is also another strong design element. It’s quite raw and tough. We wanted to use a material that’s not flat or solid. We started off with a number of different things we tested out: plastics, fabrics, and other things. In the end we chose this material because it’s got a solidity that we were looking for, and at the same time it has a translucency which comes because of the reflectivity.
It’s nice coming back after a half of a year now—the building’s been used, and used very much in the way I imagined it, so it’s fantastic to see. One of the things that we liked about the space and that we hoped would work is this rarification, if you like. You don’t overload the space, and focus on the few things that are really important. There are some beautiful things here.

LC: In a way, this project seems like a reaction to the state of retail, and possibly its current gravitation towards a more modern-day museum feeling and aesthetic. What are your thoughts?

O: As architects, we often work on art and display spaces, so we’ve done a lot of work with fashion brands. We have a real passion for materials; often we develop our own materials for projects which are very specific. Our clients end up with materials specifically made for them and no-one else has them.
To answer your question of what it means to put something in-scene, if you like, and not just to sell it. It’s important to create a focus and get rid of fluff. It’s nice when someone walks in and isn’t quite sure what this is. Is it a museum for clothes or is it something else? Leisure Center also wants to blur those boundaries, so it’s not just about shopping or clothes. In the end, it’s about the luxury of space. The spaces themselves are calm, and Leisure Center also operates with an underlying calmness which I find fascinating. It’s also very curated—which requires great creative energy.

LC: Tell me about your personal style; knowing some of the architects here, I feel like you’re a bit of a renegade architect.

O: Well, that’s nice to hear. We’re definitely not the commercial developer type. We always work within the arts, music, fashion context. We’re lucky that way; the last ten, fifteen years have been pretty amazing—where we’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with very interesting clients. Our work also spans a range of different things. We design fashion shows, furniture, buildings. We’ve designed facades in Tokyo, we’ve done buildings in Korea. So, it’s not a particular type of thing that we do.

LC: I’m also interested if Vancouver, as a location, specifically influenced the design at all?

O: In a way, it’s irrelevant, which is a funny thing to say. I think what’s relevant here is the space that we found, and we thought there was a lot of value in what we picked up on. Mainly it was the spatial and structural qualities. I liked the rawness of the space. We didn’t touch anything up; a lot of the details were originally here from the previous design including the gold handrails and glass details,—so we left those. A lot obviously came from Mason and Muyun, so we tried to be as specific as to what they wanted. Vancouver, from what little I know of it, collects a lot of things around the world and for me, that’s a real amazing quality. Different cultures, different people; in that sense it’s important to import culture.

LC: Tell me a little about the design of the library area.

O: We knew of the collaboration with Donlon Books; it’s really cool that someone halfway across the world can advise you on what kind of books to have and how to curate the space. We designed all the furniture. We love that hardly anything in this space is bought. Everything is made specifically for this space: the tables and the chairs. It’s something we enjoy doing, making a cohesive space. There’s greenery; we wanted a diversity of plants here. I think we can very much improve in that as well.

LC: How do you enjoy your leisure time?

O: Well, I’m lucky because I don’t work. I don’t feel like I’m working. For me, I love what I do. It doesn’t stop. There are stressful periods when I have to do things which are more difficult than others but I don’t feel like I go to work per se. In terms of down time, I just enjoy quiet time. I usually seek more excitement, I seek calmness when I get the choice. I look for spaces that are quiet. I love spending time with family or good friends. Sometimes I like listening to loud music, so something opposite. I’m more looking for the intensity of an experience.

  • Interview: Leisure Center
  • Editor: Jason Siu
  • Photography: Stew Z