26. 09. 2019

Benoy Architect Russell Ward: We need to incorporate communities back into retail

Russell Ward, Divisional Director at Benoy architectural studio specializes in large-scale projects such as Centrum Černý Most and the W Hotel in Prague. Combining retail, a fresh market and the tallest office tower in Bratislava, Stanica Nivy was a natural fit to his portfolio. During his visit to its construction site we talked to him about the shifting role of architecture, ways it can boost retail and specifics of Stanica Nivy throughout its 12-year development.

London-based Benoy studio has worked on Stanica Nivy since the earliest design stages and according to Russell Ward, the entire project is a mix of a dynamic shopping destination and an exciting new part of Bratislava to live, work and relax. Read more about the challenges of the project, its innovative architectural solutions and the perks that Stanica Nivy brings to the city of Bratislava.

Did you know you wanted to become an architect early on? What made this profession attractive to you?

At high school, I wasn’t quite good enough as an artist or scientist and architecture sat nicely between creative and engineering disciplines. So it was a natural choice for me.

How would you explain what you do in simple terms?

There are many types of architects who focus on various facets. For example, technical architects deal with technical details, designer architects come up with creative ideas. I like to think of myself as a mix. I create an idea and then see the project through to its execution.

What do you think are the essentials of a good modern project?

A good project must serve people, and to their changing expectations. They want to be impressed and entertained, they’re looking for experience. Architecture must enhance this experience. This is especially important for the ‘insta‘ generation influenced by social media. However, modern projects should still remain agile and flexible to adapt, because the world rapidly changes. In practical terms, a good building should be easy to navigate and that was our goal at Stanica Nivy as well.

How do you make a building easy to navigate? Why is it important?

Historically, shopping centres used to be just about ″hard-core″ commercial retail. A lot of investors and retailers wanted to make it tricky to find a way out from a shopping centre, so that customers pass as many shops as possible. Today, this kind of approach isn’t working. Personally, I feel that architecture should help people know where they are.

“People’s expectations have changed. They want to be impressed, entertained and architecture must enhance this experience.”

In shopping malls, people often park their car, go shopping and forget where they parked the car. The question is how to make it easier for them. For example, you can divide the mall into different zones and give each zone a number, name, colour or a combination of all these things.

You have been part of the Benoy architects team at Stanica Nivy from the beginning, correct?

That’s right, I worked on the overall Nové Nivy master plan followed by Stanica Nivy and Nivy Tower. It has evolved and improved under the expert guidance of HB Reavis, which is a forward-thinking client and we managed to create a good mix in terms of architecture and design.

You also worked closely with architects from other studios. What does this collaboration look like? What are the risks and benefits of such a setup?

Architects and designers are very passionate about their work and at  the very beginning, they often insist on their point of view, so there might be some friction. This is completely normal, it can happen a hundred times during a project. In that case, you need to creatively solve the puzzle and test various ideas, for example through sketches or 3D models, to find the best compromise.

Sometimes the best idea is the very first one, other times you need to test ten of them. But it’s worth it. With so many creative minds, the result is much greater than if one of those architects or studios were working independently. It’s all about collaboration, but of course, someone needs to have the last say. We work in parallel with the client to steer the ship.

“Architects and designers are very passionate about their work and at the very beginning, they often insist on their point of view, so there might be some friction. It’s all about finding the right compromise.”

Can you name some specific architectural solutions that Benoy implemented at Stanica Nivy? Which detail or feature are you most proud of?

Firstly, we needed to create an identity for the overall project and there are various elements that helped us do that.

For example, we tried to use natural light as much as possible with strategically placed skylights and floor voids, so that light can reach even the lower levels. Express escalator running over two floors will allow customers quick access up to the restaurants and fresh market from the ground floor.

We intentionally created big entrances with prominent visual features, such as tree columns which run up vertically through 5 levels to support the main roof. They are important for navigation, but they also create a visual link between the basement bus station terminal and the upper floors. It’s one of my favorite details in the whole building.

Is there something unique about Stanica Nivy that you haven’t seen anywhere else?

Stanica Nivy is a dynamic destination with a mix of uses and it’s definitely the offer and accessibility that makes it bespoke and interesting. The project includes a shopping centre, fresh market, bus terminal and green roof which is innovative by itself. We want visitors to spend the whole day here rather than just a few hours and I think they will have a lot of reasons to do so.

“Tree columns which run up vertically through 5 levels to support the main roof are important for navigation, but they also create a visual link between the basement bus station terminal and the upper floors.”

Do you think that this project can change the city of Bratislava and the neighbourhood in some way?

It will definitely impact both the local community and the whole city. We feel it will become the epicentre of transport and a great destination for visitors. The neighbourhood will benefit from increased services, public amenities, green spaces and improved infrastructure.

The project will also support a great number of workers, which is good for economics and investments in the city. The whole Nové Nivy district is a really exciting new destination in Bratislava to live, work and relax.

A couple of years ago, Mlynské Nivy was an industrial brownfield, so you started from scratch. What do you feel when you see the whole concept coming to life?

We have imagined the project within a digital world, but nothing beats the feeling of seeing something you have invested so much energy into coming to life in front of your eyes.

“Online sector has been a massive issue for retailers and one of the solutions can be architecture.”

You’ve been working as an architect for 12 years now. What do you think will be the next trend that architecture will focus on?

I think that we’re in a phase of reinventing the things. Just remember the revolution of digital books. At first people thought that physical books will disappear, but they are still in demand. The same goes for vinyl records, which were replaced by mp3 and now we are going back to vinyls. People enjoy the physicality of things.

Same applies for retail. Online sector has been a massive issue for retailers and one of the solutions can be architecture. We need to design good shopping destinations and incorporate communities back to them. Previously, retail was an anchor for every shopping centre, now its role is secondary. The hierarchy of functions is shifting and today’s architecture must include added value to primary function of the building. We don’t know how yet, but that’s the boundaries we’ll keep on testing.

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