In the summer of 2021, when the pandemic turned intermittent, Atelier Tree Studio saw another project completed—ALL IN High-line Brand Collection Store, trying the poetic garden on in an urban high-end commerce. On a late afternoon of early autumn, Mossy Ferry, who switched from architecture to drama, interviewed CasenChiong, chief architect of Atelier Tree, on it and together unfolded an unexpected storypanels.
Mossy Ferry: When entering the high-end collection store, one’s apt to relate the impression evoked to what Atelier Tree intended—the porous Tai-Lake-eroded rockery as cavernous hillocks; so how’s the rockery come into being? A high-brow embodiment of luxury in the Oriental context, like revival of the Art of Gardening?
Atelier Tree: Admittedly the garden imprints on us architects as a communal complex, as well as on all Chinese as a dreamland born-into. However, the more so, especially as an expert of it, I cannot allow too direct quote taken-for-granted, or expect the intervention of time for ‘patina’. The object was miles apart—a short-term commercial space positioned, orientated and located unlike others. Yet how did a garden come into being ‘right there as it should be’? So all are traceable back to the initial visit to the site.
Mossy Ferry: Can it be some certain landscape elements hinting a ‘Gestalt of the garden’ there, like a rockery, a tree that you discovered?
Atelier Tree: Fortunately, no—one perceives a typical creative park there, converted from an urban industrial area with its heritage, namely the elevated rail lines running through or close by, some obsolete, some carrying on. The site finds itself at an end deep there, with the main entrance almost run into the nose by a parking lot. Well if you happened to be another ‘literati born into the 17th century’, you may fly away, taking there too scary to have anything to do with a garden, a literati’s habitat. But you’re so sure that we happen to be the architects of the 21st century, which makes an imaginable presence of a garden there possible and reasonable to us, and then naturally leads to the embodiment in an abstract rockery as now you see.
Mossy Ferry: Would you like to set it forth, how’s the ‘presence’ like? Sounds quite mystic...
Atelier Tree: Just subtle, subtle but tangible to and solely to the body instead of the eye, the Ocular centrism. Once immersed in the site, one feels a field of directional forces of planar walls and ways, full of ‘parallel’ that suggests fluidity but no end, until the throbbing of the city transferred from the elevated rail lines seem to perturb the homogeneity, the air on different orientations being tensed. A strong intuition shut up the insipid parallel, transporting us into the folds of Southern gardens, where the scenery ‘unfolds like a scroll’ to the viewer in motion. And if there comes a scroll, layers are indispensable that either conceal or expose, so spontaneously, ‘how I wish a rockery were here’.
Mossy Ferry: Would it suffice with the only spatial sense on the site? Your emphasis of there as a commercial space is noticeable.
Atelier Tree: That’s it: the concept was meanwhile a reevaluation of the commercial space, using topographical rockery instead of grid-orthogonal booths or cabinets for space zoning, as well as unifying, or rather canceling the divided-defined functions, so as to activate everything—we all match ‘touring’ with ‘garden’, but forget that ‘shopping’ also collocates with ‘around’! Actually so many designers overlook it so much that even, or especially the luxury store, are all biased on ‘display’, with the objects centered-on, while the visitors deterred away. Once listening to our own experiences, we’ll find that compared to fashion or bustling, shopping is more about interaction with oneself—enjoying looking, selecting and trying on... No enjoyable space for corporeal experience, no enjoyable shopping experience. And the name we helped ALL IN settle for the store—High-line, apart from highlighting the high-end and A-list products, it also points to the literal high-lines in the site, suggesting the genius loci.
Mossy Ferry: Then in particulars for the shopping experience in a luxury store, how’s the rockery addressed?
Atelier Tree: Kind of distraction down to the essentials of corporeal space: on the one hand, ergonomically, namely the height of human sight; on the other, topographically, namely the human activity. The former dictates a meandering ‘strip window’ into the rockery, with the sill serving as a continuous booth while shielding the visitor from others’ confrontation of sight not without proper revealing; while the latter directs at simulated points, tracks and zones that carry the rusticated rockery being conceived in mind onto operations of digging, chiseling, cutting and chamfering until becoming porous and multi-layered. Stringing up minor spaces is rightly the touring-through experience belonging to a garden, while the shielded-while-not-insulated relationships produce rich flows as well as prompts and suspenses for watching and displaying. Further on, such richness saw its realization by low-cost, yet ‘high-resolution’ constructions details.
Mossy Ferry: Construction is amusing, many a powerful conceptions pit-fell on it.
Atelier Tree: That’s why construction proves to be a touchstone for architects—not only for its own logic, but also for the choice and discretion concerns it as part of design too. The revered Mr. Feng Ji-zhong once said, what does tectonics mean? To construct poetically. Poeticness pursues truth in its certain levels, but truth doesn’t necessarily mean truthfulness, or even actuality. From my point of view, the rockery as a mega-installation serves as the interior space’s own ‘figure’, and the ‘ground’ for the exhibitions and visitors in the meantime, which reveals its truth in the seemingly faded, occasionally flashing texture, i.e.its nuanced interplay of light and space—pursuing pureness, but not blankness. The absolute control of cost as appealed led to an initial strategic exclusion of wet paste, putty plaster and all the like as extra dealings with the space itself, and the chosen material was chosen just for its ‘bone and flesh’ attributes rather than ‘crafted’ qualities, which finally fell onto the poly-carbonate, known as ‘sunshine-panels’ with a certain industrial taste.
Mossy Ferry: Poly-carbonate is mostly used in the facade for its unique effect of light transmission, while you break an unexpectedly different way.
Atelier Tree: We appreciate the poly-carbonate’s translucent effect of light diffusion with its own delicate texture, truly different properly, but not intended from the beginning either. Actually it developed along the clue of the rockery and gained detailing from collision and polishing. For the rockery is an assemble of curved planes, some small curves just deny use of large plates, which turns the whole into parts, namely scales (combined with bending limit of the material itself) that impress little unless considered as ‘cells’ of an organic whole, their thickness and projection along the organic curves, in the light-shadow transition, their own gradual change of contour lines, so crafty and subtle.
Mossy Ferry: Very pure indeed, only immersion there plus patience may reveal its charm, so much unlike fast moving consumer goods and fitted into the orientation of a high-end store, but still too unwilling to take advantage in the angle of communication, or in today’s popular parlance, “not internet-hit” so much—what do you think?
Atelier Tree: In an era where network traffic comes first, commerce thrives on profit and profit on network, generally. However, for a high-end commercial space there’s great potential of multiple levels. While capturing human attention, the hunted resource in the era of social media, we hope we could feed back, worth tasting through time instead of showing-off of trendy forms, symbols and motifs, we should see through and spare the satisfying of audience pretentiously; the commercial architecture should take ‘cost-effective’ more into account—control of cost ran through the whole process: choice of industrial materials, simplification of construction phases... Although unforeseeable changes remain there to emerge, the whole strategy proves the most suitable nonetheless: we hope all the surroundings are kept “primitive”, the gray shading spread up to the ceiling, the whole grayness setting off the white (rockery)... Counter-“internet hit” maybe, but not “unworldly” definitely.
Mossy Ferry: Garden ≠ unworldly, could that epitomize your view of design, or rather have its roots in the Chinese’ own view of architecture?
Atelier Tree: In our mind, the Chinese garden is capable of self-sufficiency, but not exactly self-isolation; on the contrary, it has been an integral part of the Chinese urban life—the imperial gardens of Earlier Song Dynasty opened to citizens on festivals while the Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai was directly bequeathed to the Shanghainese. This time, our “The easiest retreat is into a store” isn’t an unworldly hermitage either, but aimed at creating more enriched urban levels, being a store and a garden in the same time. The vitality of urbanism depends on commerce, the more a commercial project should beware of the public, the context, contributing its identity to the community, shaping our cities of ‘unity without uniformity’. Just take our rockery for instance, it appeals not to the symbol, the ‘professionalism’, but rather to the connection and experiences deep in the corporeal and emotional that relate the human to the Nature, yet so quietly penetrative.
While being toured through and around, the rockery becomes enlarged into the hill in its plural form too—which actually tells out its true meaning in the garden, though seeming to be an object on show, it rather feels as if the other shore of the archetypal “cosmos in a tea-pot”... The lightweight, fine and fluid texture also wins it imagery from floating hillocks, fancy carps to a whirling dragon. To Atelier Tree who sets feet to regional soils while cutting into the immediate present with a forward vision of future construction, a precise, moderate and appropriate revival of the natural orientation in manned construction of the traditional garden in a commercial space with potentials of evolving into an amplifier of commercial magnetism—the attempt by itself is already an accomplished dialogue and realization.