Q&A with Sybarite’s Co-Founders on SKP Xi’an

Sybarite Architects Torquil Mcintosh Simon Mitchell Skp Xian Interview Qa
Sybarite CoFounders, Torquil McIntiosh and Simon Mitchell, in the new SKP Xi'an boutique cinema
Photography by Kristen Pelou

What were the biggest challenges when designing SKP Xi’an?

SM The biggest challenge has been to maintain consistency of design over the whole 20 storeys in such a way that, hopefully, the consumer feels brand empathy’ without really knowing it. When you have a quarter of a million square metres to play with, both the physical environment — and the emotions that the environment engenders — should be as consistent at the top of the 20th floor escalator as they are when you arrive for the very first time at the front entrance. Easier said than done.

TM Taking the existing structure and transforming it into a luxury SKP department store. SKP Xi’an rests in between the Parliament building and the Old City Wall, the façade had to be sensitive to the surroundings and in no way ostentatious yet echoing the SKP brand at every level. In that respect it needed to be architecturally simple and sit back, humbly, within its environment.

In what specific ways (if any) does a luxe Chinese retail store differ from its western counterpart?

TM Opportunity – the chance to redesign the blueprints and create something from scratch. It redefines what luxury should be and to that end encompasses so much more than a department store in terms of what it offers. There’s education in the Rendez-Vous’, and culture, and amazing restaurants and a cinema. There’s a lifestyle. SKP Xi’an interacts intimately with the customer on every level.

SM With SKP, it’s simply the sheer quantity of offers under one roof which sets it way apart from any western counterpart. You might think they would say that, wouldn’t they’ but if you know that Harrods is 90,000sqm and SKP Xian is 250,000sqm you’re talking about a store that is three times the size and features ten times the brand mix. The thing is, Xi’an has all of the offer that Harrods has — plus 60 per cent more that Harrods has probably never even heard of!

What are the logistical issues around managing a project as large as this from such a distance, without a local office? Is it literally a case of handing over the designs to contractors and crossing your fingers?

SM No, it’s not a case of simply handing over – it’s so much more than that. Yes, every space has to be drawn, modelled, lit and technically — that is, structurally and mechanically — managed, but with changing site conditions the designs also have to be explained, translated and adjusted almost daily. As architects, you are very much the glue’ that holds the ship together. Co-ordinating everything so that the right information reaches the right person at the right time is essential in order to deliver the project successfully, both on time and on budget.

TM We are absolutely passionate about the outcome, so we liaise continuously — making regular site visits and maintaining a continuous dialogue with all parties. At one point there were 8000 contractors working on the construction — and no serious accidents. A large proportion of SKP’s success was working hard to evolve the brief with the client to create new and fresh ideas before the building process began.

What have you both learned, personally and professionally, during this process?

TM We have learned how to collaborate on a serious scale and how to break down a project into manageable chunks, allowing each area to become bijoux’ in its own right. We also learned to let things go’. Things change when working with clients — and the best possible concepts always evolve; you cannot be arrogant or big-headed when working to find the best possible solution.

SM I have learned something that has been a part of our practice philosophy from the very beginning and only now, 16 years later, has been proven! Which is that scale doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 10sqm or 250,000sqm, every aspect of the design should have the same attention to detail and focus.

Finally, when compared to any other upscale department store in the world, in what way does the SKP model differ?

TM SKP Xi’an is so much more than just a department store. Despite the potentially overwhelming scale it manages to be very intimate — which, in turn, makes it very easy to shop. Ultimately, the store offers something hugely experiential for its customers — and I think that makes it very powerful.

SM Other than the ways I’ve already mentioned, you need to think about economies of scale. For example, there are more than 100 cities in China with populations exceeding ten million people and yet the luxury consumer in China still essentially has to travel to the global cities — to Beijing and Shanghai, etc. — in order to access the products they can see on their phones. Alternatively, if they rely on online delivery they are missing out on sharing the experience and the connections that only shopping in a physical environment is capable of creating. SKP is bringing all these experiences directly to consumers in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier Chinese cities — and that’s very exciting.