Can Berlin's New Concept Mall Revive City West?

The recently-opened retail complex combines fashion, high culture, and a resourceful spirit to reinvent the shopping experience.

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Bikini Berlin is a new “concept mall” located in the German capital’s Charlottenburg district and housed in a landmarked Modernist building called Bikinihaus. With 43 stores and 19 pop-up shops, it’s hoped that Bikini will be a new design beacon for City West.

Above and below courtesy Bikini Berlin

A few years ago, if you’d passed by the Zentrum am Zoo complex along Budapester Straße, you would have been greeted by a friendly face. A glass-encased advertisement for a nearby Chinese restaurant framed a grinning portrait of German actor and comedian Harald Juhnke, gleefully tucking into a meal of Peking duck. The sign, anchored to a rounded, ground-level column of an aging building of some repute, had become an unassuming and unlikely landmark of the City West district.

A casual holdover of the Cold War, the beloved ad is now gone, as is the half-century old restaurant—the oldest Chinese eatery in the city. Their eviction was occasioned by the rollout of a new “concept mall” housed in their former location’s revitalized shell, the colloquially termed Bikinihaus. (A Berlin blog pleaded with the mall’s operators to “bring back Harald!”) The building is the centerpiece of Bikini Berlin, a doggedly hip shopping and design hub that opened in early April. In its first week of business, close to half a million visitors passed through its doors, though it’s anyone’s guess if they actually purchased anything.

Bikini Berlin aims to provide a novel shopping experience by summoning up the cachet of that Ur-hipster enclave, Kreuzberg, and the fashion-house gloss of Schöneberg and Mitte. It purports to a scrappy authenticity, what is called the “Berlin attitude” and shorthand for the city’s seedy-chic, poor-but-sexy ethos.

Just about everywhere you turn in the mall, you’re faced with some less-than-subtle missive about just how “creative,” “magnetic,” and “resourceful” the whole place is. It claims to have a hold on its own past; period photographs of Bikinihaus flash by on screens and dissolve into stylized images of the new development, inviting suggestions of historical continuity and inflated notions of architectural heritage. And the mall brands itself as a breeding ground of culture. Its hand-picked shops are punctuated by darkened gallery spaces, whose bare-faced concrete walls and unfinished ceilings strive for an imagined industrial past. Bikini, it so wants to us to believe, is duly capable of playing host to the specters of art and commerce.

This hybridity between design and fashion, retail and culture is, of course, a major part of Bikini Berlin’s draw, and the basis for the “concept” epithet. “It’s about that crossover magic,” says Frederik Vaes, of Brussels-based SAQ Architects and supervisor of the Bikini design team through 2011. Visitors aren’t encouraged to buy so much as to populate and enliven the mall’s three levels of shopping and its adjacent public spaces. Towards that end, several of its shops feature integrated coffee stations and hangout spots, where visitors can retreat and lounge in expensive chairs. Hesitant staff are frozen in place, careful not to push too much, lest they throw the calculated cool off balance.

The ground floor of Bikini Berlin, with a view to the zoo’s monkey park.

“The goal was to make something unique that you couldn’t find in any other major city,” Vaes says. “We didn’t want to have H&M or Zara.” With no anchor store on the ground floor, however, the mall is without focus. As such, the preferred point of entry seems, counterintuitively, to be via Bikini Berlin’s mid-level public roof deck and garden. Stairs running between the spiderweb of trusses that support the terrace seamlessly drop visitors into the Bikini Gallery, the mall’s second-level shops devoted to “unique” retail tenants like Pasadena, California’s Art Center College of Design—which has a satellite studio here—and the Vitra Loves Artek store. The latter, a concept shop that boasts a variety of legacy Vitra and Artek chairs and stools, packs in a coffee bar and Comme des Garçons cologne, among other products. It’s a strategy that is echoed closely in the Gestalten store located upstairs on the roof terrace, which adds a large café and a slew of dandyish body products to the mix.

See the retail experiences inside Bikini Berlin that promise to change the future of the shopping.

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