Architecture of Anxiety

For some hypersensitive modern souls—mostly men—shopping is an exercise in acute torture. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek seemed to be on to something when he was quoted on the practice in a 1998 magazine profile: “For me, shopping is like mastur­bat­ing in public,” he said. There is a feeling of exposure and, at the same time, depersonalization: you watch yourself finger a polo shirt or inspect a cuff with the sort of creeping existential dread normally reserved for characters in a Sartre play.

Ubiq, a newly renovated men’s boutique in downtown Philadelphia that specializes in limited-edition and vintage sneakers, is not a friendly destination for the ranks of the shopping-averse. The store’s designer, Rafael de Cárdenas, admits as much.

“I think it’s a little bit of an uncomfortable space, which I like,” he says. “It’s probably a good thing that the store makes you self-aware and aelf-conscious—a clothing store, a shoe store—because in part you’re scrutinizing your identity.”

Shoppers entering Ubiq from busy Walnut Street ascend a ramp alongside custom wallpaper with dense black-and-white lines—inspired, de Cárdenas says, by the “dazzle camouflage” that British and American ships used in World War I to disrupt the range finders of German U-boats. In the main shopping area, dozens of sneakers sit on mirrored black shelves and in freestanding black display units packed with glass compartments. Running across the ceiling and down one wall is a network of exposed electrical conduit, spray-painted gold and fit with 286 15-watt refrigerator lightbulbs.

As initially overwhelming as it may be, de Cárdenas’s “buzzy” high-contrast design is an appropriate foil for the boldly colored old-school sneakers that line the shelves and display boxes. And the entire store is not so frenetic. A second shopping space in the back is warm and woody, with plush furniture flanking a small fireplace. The ceiling is ornate plaster; T-shirts and raw-denim Levis hang in custom wood cabinetry. “That room is meant to look like we found it and just dusted it off,” de Cárdenas says.

For those who yearn for a gentler shopping experience, the room will come as a relief; you can sit down, contemplate the empty fireplace, and perhaps even the state of your wardrobe. (What the hell, maybe you do need a new pair of sneakers.) The 32-year-old designer—who has created several retail spaces in New York, where he’s based—seemed to anticipate all this. “I don’t think it’s the most inviting store,” he says. “But, I mean, the back is inviting. You have to hold your breath in the front and then let it out when you get to the back.”

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