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Bloomingdale’s Meet Kevin Kennon Architects

Images of contemporary architecture do not necessarily come to mind when thinking about the architecture of Orlando.  While Orlando is not the architectural capital of the United States, there are actually a great number of buildings in the Orlando area that have been designed by architects of varying styles,  different eras, and degrees of fame. Although great examples of contemporary architecture do exist in Orlando, I did not think that I would find a high design contemporary structure at the mall, but that is exactly what I found shortly after moving to this city.  I did not know the name of the architect, but was always impressed with the streamlined forms and clean details of the Bloomingdale’s store which is anchored to one end of the Mall at Millenia (for some reason they only spell it with one ‘n’, don’t ask me why) in Orlando, Florida.  The mystery designer of the above store would remain a mystery for many months until one day I discovered the architecture of Kevin Kennon Architects.  Kevin Kennon may be one of the best things to come out of the office of Kohn, Pedersen & Fox since their design for 333 Wacker Drive, a highrise office building in Chicago. In 2002 Kevin Kennon left KPF where he was a design principal and started Kevin Kennon Architects.  Much of Kennon’s design work could be classified as an evolution from, or variation of the KPF signature style, but Kevin Kennon deviates completely from that style in his design of a series of Bloomingdale’s stores.

Before I begin analyzing the building, below are a series of photographs that I took of Kevin Kennon’s Bloomingdale’s store in Orlando, Florida.  I hope that you appreciate these photos, because the security guards of the Mall at Millenia harassed me for taking photos of the mall, they then threatened to call the Orlando Police Department because they said that I was ‘trespassing’.  Normally I would have called their bluff, but I had taken all the photographs that I needed, and did not feel like explaining to my colleagues why I was on the evening news.  The best part of the experience was when I drove across the street to IKEA and continued to take photographs of the Bloomingdale’s store while they watched. I only mention this to warn you that if you go to the Mall at Millenia beware of power hungry mall security.  Now that I got that off of my chest, let’s talk about design.

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The Automobile

There is no question that the typology of the modern mall is an evolution of the open forum or markets from the past.  This evolution is a direct response to the adoption of the automobile as the primary means of transportation by Americans.  When designing a mall or any large structure one of the primary concerns becomes scale.  The percentage of people that walk to malls in Orlando is very low, due to heat, humidity and endless sprawl, it is necessary that shoppers drive to their destination.  The first time the shopper will experience the Bloomingdale’s architecture will not be when they step into the building, but when they first make a visual connection from the automobile to the building.  Many anchorage stores or big box shops only address one facade and usually copy that treatment to other elevations, if their are multiple facades.  Very few architects think about embedding concepts like circulation, signage and communicating other information into the design of their buildings.  Kennon does not simply address these issues, but the forces that the building responds to are embellished in the form and ornamentation of his architecture.

The signage plays an important role in defining the image of this building.  Kennon’s design is an example of graphic design and architecture combining to form a graphic architecture.  Kennon’s design techniques are much more deliberate and purposeful than simply tacking the name of the building’s tenants onto the elevation in a way that is visually pleasing.  The elevations are loaded with meaning and information that the shoppers unconsciously extract, and I will visually extract in diagram form, as well as words.

The site plan attached gives a clear understanding of the context of the building.  Bloomingdale’s is highlighted in pink on the site plan. To the north is the main road, Conroy Road, which connects to I-4, which is the major highway that connects Disney World to downtown Orlando.  The northern elevation is the most visible of all the elevations, this elevation gives Bloomingdale’s its presence along Conroy Road, the main transportation artery to the mall.  The structure is unique in that it has three elevations that are visible to the public, and each elevation responds to the varying densities of traffic.  The northern elevation must respond to the highest density of traffic and speed, this is represented by the size of the Bloomingdale’s logo on the facade.  The size is necessary to compete with the speed of the automobile and to proclaim the northern facade the main entrance.  The eastern elevation is less than 50% of the size of the main signage on the northern elevation, and the signage on the rear or southern elevation is 50% of the size of the signage on the eastern elevation.  This scaling of the signage is proportional to the different traffic densities around the site. Kennon understands the importance of branding and signage in the context of a mall, but he also understands what is appropriate according to the forces of the site.

Graphic Architecture

Kennon’s design is very graphic in form. The streamlined planes of the building create a canvas for the logo and at times the clean lines even embellish the presence of the logo on the facade. The colors contrast sharply, and this play of color and contrast is used to create a structure which is capable of dynamically reversing foreground and background elements as necessary to solve perhaps the most difficult issue in this design problem. The issue is that the structure has three elevations, each elevation requires an independent entry to the building, but how can one create multiple entries without conflict?  Kennon uses scale, color and a very dynamic composition to do this. As one drives around the structure from the front to the back, the composition changes.  The foreground and background elements appear to reverse roles in the composition, elements are constantly changing roles so that when two entries are visible at the same time the hierarchy of importance is respected.  When viewing the northern and eastern entrances at the same time, the eastern entrance recedes and allows the northern ‘main’ entrance to come to the foreground. The same is true when viewing the southern and eastern entrances at the same time, the southern inferior entrance recedes into the background. See the diagram above that studies the scale, location and size of signage elements on the building’s three facades.

The People & The Landscape

Don’t forget about the people! It is evident in the composition of the structure that the design caters to a specific hierarchy of importance.  The most important thing in the design of the Bloomingdale’s store is the brand.  In retail design and commercial design the prime concern of the designer must be to protect the integrity of the brand.  Second on the hierarchical list (can’t believe that is a word) is the automobile, and making a strong enough impression/connection that the passenger in the automobile is encouraged to enter into the building.  Lastly, at the bottom of the list is the shopper.   The shopper enters into building through the dark shadows of the corporate giant’s logo. The shadows actually become the consistent language used by Kennon to denote pedestrian spaces and circulation.  Kennon creates larger than life reveals between the ground, and the precast panels that form the Bloomingdale’s logo.  Human sized building reveals and dark surface treatments are not only used to denote pedestrian circulation and entrances, but Kennon’s life-size reveals creates a condition which makes the building appear to float off of the ground, gently meeting the landscape. Kennon engages the landscape in what is an even stronger gesture, by carrying the slab edge of the second floor of the Bloomingdale’s building out into the parking lot landscape where it blends back into the parking landscape. The parking landscape appears to be pulled up from the earth and folded into the building. Kennon’s design is of the parking landscape, and its horizontal clean lines only further emphasize this fact.

Kevin Kennon has developed an impressive portfolio of Bloomingdale’s stores and they are all unique and worthy of study.  There is another Bloomingdale’s store by Kennon that I plan on visiting in Miami, Florida soon, along with some other great works of architecture.  I hope to add some night photographs to the gallery soon, but that depends on mall security.  If you are not familiar with the work of Kevin Kennon Architects, be sure to check out their site.

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