Let’s Get Physical (Metropolis)

Even doyens of cyberspace need architecture.

Yahoo_2When the people at Yahoo! decided it was time to open a store–a real one, that is, the kind you could walk into–they thought long and hard about what they would sell there. The answer (and this must be why they’re all millionaires) was nothing. There would be no Yahoo! baseball caps, no coffee mugs, not even a cash register.

Instead, they found a small storefront in Rockefeller Center, stocked
it with a few laptops, and opened the doors with the intention of
teaching people how to shop on the Web, preferably through Yahoo!
Shopping, their own online mall of a site. “We figured the best way to
overcome people’s fears about shopping online was to show them,” says
project manager Linda Bennett. At this experimental location, open only
from April 10 to May 12, Willis, “the World’s La-Z-iest Shopper”
(really an actor named Daryl), demonstrated how to shop on the Web from
the comfort of his Yahoo!-branded La-Z-Boy, complete with in-arm fridge
and Internet access. It was the dot-com field of dreams: If we build
it, they will come, and when they come, we will teach them how to shop
and send them home.

Once upon a time, Web sites were places, too, and the sense of plucking a computer’s heartstrings from a thousand miles away was exhilarating. It felt like travel. Now our Web servers sit in suburban vaults; they might as well, as they say, be anywhere.  But the temporary Yahoo! Shopping store was distinctly not just anywhere: It was in the middle of Rockefeller Center, the most cosmopolitan shopping mall in the world, with a guaranteed stream of tourists, investors, marketing executives, and high-end merchants passing by. The company that first thought to advertise the Web on TV was acknowledging that while the Internet may be a convenience, it’s not an experience. “This is what eclicks and bricks’ means to us,” Bennett says. “We figured you can’t make any bigger or bolder a statement than building a store.”

Taking a cue from Yahoo!’s slogan, “Your Home on the Internet,” architects Andre Kikoski and Victoria Blau created an abstracted domestic environment, with a front lawn, a living room, and an indoor backyard featuring Astroturf and a picket fence. Laptops rested on counter-height picnic tables, with ketchup and mustard bottles bolted down beside them. It was just the kind of joke that epitomizes the Yahoo! brand: “fun, friendly, and irreverent,” as Bennett describes it, exclamation points flashing in her eyes. But the pièce de résistance of Kikoski and Blau’s design was the freestanding, blobish archway that separated the two main spaces. It was, quite clearly, the “Y” in Yahoo! extruded into three dimensions, and it defined the space, gathering people like a kitchen doorway at a crowded party. Not since the Masons thought to make a church in the shape of a cross had a brand found such clear architectural expression.

With the Yahoo! Shopping store a self-described “tremendous success,” will the month-long experiment be replicated in malls across the country? Bennett won’t confirm anything. “Yahoo! isn’t in the habit of speculating about its plans,” she says. “But I do know you’ll have an unexpected encounter with Yahoo! in the near future.”