Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Milestones issue 09/30/2013

Javier Sordo Madaleno, among Mexico’s leading architects, creates the facades of El Palacio de Hierro to exhibit a kind of architectural verve commonly associated with great contemporary cultural centers or museums of capital cities.

This story first appeared in the September 30, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

There’s nothing uniform or formulaic about his approach to retail exteriors other than always to expect the unexpected.

“It’s a strange thing, but store facades have always really attracted me,” Madaleno said during an interview at his office in Mexico City, which is idyllically situated by a lush park apart from the maddening urban traffic.

“Facades are among the simplest things to do. They’re kind of closed boxes. Retailers don’t want any holes in them. They want to keep all the space for hanging their clothes. It’s so simple.”

Easy for Madaleno to say — so why not take it to a higher level, so the storefront achieves greater purpose and meaning? Or instill, as he says, “a sense of arrival” upon approaching the threshold.

Sitting by a scale model of a seaside Mexican mall project that will include another El Palacio branch, Madaleno conveyed that his father, the mid-20th-century architect Juan Sordo Madaleno, was a close friend of Don Alberto Baillères, the owner of El Palacio de Hierro. Madaleno has carried on the traditions of his father and has been instrumental in changing the urban landscape of Mexico with hotels, public squares, shopping centers, rehabilitation centers and housing developments. He’s known for his use of local materials and adhering to the conventions of Mexican architecture fused with the latest trends.

With the family connection, it’s hardly surprising that of all Madaleno’s projects, El Palacio seems closest to his heart. The involvement runs deep. Of the 12 stores in the chain, he’s created 10 of the facades, all dramatically different.

Baillères, he explained, reviews and approves the store facades. And always, Madaleno incorporates the Baillères philosophy into the creative process. “His whole idea has been to have the outside of Palacio reflect the quality of the space inside, and also to create the feeling of what is happening inside the store outside. It’s not only about design. It’s about experience. That’s the most important thing an architect can develop.”

On occasion, Madaleno’s unorthodox approach gets challenged, as was the case in Polanco, where he designed a pyramidlike triangular stone structure to house both the headquarters of Grupo Bal and El Palacio de Hierro on Plaza Moliere. (El Palacio is part of the Grupo Bal conglomerate owned by Baillères.)

“The building on Moliere has become an icon,” Madaleno said. Yet there was a moment when it almost never came to be. Baillères initially had reservations about Madaleno’s design and called in three consulting firms to review the concept before construction proceeded. They gave it a thumbs down. But Madaleno came back to Baillères and made the case that his concept was as space-efficient as other more conventional structures and that Baillères could have his office at the very top of the pyramid with a 360-degree view of the city. His lieutenants could work right under him in the building, with the most important closer to the top, nearer to him, in effect symbolizing their status in the organization. Ultimately, Baillères was sold on Madaleno’s concept.

For the El Palacio de Hierro store in Querétaro, opening in 2014, another bold, unorthodox approach is under way. Madaleno, unveiling the rendering, explained that the facade will be constructed with huge horizontal zinc blades stretching 400 feet across, and 10 feet thick, that appear to have been lifted up on one end, like a raised curtain, affording a view inside the store.

Said the architect, “We go much more way out for Palacio than many other projects.”