Turns out Spanish retail giant Zara—famed for affordable, fast-fashion clothing and, more recently, its launch into home decor and housewares—has a fascinating side-hobby: restoring beautiful old buildings. Zara has a penchant for scouting out historic locations for their stores, calling upon an in-house architecture department to painstakingly convert landmark buildings into retail spaces that reflect the local flavor and heritage of the city. The result? Storefronts that strike a delicate balance between the hard edges of modernity and the softness of architecture's detail-laden past. While fashion boutiques tend to embrace eye-popping, modern spaces, it's kind of refreshing to see a major chain embrace the old (read: the marbled, the moulded, the frescoed) before cramming it with art installations and racks of blouses.
Above: Zara's Milan outpost in Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, the oldest shopping mall in Italy, built between 1865 and 1877. Once a classical theater, the Italian flagship boasts a grandiose entrance, with marble flooring, mosaics, a gilded ceiling, and a Murano glass chandelier. It's all enhanced by modern installations, such as this piece by Duccio Grassi Architects. Below, find more shots of Zara's most ambitious restoration projects, including a circa-1889 palazzo in Rome and an early-18th-century convent conversion in Salamanca, Spain.
? Milan: The store frequently commissions installations under the careful selection of architecture director José Froján. Netherlands design firm UNStudio created this funky seating installation for Milan's International Furniture Fair in 2010.
? Rome: Zara's 5,000th location is in the magnificent Palazzo Bocconi on Rome's Via del Corso, a retail space built from 1886 to1889 by architect Giulio De Angelis for brothers Ferdinando and Luigi Bocconi's La Rinascente department store. Zara enlisted Duccio Grassi Architects to help restore and renovate the building, which is not only a beautiful blend of Neoclassical architecture and contemporary design, but also the retailer's model of eco-efficiency—it's supposedly on track to become LEED platinum-certified by 2020.
? Melbourne, Australia: In 2011, Zara unveiled its renovation of an elegant Neo-Gothic building on Melbourne's Bourke Street, which was constructed in the turn of the 20th century and is most well-known as the former location of Darrods Department Store, which occupied the space since 1934. The Zara architecture team faced quite a task restoring the aging, delicate elements adorning the two different façade styles, but it all came together in the end.
? Salamanca, Spain: Arguably Zara's greatest restoration project, the Salamanca, Spain, location is housed in an 18th-century convent. The Baroque-style structure of San Antonio el Real took an incredible eight years to renovate, restore, and convert. The structure maintains its rather divine 72-foot dome and original ornamentation, but Zara modernized the space with a minimalistic steel-and-glass structure, adding an additional three floors. The sleek transparency quietly complements the convent's more ornate features.
? Elche, Spain: Zara spent a year working with Elche's Town Planning and Maintenance departments to restore the landmarked Capitolio Movie Theater.
? Athens, Greece: In 2008, after four years of renovation, Zara opened its Athens location on historic Korai Street. Built in the early 18th century, the building was initially a private residence, then became a hotel, coinciding with the Olympic Games of 1896. Zara's team focused on cleaning and reconstructing the moldings, coffered ceilings, and forgings of the building's the balconies and doors. During the initial excavation work, the crew discovered three gravestones from an old Roman cemetery. The grave-markers can be seen from the entrance doorway on Stadiou Street.
—Beth Rodgers Benson
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