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A store makes the best-dressed list

'The Wrap' adorns the new Natick Neiman Marcus

NATICK - Does it look like a great tattered banner, whipping in a storm?

Or maybe an enthusiastic Wave at Fenway?

Or is it more like a soft breeze blowing through the delicately layered fabric of a woman's high-fashion dress?

Whatever it looks like, it is, in actual fact, a huge wordless billboard that wraps most of the new Neiman Marcus store that opened two weeks ago here.

We'll call it the Wrap. Big and powerful, yet subtle and delicate, the Wrap is a terrific piece of architecture.

At the same time, it's the kind of architecture - like, say, the Eiffel Tower, or the Hancock - that you wouldn't want to see more than once in a city. If every new store sought such a commanding presence, our world would look like a World's Fair of competing show-off buildings.

That said, this is a stunning design. It's enormous, 40 feet high and the length of two football fields. It's made of sheets of stainless steel, attached to one another like the patches in a quilt. They come in several colors. The colors are supposed to make you think right away of Neiman's subdued, high-end aesthetic. And it's the way the colors are patterned that creates the wispy, breeze-blown effect.

The architect says the inspiration was, indeed, a dress. A particular dress, in fact. One that he once designed for his wife to wear to a music festival in England.

"Bronze. Champagne. Silver. The classical colors," says Howard Elkus, the architect, a partner in the Boston firm of Elkus Manfredi.

And indeed, the billboard does set the color key for Neiman's interior, which is a symphony of skin tones, as if Max Factor had been hired to design both the interiors and the products they display. In actual fact, interior finishes are by a firm called Burdifilek, of Toronto.

It's the Wrap, not the interior, that's the interesting architecture. It's a grand sculpture that responds to the scale of the highway and the city. It announces the presence of Neiman's, and the mall of which it's a part, from a considerable distance. You certainly wouldn't want to see it anywhere near Beacon Hill, but out here in the trackless, vacuous suburbs (sorry, Natick), it focuses the urbanscape.

The Wrap is an example of a style of architecture - usually roadside architecture - that was more common before the arrival of today's boring interstates. These were buildings that announced themselves by their shape, a shape bold enough to catch your eye through a moving windshield. The Brown Derby restaurant, in Los Angeles, which looked like a brown derby, is one classic case. The milk bottle in front of the Boston Children's Museum, originally an ice cream stand in Taunton, is another. The first says "Gentlemen," the second says "Milk," in the same way the Wrap now says "Women's Fashion."

The Wrap participates in another, more recent tradition, too. Elkus claims that he wasn't influenced by the recent work of California architect Frank Gehry. He isn't persuasive. It was Gehry who pioneered the use of sheets of metal such as titanium and stainless steel in curvy, sculptural shapes, in such famous buildings as Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, and the Guggenheim Museum, in Spain. Like some of Gehry's, Elkus's metal doesn't pretend to be a real part of the building. It stands clear of the actual store, which is more or less a box. This is a billboard that tells you it's a billboard, and gains in strength and authenticity by doing so.

At first look, you might think the Wrap is an example of so-called "branding," like the endlessly repeated brand image that is the ugly arch of McDonald's. But in fact the Wrap is the opposite of branding. Neiman's philosophy is that every store should look as different as possible from every other store. "They wanted architecture that can't be seen anywhere else in this world," says Elkus.

Some of the landscape is by noted landscape architect Martha Schwartz, of Cambridge. Her delicate white birches stand as a foil to the Wrap, as if the same wind that whips the fabric folds were bending the slight branches.

Neiman's is part of a larger development. This is an expansion of the old Natick Mall, first built in 1965. The developer is General Growth. Besides Neiman's, there's a Nordstrom, a Sel de la Terre restaurant, and other enterprises. What makes the new mall unusual, though, is that it includes housing.

Elkus Manfredi has designed 215 condos, now under construction, in a tower right behind Neiman's. Called "Nouvelle at Natick" (admittedly, a dreadful name), it will offer its residents their own private entrance to the mall. I believe this is the first time new housing has been added to an existing shopping mall in the United States.

I've argued for decades that the best place to build elderly housing is the parking lots of shopping malls. Nouvelle isn't particularly aimed at the elderly, but it still makes sense. The mall becomes, for its residents, a mixed-use downtown you can walk to.

Nouvelle is selling slowly. But if it catches on . . . well, General Growth owns more than 200 other sites.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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