When was the last time you went to a beautifully designed building and felt drawn to your surroundings in a way that made you feel better? Because the space spoke to you, ushered in relief, engaged your senses, enhanced within you a sense of… wellness?

Alain de Botton knows how you feel. In ‘The Architecture of Happiness’, the philosopher and author looks beyond traditional architectural characteristics and delves into the creation of balance and harmony which evokes a myriad of emotions within the user.

“It follows that the balance we approve of in architecture, and which we anoint with the word ‘beautiful’, alludes to a state that, on a psychological level, we can describe as mental health or happiness,” he writes.

This powerful connection between design and its psychological impact encourages architects to pay more attention to the wellness of those who use the spaces they create.

Why is it then that most of our shopping centres, in which it is hoped we will spend hour upon hour, are the antithesis of promoting wellness?

Hames Sharley’s Sydney-based Interior Design Principal Jane Sorby and Associate Iain Stewart explain the history and the challenge facing retailers today.

In the ’50s and ’60s, fuelled by the mouse-trap theories of retail centre design, developers created spaces in which the shopper would be susceptible to selling techniques inflicted on them by the retailer – known as the Gruen transfer. Over the decades these centres have expanded into large introverted boxes disconnected with the natural and fine grain built environment.

“These monoliths often tend to have neutral, characterless environments with little reference to nature, the sky or anything else to humanise the destination”, Iain points out.

The labyrinthine layouts, stark lighting, gleaming floors and jarring visuals deliver an assault on the senses with incessant pressure subliminally placed on the customer. The result is that the visitor is fatigued and more likely to reduce their stay and return less often. Shopping malls became something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

But gone are the mall rat days of the ‘80s and ’90s. The challenge lies in making spaces for shopping breathe again. The disruption to the shopping centre model brought about by online retail has precipitated a requirement for the more thoughtful design of the places and environmental qualities that support shopping. These often include the principles of wellness design and result in more contextually integrated solutions – connected both to nature and the surrounding urban context.

“It’s really about creating great places for people to go and hang out, and then shopping happens while they’re there,” says Jane.

“Often we are working in existing centres,” explains Iain, “where we turn them inside out to create a more urban and user-friendly space.”

Architects look to the history of the site to bring back streets, walkways and previous outdoor spaces where possible, as well as enhancing the users’ connection with its past.

The Karrinyup Shopping Centre redevelopment, in Western Australia, is doing exactly that, reconnecting shoppers with nature and each other by introducing landscaped outdoor spaces, a fresh food precinct, a large piazza and a main street. The provision of outdoor amenity and integration with neighbouring context provides orientation – a touchstone and connection to reality. This access to the outdoors is known to reduce blood pressure and the incidence of headaches, fatigue and stress by evolving into a place for respite and reflection.

For the interior design, if “we depend on our surroundings obliquely to embody the moods and ideas we respect and then to remind us of them,” as de Botton writes, this stresses the need to focus on the feelings of the consumer.

Greige (grey and beige) has given way to a lively, darker palette in Melbourne and Sydney or lighter palettes in Brisbane and Perth, each dictated by their local climate, and illuminated by daylight. These are then complemented by materials more reflective of the natural environment being brought back into harmony with the building.

Jane advocates natural or subdued lighting in which, she says, “shoppers can actually think and the products speak for themselves instead of yelling at the customer.” From research conducted on the human response to buildings, we know this inviting atmosphere enhances tactility, warmth and comfort – key components of wellness design philosophy. The redevelopment of the Broadway Shopping Centre food court incorporates all of these features.

Indeed, wellness centres are now fast becoming a tenancy type in their own right, and in turn, are adding value to much coveted increased dwell time.

In the early days of design, Iain and Jane say they often look to groundbreaking international projects for inspiration.

One such project is Santa Monica Place in California. This $250 million project saw the removal of the existing mall’s roof and the complete refurbishment of the interior, replacing the more traditional approach with two levels of retail shops and a third level food court with spectacular views over the Pacific ocean. The result is a modern outdoor shopping mall flooded with natural light and direct external linkages to the iconic Santa Monica Boulevard.

Architectural and Interior Design should be life-affirming and result in spaces and places that delight and support us in our pursuit of happiness and wellbeing. In the future, shopping might even do us some good.

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