There has been a noticeable improvement in the design quality of retail developments, and their surrounds, in recent years. In fact, shopping centres have even been on the receiving end of architectural and urban design awards.

That’s a trend worth exploring, given that retail architecture has, for quite a while, been considered unworthy of notice by the design professions.
It is shopping centre owners who are driving the trend. They admit the change is a response to two threats: the value of their assets triggered by online retailing, and statutory coercion.

The strategy behind renewed design interest

Whatever the initial trigger, shopping centre owners are now embracing the value of design as a tool to improve the bottom line.

It’s no longer an obligatory cosmetic exercise. Good design differentiates a centre from its competitors and helps to fend off the online retail challenge.

Now, non-retail activities within shopping centres, previously considered a waste of good retail land, are now valued as a way to engender a sense of place and generate activity.

This is an exciting period for us, as designers. As the retail sector recognises our design skills and the value they bring to each project, we are increasingly seen as strategic partners in this evolution – and not merely as service providers.

To respond to this opportunity, we as professionals can best serve our clients by sharpening our vision of the current opportunities and challenges and the best ways to respond.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the so-called father of the contemporary shopping centre, Victor Gruen, showed how architectural design could play an important part in promoting both the commercial and civic functions of the new building genre. That said, however, the urban design of that era was dominated by a sea of car parking and little to no public realm. Thankfully, it wouldn’t cut it today.

How our shopping centre heritage is shaping design now

Design standards fell, unfortunately, in the decades following Gruen et al.

We went through a long period in which the retail plan was little more than an introverted mousetrap: one entry punched into large blank walls through which shoppers were herded, and a maze of shops designed to keep them trapped until they had emptied their wallets!

The entrance was the only real bit of architectural design; the walls functioned primarily as a signage/branding opportunity; and the consideration is given to context, scale and shelter became token – far from creating a distinct precinct with its own urban design character.

At the same time, interior design plateaued to a vanilla sameness, exacerbated by barely-differentiated shops.

Response to community pressures and planner initiatives, national statutory authorities rolled out ‘activity centre’ policies that promote our shopping centres as integrated town centres where people shop, live and work. As a result, there is now a big focus on providing an effective public realm, with an experiential offering of parks, plazas, entertainment and cultural activities as well as shopping. The really exciting aspect of this is that both the urban design and architecture disciplines are required to address the details that meet such demands. The kinds of details involved include using design to:

  • highlight characteristics of the precinct (the economic, social, urban fabric, physical environment etc);
  • integrate public transport;
  • hide the cars;
  • sleeve the big boxes with built form;
  • open up the blank walls with alternative uses and functions;
  • address pedestrian permeability; and, more significantly,
  • create a sense of place that fosters community attachment.

Online retail competition has forced bricks-and-mortar retailers at the store level to re-engineer their businesses and for shopping centre owners to shift their centres from being ‘cathedrals of consumption’ to a multisensory environment.

  • This is where design has an integral role to play. Here architects and urban designers work together to enhance retail environments as rich experiences for visitors to them.
  • These hedonic experiences are akin to traditional main-street activities but, in the shopping centre, designers are creating built form and spatial environments that are even more conducive to increasing dwell-time, lingering, social interaction and, consequently, increased spending.

A recent influx of international retailers are invigorating the leasing mix in centres, and challenging the local retailers to both improve their offer and the design of their shops, and how they interact with the malls and streets.

  • Furthermore, food and beverage retailers are ramping up to a new level of quality. Instead of the food hall being the focus for food and drinks, cafes and restaurant precincts are increasingly providing the interface of the retail mall with the public realm.
  • As designers, it’s up to us to create the environments and ambience necessary for this outcome. The best results come from understanding the needs of both the tenants and owners and by taking a lead role in establishing the fundamental design concepts.
  • Designers need to actively explore with both groups new ideas such as ‘pop-up’ stores, community facilities, introducing service providers, and increasing kids’ and parents’ amenities.
  • And we bring an additional value to the discussion: our experiences from non-retail projects that have successfully delivered similar outcomes such as public buildings, health facilities and education precincts.

Environmental and economic sustainability are both having a direct influence on shopping centre design. It is no longer the norm to demolish and redevelop a centre on a five-year cycle (thankfully), and asset managers expect an improved economic and social dividend from their investments. That means creating adaptable spaces and structure that can be reused for different purposes, and constantly improving the energy efficiencies of retail buildings.

  • Designers are no longer being asked to be mere followers of fashion (we’ll leave that to the retailers). Our job is to provide designs that are robust and timeless, using master planning and urban design principles – laid down before the project proceeds and then tested on a regular basis both during and after the development period. The designer is the custodian of the ‘vision’, able to respond to the building challenges without losing the design integrity and the client’s business strategy.
  • The designers are also champions of improving environmental parameters affecting energy, water and waste.
  • In summary, designers now have a great deal to bring to the new era of retail in terms of the services we provide and our understanding of strategic priorities.

The value of our contribution – to being strategic partners rather than being mere service providers – is increasingly understood by our clients for the value it adds to these projects.

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