What do future retail spaces look like? What possibilities can design offer to people’s future ways of living and their relationship with places?

In a fiercely competitive market, retailers and landlords are facing challenges from e-commerce, changing consumption patterns and economic uncertainties. Brands have started rethinking their store operation strategies on top of product offerings. We sat down with four colleagues from our Commercial & Mixed-use Team, including Associate Director Erica Wong and Louis Liu, as well as Senior Associate Keith Chan and Samuel Wong, to discuss the future of retail and what’s important to them when creating places for people.

Let’s start with what you think makes a successful retail space.

Erica: A successful retail space should first be a strong social connector that draws people together, with a sensible retail mix and offering them a unique spatial experience. It would address the emotional needs of people, reaching into their hearts and minds deep and full, making the visit meaningful for all. This results from a combination of hardware (the environment) and software (quality of public space, tenant offerings). Legibility and wayfinding are vital, and any elements need to be self-explanatory.

Samuel: For me, it’s important for retail spaces to strike a collective memory for visitors. A theme, a vibe, whatever you call it, it’s something that everyone can relate to and be able to talk about it when recalling their experience of the place. What works in one place may not work in another. Late-night consumption, for example, though not a new phenomenon, is quite specific to some parts of the world, and this has made certain development strategies and spatial structures possible in one place but not another.

The design of Zijing Paradise Walk, which opened in Hangzhou, China in December 2019, was inspired by the Liubai concept in Chinese art, deliberating leaving out blank spaces to encourage the viewer’s imagination

Keith: Architecture is always about serving people. A successful retail space is where everyone can find their needs catered and a place that helps people live better lives. A place accessible for everyone. What we’re trying to do is to encourage people to discover the kinds of beauty in life that many of us can relate to. Take the recently opened Hangzhou’s Zijing Paradise Walk in China as an example. Its design extracts iconic features from the Hui-style architecture, which the local population can easily identify with, and adds a modern twist to its circulation design to encourage a new kind of wellness-driven lifestyle in Hangzhou.

Louis: The space must integrate with existing elements of the neighbourhood, including the economic structure, people’s lifestyle, demographics and streetscape. In some parts of China, the shopping mall typology itself may form a new landscape for the city, but instead of compromising local ways of life, new lifestyle complexes must be designed to complement existing urban features, in terms of density, sight, greenery, walkability and transport connections.

Zijing Paradise Walk adds a modern twist to local Hui-style architectural features by using multi-layering and carve-out treatments of space.

You’ve all worked with major retail developers for many years. Are there any changes in their needs over the years? How is this related to changing consumer patterns?

Louis: We live in a time where the retail industry is pressured by the prevalence of e-commerce. Developers and their retail tenants are rethinking their strategies to embrace online platforms, whilst brick-and-mortar environments are not going away at all. In fact, there are examples where new business models that integrate online and offline platforms are proving extremely successful. Consumption patterns have certainly changed, and developers recognise it. People look for more than a place to shop and spend, and they are looking for intangible ‘takeaways’. The motivation of their visits has shifted from shopping to experiencing, knowledge sharing and social gathering.

Erica: I guess this is what we call post-Consumerism. Related to what you said about people looking for intangible ‘takeaways’, it’s exactly why we’ve put in so much thinking into catalysing social interactions and movement between spaces in West Huashan Unipark in Jinan, China. We want to make it a place where people come to discover new, life-enrichening ideas that they want to share with family and friends after the visit. We want to create ‘serendipities’, or a once-in-a-lifetime encounter like the Japanese saying.

Intertwining indoor and outdoor areas, together with a diversity of stimulating elements and communal spaces, will make Jinan’s West Huashan Unipark in China a dynamic hub for people looking for intangible takeaways

Samuel: We’ve also seen a rising concern for public spaces among the management of developers, who are increasingly conscious about offering quality social spaces for the surrounding neighbourhood. At Olympic Vanke Centre, a new-style office complex in Hangzhou, China with a retail podium which we expect to complete next year, public spaces are set out in very diverse forms. The retail podium will be wrapped around by cascading open terraces, enabled by a special design feature – we rotate every floor of the podium to make the terraces slightly different from one another, allowing different degrees of publicness at the same time. We expect to create a whole new layer of networking opportunities there, especially for the office users. Chinese developers are very receptive towards new ways of carrying out their projects, and discussions on project design has become more open and interactive.

Public spaces are set out in very diverse forms and sprinkled across levels from podium terraces through to rooftop gardens at Olympic Vanke Centre in Hangzhou, China

Erica: Adding to your point about public space – I think not only developers, but consumers are also increasingly sensitive about the quality of spaces available for them to casually meet, interact and hang around. More than ever, people crave to be connected. Not only with people, but with places. They want to understand the legacy of a place: how the site was originally used, how a new development comes into place. Visitors even want to be informed of the structure of the place they’re in, and that’s why transparency and visibility are so important for today’s architecture. Placemaking is about understanding where you are, in relation to other people and places. As designers of places, we are facilitating that process of exploration, encouraging them to take in and understand their surroundings.

Placemaking is about understanding one’s relationship with other people and places. Visibility and the interplay of outdoor and indoor spaces are ways to establish such connections. At West Huashan Unipark, visitors are immersed in a landscape-inspired environment extending from the nearby mountains

We talk about ‘experience’ a lot and it is such an elusive concept. But how do we define it in commercial terms? How do we design experiences?

Samuel: True, there’s a practical aspect to the quest for ‘experience’. It seems that the experience-oriented design approach serves to satisfy both new-generation demands from end-users and commercial needs of developers and retailers. Consumers need new incentives to shop offline and they want to benefit more from the process than pure goods. At the same time, commercial facilities need viable but creative ways to draw visitors and stand out from competitors.

Olympic Vanke Centre strikes an impression on visitors with cascading outdoor terraces that provides a welcoming space for people to meet and socialise

Keith: People are increasingly sceptical towards mass-produced offerings, including ‘experience’ itself. They are looking for places that inspire newer ways of enjoying life. For instance, in Shanghai’s Vanke Qibao Development in China, we brought in elements of the immersive theatre to challenge the boundaries of curated experience and spontaneity – which also highlights the unique qualities of physical spaces. As visitors navigate through the space, they are contributing to their own and other people’s perception of the space. This is genuine interaction. We want to bring back the authentic touch of life itself.

Vanke Qibao Development, Shanghai, China creates a unique experience by taking cue from the immersive theatre to encourage an exploratory journey within the complex

Erica: I have worked with a number of developers who all have their own style of managing their investment properties, which gave me a lot of insights for thinking about what makes retail spaces so special and what they can potentially offer to the community. To create meaningful experience through design, we start from understanding the site, culture and client. We digest and transform that understanding into something new. During the design process, the end-users’ needs form our design intention, but understanding the client’s business needs actually help us better define and operationalise our concepts and drive the architectural approach.

Louis: Online platforms are allowing people to experience their community to a fuller extent, contrary to the belief that online services are taking over offline commerce. The key is to secure that connection right from the start of planning a space. The internet is helping people imagine and map out their physical space better, making their physical experience smooth and personalised. From the internet, they can learn online about even the most specific services available around them, book a DIY workshop, initiate social gatherings or search for the closest jazz performance in town. The integration of online and offline platforms is a key part of defining commercial experiences.

What is the future of retail? What is your outlook for the market?

Louis: Competition is intense in first-tier cities in China. As a result, we are seeing a variety of development models emerging, as shoppers are looking for personalised products, services and experiences. There’s also a merge between the realms of living, work and play, so retail spaces are blending with other typologies. Developers are looking for different ways to encourage users to make the space their own – taking the initiative to define the space according to their preferences and life priorities. We are going to see more of this trend. At the same time, the focus of urbanisation has also moved from first- and second-tier cities to the third- and fourth-tiers, where market needs are significantly different.

Erica: It’s interesting that we start seeing elements from the ancient past returning in the future. Take the rise of public space for example, we have been learning from the ancient piazzas and open markets thousands of years back. Having said that, I’d expect more new kinds of crossovers to take place between retail and sports, galleries, cultural programmes and more. Shared and mixed-use spaces will flourish in the future, and more boundaries to be broken. The ‘multifunctional social hub’ trend is just going to go skywards. Streetscapes will also be recreated to bring back the joy of spending time outdoors instead of in enclosed spaces.

Vanke Qibao Development will become a destination for urban wanderers, being a walkable community that blends in with the surrounding streetscape and absorbs interesting elements from the local cultural scene

Keith: Some say that AI is going to replace human in many aspects of retail design, or the retail industry in general. But I’m not convinced. People will always be a core part of architectural design, including retail, and the key to creating synergies. It’s about how and to what extent we allow technology to be part of life. AI is very useful for collecting data for ongoing operations and future improvements, so it’s part of our design considerations when planning for a retail project. But more importantly, we design for the flexibility that allows people to interact with technology according to business and individual needs.

Samuel: Retail designs will be inclined towards facilitating collaborations between mall operators and retail brands, who are looking to create refreshing experience for their customers. Flexibility is key. As architects we must innovate to go beyond providing good events spaces, which means making the space friendly enough for visitors to co-direct their own placemaking initiatives in these urban spaces.

Erica: In China, it has been an era of frenzied exploration seeking the kind of architecture or built environments that impress. However, as time goes on, people – including governments, developers and the public – are starting to develop clearer visions of the place they would like to stay in. This is partly because of greater international exposure, but also because all the experiments are starting to bear fruit. The market is maturing for first-tier cities.


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