Heralded as the 'mall of the century', the Elements shopping centre above Kowloon Station will stretch over two floors covering more than 1million sqft. It will boast restaurants, international brands and services and Hong Kong's first 'shopping in the park' concept, with an integrated roof garden almost the same size as Kowloon Park, above the retail floors. The design team working on the project is from Benoy - a firm that has built an impressive track record in helping transform run-down districts with the structure needed for an attractive retail and lifestyle environment. Benoy director Simon Blore was asked how the transformation will take place: Benoy has helped transform landmarks such as Birmingham's Bullring. Have the designers seen similar challenges with the Elements project in West Kowloon, and what lessons do you think rejuvenation projects in Britain or elsewhere hold for Hong Kong? Elements was really about the creation of a destination for a site that was new, and not yet known in Hong Kong. In that sense there are parallels with our regeneration work in Britain where we create new uses for old sites, and create new destinations from disused land. Certain principles apply to these urban regeneration projects, and the masterplan for Kowloon Station embodied many of these key generators which, when combined, lead to the creation of a new urban destination: 1 the provision of homes 2 establishing transport links 3 creation of space for retail and food 4 the provision of workplaces 5 creation of public open spaces 6 places to stay 7 pedestrian connections to surrounding neighbourhoods 8 a sense of place I would say that the main lesson that can be applied from British regeneration would be the use of masterplan thinking. This is where adjoining site owners and developers join to create co-ordinated and integrated development projects that bring wider benefits. In the early stages of the Bullring in Birmingham, there were two rival inner city retail schemes, each competing for tenants and each struggling for interest from the market. By joining the sites together, working together, and phasing a masterplan approach to the whole landholding, a more successful holistic project was created. Such an approach was also used for Union Square and Elements where several developers have worked together to create an integral whole, and a mix of uses. Do you see Elements and West Kowloon as an indication of how city living will be shaped in the future? The Union Square mixed-use project, with Elements at its heart, is a mini-city in its own right and is the largest project of its type in Hong Kong. With 21 towers, two MTR stations, residential space, offices, hotels, serviced apartments, retail and several public transport interchanges, the project has a resident population of 50,000 people living, working and staying there. The integration of uses, the strong transport connections and the public open space at podium level, is an enviable mix that serves to perfectly complement the residential towers to create a complete urban lifestyle. Add to this the open air park and views to the harbour, and the fact that it is only one MTR stop from Central, and there is no doubt that the Union Square mixed-use development will evolve to become a prime neighbourhood in the heart of Hong Kong. Elements will set a benchmark in the shopping centre industry providing Hong Kong with the ultimate in sophisticated high-quality urban living. How accessible were the clients to Benoy's creative input? The design process was extensive and exhaustive because the client and ourselves were committed to exploring every avenue open to us to create a world-class destination at Elements. Together with the MTR Corporation we benchmarked against other developments and we objectively explored development options. Out of this process came several key changes that were made to the overall masterplan to create a vastly improved retail project. The Events Plaza A significant amount of the retail gross floor area was allocated to a restaurant and cafe event plaza at roof level to create an outdoor hub to the project that engaged with the roof-top park. Arrivals Courts The podium was carved back at two key arrival nodes on the western frontage to create an open and welcoming sense of arrival for shoppers and the office and hotel towers. The Hills The additional podium area was relocated at roof level to create landscaped hills that hid the roof parking. These 'hills' also created interest in the landscape and allowed us to lift the headroom in the mall. Retail Brands MTR Corp was very responsive to the notion that the retail brands should create their own shopfront designs to provide the mall spaces with variety and vitality. Our client explored with us a 'big picture' appraisal of the ground level station areas and together we found that there were zones we could use for service areas to help separate customer traffic from service traffic, and also to give rear service goods access to all shops and units. How important was the 'zoning' concept to Elements, and what were the challenges it presented, from the concept and design stage through to practical applications? In the early stages of design it became clear that one of the key challenges was the size of the site, and that we had a retail centre that was predominantly on two levels, and a mall that was also horizontal and linear, as the retail spaces were utilised to link up the various development packages with the public transport zones. The mall had a plan form and a length of routes that was, at the time, unprecedented in Hong Kong, so we needed to think of a design that provided stimulation and a sense of surprise on what could be a long walk around the centre. Initially we worked on the notion of a city where districts become known for particular kinds of retail, a shoe street, a wedding dress street, that kind of idea. By adopting this concept of retail quarters, we found we could broadly zone the overall retail mix into entertainment, home, luxury and fashion. Once these districts had been established in the overall retail plan we explored theming ideas to provide the different retail quarters with their own character. Reacting to the white, grey, glass and aluminium of most HK malls at the time, and also responding to the sense that the dense urban city did not have much room for nature, we sought to invest the mall spaces with the character of the five natural elements: earth, wood, metal, water and fire. We applied the colour and sense of form for each of the elements to each of the five retail districts to help us then shape a sequence of spaces that created distinctiveness and variety on the shopping journey. Finishes, textures, graphics and public art each reflect a giving element conveying the experience that this is five different spaces rather than one. As an example, the entertainment retail district became the fire zone, and the red and orange hues of flames became colour highlights for this space, and a large sculptural wall, the 'fire wall', became a dramatic addition to the main event space. What experiences are the designers/architects continuing to draw upon with regard to projects they have done in Birmingham, Kent or Cardiff's Mermaid Quay? I would say that a sense of place, storytelling through architecture and the notion of customer service are the key design tenets that we transferred from our British projects to the design process for Elements. In a world where increasingly everything looks the same, we try to create a unique identity for our projects, so that they relate to their 'place' and their location. This sense of place was created at Elements by adapting the Chinese feng shui principles of the five elements of nature. This concept was then woven through the whole design as a narrative on nature with the external facades and art contributions also being key parts of the story. Customer service was addressed through the provision of landscaped car drop-off zones, conveniently placed and interesting parking zones, hotel quality rest rooms, and public furniture to create a holistic experience for the shoppers. How has the design concept for shopping and living facilities changed compared with a decade or two ago? It is simply not enough any more to create an efficient air-conditioned mall with the same shops and shopfronts. We design retail spaces that encourage retail tenants to provide their own shopfronts, and their best fit-outs, and we encourage our clients to seek new retail brands and new formats so that the mall is offering something unique. Asian and western mall consumers are generally well travelled and sophisticated in their tastes, so they are looking for more than simply retail. They require good restaurants, alfresco dining, hotel quality service and rest rooms, bright and interesting parking areas, arts and culture, diverting designs and graphics. They demand more 'experience' than ever from their shopping trip, so it has now evolved to become a 'lifestyle day out'. Hong Kong presents unique challenges for designers and architects. Could the experience gained be applied elsewhere in Hong Kong to enhance the living and retail environment? Consumers in Hong Kong now demand more complex and exciting shopping destinations. More than the simple activity of 'buying', consumers are looking for places to socialise and be entertained, welcoming and warm places that provide them with a leisure experience. In that regard, Elements is certainly an example for future retail and public developments. Is there anything that should be avoided when it comes to development? Developments should always be respectful and responsible towards the environment, people and culture.