China's shopping malls undergo creative shift

Retailers are creating social spaces that attract shoppers who want public areas where they can hang out with friends and family

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 March, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 March, 2015, 6:00am

A powerful mixture of increasingly sophisticated retail consumers and online shopping in China is forcing traditional retailers to reconsider the classic indoor commercial model in inventive new ways.

Leading the transformation is a focus on extending the classic shopping mall from a place to make specific purchases into a social space where one can spend time with friends and family. In design terms, this calls for as much attention to what public areas offer as the interior of boutiques.

The newest developments have Shanghai's upscale Xintiandi shopping district to thank for demonstrating the merits of creating a retail experience. Over a decade ago, the developer, Shui On Group, integrated antique walls, tiles and facades of 1920s and 1930s shikumen (stone warehouse gate) housing with shopping, dining and entertainment to create a new heritage district.

Despite early criticism for its theme-park retail design around a series of traditional public courtyards and grey flagstone lanes, it proved popular. Today a Shanghai landmark, it includes a new indoor element dedicated to contemporary design.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong's Adrian Cheng Chi-kong successfully differentiated his K11 Art Mall, which opened in Shanghai in mid-2013, as a creative space showcasing local artists' work alongside blockbuster shows like last year's exhibition of Claude Monet's Impressionist works.

The Kokaistudios-designed art mall still includes the essence of a shopping centre but its "art, people and nature" design philosophy means considerable investment in non-retail elements such as an urban farm and landscaping.

Art is on show on every floor from the modern glass dome entrance suspended with tree sculptures to interactive video games for shoppers as well as art activities and lectures.

More recently, Swire Properties' Taikoo Li mixed-use retail complex in Chengdu has helped to redefine the social retail strategy with its combination of heritage buildings and contemporary art in a low-rise town centre-style development. The 250,000 sqmetre pedestrian-only project opened late last year and is centred on the city's 1,000-year-old Daci Temple and six other nearby historic buildings.

A series of outdoor public plazas and courtyards are linked by "fast lanes" with high-end contemporary fashion and active elements like public performances, and "slow lanes" that provide a direct link to the temple and activities like al fresco cafes.

"The iconic shopping mall tower typology is old-fashioned," says Oval Partnership director Lin Hao, who led the design team, "so we opened the 'box' and integrated inside and outside."

In practice, this meant keeping the buildings at a low-rise "human scale" with at least a third of the space dedicated to cafes, bars and restaurants.

The retail component comprises about 100,000 sqmetres alongside a soon-to-open 100-room hotel and 42 serviced apartments, and a 47-storey grade A office tower.

Open-plan retail "villages" are not a new design concept but the highly curated urban experience makes this project distinctive.

For instance, oblique lines of sight and varied setbacks avoid rigid layouts while different palettes, streetscape and varied shop-front widths create visual interest.

Roof typologies range from dramatic Sichuan pitched roof "house" styles snapped up by Gucci and Hermès to minimalist contemporary units that accommodate specialist retailers such as the Beast, an avant-garde floral shop founded by Shanghai-based Amber Xiang.

Swire Properties retail director Alvin Kong says the retail mix delivers an unusually high level of diversity.

Pointing to the phenomenal success of the Fangsuo Commune, a creative bookshop, design emporium and cafe within a gothic-design 4,000 sqmetre basement space in Taikoo Li, Kong says mainland consumers are ready for a wider choice, not just luxury brands, and richer experience.

The outdoor landscape, lighting and signage design continue the diverse theme with historical structures alongside modern art installations, including a striking "Philosopher's Stone" interactive sculpture by Arizona-based Blessing Hancock and Joe O'Connell.

Most important for the retail industry, the shift in priorities to creating spaces with strong social and cultural values by giving heritage buildings a new lease of life can go well beyond restoration for the sake of protection to incorporate them as functioning spaces within a modern development.

At Taikoo Li, for example, a restored 100-year-old courtyard building from the Jin Dynasty has taken on a new life as an entrance with a guest-welcoming area, art gallery and library for the Temple House hotel, while elsewhere another heritage building that acts as a unique exhibition and events space recently hosted a craft workshop by Hermès.

"Stuffing a shopping mall with luxury brands is outdated," says Kong. "People should be able to come and buy things but also to meet friends, have a coffee or read a book. It is more about city living."