Features

Triple XL

September 8, 2011

Maitiú Ward talks to Denton Corker Marshall directors John Denton and Adrian FitzGerald about the challenges and opportunities of the Chinese Megamall.

Denton Corker Marshall (DCM) has close to three decades of experience working in China, during which time it has accumulated a wealth of projects across the country, in a diverse range of typologies. More recently, however, there has been a string of retail-oriented works. DCM has been rightly celebrated for its high-profile civic work, both in Australia and overseas – despite their whopping size, however, very few of these more recent retail projects have been subject to much interest. An unglamorous typology at the best of times, translated into the rough-and-tumble sphere of China’s commercial developers, the shopping mall becomes a design challenge most architects would sooner ignore. In the following interview with AR, DCM directors John Denton and Adrian FitzGerald talk frankly about the challenges, and the opportunities, presented to the architect by China’s megamalls.

Maitiú Ward: Is it possible to do retail work with sensitivity to local conditions, both cultural and environmental, when operating remotely in a foreign culture, and at such a vast scale?
John Denton Over the years, we’ve done a huge amount of retail work. We’ve done a massive amount in South East Asia, and more recently as you identify we’ve done quite a bit in China itself. We haven’t done any here [in Australia]. The problem is that shopping centres aren’t terribly rewarding. The clients usually aren’t willing to place any constraints on their retailers because they’ve got to lease the space. Therefore, you get incredibly variegated interiors.
Adrian FitzGerald The interior managers at the design planning stage often want to take off in different thematic directions, making a sort of Disneyland architecture. You’re constantly up against that, especially in Asia.

So you’re effectively operating at the fringes of the envelope, more or less. That’s where your architectural opportunity is.
AF Yes, because you tend to lose it inside. A lot of the big department stores these days are no more than a shell, housing boutique operators. That’s the fundamental underlying problem of doing shopping centres.

How has this affected the architectural language of the projects? There seems to be common threads shared by many of them – bold colour, strong volumes defined by simple geometry and orthogonal forms. The one exception to this rule would be the InTime Lotte Shopping Centre, which boasts this sensuous facade of curvaceous glazing. What drove the development of this design, and why is it so different from the rest of your retail work in China?
AF There’s a real typology to them. The one that you ask about, InTime Lotte, was the result of a design competition that we won. The proposition was based on the original theatre that existed there – the Peking Opera Theatre. We wanted to reflect, in some way, the notion of the stage curtain.
JD In fact, we actually recreated the Peking Opera Theatre – it’s built into the top of the building. They also use it for store parades and all sorts of things, so it’s become a multi-function space. But yes, the curving glass at the front of it was a reflection of a curtain. However, then we made the outside clear and created a second layer into which the tenants could insert large blockbuster advertising, as a way of dealing with it being a retail building.
AF We wanted to challenge the standard orthodoxy, which is the box, open at ground level and totally internalised, and we asked does a shopping centre have to be that way? Why couldn’t it be glass? Why couldn’t it have windows where you could look in and out, and the displays would be part of the street? The idea was sold and it was built, but the final result…
JD The department store operator came along and blanked much more of it off. They still advertise on it, but they’ve blanked off a lot more of it than was originally intended.
AF The question is the struggle with it as a type. There are very entrenched views as to what a shopping centre has to be and how it can work. So architecturally, it’s terribly constrained.
JD In Yantai City Plaza, for example, we actually created the architecture around a large advertising plinth.
AF We said, it’s a dumb box and it’s a given that they are going to put huge billboards on the box. How do you integrate those to make it look like it was designed, rather than just applied after the event?

The strategy is all around remediating the effect of the advertising that’s inevitably going to end up on the side…
JD Remediating, or designing for what’s going to be there, not designing something and being totally disappointed when it gets covered in posters. It’s actually accepting that that’s part of the language of the centre. You still get caught out, particularly in China in the megacentres; they will sell their soul to get a big anchor tenant, so you get stuffed over quite easily.
AF But the exciting thing about the Asian shopping centre is they’ll make them work over four, five, six, seven levels, which we struggle to do in Australia. Years ago we did a project in Jakarta, which was a seven-level centre, and it worked because we did multi-storey car parking above ground, so it fed in at different levels, and the cinemas were on top. So, there were a lot of attractors high up that filtered down. It’s not the orthodoxy here in Australia; the car parks tend to be in the basement.
JD Or open plaza parking. And in Australia, except in the CBD, people aren’t keen on multi-level shopping, not eight levels.
AF At Melbourne University there was a launch for a new book by Tom Kvan and Barrie Shelton called The Making of Hong Kong. Great book, but it’s talking about density, obviously, in Hong Kong, and intensity; they talk about the volumetric city, where there are many ground planes, and that’s pretty exciting stuff. Some of the retail we’ve done is working at that level where it’s not one field at all.

In terms of the overall coherence of the circulation internally, how do you manage that? How do you get circulation across the eighth to the first floor, effectively, and across all those tenancies?
JD That’s the other thing. As architects, we tend to do it with a degree of clarity and simplicity, so you can actually move up or down escalators progressively, quite easily. In retail, they want to confuse you; they want to get you up to one level and make you search for the escalator and go past the shops. So, again, it’s the typology of it that has a different aspiration as to how you move people through. You don’t actually want people to be able to get on an escalator and go straight out of the building in a flash. You might want to get them up fast, but then you want to make them percolate, so that down is always harder.

You got a toehold in China with the Australian Embassy in Beijing. And as I pointed out there, part of the success of that project was grounded in its tribute to local traditions. Does any of that have any relevance in a shopping mall typology in China?
JD No, not really. It has relevance in the fact that we’re still working there, because in fact, after we did the embassy, we tried to get ongoing work and found it incredibly hard. We were working out of Hong Kong and chasing work. And it wasn’t really until 2000, from having completed the embassy in 1991, that we actually got a phone call from a developer in China who said, “I was talking to someone and he tells me you did the Beijing Embassy. That’s a very good, thoughtful piece of work in regards to China. Come and do some work for us.”
But I suppose the only flow-on that you see is our use of colour. In the initial projects that we did with this developer, we concentrated on red and yellow. Red is seen as lucky and yellow was an imperial colour that nobody used to be allowed to use, but now in a reasonably democratic China, we felt we could democratise the colour. They are good strong colours, so this became a starting point for doing strong, brightly coloured things.

It seems like a happy marriage to your approach, regardless, because of course you love working with colour anyway, and it’s a clever way of getting very high impact architecture on a low budget. In regards to that, Adrian you’ve described DCM’s work as being “heroic architecture delivered with pragmatism”.
AF It’s a great line, isn’t it? I think for us in China, because of the time scale and the limit to our involvement, and in that we design but we don’t document, we have to have forms that are readily buildable and comprehensible. So that’s the pragmatism.
JD It’s working the thing to have a fundamental clarity, because that’s the one thing that might last through the process, the basic clarity of the design.
AF Big bold gestures, so it does contribute, but very pragmatically. We haven’t tried to do anything extreme in geometry.
JD While in Australia on projects, we can be obsessive about detail and finesse, we’ve always taken the view in China that the skills aren’t necessarily available. It’s getting there slowly, but particularly in some of the projects we work on, they don’t want to spend that sort of money, so you’re dealing with simpler forms. In China, the work becomes more like sketching and a testing of ideas. The moment you get five or six metres away, there are always little things that upset you.

So it’s a robust idea that’s resilient, a strong plan…
JD A strong plan and form, yes, that’s really our philosophy of working in China, by and large. We’re starting now to get into projects where they’re spending more and we’ll be able to do better quality. At the other end of the line, you’ve got Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House that’s just opened. When you look at the curtain wall cladding, it’s got three-dimensional machined stone, soft curves and corners – a massively expensive project, well built.

So the manufacturing expertise is there.
JD You forget that a lot of China’s construction industry is set up for the overseas market. So, for example, the most modern glass factory in the world, China Southern Glass, is there. It’s getting people to buy what is relatively expensive in China. They’ve got the skills, but it’s normally skills that are being developed for the export market.

So with regards to these more contemporary tendencies, environmentally sustainable design, this interest in shopping as a communal experience, something that’s about a little bit more than just a transaction – is there any interest in those ideas in China?
AF Most of that is government mandated. There are energy controls on building which, for example, have an implication on the amount of glass you can put in facades.
JD Yes. China is usually only a year or two behind in bringing in those sorts of sustainability regulations. They picked up on the English; the English brought in regulations that greatly reduced the amount of glass you can use in buildings, as part of a thermal control sustainability program. And the Chinese brought those regulations to China pretty quickly. So it’s happening, but China is able to do it by regulation. They did it with residential housing after they turned to private enterprise for the housing market in 2000. By 2009, they had found small apartments weren’t being built because there was such a huge market for bigger ones. They weren’t actually catering to the low cost affordable housing market. So the government just brought in a national decree that said all apartments must be less than 75 square metres. Developers in the local cities then began to work out how they can get around that. Can they average it over all housing ever built in the city because all the old stuff is very small, for example? Dual tenancies with a door between them so you just buy two, that sort of thing.
AF A great example: there was a national edict on energy saving issued, so all cities have to achieve certain savings. One particular city, the way they were going to save money was by turning off all the traffic lights…
JD China tends to work with a big stick as its methodology. They are making change. It’s happening. But I don’t think it’s aspirational on the part of the client, particularly. I think it’s changing, and it’s happening in the same way, in that it has always been a struggle here to slowly build people up. It’s often only by regulation that you can enforce it.
AF There is a bit of change happening in the retail sector, more generally. We’re seeing it at our Bluewater Events Venue in the UK. Internet shopping is seeing the demise of bookshops, clothes shops, so you need to reinvigorate these shopping centres.
JD You’ve got to have all the add ons that mean people want to go there for the experience.
AF And in our experience of retail with China or Asia, they build apartment blocks on top of shopping centres, turning them into active cities. Here in Australia, that’s the challenge – re-urbanising. They exist as isolated boxes with massive car parking structures, but those days could be numbered.

Do you think you’ve learned anything from your work in China that you’ve applied locally here in Australia, or internationally?
JD In a broad sense, probably not. What we’ve been doing is taking our experience there. The reason they’re using overseas architects is not just to have international architects doing projects, but for technology transfer. They learn pretty quickly, and certainly in the next 10 years or so, I imagine the number of foreign architects working there might well drop.

Was it a steep learning curve when you first began building in China?
JD I think it was more of a shock. Again, we had done the Australian Embassy in Beijing and that was a crazy situation, where we were simply told that our builder was ‘Construction Brigade Number Five’. Why was it Construction Brigade Number Five? Because they did Mao’s tomb very quickly, in 14 days or something, and that proved they were a good builder…

The measure of ‘quality’ being speed, in that instance…
JD We got this construction company and it was absolutely appalling. The labour was all farm labour, and every so often the site was empty and you’d ask, “Where have they gone?” And they’d gone home for the harvest. That’s the way it was back then. So we learned from the worst of what happened in China, and all we’ve seen since coming back 10 years later is the radical change. Suddenly, they know how to program buildings, they have good contractors, they have companies trying to market international services and skills and products.

A professional construction industry.
AF Well, take the Olympics, for example, with the Bird’s Nest Stadium by Herzog and de Meuron – an extraordinary building to build anywhere. China has arrived.

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