Once perceived as a cookie-cutter craft 25 years ago, retail design architecture today finds itself at the forefront of cutting-edge projects. Bold, imaginative initiatives coupled with sound business practices are the hallmark of today's successful retail and shopping center projects.

Descriptive phrases such as "new urbanism" and "environmental graphics" have permanently worked their way into the architectural lexicon. One might conclude that this period is a Golden Age for design firms with their services in such demand.

Yet, there are a lot of unanswered questions that even the experts are grappling with. For example, themed retail and restaurants are all the rage, but which ones will work? And what effect will e-commerce have on the store or center of the future? To find out, SCW assembled 10 distinguished leaders of design firms from across the country during the ICSC CenterBuild Conference in Phoenix, held Dec. 2-4. CenterBuild is a specialty conference dedicated to the issues of planning, development, design and construction of shopping centers and retail stores. An edited transcript follows.

SCW: Tom, you've been with TVS for more than 25 years. In 1999, you will be chair of ICSC's CenterBuild Conference. As you survey the architectural landscape today, are we witnessing more creativity than ever before in terms of the design of shopping centers? Or, as some critics have charged, are we plagued by a sameness in our centers, the so-called "fortress malls."

J. Thomas Porter: The industry is moving away from the "fortress" very quickly. People are moving toward that concept of giving the customer, the visitor to the center, a more varied experience. The customer, probably around five to 10 years ago, starting becoming a lot more sophisticated and expected to see not the same old fortress, not the same old brown floors. They really wanted a different experience. The retailers probably were the first to grab hold of it and move in that direction.

We seem to be having a real run on the outdoor centers right now. The village, or Main Street, is an outgrowth of that particular desire. We have one project that when we started it, the client very much wanted to do a regional mall that was all outdoors. This goes back six years, and he just couldn't get the retailers to participate because they didn't have a prototype. Now they all do, including Nordstrom. Everybody has a village, a Main Street-type prototype that they come to the table with. So I think it's evolving. Is it going to be the thing for every project? I don't think so. But I think we are moving much more toward shopping centers designed for the communities that they are in, with a lot more experiences.

SCW: Do you think this is a unique time for architecture?

Porter: Absolutely. Going back in my career, 25 years ago there were very few architects and designers that wanted to do retail. It was cookie-cutter, it was just brown floors, white gypsum board ceilings. Now, we are having folks come to the firm actually asking to be involved in retail because there is so much dynamics going on. It may be some of the new urbanism that is influencing that desire.

But I think there are a lot more architects and designers today who are interested because it's a lot more exciting than it used to be.

SCW: Jim, any thoughts?

James Heller: Tom made an interesting statement about the transition, and it truly has occurred in the shopping center and the customer base. For example, Old Navy is coming in and taking a front location with exposure to the outside in a regional mall. The first center I worked on in 1971, everything was inward-oriented. You didn't want a tenant to have exposure to the outside. You had the occasional restaurant. Today, you've got a variety of tenants that will demand that, and that has brought new challenges, especially when you get to some of these centers that end up having five, six or seven anchor tenants. You don't have a lot of outside wall and it's created this challenge, and some of these tenants will only go into these centers.

SCW: Mr. Graves, we saw in the early part of the century the department store, then the suburban shopping center, the power centers, the strip centers. Now we have this combination of value retail and entertainment. What is the next evolution, and who are some of the tenants that we are likely to see?

William L. Graves Sr.: I wish I had an exact answer to that. It is a continuing evolution of the shopping center community, in general. It's probably a combination of a lot of those elements in a single development. We've all been involved with the community center adjacent to a power center, the power center adjacent to the regional mall. I believe the next step, probably, as has already occurred in Denver, is the combination of several of those different components in a single development.

As to the type of tenant, we are all involved in that nebulous word of "entertainment" and are trying to define what that is. The shopping center in itself as a community place is part of entertainment. And so all of the components that contribute to entertainment venues are becoming part of the shopping center and vice versa.

SCW: Anyone else on where we are headed?

Everett Hatcher: I thought a lot about why things are changing. I think part of it is the demographics of the country. I grew up in the '50s, and the baby boomers - there's a whole bunch of us, most of us at this table - remember when you could go downtown and walk along the street and window-shop. It would be an outing for the family.

A lot of the retail is trying to recapture that, whether they are doing it consciously or not. You can marry that, but you also have to continue to have convenience because of the time restraints that we all have in our lives today. The projects that we see, the new lifestyle centers, all respond to that kind of feeling in retail. You are going to see more and more of that.

SCW: Frank, you've had experience on the retail side (having worked 10 years at Barnes & Noble and Toys 'R' Us in the planning and construction departments). What do retailers want in design? What are they crying out for today?

Frank Choo: They all want to look a little different than the competition, and the competition is trying to do the same. The Internet is really going to come into play. I believe in about four to five years that 50% of your typical retail mix and your typical "Mall USA" is probably going to have their own website. The typical retailer needs to create a separate interest. Maybe it's not entertainment, but something different to get them to come into the store that you can't purchase over the Internet.

Maybe the fitting rooms can be designed better, more friendly, out in front, not hidden in the back. Maybe amenities like bottled water. It could be almost anything, but you've got to give the customer of the future reason to shop the store vs. buying over the Internet, since I do believe 50%, 60% of the typical mall tenant will have their own website. We are working on it. The retailers that we are working with are a lot of the upper end, and they are struggling with that. But I do see major changes in the next three to four years to target that particular subject.

SCW: How big collectively is this group of Internet users?

Choo: Usage could double or triple every year for the next four to five years, and that could take 20% of your typical sales or more over the Internet. I believe the retailer, the designer, the architect and the developer have to address the overall layout of the shopping center to cater to that. What that means exactly, again, I don't know. The mix is going to be very important.

SCW: Do you think it's easier to buy hard-line goods, such as a tennis racket, over the Internet vs. soft-line goods?

Choo: Yes.

Porter: We've debated at the firm quite a bit as to what the real impact is going to be. I'm not sure I'm in the camp of saying it's going to be 20% to 30%. I don't know what it will be in the future. But even a tennis racket ... you want to go in there and swing it, feel the grip. Anything that youu buy short of books or music is pretty tough over the Internet.

Lawrence Beame: Pretty much every kid has got a computer now. Five-year-olds are comfortable getting on the Internet. By the time they get a little older, they are going to be very comfortable with ordering goods through the computer. At the same time, teenagers are going to the malls all the time for social interaction. They might sit at the computer after school for a couple of hours, but then they want something to do, and they get bored. Where do they go? They go to the mall, they go to the public spaces- and just on the chance of meeting other kids that they know.

Randolph Larsen: The Internet addresses the functional aspects of shopping, perhaps. But shopping is still a social experience. I don't think that will ever change.

Heller: My belief is that the Internet is going to become the preview of merchandise that is out there. You won't see the teenagers buying, but you will see the teenagers looking and viewing.

My wife loves the catalog. It never fails that she will get something out of an AnnTaylor catalog, for example, and she'll go back after she gets the merchandise and buy something else that's there or return what she got in the catalog. So I think it's going to be a catalyst for potentially more sales, not less.

SCW: Bob, does it break down along gender lines, where men are more apt to shop on the Internet than women?

Robert Tindall: Personally, I find the Internet very frustrating. It's way too slow and I hate all of the advertisements. If I have to click on one more ad to get into this wonderful, fast, streamlined system that they have done everything they can to bog it down, I think you are going to find some negative reactions. People are definitely wanting social interaction. They value quality more because their time is so pinched, and they have so many demands that they are really looking for quality entertainment.

It's interesting. I was thinking about the team around the table here, and I think this is a real fortunate team because we have been working with clients long enough that we kind of have the cream of the projects that are out there. And in the past, what gave retail the negative in the design industry was these kind of cookie-cutter slots of retailers. For awhile there, they were the only choices. Now, our challenge is to get the best retailers into the projects. It takes a quality project to attract good retailers. The problem that always happens in these cycles is now the really good, unique retailers to make projects special, all of us are trying to make them an everyday commodity in every project. So we have to be careful that if we try to make everything look and feel the same, the attractiveness of going from one project to another project will go away. I think that's a little bit what the Internet does.

SCW: David, is the Internet analogous to the home video in that when it debuted everyone thought that would sound the death knell for cinemas? Might the Internet play out a similar fate, where it's being much ballyhooed but in the final analysis it might not spell as much trouble?

David Parrish: The cinema industry has combatted (the home video) by creating a greater form of entertainment in terms of catering to the upscale customer, creating reservations, buying tickets in advance, having special seating, special foods for the upscale customer.

The whole explosion of computers and the Internet has really affected how we are designing buildings. People have become graphically hungry. They thirst for graphics, and graphics have become vis-a-vis the Internet a greater portion of how we design. That ties in to how we are doing renovations on some projects. Projects are easier to renovate because of the use of graphics and theming. It cuts down on cost. In other words, if you renovate a project with an emphasis on graphics, it will be less costly to renovate again when it's ready for another look in five years.

SCW: So you're saying the Internet is changing the expectations of what customers want in their centers?

Parrish: Internet shopping is going to grow, but it is never going to replace the face-to-face, social aspect of shopping, the touchy-feely part of visiting a mall.

SCW: David, could you describe theming graphically for our staff and readers?

Parrish: A lot of properties are in strategically optimum locations. But they are tired. They were done in the '60s, and they haven't been touched. They were in a mature market and they are a great property, but they are under-utilized. Let's say half of them are empty. You have to go in and let's call it "reinvent the property," give it new life, put in the tenants that make sense today in this property, give it a whole new graphic theming system.

We were asked by a client to visit a mall in Minnesota. He told us where the intersection was. We got there, we couldn't find the mall. There was no sign or element that told you, "I am here." So graphics is playing such an important part in retail. That is what I mean by re-theming.

You try and take elements that are indigenous to the area, but there are some areas that have no indigenous elements, they are sort of void of any icons that help generate or stimulate design. As architects, we try to find those elements because I think the public relates to the project better and will visit the project more. That's one aspect.

You may want to try and lift that project up to a higher level and inject some elements. There is one project we are doing where they wanted to have a New York feel. So you have to borrow an icon from a distant area, because we have to instill a New York feel. It is something that the client wants to do.

Jeffrey Gunning: I would add that I don't think you can draw a distinction between architecture and graphic design. I think that in the most successful projects, those all meld together. It's all one sort of interior theming that involves handrails, paving and signage and murals and a lot of different elements. If they come together and overlap, you have an integrated environment as opposed to the signs and the architecture.

SCW: Jeff, you've been active with ID8, the entertainment and thematic design division of RTKL. Most recently, you've been involved in the creation of the prototype racing theme of Malibu SpeedZone. What makes that particular concept work so well?

Gunning: That particular concept is a racing theme park that involves the next generation of the old go-cart park. It is heavily themed with billboard architecture, and (the parks) are always located on a major freeway. Right now there are locations in Atlanta, Dallas and Puente Hills, Calif.

The architecture is part of the graphic design that makes the building memorable and attention-getting from the highway. In that particular case, there is a car facade that forms one side of the building. That's one format that I think is going to expand, but that's sort of a stand-alone piece. It's actually been talked about as being plugged into a retail center.

There is probably a 50% success rate in some of the new entertainment formats that we see. That is just going to be continuing experimentation.

SCW: What are we learning about some of the new concepts being launched? Why have some struggled?

Gunning: There are concepts that are radically different, where you are bringing people into an entertainment environment to do an amusement activity that you really can't gauge what the demographic would be. Or it's aimed at a particular market that's too narrow of a demographic. If it's 17- to 22-year-olds, or 15- to 17-year-olds, you're just not going to get enough of those people in all day to make it successful.

Tindall: It's kind of like fashion. If you buy a shirt that's a really bold color, in three years you probably won't wear that shirt. But if you buy a white shirt, it's fine in three years. You are a little more conservative.

A lot of these tenants try to be really fashionable, and they are at some risk when they do that because it probably won't last, especially if they are in a very narrow age segment. There is a really tough balance, especially in the restaurant industry. There is such a drive to be unique that people are just trying things that are a little too far out there instead of good food, good environment and really strong service, within their individual price points. The ones that have figured that out will continually do well.

Gunning: I'd like to think there's a venue that is designed to be changed. For example, there's one format for which there is a script to follow for three years, then we're going to invent a different script. And there is some sort of architectural framework that allows that change to happen. I don't know if anybody has thought of it that way, yet.

SCW: Lawrence, renovation of centers is prevalent today. In some cases, are the occupancies so low that owners are willing to try any concept to generate traffic?

Beame: I guess you're talking about some of the centers that may not be in the best location. If that's the case, then maybe developers are more willing to take some risks.

SCW: In terms of renovation, what do you find to be the biggest challenge vs. building new?

Beame: To identify the market and to help the developer get the right tenant and the right concept for the renovation.

SCW: Any success story that speaks to what you have just said?

Beame: For the past four years, we've worked on a renovation for Streets of Mayfair, a primarily entertainment center in Coconut Grove, Fla. One developer bought it at a great price and put great tenants in like Planet Hollywood, Regal Cinema and Borders Books, doubled his money in two years and sold it. Another developer picked it up and got some other great tenants.

What we did was change the entire concept of the shopping center. It was a "fortress" that we talked about earlier. It had no contact with the streets at all. When it was originally designed, it was meant for South American customers who would each spend $15,000 on a couple of suits and leave.

Well, that business dried up; the center was pretty much empty. We turned it inside out so that the shopping center was now outwardly oriented . It became a lot more friendly, and over time shoppers started going to it and it became the place. It's very busy now, and the second developer doubled his money in two years as well.

SCW: Mr. Larsen, you are currently working on the construction documents phase of the Hollywood and Highland project for TrizecHahn. This project includes retail, hotel, underground parking for 3,000 cars, a rail station and a 3,400-seat theater, which will become the permanent home of the Academy Awards. What special challenges does this project present architecturally?

Larsen: It's a big project, as you described, in terms of its components. The architectural challenges are relating those components to one another and making all of the pieces fit - to have them function as a whole.

SCW: One final question before we wrap it up. David, if you were giving advice to a young person today trying to enter the architectural field, what would it be?

Parrish: We spend a good bit of our time trying to cultivate young people. We've got education committees internally looking out for that new intern. When you come out of school, you want to set the earth on fire. You want to design the $5 million or $10 million project, but instead you're delegated to doing toilet details. We try to get the best people out of school and set up mentoring programs to make them feel like they're important. By doing that, they obviously want to take the project all the way through, and we have to tell them they can't for various reasons. I think that's really changed in the industry. We have to cater to the young people vs. in my day, when you were ignored. That is helping the industry very much.

Gunning: The retail industry is just like doing healthcare or something else. There are a lot of hard and fast rules that need to be followed in order to make a project really work. The challenge is to be teaching these people the framework within which you make a successful retail project, but also encourage them to offer new ideas so that you can always be changing the way that your firm approaches the project. You are tapping into that fresh idea from people coming right out of school.

* Lawrence Beame, president, Beame Architectural Partnership, Coral Gables, Fla.

* Frank Choo, principal, PEG/PARK LLC, White Plains, N.Y.

* William Graves Sr., president, William Graves Inc. Architects, Dallas

* Jeffrey Gunning, vice president, RTKL Associates Inc., Dallas

* Everett Hatcher, executive vice president, CMH Architects Inc., Birmingham, Ala.

* James Heller, president, KA Inc. Architecture, Cleveland

* Randolph Larsen, partner, Altoon + Porter Architects, Los Angeles

* David Parrish, partner, Dorsky Hodgson + Partners Inc., Cleveland

* J. Thomas Porter, principal, Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates Inc., Atlanta

* Robert Tindall, principal and COO, Callison Architecture Inc., Seattle