The regional mall has been declared dead more than once. Yet the format has proven to be surprisingly resilient during the Great Recession. Regional malls have performed better than some other formats and regional mall REITs as a group continue to post strong performances.

Owners are showing a high level of creativity when it comes to renovating old regional malls. Adding open-air components or other uses is a popular tactic today. But even renovations that rework interiors, such as what Westfield Group has done with many of its centers, are breathing new life into properties by updating aesthetics, rethinking features like mall food courts and common areas and flooding malls with more natural light.

And even though, few new enclosed centers are under construction — at least in the United States — the ones opening here and especially abroad are breaking new ground for the format.

The continued vitality of regional malls was hammered home to me at the judging of this year's Superior Achievement in Design & Imaging Awards, which took place in Chicago in early August. (The gallery of winners begins on p. 40.)

Only three projects were outright category winners this year, but all were enclosed centers or portions of regional malls. In addition, a fourth mall took home an honorable mention. In contrast, only one open-air center received any merits — a reversal of what we have seen in recent years.

The big winner this year was RTKL, which took home the Grand SADI for its Dolce Vita Tejo project in Lisbon, Portugal, which was also the winner in the New Enclosed Center category. In addition, RTKL was also the winner in the Renovated or Expanded Enclosed Center category for its Chadstone Shopping Centre renovation in Melbourne, Australia.

Dolce Via Tejo is truly groundbreaking. The entire project sits under a ethylene tetraflouroethylene roof that allows sunlight to pass through while keeping heat out. The roof dominates the center, but the design features a variety of uses. Retail zones are made clear through changing color schemes throughout the project. And overall it is a refreshing rendition of an enclosed center.

What judges noted repeatedly was that the open-air entries this year all seemed like things we've seen before. Creativity has been sapped from that format. Developers and architects have come to lean upon just a handful of models based on successful existing centers and stopped experimenting with aesthetics, materials and layouts.

But with regional malls — perhaps in part because the concept has been under fire for so long — there were fresh takes on the concept.

Moreover, it's no accident that three of the four enclosed centers that won awards were international projects. Developers abroad tend to veer from the established models more often than American ones. (Although it is also true that strenuous U.S. building codes limit what can be built.)

Still, the message is that there is room to experiment with regional malls. And the industry shouldn't stop playing with the open-air format either.