Dorsky Hodgson + Partners has been a leader in retail design ever since William Dorsky founded the firm 38 years ago. Among its first commissions was the design of a shopping center for Melvin Simon & Associates, a top developer that in its current incarnation remains a client today.

"The whole philosophy of retail design has changed over the years and the Simon group has been at the forefront throughout, which has helped us remain at the forefront as well," says Dorsky. The architect admits he couldn't begin to guess the exact number of retail projects Dorsky Hodgson has designed, other than to assure that between malls, strips, lifestyle and mixed-use centers, the number is in the hundreds.

That total includes projects throughout the nation, though the largest concentration of work historically has been in the Midwest, the location of Dorsky Hodgson's Cleveland headquarters, and Florida, where it has had a Ft. Lauderdale office since 1970. However, last year the firm opened a third office in Washington, D.C., in response to significant commissions in the Mid-Atlantic States.

Changing times, growing demands Wherever the projects are located, Dorsky Hodgson's work is always characterized by sensitivity to the environment being created, according to partner Kevin Zak. "You have to address comfort, excitement and the opportunity for a variety of functions to take place to meet the needs of the shopper," he says.

As times have changed, the manner of addressing those issues has changed as well, with demands on the design team's talents and energies growing increasingly complex. As a result, the firm has added expertise in such fields as environmental graphics, interiors and streetscape ambience. "It's a more holistic approach," Zak explains. "We create the entire sense of what the project is going to look like when it's done, what it's going to feel like to be there."

Zak considers the emphasis on "experiential environments" as the impetus for the new trend in retail design. "It's not raw entertainment in the sense of going toa movie. People are looking for their complete experience to be visually entertaining. So it's important that we pay attention to every detail of the project's environment," he says.

A project of which Dorsky is particularly proud is the Waterside Shops at Pelican Bay in Naples, Fla., which has won several design awards, including a SADI award from SCW. "We created a series of unusual vistas at strategic points in the center. Together with creative landscaping, we made a unique environment that people seem to love," Dorsky says. Indeed, with lagoons woven throughout the project, many elements seem to be floating on water.

But in today's competitive retail environment, looking good is, by itself, not sufficient. The architect must create an environment that works for the retailer. Consequently, Dorsky says, the designer must have expertise in marketing, merchandising, demographics and other facets of modern retailing. Good designers must understand what it takes to sell products, he emphasizes.

Working with local communities As if these added tasks weren't enough, Dorsky Hodgson's principals have also had to learn the art of shepherding a project through the often competing demands of government agencies and community organizations. Where in the past communities gave a project developer pretty much free hand in the design and layout of a shopping center, today, says Zak, someone is there looking over the designer's shoulder all the time.

"With every project, we work closely with the developer and the city to create an image they both like and produce an experience both sides are happy with," he observes. "Our role has changed dramatically. In many cases we act as a liaison between the developer and the city to work through all the issues."

According to both architects, cities today put more responsibility on retail projects, expecting them to serve as catalysts for social and cultural changes. "Many developments today are part of a larger plan," says Zak. "Communities are looking at how a whole area develops."

Zak and Dorsky point to two shopping centers the firm worked on as good examples of projects intended to achieve larger social ends. The first is the Shops at Church Square, a 110,000 sq.ft. center in Cleveland regarded as the linchpin for redevelopment of a decaying commercial area in the lower-income Fairfax neighborhood. Since the center opened in 1993, the area has undergone a significant revival, with a number of other commercial and residential projects following in the center's wake, just as the city envisioned when it encouraged the project.

"We tried to design something that was unique to the neighborhood," Dorsky recounts. "It was an area with a number of old churches, and we used those as the design theme, repeating forms from the various churches in the architecture of the project. The idea was that the community would see it as a source of pride and encouragement."

A more recent example is Winter Park Village in Orlando. In that case, both the city and the developer, the Don M. Casto Organization of Columbus, Ohio, wanted to see an existing mall replaced with a Main Street project.

The hope was to revive both the site and the surrounding commercial district. "It's basically just a return to the more intimate-scaled environment that many people remember from an earlier era," says Dorsky. "But it seems to speak to people in ways older malls didn't."

Creating a rich experience The two architects support the Main Street movement, though Dorsky stresses it isn't appropriate in every case. Nonetheless, certain elements of more traditional ways of building retail districts almost always have a place, says Zak.

"One of the trends you see today is to create a varied shopping experience. You can't have this homogeneous or utilitarian theme across a whole project. There's something appealing about the lack of consistency in shopping areas that developed over time. It's more enjoyable, so I think with every project today you're going to try to create a space that doesn't feel too uniform and rigid," he says.

The way the architects achieve variety, explains David Parrish, another partner in the firm, is partly through a creative use of texture, color, style and building materials and partly through spatial differentiation. Pointing to Miromar Factory Outlets, a 550,000 sq.ft. project in Fort Myers, Fla., that was developed by Miromar Development of Montreal, he describes a sequence of spaces broken by individual courts with sculptural water fountains. "Each fountain is unique," he says, "and each one is an activity node defined by the individual fountain."

Dorsky Hodgson + Partners strives for variety in many recent designs for projects located in urban environments in Florida, the Washington D.C. metro area and in the Boston area. The mixed-use projects contain an exciting mix of high-rise apartments along with retail, hotel and office components. Each project takes on its own distinct ambience and personality - creating separate and distinct neighborhoods with dynamic diversity of styles, shapes and textures.

The bottom line: integrity The architects emphasize that budget need not be the defining element. They note that both Church Square and Winter Park Village had tight budget constraints, yet they were able to provide quality architectural design.

"Winter Park has been a huge success for the developer," declares Parrish. "It was a very tight budget and still we were able to come up with a spectacular project."

Though Dorsky says it is sobering to come up against tight economic constraints, doing so can actually spur greater creativity. "The challenging and exciting thing is to be able to do the most creative work with the least amount of money. The ability to be creative while maintaining a sensitivity to budget constraints is the mark of a good architect."

Dorsky and Zak doubt the trend toward Main Street and mixed-use projects will end anytime soon. "It's a major part of urban development and of the redevelopment of older suburbs," Dorsky says.

Which is no problem for Dorsky Hodgson. "Retail design now incorporates so many of the allied arts. It's a lot more fun than it used to be," Dorsky notes. "The new retail design approach is increasingly challenging, but the process itself is much more stimulating and as a result, far more gratifying. The result is we're designing exciting places, not just structures."