From Bilbao to Brazil and from Dubai to Shanghai, American architects are reshaping the retail landscape — unrestricted by the design limitations imposed by developers in the United States.

Experts argue that many U.S. developers have lost their edge, and are more interested in dredging up historical motifs, such as Main Street urban centers, than creating bold new retailscapes. To be fair, sometimes architects get more leeway abroad because projects are ego-driven by a developer with unlimited funds who simply wants the biggest and the best, with no concerns about a realistic budget.

In other markets, such as Asia and Latin America, labor is cheaper, making dramatic architecture affordable. For a variety of reasons, it's truly becoming an international design world (see story on the globalization of retail, page 82). In fact, a number of U.S. architects won Retail Traffic's SADI awards, for Superior Achievement in Design and Imaging, for foreign projects (starting after page 128).

Factors that have contributed to the passion for innovation abroad include:

  • In Asia, higher density has resulted in fewer freestanding shopping centers, more vertical retail and multilevel mixed-use projects. Stores are smaller and taller than in the United States, averaging 60 feet to 90 feet deep, 25 feet wide and five to seven levels.

  • In Europe, retail developers have been influenced by Frank Gehry's free-form Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain — once a steel town and now an international design center. In many cases, architecture has become public art.

  • In wealthy countries in the Middle East, such as the United Arab Emirates, developers are aggressively competing to build the biggest, best and first of everything, mixing retail, hotels, office space and cultural facilities into grand complexes. Budget is not always a consideration.

Not that all overseas projects are brilliant and innovative and all U.S. projects dull. But architects say they are most inspired by retail outside the United States. “Our avant-garde work abroad influences what we do in the U.S.,” says Jay Valgora, design principal at New York-based WalkerGroup/CNI. Valgora designs large mixed-use retail, department, and specialty stores around the world. WalkerGroup is building stores for Esprit, an American brand bought by an Asian investor, and run in Germany. Yet more proof on how international the retail world is becoming. A new Esprit flagship store will open this fall on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

WalkerGroup's Max Ocio Commercial Center in Bilbao, a past SADI winner, consists of expressive forms reflecting retail and the local industrial zone vernacular. “European adaptive reuse of industrial sites reflects design risks that American developers won't take,” says Jeffrey Gunning, vice president and director of retail/entertainment at RTKL Associates in Dallas, which has built the bold Centro Commercial Berceo in Spain. “The “Bilbao-ization” of Europe indicates a respect for younger consumers who want to experience a place that makes a statement about their lives, not their grandparents'.”

Also unlike the prevalent “Disneyfication” of U.S. centers to reflect small towns of the past, the best Chinese architecture is a nod to the future. “Developers are more open to bold forms and modern architectural statements,” says Gunning. He offers RTKL's City Crossing in Shenzhen, China — a mixed-use office and residential complex of two towers with four stories of lower level retail — as an example. The Jerde Partnership's carved multi-leveled retail space out of a park as part of a mixed-use project in Osaka, Japan, is another.

In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which has a population 825,000 and deep reserves of oil money, the government wants to create a hospitality and entertainment mecca, a prime shopping and convention destination with beaches and resorts to attract consumers from Singapore to London. Billions of dollars are being spent to create and upgrade infrastructure.

Spare No Expense

Several projects are under construction or planned, but observers wonder how long this can be sustained. “In Dubai, designers can create exciting concepts, no matter how outlandish or impractical by U.S. standards,” says Mark Carter, principal, Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, Atlanta. “Architecture is the vehicle for transforming the desert into an oasis with icons, themed destinations, and fantasy environments of roller coasters, neon light shows, amusement parks, aquaria and extremes that don't exist in the region.”

This is an expensive proposition, and not always practical. The “build it and they will come” attitude characterizes many large retail projects overseas. Unlike in the United States, where developers think strategically, and act on clearly defined formulas and well-researched needs, some major projects abroad barrel ahead without the checks and balances found in the U.S. When a competing center opens first, for example, a client abroad may decide to change direction mid-stream or mid-construction, or even revisit the tenant mix, causing further costly changes and delays.

Lower labor and property costs overseas also impact design quality and quantity. In India, China, parts of Asia and the Middle East, lower wages enable developers to include more detail, such as intricate stone inlays and molding details.

With 12 percent to 15 percent lower labor costs in Dubai, a $50 million center would cost $62 million in the U.S. “Cheaper materials in Dubai afford bolder design statements, better finishes and workmanship,” says Carter. Real estate costs are eliminated, because Dubai's government owns all land, leading to unrestrained and aggressive development, without the hurdles and property costs encountered in American cities.

Dubai's Mall of the Emirates, developed by MAF Investments LLC, opening in September 2005, will be the first destination in the Middle East with shopping, entertainment and indoor skiing. As the biggest mall outside North America, the center will include over 350 shops, more than 2.4 million square feet of retail and entertainment, and the world's biggest indoor ski resort, using real snow, a regional first. The development combines contemporary design with traditional Arabic architecture, a series of arcades and a central galleria with a 12-story domed skylight.

Also in Dubai, The Gardens, designed by Callison Architecture, is a themed center that tells the story of Ibn Battuta, the Arabian World's 15th century version of Marco Polo. Several zones reflect regional design patterns, colors and textures, a draw for tenants and customers.

Asian cities, especially in China, represent opportunities for U.S. architects during the next five years, as retail demands outpace supply. Callison designed a center with a hypermarket, cineplex, skating rink, and entertainment in Harbin, China, a large port city about 400 miles from the Russian border. The design reflects a Russian influence.

Significant differences exist among Latin American countries, with different cultures and economic forces than in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. “Latin American clients don't have the experience to be afraid of taking risks,” says Olga Garcia, partner and senior vice president, Beame Architectural Partnership, Coral Gables, Fla. “They view exciting design as a positive element for communities and profitability,”

One example: In Santiago, Chile, Falabella, a major department store renovation and expansion designed by WalkerGroup, features dramatically protruding angled glass panes, frosted at the top and clear at the bottom. “We want to reflect the strong cultural, intellectual and artistic sensibility of the region, as well as the arresting beauty of Santiago,” says Valgora. The cutting edge design of Falabella would never fly stateside. “U.S. department stores are moribund. Retail developers don't get the message. They are too afraid to stand apart and don't understand their customers. We're too entrenched in bureaucracy.”