Retail architecture and design are changing with the times, responding to greater economic and competitive pressures.

Architects and design specialists are pressed to come up with flexible designs that can offer a new look - on deadline and under budget - with an eye to the role of entertainment and education in retail settings.

Some new retail spaces are almost virtual, relying on special effects, lean inventories and e-commerce. They may be located in functional, high-traffic settings such as public transportation stations. Other retail is moving into renovated historic buildings in older urban settings.

"We have noticed several trends emerging in retail architecture," says Dennis Thompson, AIA, vice president in the Denver office of Durrant, an architecture, engineering and construction management company.

"Stores are becoming simplified. It's the merchandise that is changing," Thompson says. "Whereas themes still evoke feelings, image-based design evokes a sense of belonging. Many stores cater to specific clientele with specific needs and specific demographics."

Thompson says one of the trends most affecting retail architects is that today's prototype design shelf life has gone from between five and eight years to between two and four years in response to new merchandise and display techniques.

Gift boxing Taking big-box shopping and packaging it for the space and retail mix restrictions of dense urban areas is a challenge. The pressure may be heightened by a setting in an upscale, populous area in the midst of a growth spurt.

How do you create interesting, pleasing facades on what are traditionally big-box stores with few or no windows? How do you address ingress/egress and facilitate parking for customers who may be shopping for groceries, looking for clothing or household items, buying office supplies or checking out sports equipment? How do you fit into a setting in which your neighbors include a mall with several high-line retailers, Class A office space, desirable apartments and condos and an address-to-die-for on Peachtree Road in Buckhead?

A firm of Atlanta-based architects tackled the issues and answered the questions with its Lenox MarketPlace. "This wouldn't work in most locations," admits Roman Stankus, AIA, Ozell Stankus Associates. "The tenant mix in this urban power center was an interesting process. The owners wanted quality tenants."

Joining Target and Publix, a popular grocery store chain, were sporting goods retailer Galyans and office supplies specialist Staples.

Ozell Stankus was determined to make the exterior of the complex as attractive as possible. It specified a warm palette of brick and synthetic stone accented with steel details for highly articulated facades. Wherever possible, it stipulated tall, floor-to-floor glass windows to provide the retailers with high visibility to pedestrians and to bring natural light and a sense of airiness into big-box retail that frequently is windowless.

The four-level parking structure that serves as the hole in this angular doughnut links thefour retail buildings. Entrance ramps to the structure are easily visible from the street.

The basement level of the structure is the service area, thus keeping delivery vehicles, storage and trash removal away from customers. Pedestrians out on Peachtree and the other surrounding streets will have no trouble finding their way into stores, Stankus says.

With a reputation in the industry for high standards for its stores and a willingness to get involved in new designs, Target at Lenox MarketPlace occupies two levels. A shopping cart transporter carries customers' purchases up and down as they move between the levels on escalators.

"We learned a tremendous amount doing this project," Stankus says. "It represents a trend for suburban retailers trying to find urban locations. They may find they have to go vertical.

Personality twist Architects are moving away from mass-produced malls with plain vanilla, interchangeable facades to shopping centers with personality.

Pavlik Design Team in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recently completed some updates at Simon Properties' Palm Beach Mall in West Palm Beach, Fla., changing it from a look-alike center to a look-again destination.

Pavlik creative director Sherif Ayad says before its makeover, one could drive around the Palm Beach Mall several times without spotting an entrance.

Pavlik gave the center direction and personality by providing palm-designed towers at all entrances. Now customers can find their way in more quickly to shop, and with the palm tree references, they won't have to wonder whether they're in Minnesota instead of Florida.

"We are creating environments that take on the theme of their regions - they are in the vernacular," Ayad says. "These days people can choose where they live and they are proud of their home areas."

People like to see that reflected in the environs where they work, play and shop, he said.

"Designs like the seaside look we gave the Palm Beach Mall tell you something about the region," he says. "We were able, on a budget, to provide a casual, informal, yet bright and fresh look to this mall, which had been losing some of its high demographics customer base to newer regional malls."

Another trend, says Ayad, is a move toward shopping environments that are fun and vibrant, rather than grand and formal.

"We used to try to give a mall a formal feel because it was thought people would spend more in a polished environment," he says.

Centers designed for younger buyers are adding "fun, fast and energetic" to their vocabularies and palettes.

"You can see it in geometric floor patterns, whimsical light fixtures and the use of interesting materials - not just tile and marble, for example," Ayad says. "Wood now may be stained different colors, and metals may incorporate swirly patterns. Glass might be rippled or textured instead of smooth."

Let the designer beware Shopping center installations are not short-term, Ayad warns. As much as one might want to follow the trends, it must be remembered that updating each time the winds of fashion change direction is impractical and expensive.

"When we apply new materials, they usually are in places where these features are easily interchangeable," Ayad says.

Updating a 20-year-old mall built with long-lasting materials like marble floors is a challenge for everyone. Pavlik's work at the Palm Beach Mall included replacing two-tone floors in major intersections while leaving major monotone areas intact.

In Baltimore, Design Collective has completed the turn-arounds of buildings designated "historic" and located in strategic areas.

On the inner harbor, the Power Plant had retired in the 1970s from its job of supplying electricity to the city. The following decade, the Six Flags amusement enterprise attempted to revitalize the old building into something less than a full-scale rides park. This second life for the power plant was a short one.

Urban entertainment centers aren't always the answer for urban development/redevelopment. Design Collective found a more sophisticated mix of tenants provided a bettersolution. Including big names like Hard Rock Cafe, Barnes and Noble and ESPN Sports Zone didn't hurt either.

"We felt that good, reliable tenants and solid uses for the space was the solution," says Shari McLane, principal at Design Collective. "Retail shares the building with high-profile offices and a downtown gym. Arthur Andersen moved in, a private developer moved in."

The plant has gone from what McLane terms "outrageous no-use to outrageous use to a practical, common-sense approach."

Another Baltimore icon, its historic if incongruous American Can factory, also needed a chance at a new life.

"These buildings date from the late 1800s to well into the 1900s," McLane explains. Architecturally, they collided with one another. Design Collective found design elements to tie them together and an interesting mix of tenants to occupy them.

"The construction involved significant demolition, the recreation of all new circulation and interior space, the insertion of a new structural system and complete removal and replacement of the mechanical and electrical system," McLane says.

Current occupants run the gamut from DAP, a manufacturer of construction adhesives, to the chic Austin Grill and Atlantic restaurant. Another enterprise, a government-funded incubator for start-up technology companies, is likely to bring in a steady stream of young, upward-bound professionals.

Gr8, a marketing communications firm now headquartered in the former American Can factory, is thriving in a workplace that "pulses with raw energy of the existing structural columns, exposed ductwork and expansive glass," says McLane. Everything old is new again.

Future speak The age of electronics is impacting retail architecture in ways few but science fiction writers might have imagined only a couple of decades ago.

JGA, a real, not a virtual, architecture and design firm in Southfield, Mich., is immersed in the future. JGA has been working with Dickson Concepts and MTR Corp. to create a bricks-and-clicks retail experience at a major public transportation station in Hong Kong.

This "intelligent retail center" will be operated as Dickson CyberExpress. Slated to open later this year at the Kowloon Station, the 70,000 sq. ft. center will be complemented by a cybermall, DicksonCyberExpress.com.

According to Dickson, combining a physical retail area with a cybermall enables consumers to enjoy the fun of physical shopping and efficiency of cybershopping.

"The future of stores will not be about what they 'look like,' but how stores 'act' and what they 'do,'" says JGA Inc. chairman Kenneth Nisch.

"Multi-tasking, media layering, instant access and a global supply network, coupled with consumers who increasingly see themselves in terms of 'globalgraphics' instead of demographics, will change tomorrow's stores," Nisch says.

Stores may become points for communication and distribution, for fabrication and customization, workshops and resource centers for consumers who eschew cookie-cutter goods or the brands that dominate today's retail marketplace, he says.

"Architecture must serve an atmosphere," says Nisch. "In the cybermall we are building sets. It will be like walking into a movie."

The traditional shopping areas of the mall will be packaged in eight themed zones, from electronics and athletic equipment to fashions, toys, cosmetics and confections.

This physical aspect of the Kowloon Station enterprise will be complemented by a cybermall, DicksonCyberExpress.com, an online mall that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Merchants in six major product categories will offer delivery services or pick-up service at the station.

Small retail burgeoning Durrant's Thompson says a booming economy is prompting more start-up businesses. Many of these newcomers are experienced retailers from large operations whose own new enterprises are focusing on the desires of customers to have something greater than a traditional retail experience.

"Customers today are looking for rich images and rich experiences," says Thompson. "They want shopping to be more thanthe act of purchasing goods they need or want. Clients want to respond to this desire."

La Pointe's, a Durrant client, is an exclusive boutique offering its Greenwood Village, Colo., clientele plenty of personal attention in a carefully constructed setting.

The entrepreneur-owner was seeking a space that accomplished a number of objectives, says Durrant's Keri Hulen, Denver marketing coordinator. It was designed to be open and have an air of classic style that provided an intimate and inviting backdrop for high fashion.

"We also gave the boutique space for individual consultations with clients and room for caterers to set up elegant repasts," Hulen says.

The owner wanted a place where she could give special attention to clients who wanted to purchase entire new wardrobes.

To promote this, Durrant provided a setting that would be adaptable on a per-client basis. Clothing racks are few. Models wear items of interest to the client, and the furniture is comforting and welcoming.

The design incorporates mirrors to give space and a sense of drama; lighting is soft but focused; beautifully upholstered chairs, chaises and sofas add luxury; and splashes of bright color add interest.

Museum 'please-touch' areas Durrant is involved with the Quaint Dunn Bros. Coffee House in the Milwaukee Depot Railroad Freight Office in Minneapolis and the Broviak & Co. Gourmet Food and Wine Shop. Other Durrant projects include helping retail clients with a new entertainment element at the Mall of America and a satellite retail store for the Milwaukee Museum of Art.

JGA recently completed an 11,000 sq. ft. shop for the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West in New York.

The company's objective was to create a "shop of the world" reflecting the character of the museum and immersing visitors in what JGA calls an "experiential" space where customers can explore the shop the way they explore the exhibits.

The store features two shopping levels plus a book-filled mezzanine. It has a canyon-like feel with a three-story rock wall, an actual cast made at a site in Washington state where basalt columns line the canyons of the Columbia River Gorge. Six fossil casts of pterosaurs soar over the stairways. Stark entrance foyers can be transformed to display features of changing museum exhibits.

An organic jewelry loop flexes and insinuates its way through the center of the second level. A bronze staircase railing cast from astegosaur's backbone will be added soon.

"Visitors are drawn through an environment appearing to be a cavernous formation of nature," says JGA's Nisch. "It is experiential, but never thematic."

"The shopping experience is something that has been an enjoyable part of people's lives probably since the first bartering activities took place," says Durrant's Thompson.

In order for retailers to compete effectively with catalog and e-commerce opportunities, they must respond aggressively with an emphasis on quality of experience and access to a range of products and activities.

"The design response must be to push the envelope on convenience, opportunity for customer service and experiential richness, now more than ever," he says.

Entertainment is an integral part of the future of retail design, according to Lucinda Ludwig, senior vice president in charge of architecture for Design Forum, Dayton, Ohio.

All retail has to have an excitement factor, she says. While it is easy to pinpoint that factor in a shop such as The Disney Store, there are retail environments where the entertainment is less obvious.

"Design Forum's approach is to create a consistent brand image across a whole range of facilities from traditional retail to Internet shopping sites," Ludwig says.

Gander Mountain With outdoor sports chain Gander Mountain, Design Forum sought to develop a retail personality appropriate for its hunting, fishing and camping customers. An emphasis on creating strong brand promotion and inviting settings resulted in a environment that appeals to the customer's senses.

For instance, customers may detect a distinctive woodsy cedar aroma or hear chirping crickets, rushing brooks or other natural sounds throughout the space. Customer interaction can be seen with the video monitor kiosks which provide timely local fishing tips, hunting advisories and other pertinent information.

The scope of the project was comprehensive, ranging from the creation of the corporate identity and conceptual design of the retail environment to administration, implementation and rollout.

PGA Tour Another example of customer engagement in a retail environment is the PGA Tour store. The Tour partnered with Design Forum to create a 31,000 sq. ft. store. Positioned to realistically parallel a stop on the Tour, the store is interactive, educational and entertaining.

The design emulates an outdoor feel, featuring an enormous rotunda with an authentic putting green accompanied by bridges, rocks and a babbling brook. The color palette uses lighter woods and high-tech finishes: including brushed aluminum and a articulated tile flooring design that resembles a golf course cart path.

Framing the putting green, giant towers featuring full-color image graphics hold merchandise. Open escalators flank the towers, enabling customers passing through to view the entire store on their way to the second level, where vendor shops and an outdoor driving range are located. Banks of TV monitors show current golf tournaments, the Golf Channel and shoppers testing their skills on the driving range.