Talk to architecture firms that have worked on retail projects overseas, and they'll tell you opportunities abound, not only for design services, but also for management, suppliers and other businesses serving the retail industry.

Why? One architect describes the reasoning of foreign owners and developers in one terse phrase: Don't reinvent the wheel: Buy it from the Americans.

And buy design services they have. They're turning to U.S.-based firms for their ability to devise something that incorporates the latest retail thinking with fresh approaches about public space, planning and tenanting, as well as integrating entertainment.

“They haven't had a chance yet to live through the mistakes we've made. They come to us for creative solutions for their problems, rather than preconceived designs,” says Jay Valgora, design principal of WalkerGroup/CNI, whose firm is designing projects internationally. Roy Higgs, CEO of Development Design Group agrees. “Given the size of our market here, we've had more opportunities to make mistakes, hone our skills here at home, and figure out how to do it right.”

Here's a sampling of some recent projects American architecture firms have landed in foreign countries — China, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom.

History Resonates

How do you create a retail center that can compete with a gentle, graceful Medieval European city? You don't.

It's why the architect for the Tormes Center in Salamanca, Spain, chose to design a building that recalls elements of the city, rather than create something to compete with or ape the existing environment.

Salamanca, in central Spain's Castilla region, features densely built structures, narrow stone streets, two Medieval cathedrals, and is home to the University of Salamanca, one of Europe's oldest universities. The 280,000-sq.-ft. Tormes Center, designed by WalkerGroup/CNI, New York City, is situated just outside the city walls near the Tormes River.

The regional economy is strong, families are large, incomes are growing, and there's an emerging affluence. Yet retail options consist of in-town shops or hypermarkets (large discount centers). The question the developer, a joint venture between two Madrid companies, Promedeico S.A. and ING Iberica S.A., asked is “how do we create something as amusing as the local shops?”

Jay Valgora, design principal of WalkerGroup/CNI believes the mix of retail, entertainment, and dining in a dynamic public space, combined with compelling architecture with a distinct sense of place can work to attract visitors and keep them coming. Of critical importance is a design that recalls local cultural and architectural traditions in a fresh, interesting space.

The decision was to build something open and light and orient the two-story Tormes Center to the river and city views. “Our goal was to create a true destination that would give residents an inviting place to shop, eat, relax, and appreciate fantastic views of their city. We wanted to express Salamanca's physical beauty, intellectual heritage and rich artistry,” comments Mark Pucci, WalkerGroup/CNI's chairman and CEO.

What emerged is a design that includes two vertical glass towers, a series of terraces and gardens, steel and glass bridges, and three indoor courtyards. “A critical part of the developer's strategy was to create a real sense of place that referred back to the history and culture of the city. These glass boxes bring views of the town all the way into the center. When you're sitting in the dining area, you can look out through these giant glass windows and they perfectly frame views of downtown. They become fourth walls of the room,” comments Valgora.

The design team also used bridges, courtyards and poetry to tie the center to the existing city. Spanning the Tormes River is a series of bridges, one of which dates to Roman times and another designed by Gustave Eiffel. The Walker/CNI design used bridges as a symbol.

“We wanted to create a new bridge for the turn of century, and we designed glass and steel bridges that become the entrances,” says Valgora. Beyond their symbolism, the bridges also push shoppers up to the second level, making both retail floors equally reachable and important. “We tried to think of the center as a whole — tying it to local history, creating symbols, and helping the developer by increasing value through better tenant access,” he adds.

Interior courtyards, too, recall tiny, austere, stone courtyards found throughout the university. A modern interpretation of the courtyards — rendered in delicate glass at Tormes Center — becomes an amenity. It allows shoppers to wander outside and relax in little outdoor gardens, rather than being in a hermetically sealed building.

Poems (written by local poets about the Tormes River) etched in the courtyards' frosted glass are another element tying the center to local rituals. For hundreds of years, university graduates used red ink and a highly stylized script to inscribe their names in the school's walls.

“Layers of words can be seen hidden in the stone,” recalls Valgora. “It was very important to the developer to include these poems because a critical part of the strategy was to be a part of history and culture of the city. The etchings were a way to create local acceptance for the center and to connect with the university community — a major market for the center,” he adds.

Other amenities enticing locals are a children's playground and a series of second-floor terraces and gardens. Here people can dine al fresco and enjoy spectacular views of the cathedrals lit up at night.

The center is fully leased and includes upscale Spanish retailers like Zara and Mango, as well as a supermarket and a cinema. “Capturing the essence of a place — something reflective of the culture — leads to a center's success,” says Valgora.

Out of site, emerges retail mine

Who looks at a defunct 280-ft.-deep chalk quarry and envisions a mega-mall? It's exactly what Lend Lease Global, based in Australia, did when it saw the 240-acre site 22 miles southeast of London in Kent, United Kingdom.

Lend Lease brought together a giant team of designers, contractors, and consultants to transform the site into a 1.5 million-sq.-ft. center called Bluwater that integrates retail and leisure. It includes lush parks, bike paths and villages. It provides a destination where people can do what their European ancestors have done for centuries in urban plazas — spend the day roaming, relaxing, dining and people-watching.

Early in the project, the development team devised some phrases describing goals they wanted to achieve. They included: Redefine quality retail offer and surpass what others thought possible in terms of quality fashion; develop new retail/leisure experiences; fully integrate external and internal environments; develop a unique “Kent garden” architectural style; operate a host/guest approach; and create welcome halls and amenities.

The team didn't want to follow conventional retail models because the aim was a unique center providing a distinctive, unsurpassed experience to shoppers. “It was to be more like a giant cultural and civic space and less like a retail atmosphere,” comments Jim Ryan. His firm, JPRA Architects of Farmington Hills, Mich., worked with architect-of-record Eric Kuhne on Bluewater's design.

The idea was to scrap traditional thinking and create top flight design, construction, and customer service. Rather than a linear layout, what emerged was a triangular plan giving three anchor tenants — John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser — their own presence at the apexes of the triangle. Running perpendicular from the sides are three distinct themed villages — designed by JPRA — that spill into the landscape.

Each village — one devoted to fashion, another to entertainment/media, and the third to food — has a unique design evoking cultural aspects of the region and including lush landscaping, waterscapes, retailing, dining, entertainment, and views out to the quarry walls.

The West Village's Steeplechase Square, for instance, acts as Bluewater's public commons and draws on the traditions — market halls, live music, and outdoor cafes for example — of village squares found throughout the United Kingdom. The east village, designed with the family in mind, features a park-like atmosphere including a botanical garden dining room and an outdoor play area for kids. The third village is given over to entertainment — movies, a climbing wall and dining.

In all, Bluewater includes 325 stores, 57 international retailers and a physical package. Included is a lushly landscaped site with flower beds, lakes and 1 million trees and shrubs, all surrounded by dramatic 150-ft. chalk cliffs.

Bluewater aims to please everyone — children, teenagers, families, singles, and the elderly — and provides guest services normally found only at the most elegant hotels. For instance, welcome halls at each entrance are manned by staff that will perform an array of services, like making dinner reservations and holding packages.

In addition, to appeal to a broad array of shoppers, the developers incorporated the little extras, such as public art (sculptures and friezes), hosts trained in sign language and bottle warmers in baby changing areas. Another unique amenity is a “quiet room” where people can escape the hustle and bustle of the mall, pray if they wish, or even discuss personal problems confidentially with, as Bluewater's promo materials describe, a “caring listener.”

Sensory overload

South Africans wanting to give their senses a zing need only stroll through Johannesburg's newest retail center, The Zone@Rosebank. The 290,520-sq.-ft. facility, an urban entertainment center, is an exhilarating, eye-popping addition to an emerging neighborhood.

The site initially contained three aging buildings. Rents were low, vacancies high, and the buildings dreary. The plan involved demolishing some of the buildings, renovating some parts, and transforming an existing two-story Woolworths (a department store unconnected to the U.S. chain) into a single-level store and placing parking beneath it. The project also serves to better link and create relationships among other neighborhood retail buildings — Tyrwhitt Mall, Regents Place and Admirals' Court — through a series of pedestrian routes.

Like their counterparts in the United States, South African teens and young people wield a great deal of spending power, so it's no surprise The Zone@Rosebank's atmosphere and amenities appeal to a young generation. Among the thrills are bowling, pool, video games, and a 10-screen movie theater, as well as restaurants, cafes, and book and CD emporiums. In addition, there are trendy fashion, cosmetic, jewelry and shoe stores.

“Younger folks, irrespective of culture, are looking for places to hang out and have music, coffee, entertainment, bowling, cinemas and books,” comments Roy Higgs, CEO of Baltimore-based Development Design Group Inc., which designed the center, along with South African firm Louis Karol Architects. “It's not nuclear physics, but no one had ever packaged all these uses and put them together in a hip way anywhere in Johannesburg.”

Inside, the atmosphere is a tornado of light, sound, and color in a design that leaves virtually no surface untouched by something — advertisements, color and reflective metals — to dazzle the eye. Open trusswork, from which light fixtures, sound equipment and video monitors are hung, provides a studio-like appearance. Multi-colored wavelike neon forms on the ceiling create a sense of movement and that wave form is repeated in the floor design.

Huge columns supporting the second-level theater, rather than being hidden, are sheathed in stainless steel and fitted with twinkle lights. They act as dramatic design elements. In addition, a skylight at the apex of a cone-like roof introduces natural light. Unique floor tiles with a glittery finish give the floor a wild spin when sunlight moves across them.

The exterior — mostly gray and white — provides a neutral backdrop for graphic elements, advertising canopies and awning signs. In addition, at the corner of Oxford facing a six-lane street, sits an advertising tower that engages the center with the street. A variety of colored lighting provides some “wow’ and energizes the exterior at night.

Beyond the traditional measures of success, Higgs has anecdotal evidence the center is a hit. A local said to him, “I come from my office just around the corner, and when I visit the Zone, I feel like I'm not in South Africa anymore. It's like I've been taken somewhere else.”

“When you can achieve that — transport someone from their environment into yours — in shopping center development, you've won,” comments Higgs.

East Leaps West

Paul Makowicki, design principal for Callison Architecture Inc., Seattle, uses a cell phone analogy to explain why Chinese developers are looking at U.S. firms for design services.

Many developing countries decided against building land lines for phone systems in rural areas and instead chose to build cell phone towers. Rather than following a linear course — start at X with land lines and then leap to Y with cell phones — they've decided to leapfrog directly to Y.

“Developers are thinking along similar lines. We can bring expertise about where industry is in North America and bring knowledge and what is state-of-the-art at this point in a mature market,” comments Makowicki, whose firm designed the 1.1 million-sq.-ft. Grand Gateway, Shanghai.

The center is part of a mixed-use development that will entail two 52-story office towers and two residential towers. Because of Shanghai's fickle economy, the project was phased. The first residential tower is built and occupied and phase two is expected for a 2002 completion. Foundations for the office tower are in place. When the developer, Hang Lung Development Co. Ltd., feels the market is ready to absorb more office space, it can hire a contractor and start construction.

The project, situated in the Xuijahui neighborhood, is an area already known for its retail vitality, although the seven-story Grand Gateway is a departure from what residents are used to. Traditional retailing is based on a department store model, featuring spaces crowded with merchandise consisting of mainly local brands. “For shoppers to come to an environment with a large volume, soaring ceilings and more space is very different,” observes Makowicki.

The center features a rotunda with pedestrian walkways that continuously step back and afford new views of the center. “Our design cues came from the client's goal of wanting a contemporary retail environment, but something that felt comfortable to a Chinese user. There's a very fine line between being too referential to historical Chinese architecture and trying to distill the proportions, attitudes and materials in modern ways,” he says. The architect chose a universally appealing color theme. “We tried to stay away from American interpretations of Chinese colors. We avoided red, for example and developed a more universally appealing palette,” adds Makowicki.

The center is geared to a growing middle income demographic hankering for goods that represent a broader selection and a step above what is available at local stores. Grand Gateway features both local and well-known Hong Kong retailers in a mix offering fashion, home furnishings, electronics, dining, and entertainment.

One of the challenges was not only appealing to the existing market, but also looking forward to future tenant needs. Chinese retailers place more importance on broad frontage than on store depths, and prefer shallower spaces than their north American counterparts. As a result, Callison tried to design spaces pleasing to Chinese merchants, as well as include deeper stores for a future that may involve non-Asian tenants. “We tried to get a balance so our client, looking five or 10 years down road when the market matures and China enters the WTO, can provide appropriate space for international retailers,” comments Makowicki.

Another interesting aspect of the design was adhering to fire codes, which necessitated allowing fire truck access through the center of the complex. This was accomplished by putting in a wide “street” on the first floor. “It ended up being a tremendous pedestrian amenity. Makowicki says, “Fire trucks can get through, but on a daily basis it's an internal street lined with restaurants, planters, and seating.”

Occupancy is currently above 90%. “Even though it's different and new, it's become a civic landmark, with the grand entrance stairs being the place to meet friends in Shanghai,” Makowicki says.

Elyse Umlauf-Garneau is a Chicago-based writer.