Tokyo's Lalaport brings movement to a static neighborhood.

What can an American design team contribute to one of the most successful retail projects in one of the world's largest cities?

A lot, it turns out.

RTKL of Dallas and Tokyo recently brought a new spark to the award-winning Lalaport Shopping Center on the outskirts of Tokyo. The firm paid more attention to shopper traffic, added more entertainment, and helped attract a new breed of patron by bringing bright colors to an otherwise dull neighborhood.

Lalaport is near one of Japan's cultural icons - Tokyo Disneyland. And while the Japanese abode of Mickey Mouse continues to be one of Tokyo's major tourist attractions, the new RTKL-designed addition to Lalaport has also become a magnet for the masses.

"For three weeks last spring, more people came to the Lalaport Shopping Center than went to Disneyland," explains Ron LaVoie, managing director of RTKL's Tokyo office. "Everyone wanted to come to the Lalaport Shopping Center to see the new contemporary fashion/lifestyle mall and restaurant."

It's easy to see why. The architects and designers have created a new, three-level, 350,000-sq.-ft. mall of specialty retailers and a 350-seat, eight-tenant food court, along with a separate three-story restaurant building to accommodate 18 dine-in restaurants. Lalaport now has 410 specialty stores, plus a 10-screen cinema and a two-screen drive-in theater - to say nothing of an outdoor sports complex.

But it's the RTKL-designed fashion/lifestyle component - a contemporary structure with a vaulted skylight over the entire length and a three-story atrium running into the mall - that has attracted the most excitement.

Dazzling design RTKL designers say the component was specifically designed to overcome the restrictive nature of the site, adding that a sweeping curved wall along one side adds to the spaciousness of the interior. Opposite the curved portion is a straight side featuring triangular wedges that angle out into the space, creating niches for restaurants and views down into the mall below.

Already, the addition has drawn praise from shoppers and others, says Namio Seo, editor of Shotenkenchiku, the leading monthly magazine of commercial and interior design in Japan.

"I like the new addition design because, more than the other Japanese shopping centers, it is simple and elegant," he says. "The glass skylight is covered with white patterns, and when the sun shines, the shadow of a pattern falls on the floor. It's very stylish. It is also very good for the shopper. The food court has famous restaurants known for their good food and economical prices."

RTKL used bright colors such as yellows, greens and purples in its design of the addition, he adds. "Japanese residential and office buildings usually use pale, earthy tones. But bright, primary colors make for an exciting and entertaining experience."

A significant change Exciting wasn't a word often used to describe the Lalaport retail facility. For years, the center, located in Minami Funabashi about 50 miles east of Tokyo, was one of the biggest shopping malls in the Land of the Rising Sun. The 1.9 million-sq.-ft. mall was located in a neighborhood where middle-to-upper income households were the rule, not the exception.

Owned by Lalaport Co. Ltd., a division of Tokyo based real estate giant Mitsui Fudosan, the center attracted 22 million visitors a year. Originally built in 1981, the center was one of Japan's most successful retail projects, and over the years Lalaport Co. had upgraded the center by adding popular Japanese department stores such as Daiei and Sogo. But in the Internet age, the owners felt the center needed a new spark.

Enter the RTKL design team, which included Mark Lauterbach, lead designer for Lalaport and vice president at RTKL's Dallas office; Michi Yamaguchi, associate vice president and project manager in Dallas; and Shin Tsukahara, project manager in Tokyo. Fujita Corp. in Tokyo was the local architect.

At first the design team was surprised by the vibrancy of the Japanese retail scene. "Tokyo is unlike any other city I've been to. It's exciting. The shopping is a high art, and good functional design is highly prized," Lauterbach says. "We first sought to determine what the owners wanted, and learned it was an American-designed project. They didn't want us to build another Japanese shopping center, but wanted us to do something fresh and new with an American viewpoint."

Design challenges Lalaport presented a number of design challenges. For one thing, the site was restricted. The outlets that occupied the land allocated for the three level expansion had to be relocated. The restaurant building, Harbor Grill, was then designed to accommodate existing restaurants. The structure was built to face onto Harbor Dori, an existing exterior promenade similar in style to Universal City Walk in Southern California.

Next, the team studied traffic flow. "The center was done over a series of phases and later construction contributed to a loss of the integrity of the circulation," says Lauterbach. "The flow was in a sort of dumbbell-shaped scheme. We decided to complete another `L' shaped addition, so that the flow went from a straight shot into a sort of racetrack - a complete or continuous loop that crosses around inside and outside, almost like an elongated donut."

Outside, the RTKL staff sought to create the feeling of a big outdoor thoroughfare, like a new town, not simply a Main Street. "We wanted to create a kind of colorful mix of buildings in the modern, new town, so we used bright, bold forms and colors," says Lauterbach. "We wanted lots of activities. We wanted to make the outdoor street feel lively."

Harbor Grill was designed to be bright, colorful and animated, allowing all restaurants' entrances to face into the promenade. "We discovered Japan had very sophisticated tenants, much more advanced than in the U.S., particularly when it came to store design, lighting, and so forth," adds Lauterbach. "The stores are much more modern and pristine - minimalistic, but with a good sense of feeling about color and use of materials. They are just more progressive and I haven't seen that anywhere here, except for perhaps New York."

Maintaining an exciting retail design was paramount, the team felt, for one major reason: The main customers at Lalaport's new addition are Generation Y and Generation X. But the main customers at Lalaport's second phase are Generation X, notes Seo. "The first phase of Lalaport, which opened in 1981, attracts baby boomers. So with its new addition, Lalaport is seeking to attract a younger generation of shopper."

Different country, different challenges RTKL also faced another challenge over how shoppers arrived at the mall. In the U.S., patrons drive automobiles. In Tokyo, they board the train. "A huge amount of people use trains, so a huge train station feeds into Lalaport," says Lauterbach. "We had to landscape the promenade and start signing the project early to alert people coming from the train stop. We decided to use bright colors - green, yellow, metallic gold, purple, and red - that stand out. We also wanted to make a connection with the ocean outside, and have a sort of `Surf City' feeling outside."

RTKL also had to work with a strict fire code using fire shutters that drop down at the first hint of a problem. "In the U. S., we've got fire codes with sprinklers and exit ways. But in Japan, they like to contain a fire, and thus designers must break the building into a series of smaller buildings. If a fire breaks out, the shutters will section off that part of the building so that the fire can be put out. Every so many feet, you have to design these fire shutters. We had to create openings where big metal grills come down and we also had to hide them. It was an interesting challenge."

According to Lalaport Co., RTKL successfully met those challenges. Lauterbach also has some advice for other who would undertake a project elsewhere in the world: Just do it.

"Approach it like any other project, with an understanding of different cultures and people, of course. But then approach it the way you'd approach any other project," he says. "If you are in Japan or Europe, don't try to be Japanese or European and come up with a Japanese or European design. If a Japanese company had wanted a Japanese center, they wouldn't have come to us. Do what you think is right."