Architects John Field and David Paoli didn't know it at the time, but the solution they proposed to remaking the 1950s-vintage Stanford Shopping Center at Palo Alto, Calif., in 1974 would become their professional signature.

Why not, they reckoned, leave the mall unenclosed? Why shut out the sky and natural light and circulate mechanically chilled or warmed air, just because all the shopping center developers were doing so?

After all, they reasoned, people would prefer to luxuriate outdoors in the temperate climate, amid European-style cafes, lush gardens and intriguing sculpture in interconnecting courtyards, with the San Francisco Bay Area Peninsula as a backdrop.

While that solution seemed sensible to them, it was heresy to an East Coast shopping center consultant who warned the Stanford University owners to enclose the mall or fail to attract traffic-building retailers.

"It was thought to be an unusual solution and perhaps we didn't know better because we hadn't done retail before. But we approached it based on some good shopping streets in cities we love, like San Francisco," says Paoli.

Paoli and Field stuck to their architectural guns and won the university over. As it turns out, they were right. The center has been successful and continues to grow. Last fall, a 1,500-car parking structure was added, with more to come on the 72-acre site.

The Stanford center remains unenclosed. Its total 1.2 million sq. ft. space is 99% leased to four major department stores, 140 stores, restaurants and services, which rack up an average income of $475 per sq. ft.

That project was the pad from which Field Paoli Architects - established in 1986, capping a professional association as partners in another San Francisco architectural firm since 1967 - was to launch itself into a successful West Coast niche practice specializing in creative new ways of interpreting downtown infill, shopping center and retail design.

Most of the 25-person firm's work is in the $10 million to $15 million, 200,000 sq. ft. range, virtually all of it in the open, landscaped village-street format they pioneered with the Stanford mall.

"Shops have a strong identity in store-front expressions," says Paoli. "We can renovate a shopping center, but it is more of a backdrop. We want the identities of mall tenants to be more prominent, to be expressed in unique signage. Retailers in some of our projects are encouraged to project their store fronts into the malls in a variety of interesting and creative ways."

Resuscitating malls Often the firm is called in to bring dying malls back to productive retail life. John Field recalls, for example, the mid-1980s resurrection of Corte Madera Town Center in Marin County, across from the Golden Gate Bridge. It was an odd couple of back-to-back stuccoed strip centers with a combined 220,000 sq. ft. fronting on a highway.

Field Paoli renovated and expanded it into what became a successful, 376,000 sq. ft. mall with 75 stores, 1,700 parking spaces and a five-story office building, at a cost of $58 million.

"There were so many buildings plopped on the 27-acre site we were able to create a renovated little town with 80,000 sq. ft. of office space," Field says.

Constraints can sometimes be imposed on the historic character of a downtown neighborhood by militant local sensitivity. For example, Paseo Nuevo ( shown on page 80) is a redevelopment of two downtown Santa Barbara, Calif., city blocks with landscaped public spaces and mid-block pedestrian circulation. Field Paoli had two existing department store anchors to work with and meshed 150,000 sq. ft. of new retail space with an arts center/performing arts theater and exhibition space on the second level into the project.

The materials and styling were non-negotiable white stucco walls, red tile roofs, tile paving and Spanish neocolonial detailing, consistent with the look of the neighborhood. "It took about five years to complete," notes Field.

Why so long? "If you've never done a project in Santa Barbara, you wouldn't understand. We had meetings every two weeks for nearly three years to go over every single detail. Santa Barbara has a municipal law that says [development] has to be done in a Spanish style."

From Cadillacs to entertainment The firm had a much freer hand in an adaptive reuse of 1000 Van Ness Avenue - a national landmark built in 1921 as a Cadillac automobile showroom/service/storage building on a busy downtown San Francisco boulevard.

Field Paoli restored and transformed the 512,000 sq. ft. vacant relic into what could be called a lifestyle/entertainment building. They added 3,050 seats in 14 multiplex cinemas and a 425-car below grade parking on an adjoining lot.

"We like to think we're influencing the trend to strengthen existing shopping districts with urban infill projects, that we're moving the design agenda ahead by working with clients who have the same forward-thinking interest," Paoli says.

The firm is busily pursuing that design agenda on downtown retail projects designed to blend in with existing retail and business environments. Among them:

* A 334,000 sq. ft., 1,507-car mixed-use center with retail, restaurants and cinemas in downtown Pleasant Hill near San Francisco. A residential component will include 76 two-story two and three-bedroom townhouses with parking on the 27-acre site.

Paoli says the town had strip retail but no downtown focus, despite its significant growth. "We've designed a curved retail shopping street with a variety of architectural styles and materials, and a series of public spaces connecting to a new city hall designed by Charles Moore," he says. Retailers are moving in; the center will be fully open before the end of the year.

* Two retail levels (up to 10,000 sq. ft.) and rooftop terraced offices on a municipal-owned parking lot in the Beverly Hills central business district - a block from Rodeo Drive. It will continue as a parking lot, with underground spaces for about 400 cars, and the city will own and operate the whole project.

"The Beverly Hills council wants the project and its strong retail tenants to bring people to the area, and at the same time preserve its unique character," says Paoli. The council hopes some of the Rodeo Drive universe of shoppers might stray into the city-owned complex.

* Construction is expected to start next year on The Woodlands Promenade on the Waterway, a 200,000 sq. ft. open-air village designed by Field Paoli with specialty retail, office, cinema, restaurants and promenades, in the Woodlands master-planned community near Houston, says Rob Acker, a development director with Madison Marquette, the developer.

Field Paoli doesn't overlook the universal craving among developer/owners to wring value out of every penny spent on construction. "We try to economize on what people don't see and spend money on what they do see, touch and feel," explains Paoli.

Field says he would like to see the industry trend toward revitalizing downtowns accelerated, with more density and mixed use, where a small shopping area becomes a neighborhood, with housing, shops, offices and parking.

"The growth in California is enormous," says Field. "We'll have to look at building two stories, even four and five stories, which would still have the feeling of a San Francisco neighborhood and still be outdoors."