What is a lifestyle center?

Despite the retail industry's almost single-minded focus on open-air formats, the number of projects built and the never-ending seminars on the topic, we still don't have a definitive answer. Everyone seems to believe that regardless of its many variations, this latest trend is a response to “what the customer wants.” Knowing that today's shopper is clearly frustrated and bored with the homogenous “mall” experience, the lifestyle center is presented as the answer — a new shopping experience with greater convenience, authenticity and a sense of place.

But what is it, architecturally speaking, that really makes this a new experience? Aside from the obvious missing roof and more diversity in the tenant mix, have we really let go of the mall formula?

If you look at the current love affair with “Main Street” projects, there is clearly a belief that there is new magic in the street. Unlike the false interior streets of the old mall, these are touted as “real” streets with cars and parking, “just like an old downtown!” A closer look, however, reveals that most of these new streets ring false. Like their interior predecessors, they float in a sea of parking, and are predominantly straight spines that dead-end into anchor stores: the old dumbbell mall plan. Rather than streets, linear parking fields would be a more accurate term to describe their role. It's the convenience of parking at the door that is significant.

Street Smart

So, is it the street that's really the essential ingredient to a lifestyle center?

In one of the earlier Main Street seminars I attended, the visiting expert made the point of instructing all architects in the audience that the buildings were simply “street furniture;” it was all about the street not the buildings! If that is true then are we to believe that all the customer is really wanting is the convenience of parking along fake streets?

What about authenticity and sense of place? I believe these traits are at the core of what the customer has been missing. It is more than convenience; it is the need for quality, for memorable experiences in real places.

No Substitutes

Real buildings are an essential part of real places. However, real buildings are not something that readily springs to mind when describing most lifestyle centers. Unfortunately, it is something quite the opposite — false facades — that we build. Our gestures to architecture typically focus on an applied style which, more often than not, is borrowed from what we seem to believe is the timeless quaintness of yesteryear. Are we really convinced that this equates to “sense of place” or is it simply a design crutch?

Even more disturbing is the reliance on the tenant fronts as a substitute for architecture. No real buildings required at all. Simply tilt up a series of national brand billboards, tack them on to cold dark shells and call it a village? Is this the authenticity we believe the customer wants?

Simply taking the roof off the same old formula is not the answer. Neither is a simplistic reliance on streets as a placemaker. Delivering a meaningful, new experience for the shopper requires more thought and more effort.

Keeping it Real

Real places are created and defined by the careful design of both buildings and spaces; there is a critical dependence and interaction between the two. Our experience of a place is likewise dependent on our ability to interact with both buildings and spaces. That is the difference between a stage set and the romance and charm of a European street.

Rather than simply using a hollow marketing tease, could we actually embrace the richness of the spatial experience when buildings and streets are orchestrated to twist and turn, bend and move?

Traditional vs. Modern

True sense of place results from both the quality of spaces and the unique character and personality of the buildings. Imparting true character and personality is different from simply applying or copying style. It requires a thoughtful response to the tradition and climate of the region, the basics of sunlight, shade and shadow and an aspiration to create buildings that delight.

Rather than looking back in time, is it possible to look forward, to create places and an architecture that reflects today's lifestyle? As design professionals are we willing to rise to the challenge for more creative and innovative solutions, to explore and reach beyond the constraints of budget and formulaic mindsets?

Could lifestyle centers become a place for architecture?

Senior principal at TVS & Associates in Atlanta