Innovative international mall designs set examples for U.S. architects and builders.

BY ELAINE MISONZHNIK

America may have brought the world the regional mall. But now innovative projects popping up overseas are taking that and other retail concepts into new and innovative directions, setting a lead that U.S. firms may increasingly want to follow.

There are several reasons why projects in markets as diverse as Morocco, the Philippines and United Kingdom are all worth looking at. For one, U.S. developers tend to be more conservative when it comes to design, leading to a more cookie-cutter approach even when owners venture into newer property types like lifestyle centers and mixed-use projects. Secondly, building codes in the U.S. tend to be more restrictive, limiting the variety of building types and materials that can be employed. Lastly, the retail market in the U.S. is more mature and there are very few new projects going up today, creating fewer opportunities for experimentation.

At the same time, business conditions at home are forcing firms that traditionally have focused on work in the U.S. to build or bolster their practices abroad. (For example, Seattle-based architecture firm Callison, which has been active in Asia for more than 20 years, recently entered into a joint venture with China-based HAYA Architects.)

So more U.S. architects than ever are participating in or being exposed to creative projects abroad, which translates into more of the examples being applied back in the U.S.

“The experimentation and the new ideas are now being implemented in Asia and elsewhere,” says Ro Shroff, a principal with Callison. “And we can bring in the newer sensibilities we are experimenting with back to the U.S. when things turn around.”

One quality overseas projects tend to have, which U.S. firms have sometimes struggled to emulate, is that they often fit into their surroundings and provide a cohesive sense of place. U.S. mixed-use and lifestyle projects often are criticized for being pretty, but generic—some are compared to the staged settings at Disney theme parks. All the elements of a classic downtown may be present, but the place feels plastic and like it could be anywhere. Likewise, U.S. malls are still trying to shake off their image as generic and boxy fortresses…

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