Category Archives: MARKETING

“In which brand shall we build?”

Way back in 2010, the home page of one of the first iterations of this blog had the following mission statement.

Have you ever thought Rem Koolhaas might be just another person? Or Harvard GSD not the centre of the Universe? Are you unmoved by biennali and festivali, and neither like nor ‘like’ anything on ArchDaily? Do you sense something’s very wrong with architecture? 
We do too. Welcome. 
Food and shelter are both essential for human life but food is anything from a bowl of rice a day to some exquisite mouthful for a moment’s pleasure. Junk food is somewhere in-between but so too is just the right amount of nutrition our bodies need. 
It’s the same with shelter. We’ve got bread buildings that fill, cake buildings that thrill, and junk buildings that make us want more. 
All misfits wants is a nutritious architecture that does the shelter thing well, makes us feel good because it is good for us, and that doesn’t cost the earth or cost us the earth.

Qualitative virtue and quantitative virtue are often presented as opposites but this simply isn’t so. If food can be both delicious and nutritious at the same time, then surely buildings can be too. Our architectural diet may contain a high proportion of junk buildings that do little or nothing for our physiologies but that’s our choice and our problem. We know they’re no good. Shifting from the perception of one to the reality of the other – rebranding – is tricky. It runs the risk of destroying what it was people liked in the first place. 


Most brands attempts aim to create new markets without alienating existing ones. This is particularly true for the music industry but the same holds for any of the marketing and PR-creative industries. Including architecture. “Not as good as the last one” is something no marketing director wants to hear. Every “lost his/her touch” has to be countered by an over-excited “[name of architect or firm – but usually Bjarke Ingels] is back on form!”


That mission statement also contained a warning to watch out for the homeopathic buildings that make all sorts of claims impossible to prove. That certain building products may cause illness is beyond a doubt. Some people may even have a valid preference for natural and unprocessed materials. Some materials are feelgood materials because they actually feel good. Smooth and polished wood handrails and door handles are just more pleasant to touch than metal ones. The quality and quantity of daylighting and ventilation has obvious connections for physiological well being. The size and shape of spaces influence acoustic comfort just as much as the surfaces of those spaces. There shouldn’t be any question regarding whether any of these should be sacrificed for some unproven link between visual input and aesthetic comfort, whatever that is. But there is.


As with anything else, we have buildings misleadingly labelled and sold. One example of this is greenwashing. A building looks like a “green” building because it has one or more tropes such as a green roof or a living wall usually associated with green buildings despite that roof or wall adding little tangible benefit in terms of thermal performance or even providing meaningful food. It’s one of the recent incarnations of the postmodernist mantra of a representation being better than the real thing.

0 GRAMS TRANS FAT? Unlikely. The small TM mark (at the bottom of the check mark) means nobody can copy that graphic or create anything that looks misleadingly similar. It means you are looking at a graphic and not at text intended to convey (verified) information.

• • •

For most of last century, architects strove to create their own brands even though we all referred to the architectural component of this as a “signature style”. Like bow ties and big-rimmed spectacles, it all seems rather dated and quaint now. The oldest of this old school is perhaps Frank Gehry irrespective of who designs the actual buildings. A Richard Meier building is usually recognizable as a Richard Meier Building. The same can be said of High-tech architects Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, the structural expressionist Santiago Calatrava and less expressionist architects such as David Chipperfield.

It was only in the mid-1990s that I became aware of the shift from personal “signature style” branding to corporate branding but, for a while, there was the hybrid phenomena of architect personalities with their own recognizable styles or approaches attempting to keep them independent of businesses that had their own reputations to uphold. We can think of Tom Ford at GUCCI or many a famous chef at some separately famous restaurant. It doesn’t happen so often these days, but over 1995-2005, there was

Will Alsop at RMJM,

Shaun (“sheikh whisperer”) Killa at ATKINS,

and Andrew Bromberg at AEDAS,

The unbuilt works of Andrew Bromberg at AEDAS are an oeuvre in themselves.

This variation upgrades the role of design director to a brand within a brand. The occasional project impossible to execute only reinforces the impression of visionary creatives but still grounded in reality. In the end, corporations are greater than their founders. Despite the stylistic tropes, the Richard Rogers Partnership and Foster + Partners became known for consistently producing buildings of a style and quality suited to either airports or large commercial or cultural buildings for a certain type of monied client. In the mid-1990s however, came the company machines of Jean Nouvel, Herzog de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas/OMA. Signature styles came to be seen as hidebound and uncreative and the goal was now to produce successive buildings that were not the same. The nature of branding was forcibly changed and buildings contrivedly different or novel from anything before were promoted as creative and innovative even though it was often creativity and innovation for the sake of creativity and innovation.

In the light of the death of Zaha Hadid 2016, Rem Kookhaas suggested Zaha Hadid Architects learn from fashion house Chanel and fashion house Alexander McQueen that successfully continued the brand without their founders. His choice of brand examples is telling. What about SOM? Or Palmer and Turner – a company that began in Hong Kong in 1868 and, since 1891, has been known as Palmer and Turner and, more recently, P&T Group, after Clement Palmer and William Turner. Clement Palmer designed the first Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in Shanghai. That’s it on the left of Customs House.

Mr. Palmer was 23 in 1883 when it opened. Since the passing of Messrs. Palmer and Turner, the P&T group has managed to cope with 1,600 architects spread across 70 countries. The difference is that Chanel and Alexander McQueen fashion houses are brands producing goods known as designer goods because they have a designer’s name attached to them. It’s still early days for Zaha Hadid Architects.

OMA sources tell me OMA designers are not allowed to develop ideas from any project more than two years old.

Once a company becomes a brand in this way, the name behind the brand becomes irrelevant. In 2007, the Richard Rogers Partnership became Rogers, Stirk, Harbour & Partners in order to signal an awareness of the inevitable. Foster + Partners is keeping the line of succession veiled. What will OMA be without Rem Koolhaas? This is already being imagined, for Rem Koolhaas has said We are a partnership with nine partners each with their own individuality and talents, and that is increasingly recognized and also promoted by the company in terms of crediting partners individually for the work they are doing.” (Joshua Prince Ramus might not be convinced.) It doesn’t really matter with MVRDV or BIG as both acronyms are by now known more as names than for the people behind them. Or fronting them.

What to do? The idea of a company projecting an image of its perceived value to potential clients (or opinion makers) isn’t going to go away. That value can be tangible or intangible or a combination of both, and is subject to change and not necessarily driven by either producer or market. Architects will follow the money and the larger the practice the more money they need to follow. One could be mistaken for thinking that architecture doesn’t exist outside of harbour or waterfront masterplanning, airports and railway stations.

The job for any production facility then, whether factory, artist, fashion house or architecture firm, is to gain a reputation for delivering what the client market demands. If the market demands unceasing novelty, then what we get is an array of producers whose output may appear different but at the same time is somewhat samey. This was what I concluded from after this years Misfits’ Trienalle. It’s to be expected when the same firms compete with each other for the same commissions. The global architectural practice is a creature of its times. I look forward to a time when they are no more and there is space for smaller and more nimble practices not to take their place, but to do more nuanced local work for their local users. We don’t need a global architecture any more than we needed an international one.

• • • 

Houses for Parents

Many architects make a name for themselves when they design their first house and sometimes the house is one for themselves. The first known projects of Kunio Maekawa and Kenzo Tange were houses for themselves but the phenomenon isn’t unique to Japan. For example, there’s Philip Johnson who designed a house for himself as a graduation project. For young architects with less funds, a first commission designing a house for their encouraging and moderately well-off parents is just as good if not better. Here’s a chronological list of some I can think of offhand. There must be others I’ve forgotten or never knew of but these are the ones I used to conclude that designing a house for your parents in the early stages of one’s career doesn’t do it any harm.

Le Corbusier

1912 was the year Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris completed Maison Blance for his parents. It was his fourth house after the 1906 Villa Fallet, the 1908 Villa Stotzer, and the 1908 Villa Jacquemet, but is still thought by many to be his first. 1912 was also the same year he began his first architectural office so he famously charged his parents a fee but we don’t know the details. It’s a nice story but it would be a more informative one if we knew whether the fee was token or the going rate, and at whose insistence it was. In any case, Charles-Édouard was to live and work in the house until he decamped full-time to Paris in 1917. His parents sold the house (at a loss) in 1919, supposedly because they couldn’t afford the upkeep. (The jobs of driver, gardener, housekeeper and cook would have been split between four, three or two people.) It seems like a classic case of The Wrong House.

His parents lived elsewhere until he completed their second much smaller and single level house that they could live in without servants, in 1923, and they were to live there until they died, his father soon in 1926 and his mother in 1960. Charles-Édouard had been calling himself Le Corbusier since 1920 so this little house is, rightly speaking, the first house of Le Corbusier – a position it shares with Villa La Roche completed in Paris the same year.

Gio Ponti

The house Gio Ponti built for his parents is a little Palladian house with a fan-shaped plan you can see here. For 1924, it’s no precursor of the Rationalism that was to come but instead it’s an example of the Milanese neo-classical Novecento Italiano movement that, while not a fascist style per-se, did appeal to the great traditions of Italian art and architecture.

Ponti House, via Randaccio 9, Milan, 1924

Ponti was already artistic director of the historic Italian porcelain company Richard Ginori, and successfully exhibited at the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes where he met of Tony Bouilhet of the French silver company Christofle. Ponti and the man who was to be his next client must have gotten around to talking about architecture and Ponti’ first house for his parents was proof he could deliver. Bouilhet’s friends included Man Ray and Jean Cocteau. Ponti completed his next less-Palladian but larger house, the Villa Bouilhet in Garches, Paris two years later. Gio Ponti was successful at everything he did.

contemporary photograph of the living room of Villa Bouilhet, 1927

Harry Seidler

Harry Seidler had studied at Harverd GSD with Gropius and Breuer and was working for Breuer when his mother who, with her husband, had emigrated to Australia in 1946. His mother called him to come back to Australia and design a house for them. Seidler hadn’t intended to stay but the 1950 house was a sensation as it was the first Bauhausian building in Australia. Other commissions quickly followed and Seidler never went back.

Seidler brought to Australia Gropius’ talent for self-promotion. [c.f. Architecture Myths #25: The Creative Spark] The Rose Seidler House was criticised by some as being “a Harvard house transplanted to Australia” but it was something Australia had never seen before – a classy beach house. 

Ricardo Bofill

Bofill designed a house in Ibiza for his parents when he was 19 in 1962. He’d had no training but his father was an architect, property developer and contractor so he didn’t need to work for anybody else to observe and learn how it was done. His father probably found the client and walked his son through the design and construction of the 1964 El Sargazo Apartments, the 1965 Bach 28 Apartment Building (14 apartments + retail), the 1965 Bach 4 Apartment Building, (12 luxury + 21 rent-controlled apartments) and the 1965 Nicaragua Apartment Building (shops + offices + apartments. It’s what a father would do.

Su and Richard Rogers

This house was designed by Team 4 which comprised Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and their respective wives, Su Rogers and Wendy Foster. This house, their first, is a holiday home in Cornwall, UK, for Su Rogers’ parents, Marcus and Irene Brumwell. I learned that painter Piet Mondrian owed the Brumwells money for some reason, and paid his debt with a painting, the sale of which paid for the construction of this building, completed in 1966. In 1969 the house received an RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Award for work of outstanding quality, even though Rogers confessed in some later memoir that they hadn’t really known what they were doing.

House Creek Vean, Cornwall, UK, 1963–1966

Robert Venturi

Vanna Venturi is arguably the most famous architect mother as her house is still known by her name. She was 70 when the house, Venturi’s first, was completed in 1964, the same year as Guild House, the other well-known early project of Venturi’s. I somehow remembered that all the rooms his mother used were on the ground floor because she had wanted it that way, but I didn’t know that son Robert lived and worked upstairs from 1964 until 1967 when he married Denise Scott Brown.

The house was designed at the same time as Venturi was writing Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture that included descriptions of Vanna Venturi House and Guild House. Without these two buildings to illustrate, Venturi might have been thought of as more of a theorist than a doer. With Vanna Venturi House though, what we’re seeing is a house as a manifesto, much like this next house that was completed in the UK four years later and that started an architectural stylistic movement that was to compete in the UK with what Venturi had just started in the US.

Richard and Su Rogers

Team 4 split in 1967 for some reason nobody’s ever told us, and Norman and Wendy Rogers immediately formed Foster Associates. In 1968 they designed the Humphrey Spender (brother of Stephen) house but little is said about that other than that it was a precursor to the house he and Su designed for Rogers’ parents in Wimbledon, also completed in 1968. Rogers was 35.

Every year, the six winners Richard Rogers Fellowship of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) get to reside at Wimbledon House at 22 Parkside, Wimbledon, London, UK

After winning the competition for the Pompidou Centre, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano formed Rogers and Piano, that lasted until 1977 when the Richard Rogers Partnership was formed. Success and greater things followed quickly, but more due to Pompidou Centre than Wimbledon House. The two are probably linked by the Expo ’70 Italian Pavilion that Piano had designed and Rogers had admired. It’s easy to imagine Piano liking Wimbledon House’s combination of steel and colour.

Kiko (Mozuna) Monta

In 1973 Kiko (Mozuna) Monta designed this house for his mother. We don’t know what his mother thought of it but, when I first saw it in Japan Architect magazine, I remember thinking his mother’s row of pot-plants in the first photo was how houses should be lived in.

Moneymaking Machines #7: Absolute Towers

The 2005-06 competition for the design of Absolute Towers in Mississagua just outside Toronto in Canada was a privately-run competition open to anyone interested in entering. The following jury shortlisted six proposals from 92 entries.

  • Ed Sajecki, civil engineer and professional planner, founding partner of LinkedIn
  • Larry Beasley, urban planner, formerly Co-Director of Planning for the City Of Vancouver
  • Colin Fournier, founding member of Archigram, professor at Bartlett, UCL
  • Michael D. Spaziani, architect and urban planner
  • Sol Wassermuhl, Toronto-based architect
  • Claude Lacombe, Toronto-based architect
  • Danny Salvatore, President of Fernbrook Homes, the competition sponsor
  • Paulo Stellato, Principal, Cityzen Development Group
  • Sam Crignano, President, Cityzen Development Group
  • Competition Manager: Office for Urbanism, Toronto-based practice

Thanks to sites such as and to, we can still see the six shortlisted proposals.

The site listed MAD Office as a USA-based practice and, though there’s probably some reason for that, it’s nobody’s perception of the company.

Nevertheless, the jury chose MAD’s proposal, basically on the back of enthusiasm on the part of the developers, who then instructed the engineers and architects of record to not kill what they liked about the design. The identical floor slabs in the Stage 2 Identical floor plates meant construction could be by usual slip-form construction, but with a rotational displacement for the outer edge formwork. The submitted drawings – the two on the right, below – showed a building with a 360° twist and a structural system for how that might be achieved. [Canadian Competitions Catalogue has more information on the proposal as submitted in Stage I and Stage II.]

Canadian Competitions Catalogue has more information on the proposal as submitted in Stage I and Stage II, but the competition was an ideas competition and so working out how to build and plan the winning proposal came later, with Toronto-based Sigmund Soudack & Associates Inc. appointed as structural engineers. They kept some things and changed or changed back others.

  • Their final building isn’t as twisty at 209° but it’s a faithful interpretation and, to my mind, all the better for not going full-circle.
  • Their structural followed the idea present in the Stage 1 proposal [left, above], with shear walls simply extending or contracting to suit the rotational position of the floor slab.
  • The identical floor slabs in the Stage 2 Identical floor plates meant construction could be by usual slip-form construction, but with a rotational displacement for the outer edge formwork. This idea was also present in the Stage 2 proposal.
  • They made the distribution of those shear walls more regular.
  • They made the core square to give it symmetry in two directions. (Splitting the elevator bank into two is not ideal but I can see how it would have helped even up the forces when the floors are moving around.)
  • They added four more staggered columns that move in and out along the diagonal grid lines, their horizontal moments cancelling at the doubled core.

The architects of record were Burka Architects Inc. (formerly Burka Varacalli Architects) who were architects for three shorter towers on the same site. Internal planning was their responsibility and, though some of the apartments are small, there’s probably a mixture of sizes and their respective numbers as determined by a marketing consultant. Here’s a CBTUH case study paper for further reading.

The apparent fluidity of shape is produced by floor slabs resting on a three-dimensional grid of concrete planes, none of which are particularly thick when compared with those of other twisting towers such as SOM’s Cayan Tower in Dubai. I put this down to the core of Absolute Towers being well integrated with the shear wall structure whereas, in Cayan Tower, the offset columns create torsional forces that attempt to screw the building into the ground, and that can only be countered by “engineering the problem away” – a cute industry euphemism for “more concrete!” – to increase the torsional resistance of the core.

Another problem with twisting towers is what to do with the facade when living spaces extend to the edge of the slab. The image on the right above shows how the load-bearing facade of Cayan Tower is faceted, as it would have to be if you are using parallelepiped-shaped panels to clad between two floor slabs with non-parallel edges. (Calatrava’s Twisting Torso building in Malmo gets around this by having flat glazing units set into specially-curved aluminum panels. $$)

I took these photos of UN Studio’s Wasl Tower in Dubai over a year ago now. The two corners without a corner feature have narrower panels that facet around the corner within the tolerance of their thickness.

Absolute Towers avoids compromise or complex solutions such as these by the simple decision to set the glazing back from the edge of the floor slab. This leaves balcony edges free to create the shape but also means that external walls can be created by conventional panels and glazing. It also means those exposed balcony slabs become huge reverse radiators sucking cold into the building. The engineers’ website notes that “to address the thermal transfer between the open balconies and the interior, a new kind of thermal break was devised where the balconies meet the wall in two-foot segments alternating with four-foot gaps.” Here’s how it’s done.

The diagram on the left below shows how the incrementally offset walls require additional insulation on the inside when part of the ceiling becomes a roof when the floor above is set further in, and on the outside when part of the floor becomes an external surface. This is just one of those things architects of record are there to sort out.

The visual continuity of that balcony edge isn’t upset by eye-height partitions separating balconies of adjacent apartments. People will surely put chairs and tables and hardy potplants on their balconies but I don’t think it will much affect how the building looks on the outside or how the residents use it for most of the year.

Let’s take another look at those apartments. MAD had eight per floor. Now there are ten, eight of which are between parallel walls and the other two occur when the spaces along the diagonal grid lines are too large to simply be added to adjacent ones. There can’t be twelve apartments because, when two of those spaces are too large, the other two spaces along the other diagonal grid line are too small to be used for anything other than a small triangular bedroom opening directly off the living area. This is simply the price one pays. However, all apartments have living rooms with parallel walls for a sofa and opposing flatscreen, as is customary.

The core is as close as it can get to being bi-axially symmetrical and this must surely decomplicate the structure when the floor slabs keep moving around. The resultant “circular” corridor around an island core allows more flexibility for apartment entrances but, at approx. 49m2 per 205m2 floor plate excluding balconies, the unsellable area is high at approximately 25%. This and the additional construction complexity meant a build cost 20% higher, but this was recouped by higher selling prices, presumably after maintaining normal profit margins.

The competition winners were announced in 2006 and construction began in 2007 and was expected to have been completed by 2010 but because of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, only the first 22 storeys of the first tower were completed by 2010. This project could very easily have stopped there and the fact it didn’t, and was completed and opened in 2012 is to the credit of its developer. Half finished buildings still litter Dubai.

No architect wants to get a reputation as developer’s friend so all that remains is to find out what the architect has to say about the project.

Unfortunately, the 1,000 words of text on the competition panels is too small to read. ArchDaily is now the closest thing architecture has to a collective memory and, accompanied by photographs (by Iwan Ban no less), the theoretical argument for the building is made.

It’s a big ask of a simple building with a twisty shape. The argument is that buildings with high energy performance are good, but happier and more sustainable societies will result if buildings are shaped like natural objects that people relate to emotionally. The developer client certainly related to MAD’s proposal emotionally. There must have been phenomenal off-plan demand for Nature because a second tower was duly commissioned, designed and constructed with so little delay that many people believe the two buildings were conceived of as a pair.

This is a link to the developer’s website, showing Absolute Towers as completed and marketed.

This next is a YouTube video of the drive from downtown Mississagua to Toronto. In the first fifteen seconds, you get a feel for the building in context.


Mall World

Victor Gruen’s original shopping mall concept assumed private car ownership that allowed malls to be located on cheap but well-connected land on the edge of town. I’m told that in Tehran Bazaar you can buy anything you want but, in 2009, I was involved with an initial pitch for Tehran’s first American-style shopping mall. We weren’t being paid to re-imagine the mall so we produced what we were expected to produce and followed the accepted rules. This is the site we identified.

We didn’t set the size of the car park but it was going to surround a mall having the classic configuration that maximized footfall by having anchor stores at extremities connected by pedestrian streets. It’s called the “dumbbell model”. Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor, Michigan US is a double-dumbell. As it has a small Macy’s and Sears it must be or have been a fairly upmarket mall.

Dubai Mall has a Bloomingdales on one front corner and a Galeries Layfayette on the other but it’s been a long time since department stores with ground floor perfume and cosmetics counters were seen as a modern and convenient way to shop. Their value as anchor tenants in malls has fallen accordingly and preferred anchor tenants are now all-purpose stores such as Walmart in the US, Marks & Spencer’s in the UK, and large grocery stores such as Coles in Australia.

The classic mall is a mostly windowless environment reliant on toplight to maximize internal display area and to keep people focussed on spending money undistracted by views, the weather, and the time of day – much as casinos are designed to do. Malls are also like casinos in offering a variety of attractions and activities so visitors can spend more time inside deciding and spending. The top-lit atriums of multi-level malls facilitate wayfinding while showcasing events and other things to see, do and buy People around the world like sitting down with a drink to watch people going about their business and, in perfect illustration of the maxim “if it’s free then the product is you”, malls offer free attractions to populate the spaces overlooked by and monetized by peripheral cafés and restaurants. All this is standard practice.

Another is to make malls easy to navigate but not traverse. In multi-level malls you may be able to see where you want to go but the escalator you need to take might be behind you. Elevators are usually recessed and not in plain sight. Escalators are rarely stacked as that would mean people could bypass entire floors. Yet another standard practice is to group like stores with like. A shopping mall may have a food court with many fast food chains represented but there will be independent restaurants and cafés elsewhere.

All this activity takes place in multi-storey concrete structures with floor plates approximately 50 metres wide split by walkways around atriums that link to other atriums. This arrangement of twenty-meter deep shops linked by irregularly placed escalators has evolved to suit a very specific mode of retail that’s now facing an uncertain future.

Malls were in trouble well before online shopping suddenly became as attractive and necessary as it did. A quick google finds me “Mall Redevelopment Strategies: Keeping Today’s Malls Competitive” from 2016. “One of the goals of the redevelopment is to connect to the surrounding neighborhoods through the pedestrian plan and the architecture, as well as through amenities and retail resources that can benefit the community,” explains Tom Perkins, a design director for Gensler.” [link] Suddenly everyone was talking about connectivity despite disconnectivity having been baked into the original concept. This new connectivity is for the same old reasons.

Something similar is happening with what’s on offer. A McKinsey & Co. report from 2014 has sentences such as this. “Increase productivity and efficiency of the current mall base through a strategic review of the tenant mix, taking into account consumer needs and retailer economics. This analysis should guide the management of rent pricing and overall commercial planning. On the cost front, the focus should be on strict management of direct and indirect costs, combined with operational efficiency, which is critical for successful customer experience transformations.” [link] Ugh!

in April 2018 wrote “The evolution of the retaildential centers will have elements of the values centers, as they will be focused to cater to a specific lifestage or lifestyle consumer with shared needs and interests, but will be buttressed by residential housing to make the CES more than a place to visit, but a place to live. The need for affordable housing is great among maturing baby boomers, looking to downsize and gain convenient access to various services, as well as among young professionals attracted to CESs that offer retail stores, restaurants and theaters, work-play offerings, gyms and spas.” [link]

It’s difficult to believe it was only February last year when CURBED wrote “Dying malls seek second life as entertainment destinations. As Americans increasingly shop online and stay at home, can malls find new community appeal?” [link]

The pandemic brought an added sense of urgency to finding solutions to these problems. Sometime, but probably early this year, Deloitte published a study containing recommendations for what the mall of the future will need to be like, if malls are to remain relevant. [link] Food is the new fashion, they say.

The strategies identified by these reports all propose ways for these structures to continue providing return on investment and prevent them becoming derelict. The mix of tenant/public space [is] moving from the current 70/30 to 60/40, or even 50/50 and, when this happens, these expanded public spaces will need to be planned and programed over the year much like an exhibition, and managed more like content and media instead of real estate. Here it’s just the language that’s changed but elsewhere the means have also changed. Instead of direct mail we now have apps that assist mall navigation, and provide news on special offers, deals, and limited-time discounts. Instead of loyalty cards we now have “face recognition, location-based mobile ads, and beacons applied to identify and establish targeted contact with repeat customers. Such technologies are also valuable for gathering consumer behavioral data from which malls can glean useful insights.

There’s a desperation to squeeze every last bit of profit out of the 116,000 [2017] or so shopping malls in the US before as many as 80,000 go full dinosaur within five years.

• • • 

On Christmas Day 2020, a new mall opened close to where I live.

The mall surely took several years to design and construct so what we see assumed a pre-pandemic world. Online shopping has been in China for about fifteen years now so what we see is designed and managed for a post-online shopping world. The linear configuration has a long central atrium bridged to form five smaller ones, and also follows standard practice by having escalators mostly dispersed around its atriums. I say mostly because three of those atriums have partially stacked escalators and you don’t normally see this.

A long up-only escalator breaks the rule about not bypassing by taking you directly from second to fifth floor, but you’ll pass through levels three and four on the way down.

Another unusual feature is the external escalators that link outdoor terraces midway along the mall’s length to enable direct access to levels 3 and above.

This enables the microbrewery on the third floor and the bar on the rooftop to have extended business hours.

This mall completely disregards the drivers of the Victor Gruen model.

  1. The mall is not not out of town and dependent on customers coming and going by private car. It’s located in a fairly dense residential neighbourhood that’s about to become much denser on the eastern side where a new housing complex is almost completed.
  2. Circulation into and around the mall isn’t designed to thwart people but to help people get to where they want to go. The mall is seen as an extension of the street. This is only possible because there is a street and not a surface car park.

This is deliberate because the side of the mall facing that new housing development is three levels of exposed walkways with three sets of external elevators and escalators, and a further 70 retail spaces and an additional seven mall access points per level. I expect this portion of the mall will fully open to coincide with the opening of the housing complex. I’ve never seen a mall wear its shops on the outside before.

The intent is clear. This could be the birth of a completely new type of mall.

Underground are two levels of car parking, B1 of which connects to the basement.

Inside, there are no cinemas, no food court, no anchor stores. The level information displays list anchor stores as a category but one is a gym and another an ice-skating rink so these are high-rent tenants rather than anchors that generate huge footfall. A large supermarket in the basement comes closest to being a traditional anchor store but it’s in the wrong place to function as one. Not shown are 12 more food and beverage outlets on the first-floor street frontage and two more restaurants on the 6th floor roof.

I’ve summarized the directory information into this table that gives the numbers* of different types of tenant.

FOOD & BEVERAGE1817532327295
* I don’t expect this distribution to be that different from the distribution by mall area rented and the distribution by rental income received.

Some 95 out of 273 tenants are Food & Beverage – roughly a third. Together, Clothing and Clothing & Accessories are another third. The non-F&B categories are approximate and a bit vague as included in Household are three car showrooms. The Children’s category has clothing and toys but includes a piano school, an English school, two children’s gyms and a swimming school. Probably one third of the Children’s category is clothing, another third toys and amusements, and another third is educational, importantly.

Categories blur across floors but the general breakdown is Clothing on levels 1 and 2, Children’s on Level 3, and Food & Beverage on levels B1, 4, 5 and 6. You can buy an iPhone, work out or get your hair colored but the mall is basically a children’s activity centre and local restaurant complex. Included in Food & Beverage are one Pizza Hut, one Burger King, one MacDonalds, one KFC and two Starbucks which are the only coffee outlets. The 89 other outlets include takeaway bread and cakes and so on but the mall’s main attraction is Food & Beverage – restaurants, and plenty of them. There’s restaurants for Shanghai food, Hainan food, Beijing food, Sichuan food, Hong Kong food, seafood, Korean barbecue, Japanese barbecue, sushi, Lanzhou noodles, Dalian hotpot … Even the microbrewery and rooftop bar offer full menus for lunch and dinner. There’s no food court. The idea of a family or friends not getting together to share the same food is unthinkable.

Another characteristic of these restaurants is the range of customers. Whether it’s a Lanzhou noodle shop or a microbrewery music pub, on one table there’ll be some work celebration, on another a girls’ night out, two more will have couples on dates and others will have extended families having dinner. This suggests that food and company are more important than the decor or clientele. The only experience on offer is of people eating and drinking together. An interior designer friend says, “No matter what type of place it wants to be or what you design it to be, in the end you always get a Chinese restaurant.” This is not a bad thing. It suggests the future of malls is already here, and doesn’t lie in data-analyzing and tailoring experiences and entertainments, or “curating the content” of public space by filling it with new monetize-able attractors.

As they would be anywhere else, the atrium spaces are used for promotions, shows, exhibitions and events and many of these cater to children.

Outside, on three sides is a large space that’s the mall’s interface with the neighbourhood. This mall is called Wuyue Guangchang where guangchang [广场] means square – as in public square. Me, I’m so accustomed to looking at things that’ve been over-designed it took me a while to recognize this expanse of paving as the square it is. It doesn’t look “designed” but it’s no accident because a length of canal had to be covered over to create it. It doesn’t matter if its presence was imposed as a planning condition, offered as a deal sweetener, or proposed as a low-cost, low-maintenance attraction, whoever thought of it is a genius.

Is “invisible design” an oxymoron? I’m having trouble imagining a design that doesn’t look like design yet delivers an expected benefit and delivers it more efficiently because of the absence of design. It might be because the purpose of design is often mistaken for making something look like it’s been designed (i.e. a representation of the act of designing a.k.a. that post-modern malaise), instead of thinking about the what the design is supposed to achieve. This of course raises thorny questions of what is a (genuine) design goal and whether design is always the value-adding activity we like to think it is. Some other time.

This square works and it works all the better for not having been “designed” to have amphitheaters, landscaping, level changes, curves and all those things that indicate design intent but only serve to limit potential.

Other than being stacked over seven levels and having a single management entity, the mall itself is no different from other parts of town where you might see an entire street of restaurants or a building with every tenant a restaurant. This mall became part of the neighbourhood easily and organically, without trauma, hand-wringing, or consultants. It’s probably everything a mall ever needed to be.


Reading The City

This is the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. Some years ago now, I read that the city’s mayor had banned signage on buildings because he knew his city wasn’t the prettiest city in the world but thought people weren’t looking at the city enough because they were too busy reading it. Removing signage didn’t make Sao Paulo any prettier but the absence of things to read did make it strange. It became visually quiet, and people suddenly noticed it and looked at it anew. The mayor was right.

This particular corner of Dubai has changed slightly since I took this next photo but it’s also strange for the same reason. The property development company DAMAC began putting their name on all its developments and, not to be outdone, the much larger property development company EMAAR began doing the same. A signage race followed.

Dubai’s Downtown area is almost fully developed by EMAAR so it’s slightly bizarre seeing almost every tall building with an EMAAR sign. In this next image, the one on the left has a sign on its roof for the benefit of observers in Burj Khalifa which would be the only EMAAR building in Dubai without signage if at night-time the entire south side of Burj Khalifa didn’t become a huge LED display.

There’s a lot of visual information in east/south-east Asian cities in general and Chinese ones in particular. One of the most common forms is signage silhouetted against the daytime sky and illuminated at night but, unless you can read Chinese, it’s just colorful graphics and not information. It only becomes noise if you can read it.

But all of us understand numerals and, when you see them on buildings, they’re probably telephone numbers in easily remembered sequences of eight and, if you’re in China, with many of the lucky number eight. Graphically speaking though, one telephone number looks much like another. Unlike language signs that convey meanings such as identifiers and other information, telephone numbers are pure information and old-fashioned hyperlinks to more information. These ones below are one and a half storeys tall and fairly awesome.

The Chinese language can be written and read vertically as well as horizontally so it’s suited to reading text scrolling up buildings kitted out with LED. The text on the building to the left in this next photo is saying Celebrate Joyously National Day but others in the genre might ask us to celebrate other things such as low-interest bank loans.

Some spectacular moments in cities have been propelled by the synergy of high property values and advertising. New York’s Times Square was probably one of the first. Neon signage took it to another level.

Daylight readable LED took it to another.

It’s a similar story for London’s Picadilly Circus.

I can’t help feeling something’s been lost but I’m not going to upset myself about it. Asian cities have their signage hotspots too. This next is Tokyo’s Ginza san-chome intersection. It’s held up quite well, probably because there are few large signs and the top of the round San-ai Building has always been the dominant position, its sponsor changing once only every few decades. Most of what we see here is not general applied signage but specifically intended to indicate places of business.

This characteristic is shared by bar and restaurant signage in the less nodal streets of Ginza or Shinjuku or, for that matter, even the nodal parts of Shibuya, Ikebukuro or Roppongi. It’s all just haptic stimulation if you can’t read it and, even if you can, you need to know where you’re going before you can even begin to look for that place you were told about.

Hong Kong has a rich history of neon signage that’s steadily being dismantled. There’s much to read though, and some of it in English. Hong Kong’s signage is distinctive for being mostly independent of buildings and establishments. What’s interesting is not how the buildings of the city have been disguised but how they’ve become irrelevant. We’re too busy reading to notice or care.

Hong Kong signage is like Las Vegas signage in being physically independent of buildings even though it denotes places and conveys messages about them. The famous EAT sign tells us architecture is irrelevant. It’s now clear the I AM A MONUMENT sign is a sad cry of denial.

If architecture was once a sign, then it was only one during the day before LED came along. Suddenly, illuminated buildings had a new type of surface pattern that made buildings strange but only at night. (Surface was already the new shape even before the 2008 economic crisis made the decadent display of structural excess expensive as well as stupid.) First came colour, initially with blue point lights that were the most legible at night.

Buildings that were in too much of a rush to appear modern had early LED prone to failure. In Dubai, you could always rely upon The Address Hotel to have at least three strips either misfiring or that needed fixing or replacing. The hot humid climates aren’t kind to external electrics.

Here’s a night view of Shanghai showing buildings lit mostly in monocolour.

It soon became possible to have buildings that change colour and, thanks to devices such as these below, change colour quickly. It was now possible for the surface of any building to be a giant LED screen.

Across Shanghai’s Bund, buildings lit evenly, stably and warmly let you know you’re in an historic area.

This message is reinforced by the absence of any but the subtlest advertising. These tunable LED are an example of connected lighting – which means lighting for the entire street can be controlled as a single array.

Connected lightning has been a thing since at least 2016 and is about much more then using your smartphone to set and adjust domestic lighting levels. On scales such as historic quarters, it brings a coherency that architecture and urban planning either didn’t or couldn’t. Historic quarters don’t want or need the vibrancy and dynamism that over-fast cycles of lurid colours and novel motion graphics have come to represent.

These next three examples are of urban-scale connected lighting. The middle one is in Suzhou, framing an RMJM building of typology globally known as pants. The image on the right is the city of Hungdao and this blog [from where the photo comes] has a fairly long video showing these and other buildings in action.

Once buildings are connected and connected in arrays, they can be used for disseminating single messages for whatever purpose, as strikingly used in the 2018 Farhenheit 451 remake.

Whether connected or not, LED building wraps exist not so much to prettify buildings or cityscapes but to monetize building facades by turning them into advertising space. To date, there’s been very little attempt to monetize the skies. Skywriting wasn’t uncommon in the 1960s but it was more to advertise some beach event or soft drink than it ever was for for personal messages. It was compelling but half the fun was trying to guess what the message was going to be.

Digital skywriting or “skytyping” uses a row of light aircraft flying inline as a lo-res dot matrix printer. It requires optimum weather conditions but it’s daylight readable.

Anything to do with the sky is going to be affected by weather conditions to some extent. Not much progress has been made with projections onto clouds or advertising on blimps. Blimps with point lights advertising Asahi beer I think it was, were a feature of Tokyo evening skies circa 1990. We all looked up amazed at this things we never saw wherever we were from.

For decades we were all happy with fireworks making events out of the nighttime sky. Fireworks have their own rules and are resistant to being shaped into messages. Their appeal remains a haptic one amplified by music. The event itself can only be used for that lesser form of advertising known as sponsorship and so we’re never allowed to forget who’s paying for them and why.

For a people who invented fireworks, the Chinese have quickly embraced the drone shows that have made fireworks appear lame. Drone shows don’t generate noise or smoke and the positions of their light sources aren’t determined by chemical reactions and gravity over time. They therefore have greater expressive potential and, when the sky can become a huge LED screen, are compelling. So far, the 2020 Shanghai New Year drone show remains the benchmark for what these things can do, “these things” being some 3,500 drones programmed to position and illuminate as a single display. There’s videos all over the internet. We’ve not seen the sky do things like this before.

It’s evolving quickly. On April 15 this year about 1,500 drones were used to advertise the launch of some video game. The drone show recreated some characters from the game before ending with that now ubiquitous hyperlink, the scannable QR code. It’s probably a first glimpse of some future hell but, for now, it’s audacious, impressive and every bit as compelling as we’d expect any huge sign suddenly appearing across the sky commanding us to do something to be. I don’t know what it means but, compared to the communication range and power of architecture as signs, it’s awesome. True, it’s bigger, but the buildings have also became small.

Other than that, I don’t know what to say about all this other than note a progression from small to large, as well as a constant drive to identify and monetize any space left to be monetized. Buildings as branding and buildings as carriers of defined or even arbitrary messages are all beginning to feel like dinosaur concepts from the past. It’s high time anyway we stopped trying to load buildings with characteristics neither novel nor intrinsic and instead focus on making them better at the things they do best and that already make them unique.


Moneymaking Machines #6: King Toronto

In February 2016 it was difficult to avoid the early proposal presented as Habitat 2.0. It maxxed the height to make mountainesque shapes that increased the number of upper level apartments with terraces. (The last thing you want is a building that goes from vertical to horizontal too quickly.) The image above shows how the development rises vertically from the site boundaries before doing the terrace thing. The technical term for this is “trying it on”. If you get “knocked back” you’ll at least be able to negotiate downwards from a higher position.

Apartments are pushed into four mounds called North Mountain, South Mountain, East Mountain and West Mountain. Doing this means perhaps three times as many terrace opportunities and apartments with higher prices. The number of problematic internal corners stays the same.

  1. A conventional perimeter block.
  2. A split perimeter block with twelve external corners instead of four.
  3. Elevator shafts and cores.
  4. The beginning of a new split between mountains.
  5. Four mountains instead of two, and five times the original number of external corners. Four vertical towers would have the same number of corners but would have balconies instead of terraces with open sky above.
  6. Mountain end edges represent the average distance between mountains (i.e. terraces). This distance goes from maximum at the top to zero at the bottom.

The original proposal would have been about fifteen or sixteen stories at its highest. As pictured below, the 45° geometry would have allowed the inner apartments to have long views along the yard rather than short ones across it but this doesn’t happen in the approved proposal, or even the one being marketed.

Last week’s post mentioned some of the decisions taken with respect to elevations deemed to have historic value but, parallel with these, were also deliberations regarding massing and height. Toronto City Council decisions of July 2018 recommended a revised proposal be accepted subject to the following matters being resolved.

  1. Shadow impacts from the proposed structure be reduced beyond the north curb of King Street West, past 12:00 p.m. (noon) on September 21st;
  2. Confirmation that a clear 5.0 metre step-back be provided above the majority of the new base-building height along the King Street West frontage;
  3. Confirmation of an agreement regarding the required easements and/or agreement(s) required on the adjacent property at 485 King Street West; and
  4. Replacement of 100 percent of the office space currently existing on-site, with a maximum of 20 percent of the total replacement office space that may be provided off-site. 

The first three must have hurt. When city councils imply they want the appearance of less building on the site they usually mean they want less building on the site. West King Street is on the north side of this development. 43.6532° N. This building is always going to cast shadows on King Street but, fortunately for the developers, the first item regarding shadows doesn’t state that there can’t be any, but only that they be reduced. This stipulation will act to limit the height of the building, or at least its average height. On the King Street West side, those mountains and valleys are about to average out and become less mountainey.

The second requirement for a five-meter setback above “a majority” of the new base building height along King Street West is intended to make the building less visible to people walking along the footpath on the other side of the street. This is another way of saying the same thing and will also function to reduce the maximum building volume.

There are two ways that “lost” building volume/profits can be clawed back. One is by making the hole in the middle narrower but this will reduce the value of that space as some kind of vibrant amenity/commercial/social/art space, and also reduce the number and value of any apartments for which it provides the only light, air and view. The other way is to fill in the gaps between the mountains. What happened was a combination of both. Height was reduced by leveling off mountaintops and filling in valleys, and the requested five meter setback above the historic elevations along King Street West was accommodated by slimming the courtyard from 22.5m to 16.0m–17.5m.

This next proposal was “current design” at one stage. It takes all the above considerations into account, and also has a total split across the site so the council must have also suggested that at one stage. Regular zig-zaggy mountaintops allocate the skyprint into the maximum number of terraces. This seems like some sort of knee-jerk reaction, perhaps generated to negotiate a compromise. It wasn’t implemented, and doesn’t reconcile with ether the approved or the marketing plans.

They describe the proposal for which final decisions were made July 2018.

There may be more external corners but a new problem arises. If you want to have multiple mountains then you’re going to have some valleys as well. The building is being marketed one mountain at a time so marketing and key plans do not provide the complete picture. “Residents will be able to see each other and say hello to each other,” Mr. Ingels says.” Many will also be able to shake hands.

In the plan above, the 45° geometry isn’t being used for long views along the yard and in fact works to reduce the views of the yard-end apartments. This next section through South Mountain is what I mean about the valleys. For reference, the grid line spacing is 9m.

“We try to be informed by some of the qualities we perceive in the surroundings and take them one step further,” Mr. Ingels says. In this case, the important “quality” is the maze of laneways and courtyards on the site. The mountains will frame a central courtyard, which opens to the street to the north and towards a new park to the south. At ground level, the courtyard will run up against the facades of the heritage buildings, which will contain retail and office space; and the courtyard itself will feature a dramatic design by local landscape architects Public Work, including a graphic paving pattern that imitates 1950s terrazzo [?], and a misting device they call a cloudmaker [!]. It will have restaurant patios, and there will be performances; Mr. Gillespie, whose company and partners will retain ownership of the retail and office spaces, promises a consistent slate of events. “It will be lively,” Mr. Gillespie says.