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“The creative scope in India is immense!”

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John Dawes, Director – UK, Benoy, talks to “Shopping Centre News” about the overall mall scenario, his company’s business and design strategy for the country, how the Indian market stacks up in terms of mall design, and how the future malls will look like.

Benoy, the UK-based architect, master planer and designer, has been associated with famous international malls such as Westfield and Bluewater (London), ION Orchard (Singapore), and Elements (Hong Kong), to name a few. The company is currently looking after the design and architecture of Supertech Supernova, a mixed-use development in Noida in the NCR region.

SCN: What are the points to be kept in mind while designing a mall in India?

We always approach India as a continent rather than a country due to the sheer magnitude and diversity of the market. We understand that what works well in one city may not necessarily translate to another in terms of look, feel and scale. As designers, we are very mindful of the natural surroundings and the history of the city. One of our prime concerns is ensuring we emphasise the city and not undermine it in any way.

There are many environmental fundamentals to take into consideration. The climate, for example, is highly influential. Indian malls are able to accommodate lush gardens and outside activities but it is also vital to ensure that the scheme is prepared for the monsoon season.

SCN: How do you rate the current Indian mall scenario?

Although India has always been a very positive market for us, when the recession took hold around the world, many of our schemes were put on hold. We are delighted to be able to say that some of these projects are now being revisited and as the economy starts to gain confidence, we are renewing friendships and resuming work. This is good news for India and good news for us.

Benoy is now experiencing increased interest from some of the country’s most significant developers. The Benoy team in India combines international creative expression with architectural expertise and is enjoying the recovery of the market. Although I’m based in London, I am spending more time at our India office, which is reflective of the level of our local work load.

Our latest project in India is Supertech Supernova, the mixed-use development in Noida. Benoy is its architect and master-planner.

SCN: What is your business strategy for India?

India is an inspiring market for architects and designers and a natural habitat for Benoy. The unique environment embodies a continent in a single country and is a fitting place for the Benoy team to realize some of its most interesting and innovative work. Benoy has developed an excellent reputation for delivering innovative yet workable schemes. Our clients are regularly introducing us to their developer friends, which is reflective of the positive impact we are making in India.

Reputation and recommendation are fundamental to the success of our global business development strategy. These third-party endorsements are key when working in overseas markets where the brand, at least in the beginning, is less well-known.

SCN: What all mall projects Benoy has handled in India till date?

The creative scope in India is immense and some of our Indian projects have become our most iconic. We have been involved in Market City (Bangalore), DLF Saket (Delhi), Pacific Mall (New Delhi) and Margapatta City Mall (Pune), to name a few.

SCN: What is the latest trend noticed in the retail real-estate format in India?

Malls can really transform the landscape of communities, and I admire malls that embody modern designs but also engage with the local surroundings. We are receiving more enquiries about mixed-use developments, which incorporate retail alongside other elements such as residential and office spaces. These can become iconic structures that also encourage a variety of activities in the shape of parks, entertainment and dining, which ultimately create a destination. Any great mall design will be flexible and able to survive refurbishments so that it can compete with future new builds, which employ the most advanced technology.

SCN: What differences are experienced while designing a mall in other parts of the world and in India?

The experience Benoy brings to a new development is our international knowledge and global awareness. We have a good understating of what is happening locally on the ground and are able to design not only for the current market demands but 5 years to 10- to-20 years into the future.

The differing cultures we operate with have their own unique ways, and it is fundamental that we understand how communities work, shop and play. There is still scope for development in Indian infrastructure. Any architect active in the Indian market needs to design a simple and functional vehicular strategy.

SCN: What are the challenges faced by Benoy while designing malls in India?

Before establishing Benoy in India, we needed to fully understand the market, both current and future. We undertook significant research and worked alongside local companies. There is a very strong historical link between the UK and India, which has made some considerations easier, such as language. However, India has very specific business practices which have to be respected. For us the biggest challenge has probably been the physical issue of travel. As our success has been based on our British reputation and branding, we frequently have teams from the UK working in India for extended periods of time. This does, however, mean that the very best creative team is deployed.

SCN: What is your assessment of the Indian mall industry?

India is an extremely popular market for foreign companies because of the opportunities on offer. This has led to a highly competitive environment, which is fantastic for driving growth but does highlight the need to have an established brand that sets you apart from your competitors.

The recent global downturn has led to developers spending more wisely and they are becoming more selective about the partners they identify as bringing the most value to developments. As architects, it is essential that we offer beautiful designs that are commercially viable.

SCN: How do you rate malls and retail business in India as compared to other countries?

As a new market, India has the advantage of being able to look to other countries and evaluate what works well. India, therefore, has become a platform for some of the most ambitious architecture currently being designed and offers one of the most exciting retail environments.

SCN: What is your definition of a good design for a mall?

The success of a retail mall can be judged on many levels. It can be considered in terms of aesthetics, of course, but popularity and ultimately viability and sustainability are all contributing factors.

SCN: What is the role of design in retail and malls in terms of value, investment and revenue?

There is currently more emphasis on value for money due to current economic pressures and clients require future-proofing, so that the mall is financially sustainable. There is an increased demand for flexible space that allows individuality and expansion through growth and accommodates evolution of style, yet holds all elements in a harmonious environment. No one can predict the future, but the anticipation of needs and expectations can give any building, or indeed any art form, an enduring quality.

SCN: Is there any success formula for mall design?

Good question…and if there was such a thing, perhaps I should keep it to myself! However, a formulaic design does not, in my opinion, create inspiring environments. Some designers do have a blueprint or house style, and a tried-and-tested system can work because it “ticks all the boxes.” Benoy, however, believes in creating unique spaces that have their own personality and a sense of being.

Whilst one should not forget that they are essentially commercial destinations, retail centres should actually have a signature of their own – a finger print, not a blueprint. Their characteristics should complement the city and the environment in which they exist and work with, and not compete with or disturb the existing fabric. This symbiotic relationship between a retail center and its surroundings is key to ensuring its success, but not at the cost of the latter.

We are all influenced by our surroundings, perhaps subconsciously, but regardless of whether we open our hearts and minds or unwittingly surrender to them, they have a proven impact. Some environments have the ability to more than influence – they inspire. As an architect, I seek to create the spark that will ignite the imagination.

SCN: What are the major factors that have to be kept in mind while designing a mall?

One has to understand what the client is envisioning and what the local community can support. Malls are evolving into inspired destinations and need to offer more than retail. Developers are increasingly seeking to encompass other elements and mixed-use projects are rapidly gaining in popularity. However, it is imperative that a mall adds something positive to the local area.

SCN: In what way are malls evolving? What are latest trends that you are seeing in this space?

Mixed-use destinations are becoming increasingly popular. They suit today’s lifestyle which is, in retail architecture at least, an interesting cocktail of aspiration and impatience, luxury and simplicity. Perhaps the tower expresses this mix more than any other structure. Maybe this is why more and more mixed-use developments incorporate high-rise elements.

Anchored by retail, these all-embracing environments that also include hotels, offices, apartments and entertainment offers, are a snapshot of the 21st century living ideal. They are a self-sufficient, harmonious cosmos and a place one never needs – hopefully never wants – to leave. A modern utopia.

“Brand” is perhaps an over-used, and sometimes inappropriately used, word. London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong and Mumbai are all examples of instantly identifiable “brands.” These vibrant cities are recognised for their individuality and distinct styles, just as Dolce-e-Gabbana, Prada and Louis Vuitton are. Retail destinations should be able to demonstrate their brand through their architecture, ambience, and even sensory associations, but they must also complement their location – be that city or out-of-town – and the retail brands on offer within. It is a delicate balance. Maybe the key to successful retail centre design is to create a strong identity that is a lure in its own right, but not so over-powering that it stifles the brands on offer within.

SCN: In terms of mall sizes, what is the trend worldwide?

Scale is intrinsically linked with the current market demand and future opportunities for growth. As designers, it is fundamental that we “future proof” developments and build in the flexibility for stretch and re-imagination.

SCN: How will future malls look like?

Retail environments will be in tune with and fully embrace lifestyle choices. Visitors will be able to enjoy a much broader experience, rather than be limited to simply retail. You will notice that throughout our conversation, I have avoided using the word “mall.” I find it to be too generic and it no longer does justice to the presence, and indeed the legacy, of a true destination.

SCN: What are your future mall projects in India and abroad? How different they are going to be from the malls which have already been designed?

We operate extensively in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We are also increasing our presence in America. Every country and city that we have projects in is different and we always strive to integrate the local culture with modern design. Some of our most exciting projects on the drawing board include Odense (the redevelopment of city centre in Denmark), Le Jeu de Paume (France), Centrum Cerny Most (Czech Republic), Second Lotte World (South Korea), Central World Guangzhou (China), Raffles City (Shenzhen, China) and Yen So Park (Hanoi, Vietnam).

*This interview was originally published in June-July 2012 issue of Shopping Centre News.

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