High Design and the Hybrid Center

April 1, 2008

Part power center/part entertainment experience, new retailing concept flourishes in the Arizona desert

By C.C. Sullivan

When architect Mark Tweed talks about his latest big retail project, he draws a hard line between his kind of shopping experience and the competition's. And what his center isn't seems almost as important as what it is.

"Tempe Marketplace is a hybrid lifestyle center, with a kind of Pacific fusion approach that's definitely a little more hip and trendy than the usual upper-middle-class center that most developers are doing these days," says Tweed, the founder and president of Beverly Hills-based HTH Architects. "In most of those, you go into the past, to some little town in Idaho — it's Disney, and it's tomorrow's teardown today. Ours is 21st century, with a big videotron and funky metal flying roofs. It's an animal that's going to flow with the advertising and lifestyle that's today."

With that summary, Tweed captures the essence of Tempe Marketplace, the ultra-modern, 1.3 million-square-foot development just outside of Phoenix that hosts more than 120 retailers, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Outside of those tenant spaces is where visitors find the real essence of the architect's shopping nirvana. From the huge uplit metal mesh whip that houses tall LED billboards at the parking lot entrance to the laser light shows and synchronized fountains in the outdoor gathering spaces, visitors are bombarded with technological delights. The show continues indoors and out, with thematic signage, fire pits, interactive kiosks, video arrays, decorative lighting, and a 300-seat amphitheater.

With all this going on, who has time to shop?

Deep overhangs provide relief from the desert sun during the hot afternoon hours. (larger image) MARK TWEED, HTH ARCHITECTS

On the contrary, says David Larcher, executive vice president and founding principal of Vestar Development Co., the Phoenix-based force behind Tempe Marketplace: This kind of regional retail hub, similar to his company's pioneering Desert Ridge Marketplace in northeast Phoenix — also a Tweed design — hits the right note for today's shoppers.

"It's something you'll continue to see more of, as the complexion of the traditional regional mall changes," says Larcher. "These centers offer convenience and the draw of outdoor shopping, but unlike power centers which were just utilitarian in their roots, now you're seeing lifestyle and amenities on top of the draw of the big anchors."

Lighting Plays
For both Desert Ridge and Tempe, the concept and design solution required a close integration of architecture and technological amenities. For example, "It takes a significant investment in different types of lighting, much more than in a typical project, because it's truly a 24/7 destination and very entertainment oriented," Larcher explains. "And at night, light becomes a very important architectural element."

Designers at Tempe included water fountains accompanied by music and creative lighting to engage all of the shoppers' senses, rather than just create a visual. (larger image) MARK GREENWALT

In addition to lasers occasionally shooting across the shopping center's "district," a 1,600-foot-long court with plazas and pathways connecting retail structures, decorative lighting comes in a variety of forms. "The shed roofs were designed to be uplit, and the walls and ceilings are there for projecting images on," says Tweed. "We intentionally used surfaces that the lighting would work on, as well as uplighting the trees and landscaping, rooting the architecture into the ground." The effects, designed with Walter Spitz of Creative Designs in Lighting, Phoenix, heavily emphasize color, Tweed adds. "One porte cochere is about aqua blues and greens, and the other is yellows and magenta, echoing a theme of fire."

According to Clay A. Chiappini, project director for the executive architect on Tempe Marketplace, Butler Design Group, Phoenix, this interplay between lighting and architectural assemblage proved vital to a successful design. "One of the most enjoyable things about Phoenix are the evenings," Chiappini explains. "So much of the overall impact of the project came from the large focus upon lighting, such as the use of specialty fixtures that allow continual adjustment, multicolored fixtures to create a more inviting atmosphere without the glare you often associate with indoor malls, where you're bombarded by fluorescents."

Leaving the stores, shoppers at Tempe Marketplace find shade structures, such as deep overhangs, articulated to provide relief from the desert sun by day and to maximize all the lighting techniques during evening hours. Each effect was carefully conceived by the project team, which created scores of renderings and massing studies to simulate both daylight and evening conditions. Memorable details include fragment walls and canopies with exposed structural elements, most notably a finely perforated corrugated-metal decking that filters both natural and electrical light in a way similar to the dappled shadows from native trees such as palo verde.

Other primary materials for the shopping center include composite wall panels, a narrow brick that recalls 1950s desert residences, and lots of smooth stucco.

Signage merges with thematic and architectural elements in a central pedestrian zone. Contributing to a festival atmosphere are such amenities as outside seating areas, shade structures, a bandstand, and highly detailed and illuminated landscaping. (larger image) MARK GREENWALT

Video Displays
"We intentionally left lots of large, beautiful blank walls to project images onto, which will be an increasingly common medium for advertising in the future," says Tweed. Other walls are treated with integral "lifestyle panels" — large Mylar wall sheets, individually framed and illuminated, over and above the standard signage specific to each tenant. The imagery runs the gamut from the literal — a shoe near the entrance to Famous Footwear, for example — to the thematically redolent. In either case, it is meant to highlight the offerings of the larger, inline stores.

The internally illuminated panels prepare shoppers for the 18-foot-square walls of video displays within the outdoor district. The screens depict highly produced graphics and colorful lifestyle montages that coordinate with live events when they are hosted in open areas or the bandstand, which features music on most nights. Overhead, colorful, synchronized laser beams slash the air, emanating from a laser tower with four outputs hosted 1,000 feet away atop a parapet wall. From outdoor seating areas, patrons experience a full-on multimedia show during shopping hours.

Water Cascades
Unsurprisingly, given Vestar's retailing approach, there's more entertainment and enjoyment to be had. Water features compete with the audiovisual systems to impress promenading crowds, for example. "The fountains come from the whole concept of our project, to really engage all of the senses when you step onto property, not just visually, but also through the sound of the water and music, the feel of the outdoor fireplaces, and the smells of the restaurants," says Larcher. "Those elements of fire and water stimulate the customer's nervous system."

In addition to fountains, waterfalls, and larger reflecting pools, a more ethereal water element is the misting system that cools patrons' heads in several outdoor locations. Integrated with the HVAC and plumbing infrastructure, the misting components spray clouds of fine water droplets from about 12 feet to 14 feet high — highlighted with accent lighting, of course. The mist evaporates as it settles to pedestrian level, cooling the zone without soaking the skin. According to the project team, these systems work well in very dry climates with somewhat predictable air movement, especially between buildings that are close together, which is unusual for typical power centers.

On the other hand, many features of the project are decidedly low-tech, says Chiappini, such as the emphasis on live performance — and live security detail. Rather than focusing on technology solutions, the developer opted for "lots of security guards and golf carts." To allow for drop-off areas sought by tenants for the large shopping district square, the architects specified in-ground security bollards. "These raise out of the ground after hours and during scheduled activities, so the district works as one cohesive component, rather than two segments," Chiappini explains.

Fireplaces create a unique and relaxing environment for Tempe Marketplace shoppers. (larger image) FRANK ZAMPINO

By keeping it basic, the project team helped to future-proof the project. "Technology is going to continue to change, so we keep the buildings simple and utilitarian," says Tweed. "It's just a machine for selling, so we were creating a common area that would somehow welcome the next generation of imagery and technology that can dance down that concourse and be part of that selling economic engine that is a lifestyle center. By doing so, you get more life out of the projects, and they are more viable."

The daily parade of breakdancers, magicians, bands, and other live acts contributes to a festival atmosphere that is missing from the typical utilitarian power center. Supplementing the professional entertainment program is a full schedule of community events, Larcher adds, giving shoppers a stronger attachment to the place. Area schools, dance groups, and sports teams are often found in the district or onstage in the outdoor amphitheater. "This really provides an opportunity for the local community to come in and enjoy the project without coming in to shop, so they really take ownership of the project," Larcher observes.

All of this, he adds, sits atop the biggest brownfield cleanup site in Arizona's history — a 117-acre patch of toxic desert now reclaimed for fun and consumption.

While Tempe residents had fretted that the $250 million power center, with its 25 football fields of stores and restaurants, would drain dollars and pedestrians from its quaint downtown, Tweed insists that this center belongs here. "It's a little bit Frank Lloyd Wright, a little bit spaceship, and a little bit historical stucco. It dances through the different Arizonas throughout history," he waxes. "But the average 20-year-old just says, ‘It's cool. I like it.'"

C.C. Sullivan ([email protected]) is an author and communications consultant specializing in design and construction.

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