Steven Smit

Asia Pacific

Steven Smit is a Dutch ‐ Australian architect with over 20 years international experience. He has worked with renowned design firms OMA, PTW, RMJM and from 2013 led design studios for Atkins in Shanghai and Beijing. Having worked in China since 2002, from locations in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Steven has developed unique insights into the Chinese property market and the Chinese urbanization phenomenon. Steven is a member of the China Green Building Council and since 2010 sits on the Australian Institute of Architects International Area Chapter.

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Ongoing developments in technology, in particular e-commerce, has very much driven discussions among architects on innovation in the retail landscape. According to

"71% of all physical retail sales will be driven by web-rooming: the act of researching an item online before visiting a store to purchase it."

Architects and retail designers are now challenged by their clients (and increasingly consumers) to think about if and how the digital and the physical space can be merged to offer the public a new experience and to enhance competitiveness.

In experimental markets such as China in particular, where physical and digital (e-commerce) shopping malls are growing exponentially in parallel, the impact of experiments in hybrid new retail environments on the traditional model (as driven by leading Chinese retail developers wanting to innovate) must not be under estimated.

According to McKinsey’s iConsumer China 2015 survey:

"Chinese e-commerce is developing even faster than previously believed, with Chinese iConsumers embracing online commerce and major retailers rushing to offer ever more sophisticated online services….The research shows robust growth in social commerce, a trend toward transforming physical retailers into mere ‘showrooms’, and mounting consumer enthusiasm for more online-to-offline (O2O) services."

Worldwide, designers are now investigating the physical design responses or solutions that embrace the exploding e-commerce phenomenon. It is widely believed that e-commerce will not eliminate the shopping mall, but shopping malls will change and adapt. Designers are asking the question: What will the shopping mall look like in 2050? New terms are being coined: phygital environments, iConsumers, in-store digital technology, digital in-store convenience, immersive brand experience, sci-fi shopping, real time retail, O2O service, consumer data tracking.

Designers and retail developers believe that the value of the physical experience will remain important, maybe even more so. And with fully integrated and intuitive ‘in-store digital technology’, the whole experience will become more convenient. Online and off-line are not competitors but complementary. The survival of the physical store is not in doubt, and as the physical complements digital (complement each other, both ways), the overall shopping experience will be enhanced.

Consensus is that product remains key, now and in the future, and if product can not be replaced, neither can the mall. Designers are therefore proposing, with integrated technology, a more theatrical shopping experience could be designed, leading perhaps to a future ‘high street of theatres’.

If the store mutates into a ‘living web site’, this means that consumer data will heavily influence the retail landscape of the future. Data collected on the behaviours and desires of millions of iConsumers, will predict retail behaviour and thus influence the re-configuration of retail spaces, ultimately maybe leading to ‘immersive, ever changing selling spaces’.

(quotes sourced from FRAME Magazine May-June 2015, Retail: Tech Takes Over).

Related article – Atkins wins contract to develop IMX International Trade and Exhibition Centre.

Related article – Construction begins on Atkins-designed IMX corporate campus in Shanghai

Asia Pacific,

For anyone who has visited a Chinese city, it is obvious that the desire by Chinese clients, as expressed in design briefs to international and local architects to surprise the market with the next unique idea, has resulted in many ‘weird’ (‘qi qi guai guai’) buildings being commissioned. Foreign architects working in China have for years been uncomfortable with designing icons for icons’ sake. But sometimes weird buildings win international design awards – such as the new CCTV headquarters in Beijing, currently everyone’s favourite strange building.

The Chinese president Xi Jinping recently gave a speech to a group of culture sector professionals on the topic of architecture appropriate for China. He expressed a desire for ‘patriotic, socialist and nationalistic’ architecture, interpreted by many to mean more culturally appropriate architecture for China at this time. This architecture could be less flamboyant and ‘international’ and more ‘restrained’ and sustainable.

The speech has instigated a serious discussion among Chinese and international architects and property developers, and means that after two decades of creating thousands of architectural icons that replaced drab state architecture, further iconic buildings are becoming a risky proposition. It could lead to a more considered, constrained design culture, in other words, more ‘mature’ architecture. In every country a fine line exists between good architecture, strange architecture, ugly architecture and plain bad architecture. Architects around the world respond to a design brief and many factors, especially cost, will influence the end result.

In China the property market is now maturing rapidly, with rising construction costs (in particular labour costs) and the ’icon boom’ may be over for good. It is possible that under the slowed economic growth conditions adopted in China, clients and government bodies in charge of design selection and project approvals, like their western counterparts, are going to judge designs more on core performance parameters related to quality (including sustainability) and less on pure idea and shape alone.

If the president does not approve of ‘qi qi guai guai’ weird building designs in China, local planning officials – often second guessing the meaning behind iconic concepts – are not going to risk arguing with Beijing. The difficulty of course is to define what is meant by weird. At the moment everyone is waiting to see if the president’s thinking will and can be issued as a building policy or code. There will definitely be interesting implications for architecture in China in the future.

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