Arts & Culture Visual Arts

Architect Rita El Kouhen on Renovating Malls and Other Large Structures (Interview) 

Artvoice recently interviewed top-tier, in-demand architect Rita El Kouhen about her experiences renovating large structures, including malls, shopping centers, and mixed-use sites. 

Just some quick background on El Kouhen, she is a very highly-skilled architect and graphic designer who has worked with renowned architecture firms in both New York and Paris, giving her a wealth of experience via many different types of projects. 

During our interview with El Kouhen, we focused on the process of renovating large-scale structures, which can range from malls to shopping centers to apartment buildings to office buildings and many other varieties as well. 

Specifically, El Kouhen argues that malls and physical stores, in general, can still offer a great deal to customers and tenants alike, especially when renovation efforts are mounted by intelligent and innovative architects and designers. 

El Kouhen shared with us just some of the many challenges and considerations that are inherent to renovating large-scale structures. 

Join us for an in-depth look at how architectural views of these structures are changing as real estate for brand new properties is becoming more and more scarce. 

You’ve worked on hospitality and shopping center projects. Can you tell us a bit more about the types of structures you worked on? 

Being part of the top architecture firms in New York allows me to be part of a multitude of successful medium- and large-scale retail projects. This ranges from enclosed malls, power centers, mixed-use and outlet centers, boutique and turn-key retail for renowned retailers in the US. 

In addition, I’ve also worked both in the US and back when I was in France on projects such as hotels, restaurants, libraries, and music halls. What is interesting about retail projects is the constant push to provide tenants with new-looking and attractive spaces. The projects are very fast and you are expected to understand the planning and process. 

These types of projects require you to think fast and be creative in all aspects. You also need to offer flexibility to the tenant and client since retail can always evolve. For individual retailers, the goal is to focus on the brand and how best to connect with the customers. 

The process is tough even for some of the tenants who already have their own standards and identity set; we usually need to align with their requirements. It is also important to push the boundaries and still offer something unique that will attract tenants. 

With innovation, we can propose smart solutions to facilitate a smooth transition and improve the space and experience. Being competitive and creative is key to a successful project, no matter the size of the project. Understanding the goals and what tenant you are working for is also important. 

There are also large-scale projects for larger retail developers such as enclosed malls and shopping centers. These projects are usually driven by masterplanning prior to the start. These projects tend to focus on renovation rather than new construction. It is about building a strong identity for this space. It is about proposing an urban design, a more thought of public space that will define the place and support its development for the upcoming years.

Many malls in the US have been abandoned. Do you think these structures could be renovated and repurposed? 

Malls are a great opportunity when it comes to a large shopping center. While some of them are getting tired, there are several other malls that have been recently renovated and brought back to life. The renovation itself can help significantly increase sales. 

Instead of going after new land, it is relevant to take a step back and analyze the site to see if it’s strategically better to consider renovating the site. Most of the time clients who come to us seeking a new project benefit from a good location and visibility to its surroundings. Either they are seeking to diversify their customers or bring new retailers to the site to attract more customers. 

The other purpose of renovating a mall is to make a better impression on potential buyers. Either way, the impact is important on the closed community and shoppers. Even online shopping is increasing the value of the experience behind going to a physical store. It’s just not the same. Malls are a place where you can buy items but also eat and be entertained and most importantly enjoy quality time with family and friends. 

When looking at the demographics of people going to a mall, studies show that most of the customers come with their families or friends and spend a good amount of time. Depending on the budget, the renovation can sometimes be a major transformation to the mall, including interior and exterior improvements. Basically, depending on the extent of the work, you may or may not alter the existing structure. 

It is impressive to see how successful renovation can be. All materials or concepts incorporated during the design phases should be timeless. The renovation can feature a unique concept but always keep in mind the durability of the design and materials we use. Usually, a renovation targets longevity of 15 to 20 years. So everything needs to be studied carefully to propose a design that can be preserved and stands the test of time. 

Based on my experience working on malls, I don’t think it is necessary to think that malls should be repurposed if sales are down. The goal for us architects is to be smart to sustain the idea behind a shopping center. Instead of automatically condemning a space it is worth it to see what the issues are and how we can develop it. 

Instead of thinking about a complete repurpose, I think we still have a great opportunity to enhance the mall, creating a new atmosphere and perception. Whether the renovation is major or less significant, it has a major impact on the shopper’s behavior and how they spend their time and interact with the space.

What do you think would be the best applications for former malls and shopping centers? 

The concept of a mall emerged in the US in the 1920s and became generic in the 1960s. However, different trends and facts are pushing the limits of a mall, making it evolve beyond the traditional shopping center experience. People tend to prefer more shops within walking distance. Yes, online shopping is convenient and sometimes practical, but it will not replace the experience of going to a physical shop. The interaction with the products and customers is something harder to fulfill when relying on e-commerce. I think if the mall is a no longer a place to go shopping, it’s an opportunity to focus on other aspects of it. 

They are many other aspects that can emphasize the experience and attract customers. A mall is a social destination where people can meet. So perpetuating this tradition is something we should think about.

Showrooms and pop-up stores are a great way to think about the space. Pop-up shops or kiosks not only provide diversity to the customer but also offer short-term leases. Pop-up shops can be serving food and beverages but also be related to more playful entities where people can try and discover new trends. 

It’s more about the experience than what people choose to buy. There are many aspects developers can introduce to enhance the shopping experience. Whether focusing on the interaction with the space and introducing new technologies to identify the shopper’s needs, help identify the products, facilitate deliveries or pickups, or developing new programs by introducing new tenants, all of these are great options to make these spaces more appealing and versatile

What are some other large structures that you think are well-suited to renovation? 

When referring to renovation we can think of sustainability and how reusing the existing structure can help encourage greener buildings. Sustainable buildings are not necessarily brand new buildings with all-new technology. They can look like they’ve always been there. 

It’s more about exploring the envelope and pushing the boundaries to align with new requirements. Besides the investment aspects of a renovation, it is interesting to consider how to use sustainable materials and craftsmanship that no longer exists. Many buildings and structures can still stand the test of time and only need a few adjustments to evolve.

Others will require a heavier, more intrusive type of renovation, but it all depends on what the purpose is behind the renovation. 

In terms of what structures can be renovated, this is a question that can apply to any building. A couple of years ago, I worked on a project of renovating an old landmark residential building into offices. The facade of the building itself had to remain due to the location of the building being in the heart of Paris. Due to building codes and restrictions, Paris is considered to be one of the most difficult places to introduce modern architecture. 

When confronted with the site requirements and rigid laws, we had to focus on the interior of the space. Yes, it was indeed challenging to renovate the main facade and conserve its traditional character, but at the same time, it was a very interesting process to think of the interior as a separate entity, almost like the visitor will set foot in the future once they cross the entrance. 

We took the restrictions as a challenge, allowing us to push the concept even further. It was a challenging but fruitful experience. 

So, when thinking about large-scale structures being renovated, it is not only related to a physical building but it can be a neighborhood, a large-scale site, or even a city. With the amount of land available and the density of cities, renovation can be a great way to rethink different projects.

Can you explain what ‘mixed use’ means in the context of architecture? 

Mixed-use means different programs and opportunities gathered together in one location. It’s bringing different uses under one entity. We can then talk about a horizontal mixed-use development, which includes different buildings located on the same site. 

A vertical mixed-use development is a different category and usually applies to a high- or low-rise building including offices, residential units, or a hotel, gyms, and health center in addition to retail shops and restaurants. 

We tend in this case to place the public entities on the first floor and the private units on the higher floors. Of course, the program will not be reduced to the uses previously mentioned; it really depends on the location and the owner. 

Also, larger-scale entities such as airports and transport stations are now designed to allow mixed-use programs to fit in. The customer nowadays is more attracted by the diversity of the site and no longer leans toward a more traditional design. 

Customers tend to favor walking-distance amenities. A few years ago, seeing a mixed-use project was something somewhat common, while today it is almost becoming a necessity.

What is one of the biggest challenges of working on large structures?

To understand the challenge behind working on large structures, I would like to be more specific. Depending on the project, most large-scale projects or structures require an understanding of the customer, the demographics, and the project goals. 

Most large-scale projects involve different users or customers. I’m not referring to a stadium or an opera house designed to receive a unique program for one specific use. I’m referring to a large mixed-use building with a superstructure where we have different interactions and programs.

If, for example, we choose to expand vertically and build a high-rise structure, the challenge will be to think smart using all appropriate materials. The structure and the building itself becomes one entity; they are not designed separately. 

Depending on if we chose to use steel or concrete, the shape and aesthetic will determine most of these parameters. The idea can be designing the building as a sculpture or as an open sleek vertical glass element. Adding multiple programs to the buildings adds to its complexity. So if we choose to incorporate public spaces, gardens, shops, or restaurants within the same enclosure, we can probably achieve it. 

However, the challenge is to still be faithful to the initial designs and of course mindful of the budget and timeline. Most of the time the challenge behind presenting a very audacious rendering is to be able to make it happen and make your building stand out. It is always fun during the early stages of a project to let the imagination flow and come up with unusual concepts. 

However, you then need to make your ideas real and build the structure. Most clients would be willing to explore new designs and ideas. However, when it comes to the budget, construction needs to follow. So my point is after the early stages of a project, the challenge consists of coordinating between all disciplines and professionals involved in this particular job. 

When working on larger, more important projects, the process is slightly different. The building will require special attention to some working limitations of equipment, systems, or technologies. Technology today is very advanced. However, finding experienced staff to be part of the adventure can also be a challenge. 

The bigger a project is, the more it requires specific attention. The bigger a project is, the more likely it can face material shortages. Being proactive in this case is very important. Keeping a clear target is in my opinion the most important aspect to deal with unforeseen events that can happen in construction. 

Construction can fall easily behind schedule or go over budget. Some aspects of the construction can be controlled by being on top of it all. Good management of a project allows you to keep the schedule moving. 

Even though a lot of people can be involved, if everyone is held accountable for their part of the project, the process can keep moving. Coordination, good management, and communication are key to handling the project.

Just in theory, in what ways could renovation make a structure more appealing to the general public? 

The concept of renovation is not just about making the outside or inside look nicer. In my opinion, it goes beyond this. The history behind a structure should be considered as well. 

If you are renovating a landmark building or a historic site, a lot of questions should be thought of before starting the design process. What is the most significant component and what should be preserved? What can be enhanced? What was the reason behind the shape or form of this element? It is a complex process that involves a lot of factors, including cultural and social factors. 

On the other hand, if you are renovating a building to bring the building up to its century and meet the new building energy codes, it is a different approach. 

I read once that making a building stand out can happen by receiving a lot of praise or strong opposition to its design. 

In both cases, it turns heads because of its uniqueness and original design. Having worked on a recent mall renovation on the West coast, the process can be time-consuming and complex. 

However, taking the time to study the mall and the strategies of how to approach the renovation was a rewarding process. 

Slowing down the design process is important. When it comes to renovating an existing structure, the challenge is to surprise the customer and create a new experience within the same space. With the use of the right techniques and materials and implementing new structures to help diversify the program, transforming the place is more than achievable.