A sense of place

I can still vividly remember the first time I set foot in Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, in the heart of central Milan. It was early 1982, and I had no idea that I was standing in one of the world’s very first shopping centres. I also had no idea at that time that I would spend at least the next 30 odd years of my life working in the shopping centre industry, something which I commenced doing few months after that visit to Milan. Designed in 1861, and built a few years later, the beautiful though relatively small Milanese masterpiece was one of the world’s first galleria style centres, and is widely credited as being the forerunner of the modern, enclosed shopping centre, and particularly of the glazed dome.

The reason that moment has always stayed with me is because that centre felt so right in its locale, in the centre of Milan, and even to me, with no prior experience of shopping centres at that time, it felt like a place in which I wanted to spend time. The Galleria links Milan’s magnificent Duomo and the famous La Scala Theatre, with equally striking piazzas situated immediately outside each of its entrances.

I later found out, and was not surprised, that the Galleria is fondly known as ‘il salotto di Milano’ or Milan’s meeting room, reflecting its importance as a common meeting and dining venue for Milanese.

It was not until about a decade later, and after I had been working for that decade in shopping centre research, that I again experienced a similar feeling to that which I had experienced on that day in January 1982 – when I first stood in the just completed Chadstone Galleria.

Now, I am no architect but I suspect the Chadstone Galleria was in many ways a descendent of Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, though there are not a lot of direct comparisons to be drawn between central Milan and the middle Melbourne suburb of Chadstone as locations.

Nonetheless, to me the Chadstone Galleria also felt just right, with its abundant natural light and sophisticated yet still relaxed Australian style. Though both were gallerias, they certainly were not the same, and Chadstone’s galleria to me felt like it captured the spirit of a modern, suburban but aspirational shopping centre in the early 1990s, when Australia was beginning its very successful journey of about two decades’ worth of growth and evolution in major shopping centre design and scale.

The concept of ‘sense of place’ was something that I did not really come across until some years later. The term ‘sense of place’ is defined and used in different ways by different people, but in relation to shopping centre development its most common usage is in reference to those characteristics that make a centre special or even unique, and the qualities that foster concepts of authenticity, human attachment and belonging. Places which have a strong sense of place typically have an identity and a character that is deeply felt by those who use them. Places (or centres) that do not have a sense of place are sometimes referred to as inauthentic.

The patio at Pacific Fair, Gold Coast

The creation of a sense of place is the antithesis of the criticism of ‘sameness’ which is sometimes thrown at enclosed shopping centres. The reasons I have chosen to write about this in this Big Guns edition of SCN is because I see the search for sense of place as now being front and centre in the evolution of the new Big Gun.

It is not easy to even define sense of place, let alone deliver it. It is seen to be a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perception or experiences, yet it is dependent on human engagement for its existence. My feeling of the sense of place of the Galleria in Milan was a very personal one, yet many thousands, maybe millions, of people before and after me would agree that they had similarly felt that sense when visiting the centre.

Because sense of place is about things such as authenticity and standing apart from the crowd, it is difficult to deliver within the context of a Big Gun, where so many of the elements are common to all. Even with the next stage in the evolution of the best of these centres that we are now seeing, there are essentially many similar elements being added, most typically new international fast fashion stores and a vastly extended and improved food & beverage offer.

Yet I could not help but notice recently that despite the presence of many similar ingredients, the experience that I had when I stood in the town square of the recently redeveloped Westfield Garden City at Mt Gravatt in Brisbane was distinctly different to that which I had when standing in the town square of QIC’s even more recently completed Eastland at Ringwood in eastern Melbourne. The Patio, the first stage of AMP’s redeveloped Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast in Queensland, provided me with a different experience again.

In all three I felt very comfortable, and for me each was, in its own way, an authentic experience in the locale in which it is situated.

The town square at Westfield Mt Gravatt, felt very ‘Queensland’ – water, sand, beachside feel, relaxed and sunny. The Town Square at Eastland is similarly an open air space with excellent design and landscape features and with a wide ranging and very appealing food & beverage offer, but my experience of it was quite different to the Queensland feel of Garden City. It integrates seamlessly with the large Ringwood train station directly opposite, and is a space in keeping with Eastland’s ability to be the gateway to Melbourne’s famed Yarra Valley – rather than just a dining area in a regional centre located in the eastern Melbourne suburb of Ringwood.

Town Square, Eastland Shopping Centre, Ringwood

The Patio at Pacific Fair, with its timber finishes and large ceiling fans, is to me very Gold Coast, in that it takes the best features of the Gold Coast – climate, relaxed ambience, semi-tropical, even a touch of sophistication, and brings them together in a manner which I expect both residents and the millions of visitors which the Gold Coast attracts will find very welcoming.

Thus, even though all three of these centres will have numerous similarities when completed, not least the collections of major stores, new international fast fashion mini-majors, national chain stores, foodcourts, cinemas and so on, today more than ever they look and feel quite different to each other in many important ways.

In order to achieve their respective sense of place, each of these centres has taken its own unique approach to the question of design, ambience and public realm, and each has had to work within the constraints of its location and physical environment. The supporting mix, particularly in food & beverage, is yet another factor which can and does assist in this differentiation – it is not possible of course for every shop to be different, but all it takes is a few that can help to deliver that authentic feel. In that regard, food & beverage provides these centres with an excellent opportunity to add that element of differentiation, because the best of food & beverage retailing can often still be delivered by local operators.

Westfield Garden City

What I find very exciting about this search for sense of place which Australia’s Big Guns are now readily embracing, is that the journey has really just begun, and we can expect to see a cycle of continual improvement as each example learns from previous ones, and as the industry’s ability to deliver authentic visions continues to grow. I am greatly looking forward to see what the next stage of Chadstone will feel like when it opens, while I fully expect QIC’s Castle Towers redevelopment in Sydney will take things to another level, as will AMP’s Garden City Booragoon and Karrinyup SC redevelopments in Perth, plus no doubt many others. I am very confident that these new examples will each be different in some way from the ones recently completed, and will each stand out in its own way.

Those who are seriously into wine use the term ‘terroir’ to try and describe the manner in which a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect can affect the taste of a wine, even though the grape variety is the same as grown in other regions. Some regions are said to have more ‘terroir’ than others.

Comparing shopping centres to fine wine might be a bit of a stretch, but there is no question in my mind that some centres will have a greater sense of place than others.


About the author:

Tony Dimasi Managing Director – Retail E: dimasi@macroplan.com.au
Tony Dimasi is MacroPlan’s Managing Director – Retail.  Since 1982 Tony has undertaken independent research on behalf of retailers, shopping centre owners and managers, property developers, government and statutory authorities, as well as a wide range of other clients. The research includes both supply and demand analysis, as well as extensive customer research, investigating customer behaviour, motivations and preferences with regard to shopping and activity centre uses. Tony has worked across all parts of Australia and New Zealand, and has provided advice in relation to virtually every significant activity centre location in both countries. The range of projects has included BD properties, super regional centres, regional and sub-regional centres, district and neighbourhood centres, homemaker retail facilities, freestanding stores, and all other retail formats, as well as commercial and industrial precincts. 
About MacroPlan: MacroPlan’s experienced and qualified economists align their understanding of macro-economic forces with micro-economic variables such as geographic and industrial characteristics, demographics, labour market shifts, resource demand and commercial realities.  Contact Tony Dimasi, Managing Director – Retail today to discuss your property research requirements.