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Tuesday
May162017

Visualizing a New Life for the Retail Center: Transforming Assets with Virtual Reality 

The Galleria at White Plains. Image © Gensler

The retail center is a fascinating typology because it is metabolic and constantly changing. Many buildings look their best on opening day and then age and decay until demolition or renovation. The retail center is different in that it reinvents itself with each new merchant’s arrival. It’s a collage of brands, aesthetics and personalities relating together to create one destination.

The death of the American mall is frequently proclaimed in the press and social media these days, stated with a weird kind of glee and accompanied by sad photo essays of vacant anchors and deserted food courts. A Facebook group called “Dead Mall Enthusiasts” has over 20,000 members, but despite this hype, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) found that 70 percent of Americans went to retail centers during the holiday season last year. Of those customers, 26 percent went for a movie or other experience and did not shop.

The existing stock of retail centers are strategically positioned real estate assets that are undergoing transformation to accommodate today’s experience-driven consumer. As designers, we take on the challenge of defining a new modern identity for retail centers that have been built in previous decades.

Hedge fund manager Tom Barrack once said of Claridge’s, “No one really ever ‘owns’ these jeweled assets. We are all merely stewards for a short period of time with the mandate to leave them in better condition than we found them.” This attitude is useful when approaching a renovation project.

The Galleria at White Plains. Image © Gensler

The Galleria at White Plains is a brutalist, opaque, monolithic retail center constructed in 1978, located in White Plains, New York, a commercial and residential suburb 20 miles north of New York City. Gensler’s Retail Centers practice has been called in to transform this profitable asset into a porous, light-filled, transparent mixed-use hybrid. The team proposed a dramatic restacking and reskinning to increase leasing opportunities and provide a bright and welcoming street presence to the Westchester community.

We used virtual reality technology to explain this transformation to the clients and stakeholders. Creating immersive, three-dimensional, virtual models provides a time machine for our clients to travel to a hypothetical future version of their building. It’s no longer a blurry sketch, a great rendering and trusting our word—our clients can navigate through a roam-able virtual world to see the new designs with their own eyes, viscerally understanding scale as it relates to their bodies.

Using virtual reality in the architectural renovation of an existing retail center allows us to:

  • See a new merchant in context and evaluate their storefront, signage and brand’s presence.
  • Set the perfect ceiling height by standing in a space before it is built.
  • Walk a contractor through a project before he or she starts demolition so that the construction process is more déjà vu than discovery.
  • Enable a client to click a button and see all Food Court design options while sitting in a sample chair to assess the comfort level while immersed.
  • Visually show the impact of a proposed lighting value engineering effort beyond the numbers on a spreadsheet.
  • Use the Presence Mapper with local community members in core shopping demographics to track the success of possible design solutions.

As part of ICSC’s RECon, Gensler’s Retail Centers practice area will set up a Virtual Reality Lounge where you can visit the Galleria at White Plains and many of our other projects virtually.

Megan Lubaszka works in the Retail Centers studio at Gensler’s Los Angeles office. She curates the newsletter Reality Check, a weekly email that goes to all Gensler employees exploring Virtual, Mixed and Augmented Reality technologies. Contact her at Megan_Lubaszka@gensler.com.
Mark McManus is the Regional Creative Media Leader for Gensler’s Southwest Region, focusing on implementing virtual, mixed and augmented reality technologies into daily architectural workflow to improve building design and construction. With over 20 years of experience in art, architecture, and urban planning on multiple continents, his portfolio ranges from theme parks and hotels to complex offices and airports. Contact him at Mark_McManus@gensler.com.