Yesterday I was in Chicago for the judging of our 20th Annual SADI Awards. (The winners will be announced soon and our supplement published in the September issue.) We've worked with the American Institute of Architects' Retail and Entertainment Knowledge Community for the past few years on this. The knowledge community has provided us with some of the judges and given us feedback on improving the process and tweaking the categories. As a result, I believe the SADI Awards get stronger each year.
This year's discussion was extremely interesting and swerved into some unexpected territory. For example, the reality that there may be too many malls in this country was a point of conversation. With the number of stores closing and the drop in consumption, it seems likely that some retail properties will fail in the coming months and years. So as judges evaluated some of entries in the "renovated enclosed center" category, the question that crept up was why aren't owners being bolder when they tackle these projects? Rather than merely updating a center's look—which is what many of the designs appeared to do--perhaps owners could have taken the opportunity to add density to dated enclosed centers and diversify uses. It's not time to back away from mixed-use. America's enchantment with regional malls may be at an end. Even if it's not, we simply may not need as many as we have today. It's time to accelerate the trend of creating mixed-use environments. In the long term, the judges felt that projects that bring residences, offices and retail together stand a better chance of surviving.
Another theme that came up often was the idea of respecting context. Too many designs appeared to have no connection to the region in which the centers were located. The designs instead emulated other projects. A common refrain was, "I look at this project and I have no idea where in the country it is located." As a result, projects that appeared more integrated into their surrounding communities were recognized for awards, even if the designs themselves didn't appear as flashy as others. A premium was not put on whether a project was handsome architecture, but on whether it was successful retail architecture. That is, judges wanted evidence that the architect was tying the project into its regional context and creating an environment that created a memorable space, showcased retailers and showcased merchandise. It's about striking a balance between form and function.
Most importantly, the judges made a statement this year with some of the selections, including the Grand SADI winner. I can't divulge which project won, but it will be a real shocker. It had one thing in common with several other category winners and honorable mentions. Many of the projects that were recognized showed that it doesn't take a huge budget to create a memorable design. It's not just the projects that cost hundreds of millions to build that are worthy of good architecture. And it's not just the most well-heeled customers that want a pleasant environment to congregate and go shopping. Therefore, the judges rewarded a couple of efforts to turn what could have been hum-drum projects into something much nicer. It will be fascinating to see the reaction when we do unveil the winners in a few weeks.