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Through the past four decades, indoor and outdoor shopping malls have become dominant fixtures of the retail landscape. As the ‘mall phenomenon’ has matured and the number of facilities has risen, notes fountain expert Paul L’Heureux, so has the need to differentiate these properties to attract shoppers. In lots of cases, he says, the marks of distinction are watershapes of one sort or another – yet another creative outlet for imaginative designers.
Through the past four decades, indoor and outdoor shopping malls have become dominant fixtures of the retail landscape.  As the ‘mall phenomenon’ has matured and the number of facilities has risen, notes fountain expert Paul L’Heureux, so has the need to differentiate these properties to attract shoppers.  In lots of cases, he says, the marks of distinction are watershapes of one sort or another – yet another creative outlet for imaginative designers.
By Paul L’Heureux & Douglas Duff

The shopping mall as we know it first emerged in the United States in the 1960s and since then has become a dominating retail presence on both the urban and suburban scenes.

They started out in larger cities but soon were found just about everywhere – indoors or outdoors, small and large, visually appealing and, well, less visually appealing.  Some are organized around upscale shopping and recreational activities, others around discount centers and manufacturers’ outlets.  There are many that are filled with mom-and-pop boutiques, while a few are integrated with amusement parks.  Whatever seems likely to succeed, mall developers have certainly been willing to give it a whirl.

At their core, however, every mall of any type has the primary mission of pulling people together so they can spend money on all kinds of merchandise; all the entertainment, dining and socializing are, in other words, secondary activities.  In this sense, today’s retail forums are a modern version of marketplace traditions that reach back to ancient times and almost every human society – with lots of modern conveniences added for good measure.

Today’s malls, in fact, are highly organized, highly disciplined, highly programmed institutions that combine modular construction, contemporary merchandising and carefully arranged pedestrian movement to create optimal environments for buying and selling.  It should come as no surprise that, in the form of decorative fountains, reflecting pools, water walls, choreographed features and more, watershapes have become prominent features of these high-energy environments.   

GLOBAL REACH

In the United States, the shopping mall is a mature phenomenon, so entrenched that it has become an intensely competitive economic sector all its own in which property owners and managers are forced to find ways to differentiate their facilities from scores of competitors within relatively easy driving distance.

The same is true in other parts of the world, but for the most part their processes of mall development are several years behind the leading edge seen in the United States.  Some places in Western Europe are just a few years behind the curve, but for others such as Poland and Romania in Europe or China or Korea on the Pacific Rim, the gap is more like 20 years.  

Even so, these areas are rapidly closing the gaps, and malls are emerging all over the map.  Indeed, the rise of the middle class following the fall of communism has led to retail explosions in some countries, as has the concentration of petro-dollars in the Middle East.

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These are iconic fountains in the truest sense. Bold and eye-catching, the fountain at the Eaton Centre in Toronto – shown when it was first commissioned 30 years ago (left) and just recently (middle) – sets the stage for an enthusiastic shopping experience, while the fountain at Blue City in Poland is a dynamic, ongoing and obvious crowd-pleaser (right).

In Poland, for example, we at Crystal Fountains, a Toronto-based fountain design and manufacturing company, have installed fountains in six new shopping malls in recent years.  And malls seem to be getting bigger all the time:  We’re aware of one in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates that will be the biggest in the world at some six million square feet.  (To put that in perspective, the average indoor shopping mall in the United States covers about a million square feet.)  In all cases foreign and domestic, developers see our watershapes as a means of upping the ante and distinguishing their malls from all the rest.   

This is no small need:  Around the world but especially in the United States, we’ve witnessed the over-development of these retail facilities to the point where a great many properties are having trouble leasing their space or retaining tenants in the face of inadequate consumer traffic.  It’s a high-stakes game, and the market has become very competitive and more varied as a result.

The pressure for performance has been there with malls from the beginning, but in the 1990s, a new trend emerged in the form of specialization and the pursuit of distinct groups of consumers.  This is when we saw the opening of outlet malls and of malls anchored by multiplex movie theaters and brand-name retail stores.    

This is also the time when the competitive framework of the mall business began to smile favorably on the fountain and watershaping industries, with property owners and developers seeking creative amenities to set their facilities apart from the crowd.  It’s reached a point where, nowadays, almost any mall worth its salt features a watershape of some kind.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Truth be told, however, property owners have something of a love/hate relationship with watershapes.

The more visionary among them perceive our output as bringing excitement, generating foot traffic and creating key destinations within their malls and, as a result, are willing to invest in the intangible ‘aura’ that water brings to these environments.  Others, however, resent the initial cost, the ongoing upkeep and the fact that these watershapes take up space that might otherwise be appropriated for a kiosk of some kind.  (It bears mentioning that the latter set of property owners are generally among those who have run into poorly designed, poorly installed features that become substantial problems and are frequently decommissioned as a result.)

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This fountain is the destination of choice within the big Dolce Vita shopping center in Portugal, serving as a rendezvous for patrons on all four of the mall’s levels. Shoppers are drawn to this spot by constantly varying, highly animated water shows in the big oval watershape and are encouraged by its open, central location to perceive its role as the mall’s focal point.

Either way, watershapes don’t directly generate income, so justifying their presence requires a sophisticated attitude about design, atmosphere and place on the part of property owners.  We’ve found that when these watershapes are properly designed in accordance with clear-cut objectives – especially when considered from the outset of the facility-design process – the likelihood of owner satisfaction with the results is astronomically higher.  

Mall developers tend to be sharp people, so, of course, the points just made are not lost on them.  More and more, in fact, top-flight watershaping companies are being brought into the mix as part of the initial design team.  When that happens, we and others are able to fit our watershape concepts within overall aesthetic schemes and integrate them into physical plants in all sorts of ways that make sense.

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This fountain in Montreal plays a combination of roles, principal among them service as a place where people relax, converse and dine next to the cooling water. Lots of fountains in retail spaces cross between iconic, destination and relaxation roles through the years, but a true, relaxation-oriented watershapes works its magic by being a place where people are taken away from the shopping experience for a time – something less possible with iconic or destination features.

As is the case in just about every conceivable project, it really helps when watershapes are considered from the start rather than being afterthoughts.  We see parallels with other features in retail settings, such as fiberoptic lighting – which, when used properly, can be wonderful way to excite consumer and retailer expectations but in others becomes little more than a harsh visual distraction.

With water effects, the expectations are similarly high, which is why it’s so important to integrate them into the early planning.  After all, most people these days have seen truly spectacular water systems in malls, theme parks and other public spaces and are familiar with water’s potential.  Moreover, these systems are expensive:  If they fall short, the unmet expectations become a source of tremendous consternation for property owners and retailers.

ELEMENTS OF SUCCESS

The possibilities when it comes to fountains and other watershapes in malls run deep and wide.  You see everything from modest fountains that take up just a few square feet to enormous installations that seem to go on forever.  Some come with basic circulation systems; others feature sophisticated programmable effects.  And there’s plenty of room for variations in between.

Regardless of positioning, size, level of sophistication or visual impact, the reasons for using decorative water in retail spaces remain fairly consistent:

[ ]  “We want an icon.”  At its most dramatic and dynamic, water in a mall will create an image and set of experiences that become synonymous with the facility itself.  One of our earliest (and to this day, most effective) mall fountains was built in our hometown of Toronto for the Eaton Center, a large mall that’s nearly 30 years old.  It features a system of sequenced water effects that emerge from an unusual cone-shaped basin.

What makes this particular fountain so effective is that people, especially children, have learned to anticipate the timing of dramatic eruptions of water.  The excitement builds gradually, sort of like waiting for Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, and has cemented the fountain’s place in the “mall experience” in a completely iconic way.  (A lesson we learned here is that the physical design of the fountain can actually be secondary to the need to create this compelling sort of experience.)   

[ ]  “We want a destination.”  Many mall owners want their watershapes to become gathering places and rendezvous points for shoppers.  Iconic fountains certainly fill that role, but the same effect can be achieved with less showy watershapes if they are placed where families or groups of friends can gather or if they serve as landmarks that help shoppers keep their bearings – especially important in larger facilities.

Without iconic impact or a timed, sequenced effect, destination watershapes at least need to have an interesting or somehow memorable look.  Often, for example, they have raised coping walls that allow for seating next to the water; always, they need to be able to attract the eye from all available lines of sight, whether it's with an interesting geometric design, a sculpture or some themed element.  It can be just about anything so long as people will remember it in a positive way.  

[ ]  “We want a place where people can relax.”  Shopping malls can be frenetic, even stressful, especially in advance of holidays.  In many cases, people are spending more money than they want to spend and are enduring crowds and even the occasional cranky salesperson.  Many malls are responding by bringing naturalistic streams, waterfalls and ponds into the experience with the specific aim of creating areas of repose.

It doesn’t have to be a babbling brook, of course.  An architectural fountain with slow-moving water, gentle sounds and easy visual qualities can be just as effective, especially when placed adjacent to seating or dining areas.

As a rule, relaxation-oriented watershapes are among the simplest of mall features, but not always.  Some facilities jump in with gusto, creating grand garden spaces with elaborate plantings to introduce the concept of serenity into otherwise bustling environments.  This is a very different kind of objective than obtains with iconic or destination fountains:  The idea here is to take people away from the shopping experience for a brief time.

[ ]  “We want a place for kids to play.”  Children love to play in water, and within the past decade or so, we’ve seen the strong emergence of deck-level fountains and other interactive features (cartoon animals that spit water as children climb over them, for example).  These have become particularly popular in outdoor malls in warm climates:  Parents get a break while the kids play in the water and evaporative cooling gives everyone a chance to cool down and beat the heat.  

One key factor here is that play fountains can require lots of space, both for the feature and for associated seating.  And because they’re designed for play, safety features such as water-treatment systems, non-skid surfaces and toe-entrapment prevention are important, as is avoiding any tripping hazards or flows of water that might cause either soft-tissue or eye damage.

These systems can become destinations and be iconic in their own ways, and they’re even relaxing if you look at them from a parent’s perspective.  But their primary purpose always will be as a source of fun for the kiddies.

[ ]  “We want a brand identity.”  It’s not unusual these days for the names of stores, brand names or a mall itself to be highlighted in some form of water-focused signage.  These can be among the least complicated of all systems and take up relatively small amounts of space.

The most common watershape used in these branding exercises is the water wall – a type of feature that easily functions in a relaxation area and can become something of a destination.  As nice as they can be, however, it would be a stretch to say they can become iconic except under the rarest of circumstances.

NO RULES

It’s critical to recognize that these sorts of generalizations are subject to differing conditions presented in each setting.  In other words, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to malls and their watershapes.

With fountains in public spaces such as these, in fact, it’s fair to that whatever rules there might be really only exist to be broken.  The basic reality is that the functionality of a fountain may combine more than one element and be completely off the beaten path from what might be called standard practice (if you can call anything that happens in the custom fountain business “standard practice”).

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Watershapes defined as places where kids come to play are among the most popular of all features in retail spaces, both because they draw families and because they tend to keep them at the shopping center for longer periods. For obvious reasons, they’re most often found at outdoor malls in warmer climates, and their main purpose is always fun for the kids.

Whatever the setting, the intended function and basic style of the waterfeature, all those factors must be considered from the start of the project or the opportunities for success will be seriously diminished.  Indeed, it’s our observation that if you are called in to work on a fountain as a downstream afterthought of the design process, it’s probably wise to step back and think twice about getting involved.

So late in the game, not only is clarity of design purpose in jeopardy, but also in the soup is a whole range of practical considerations, including the space allocated for the fountain, the location of the equipment, access for plumbing and conduits and coordination with affected construction trades – all of which almost certainly will be compromised if you’re not involved from the start.

An issue seemingly as large as establishing the splash footprint is no big deal when you can influence the positioning, allotted space and size of the feature up front.  After the fact, however, you’ll be forced to make the design conform to available space in ways that represent serious limitations and compromises.

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A fountain need not project the name or logo of a retail operation or mall to become its brand. In this case, a subtle, sequenced bubble feature has come to identify the third tallest building in Hong Kong,  flanking its entry escalator with a constantly changing display that works in harmony with its surroundings – and in full compliance with principles of feng shui.

The same is true of plumbing runs, which can be a nightmare if not planned from the start.  Malls tend to be massive, heavy-duty structures with significant load-bearing walls, columns, floors and ceilings.  Penetrating those structures after the fact can be literally impossible, which in turns means you may end up snaking in convoluted plumbing configurations that will play havoc with hydraulic design and efficiency.

An even bigger point is that only by working as part of the initial design team can you truly exploit the true potential of the site.  In our work, we’ve run into situations where not only were we brought in late in the game and faced with all sorts of constraints as a result, but also in which the clients wanted us to do things with water that just weren’t possible.  We know for a fact that the only set of rules we can’t bend or break is the laws of physics, no matter what a mall’s owner might say.

There really are limits to just how far water can fall in a sheet without breaking up or how far a laminar nozzle can throw its stream without losing coherence.  Yes, there are all sorts of ways to work within those constraints, but you have to be ahead of the design curve and work with clients up front to develop those creative solutions.

UP TO PAR

One thing we appreciate about mall watershapes is that you really do get to see, sometimes in dramatic terms, just how successful or unsuccessful a project has been.  

At the Eaton Center in Toronto, for example, we’ve watched for decades how people gather around the fountain, and we know for a fact that the stores in the immediate area come at a premium.  The mall has even adopted our watershape as a graphic for the mall’s directional signage.  When things don’t go so well, you know soon enough because those signs of acceptance, reinforcement and feedback simply aren’t forthcoming.   

Truth is, shoppers don’t need a watershape in their midst to encourage them to buy, and water systems will always be an ancillary amenity in most malls.  Fortunately, the retail industry has become so competitive and sophisticated that even something as extraneous as a fountain or reflecting pool or interactive play feature is now viewed as a potential competitive edge.  In that context, watershapers bring a lot to the table – especially when all parties are clear on exactly what’s needed from the start.

 

Paul L’Heureux is president of Crystal Fountains, a waterfeature design, engineering and construction firm based in Toronto.  Working as a team of experienced architectural waterfeature specialists, the Canadian firm produces high-end commercial fountains and waterfeatures around the world. A “career world traveler,” L’Heureux has more than 20 years’ experience in business management, export marketing and process improvement.  Douglas Duff began his career as a fountain designer in 1972. A degreed industrial designer, he became head of design for Crystal Fountains in 1976. He also served as the company’s executive vice president starting in 1980 and as a partner and director from 1984 until his retirement in 2005. Through the years, he was responsible for and/or involved with more than 1,000 waterfeatures in Canada, the United States, South America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including (among many others) designs for the waterfeatures at Toronto’s Eaton Center, Place Montreal Trust, Blue City in Poland, the Dolce Vita shopping center in Portugal, Easton Town Center in Ohio, The Center in Hong Kong and the KLCC/Lake Symphony in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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