Monday, September 20, 2010

Unappreciated innovation

I would like to question the recurring theme of Orchard central being a Far East Organisation fiasco due to "bad design". It is no mystery that the shopping mall has not been doing well. It is deserted even at peak times, and its businesses are struggling. Fortunately, many of the restaurants are surviving well, although some have good potential and would deserve to do better.
Next door, 313 was completed shortly after, and yet it enjoys an incredible flow of shoppers buzzing at any time of the day. How can this be explained? What went so terribly wrong?

Here are a couple of references to articles and blog posts on the topic:
Orchard Central Tenants Struggle
Orchard Central - A failure
Orchard Central - Love it or Hate it

The most common complaints on the mall are:
  • Bad design of access to the car park
  • Unintuitive layout of the mall itself, which makes it hard to get to what you want
  • The shops are "unconventional"
It is hard to counter-argue that the long winded car park is unfriendly and challenging to drive through, and they could have definitely done a better job at encouraging parking within the mall. However, the car park alone can't be the reason why Orchard Central is deserted, and I would question the other couple of points.

Singapore is considered a shoppers paradise. Shopping is not just about going to seek and buy a specific item, although sometimes that may well be why you do it. Shopping is supposed to be entertaining and fun. Shopping is about exploring, experiencing something new and stimulating. Most would agree with these statements, and yet when we hear people's opinions about Orchard Central, the complaint is that it is hard to navigate, it is "easy to get lost in the maze". Come on, how hard can it be?

Certainly, it is not as easy as 313, which is designed for hamsters. You don't need to think, you just go up or down the circular levels, pretty much like malls were designed back in the 80's. Yes, you can point and get there, buy and get out at record times and it could be an ideal venue for shopping olympics. That is practical indeed, but also old style and boring. Is this what we are looking for? Just another building with some new shops, out of which 70% exist elsewhere on the island or even Orchard itself? Or are we looking for a bit more stimulation?

I would have thought the latter. The shopping centre of this century should provide a space that goes beyond shopping and services. Those who have been to Japan and have visited Tokyo or Osaka, would be quite familiar with interesting layouts when it comes to shopping areas. The underground network of malls is even more intricate, with a web of arteries connecting different levels of shopping malls and subway stations, flooded by a rapid flow of shoppers. A quick look around is sufficient to conclude that shops do well, from the most common photo printer, to the most unusual gadget shop.

Another thing you might have noticed about Japanese shopping malls is that some of them do not just provide a shopping experience, they also include recreational space, with outdoor garden and terraced areas where the young can gather in a group or find a quiet corner for a bit of privacy.  Malls are not purely a place to "fetch consumer items", they are integral part of city navigation and social activities.
The question is why this can't work in Singapore. We are all so eager to shop, and so proud of Singapore as shoppers paradise to entertain visitors. We often complain about how boring, limited and repetitive Singapore is. Should we not be excited when we are gifted with a bit of innovation?

I included some pictures shot tonight at the higher floors of the mall. Art is well incorporated into the concept, and entertainment and social areas are provided top to bottom. The highest floor includes a unique roof garden with a stunning view over the CBD and Marina. Plants and interesting art pieces are scattered around the area, creating an intriguing space for exploration. The breathtaking escalator leading to the top is the longest I have ever seen, and its lighting is a work of art (see video at the end of this post).
If I ever had to show a mall to impress visitors from abroad, this is where I would take them.

So what went wrong? Are we really so rigid and conventional and not ready for a bit of innovation? Are we shutting down creativity? Far East Organisation tried to push the boundaries and they failed. And now we are the ones pointing fingers. Hopefully this won't discourage developers from being inventive and creating malls that go beyond what we already have everywhere else on this island.


Orchard Central said...

Thanks for the support! Love your photos :)

Singapore said...

I actually do like Orchard Central, the windy floors, the odd access and the glass, art and some of the shops.

I think the real failing was that the marketing wasn't right and didn't work. It should have appealed to whimsy and emphasized education and discovery of how to experience OC. But i guess, it's easy for armchair critics to lambast the pros...hope OC holds out. If not, keep some of the good eats there!

ratatouille said...

heh. actually you are quite right. there is a certain beauty in its quirkiness. In fact its unique design should have already screamed for attention.

amiscell said...

Eimyllin - I see your point. Since the mall was designed to be quirky, artistic and entertaining, it should have been marketed as such. They could have added some interactive directory panel displays to make it more navigable for those who want to explore without having to walk around. When it comes to good eats, Duo Le was my favourite Chinese in Singapore, and unfortunately they shut down fairly early in the process.

Ratatuille - I also can't quite understand why such a unique design didn't get that level of attention - especially with the young generation!

Sparkling or Still said...

Hi, I just want to point out why Orchard Central is poorly received by shoppers.

Putting aside the design, what frustrates shoppers the most is that shoppers always reach a dead end when shopping here. Shoppers in Singapore tend to like wide lanes or corridors.

I am not sure whether I am doing OC a favour, but the reason why I go there is to escape from the crowd of Orchard Road. This is the only mall in Orchard which is not crowded on a Fri and Sat night, especially their B3 which connects to Centrepoint...

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