What Canadians Can Learn from Chinese Mall Design


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Canadian and North American shopping centres can learn from the malls in China which has a much more aggressive move to change, says an expert in design and architecture.

David Stavros, Senior Design Principal|Executive Vice President, Asia, Principal of B+H Architects, says China’s entrepreneurial spirit has allowed its retail sector to become an early adopter of change.

“In the scramble to remain relevant in a crowded marketplace, its stance towards rapid change has seen the introduction of social attractors such as ice rinks, basketball courts, public art installations and immersive IMAX theatres into its malls,” says Stavros. “The mall is quickly repositioning itself as an activity hub, not just a retail centre.”

He says there is also a significant uptake in new technologies, which enable a completely new kind of shopping experience.


“In North America, we talk about the need to make these changes, but the pace is much slower. A lot of focus now is on maximizing the land assets, with new constructions and the introduction of residential developments,” explains Stavros.

“There are many opportunities to import the lessons learned in China to our malls in North America. Over the years, the mall has re-invented itself many times but always in service to the same desire: people want to come together, watch and be watched, and feel part of something bigger. Investors and owners who are willing to break from traditional models and respond flexibly to new technologies and shifting demographics will be as successful as ever.”

He says malls in both North America and China are experiencing the same pressures and stress fractures – namely the threat of e-commerce. So retail can no longer be relied upon as the main social attractor because it can happen any time, any place.


“But people still want a reason to get out and come together,” says Stavros. “The key to success is understanding the social attractors that draw people together – and retail will happen. Community engenders retail, not the other way around.”

“In both parts of the world, retail, in and of itself, is no longer drawing in the population. There is a shift to new, disparate uses, with more emphasis on experiences and food. At the Crystal Galleria (Shanghai), B+H designed space for food offerings in 40 per cent of the (six-level) building. These spaces were distributed on each floor, throughout the mall, instead of a cluster in just one or two locations. The result is you have an energy and a flow of people throughout the entire building.”

B+H is a Canadian-based architecture firm with nine offices in six countries, including offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The firm has had a presence in China for 25 years. They’ve worked on several shopping centres and retail stores, including LIVAT Wuhan centre and LIVAT Wuxi Centre, the Paul & Shark store in Hong Kong and Sephora’s flagship store in Shanghai. In Canada, they do a lot of work with Cadillac Fairview, including working on the renovation of the CF Rideau Centre Expansion in Ottawa.


Recently, B+H gathered all of their design leads from each of their offices in Toronto for a two-day deep dive into the future of malls. B+H mapped out several different future scenarios and how each scenario could potentially impact what a mall looked liked. The scenarios include one future where Amazon (or Alibaba) wins and another scenario was dubbed Etsy’s revenge. All of these scenarios informed a board game that each of B+H’s design leads played as a way of exploring potential future outcomes.

Stavros says the intent was to understand the wants, the needs and the desires of the people and how they can establish a roadmap that will help them negotiate the disruptive changes that are really upon us nowadays.

In a recent report, The Purpose Of The “Mall”: Community as a Framework for the Mall, B+H Architects said the first “mall” as we know it today opened in 1956 in Edina, Minnesota.

“The reason today’s malls are failing is because they’ve lost their purpose – the reason why they exist in the first place. It’s only when the mall becomes what it was once intended to be – a meeting place for people to connect in a space that authentically reflects who they are and moves flexibly into the future – that we will begin to see the revival of the institution,” said the report.

*Photos in this article provided by B+H Architects via Kim Graham & Associates

As well, Retail Council of Canada is releasing its second annual Canadian Shopping Centre Study this fall, and there’s still room to advertise. [For more information]. 

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.


  1. An interesting read. But to be honest, creating a more well rounded experience isn’t anything that new. West Edmonton Mall, Mall of America and a project I was involved with in the late 1990s in Indonesia all recognized that their retail properties would be more successful with multiple reasons for people to gather, such as entertainment and a large variety of food.


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