Darryl Yamamoto: The mall artist

American architect Darryl Yamamoto shares design philosophies on transforming spaces into retail magnets.

IN his 25 years as an architect, Darryl Yamamoto, the principal of US-based DYXY Architecture and Interiors has personally seen to the creation of 700,000sqm of retail space in the United States, China, Taiwan, Philippines, India and Indonesia.

In Malaysia, he is credited with the transformation of Klang Parade, the shopping grand dame of Selangor’s royal town, due for unveiling soon.

Yamamoto’s firm will also see to the refurbishment of 1 Mont Kiara in Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh Parade in Perak, both due for completion by the first quarter of 2014.

But for all his accolades, the baby-faced Hawaiian native is stubbornly refusing to divulge his age, the badge Asians so often associate with wisdom.

“Oh, look at the time now,” says Yamamoto, feigning a busy schedule when the age question was popped.

He dares us to guess. Is he in his late 30s? A hearty laugh. All right then, might he be in his mid-40s? A little more than that....

Sensing the charade is tiring his audience, Yamamoto relents with an obscure clue: “In architecture, you don’t get good till you’re 40. That’s when you have acquired the layers of experience, learned the rules and codes after many projects,” says Yamamoto who was based in the island state for 10 years before moving to Los Angeles.

He recalls his first project, a resort in Kapalua, Hawaii, where a pineapple plantation once stood.

“I had just got out of school (University of Hawaii in Manoa), the economy was going crazy and all the senior guys were doing high rises. That left the smaller guys like us with the smaller projects. I was really lucky because that was where I learned how to do everything,” says Yamamoto.

He then worked for RTKL, a global architecture and urban design practice firm, where he sharpened his skills as a designer for large-scale international projects. In 2006, Yamamoto established DYXY with a group of partners, whom he had been working closely with for a decade.

On what makes his creative juices tick, he quips that working with clients who know what they want is a tremendous help. But on a serious note, he adds that an open mind makes one a better receptor to ideas.

“I usually come with an empty mind for the first recce. The first priority is to mark out the property line, location and the geometry of the site. To be frank, I never know what the final result is going to be when I start because designing is an ever-changing process,” he says.

Challenges will always be part and parcel of the profession. Yamamoto recalls having to move a 40-storey tower for a Taiwan project in 2000 at the behest of a feng shui consultant.

“I don’t recall the details exactly but it had something to do with opposing Tiger and Dragon forces. Fortunately, this was done at the beginning of the drawing phase.

“If we had to do that maybe a year into the project where some 500 million lines had been drawn, that would have taken a lot more time and cost,” he says.

The Yamamoto formula for turning spaces into retail magnets lies in the simple rule of balance and circulation.

A mall should not resemble a maze where a shopper can get lost, like the crowded arcades of Hong Kong in the 1980s, he says. In the worst case scenario, labyrinthine designs not only obscure retail tenants from potential customers but may also encourage criminal activity because of the many hidden corners.

Ideally, there must be clarity of space, where a shopper can take in the different retailers at a glance. There should also be a clear degree of separation when it comes to differentiating office blocks, hotels, dining and shopping. Strategic placing of escalators is also important so people can pass by every shop. The idea is to get potential customers passing every shop’s front door.

Entrances, adds Yamamoto, makes for an important feature in malls. From experience, most clients prefer the main point of entry to resemble a big mouth for its auspicious symbolism, but logically they are always located at the busiest intersection of a road.

On rare occasions should such an entrance placement be seen as bad feng shui, it is still advisable to have an open air restaurant and glass walls at the same spot so passers-by are afforded a glimpse of the action inside.

And yes, a mall has to be loud.

“You must have enough signage to let people know what’s inside. Otherwise, it’ll look like an office,” says Yamamato.

Speaking of his Malaysian mission, Yamamoto reveals having received an SOS from ARA Managers Asset management senior manager June Lim, who had sent him pictures of a very run down Klang Parade earlier in the year. Then, the occupancy rate was only at 50%. They had neither a supermarket nor cinema and the urinal area in the men’s toilet was sans cubicles, where only the less shy could seek relief!

In the last year, Lim’s bosses had bought over the ageing mall, bestowing it with a refurbishment budget of over RM100mil. Yamamoto, fresh from completing the Grand Indonesia Tower in Jakarta, was deemed the most suitable candidate to lead the makeover.

“I started from scratch with Klang Parade from changing the mall configuration to working on the finishes like flooring, lighting and furniture,” he says.

As the mall’s aim is to serve residents within the catchment area, Yamamoto decided on the universal theme of flowers and going with a refreshing floral hibiscus theme, using purples, blues, and orange shades to evoke vibrance.

“You can’t be too sophisticated when you want to appeal to the masses but there will be water features, landscaping, a café area and a grand two-storey-high entrance,” he says.

At Klang Parade, Yamamoto’s proudest features are the skylights, a green lighting solution not only favoured as a cost saver but for its cheering properties.

“People have a natural affinity for sunlight,” says Yamamoto, explaining that he feels nothing works better than a good dose of the sun’s rays to liven things up.

Back in his hotel room, Yamamoto gives an inkling how deeply connected he is to his work. On his bureau are four hand cut models of buildings he hopes to present to potential clients. Among the deals already closed are the Fantasy Springs Resort in California, Bank of Hawaii Office Tower, Orchard Boulevard Condominium in Singapore, and the Galaxy International Hotel and Office project in Shenzhen, China.

So, has Yamamoto ever sat back to gloat over his own work?

“The more you do to fine-tune, the more opportunity you have to ensure shoppers are happy. When they have a great experiential element when visiting the mall, they will come back,” says Yamamoto, hinting that a designer’s work is never finished.

But more crucially, Yamamoto reckons his is the role of a service deliverer. Be it a high rise, retail or residential project, he reckons it will be his job to do as much as he can, architectural-wise, to deliver success to the client.

“Ultimately, an architect’s job is to have people look at a property and say, ‘This is beautiful, I have to have it,” concludes Yamamoto.