Saturday, 26 November 2011

When Design Is Unbearable - Iluma Mall

 Iluma in Singapore, designed by the renowned
local architects WOHA.

The mall is opened in June 2009 and closed for phased renovation until mid-2012. 
The interiors have a wastefully short life span.

Conspiracy theory

It is tempting to speculate that the interior designer of Iluma in Singapore had a hidden agenda prior to design inception stage.  With all the creative talent demonstrated to deliver brimming ideas in the finished work, the schemer must have carried a strong conviction.  What hidden agenda?  With a subversive trait myself, I wish to have the naiveté to believe that it was the intention of the designer to undermine our era of mega mall culture by producing an exciting looking interior with a secret mission to expel shoppers.

 The overall ceiling inspires Sundial of a fantastic
pinball machine mounted upside down.

Bend over backwards design

The Iluma interior has all the vibes a designer would be excited to work on or a shopper to visit.  It has one of the most complex layouts conceived in retail-cum-entertainment arrangement, circulation pattern and floor plans.  The giant atrium as the focal point, is spectacularly carved out from layers of circuit-like floor plates, some overlapping each other whilst others forming amoebic voids as if floating restlessly in mid air.  It is a visual treat by the designers with plenty of creative muscles flexed.

Under optical illusion, the linoleum floor seems to have
varying levels and shifting plates.
(photo from Tim Griffith & Patrick Bingham-Hall)

Shoppers not doing their “duty”

To reflect the design extravaganza on the floor, each level is meticulously drawn out with dazzling contour patterns.  It has a consistently overblown design intensity that captivates visitors.  In a subconscious way perhaps, this engaging floor design encourages one to meander along to explore visual connections.  Based on my experience working with mall developers, and despite all the design goodies, I must confess that this is not what they wish shoppers to do.

 A huge mall with patchy pedestrian flow the day I visited.

 Shops left vacant or closed as seen with by white hoardings or unlit interiors.

In contrast, Bugis Junction, the traditional mall across
the road, is always packed with shoppers.
(photo from

The diagnosis

In all, the Iluma interior job is a convincing showcase of great flair and dedication.  However it is perplexing to find that there are markedly less shoppers here than those at the other mall of the same owner: the Bugis Juction across the road.  As observed, the shop vacancy in this mall is disturbingly high in this city-state, where the retail sector is still booming.  The reason may have its source from the over-zealous display of design featuresThe excessive inputs by the architects as described have overshadowed the shops, distracting the uninitiated visitor from his/her shopping experience.  Depending on the shopper’s level of visual literacy, the mall may even cause discomfort to the eye as the interior is heavily loaded with design per se.

This is by far the “busiest” looking shopping mall I have seen. (photo from

Roof plan and section of Iluma. 
(drawings from WOHA Architects)

The remedy: shopping mall as white box

In plain language, these experiences are not desired by the shop owners; and the developer would not like the shoppers’ attentions diverted, not least by the mall design itself.  To think parallel, it is just as destructive as an attention seeking museum interior space with little concern for the artworks housed inside.  In fact, the going trend to design a mall interior is to provide a clean and subtle backdrop against the shops.  The rationale is to let the shops shine with their interiors or shop fronts in order to raise consumer spending.  The mall would only speak its design at lift areas, restrooms, entrances and through other ID details like signage, lightings etc.

(Photo from

(Photo from

(Photo from

A typical 'white box' approach to mall design at Pacific Place , Hong Kong by Thomas Heatherwick - the upmarket shopping mall has undergone its first major overhaul since 1988 in order to keep up with strong competitors in the city.

I see Kandinsky in this ceiling at Iluma, what about you?  We may never see this unusual design again after the renovation.

Designer exercises restraint

Iluma is a classic case of design dominance overriding users’ needs.  It is a temptation that any talented designer, no matter how well-intended, should guard against.  By the time this article is about to be written, I happen to find a post from The Straits Times reporting that the mall is about to be renovated due to poor attendance by shoppers.  One can read more from the following link: Iluma mall a 'ghost town': shops closed and building deserted.  

不能承受的商塲設計 星加坡Iluma 〈中文摘要〉


甫進入室內,目光不由自主被它的豐富設計元素吸引着。無論是平面佈置、人流線向、天花、樓面、以至顏色選擇均匠心獨運、優秀異常。基於上述觀察,這室內設計表現絕非一般設計師手筆。誇張點說,作者好像要籍著這項目展示一下他們的至臻功架。但這樣出色的作品卻有違商塲設計以吸引顧客消費的基本原則。另外,這裡稀疏的人流較馬路對面的Bugis Junction商場,盡是失色。細看下,這兒有著出奇高的空置率,完全不符合當下星加坡經濟尚佳情況。





Anonymous said...

I agree. Function comes first, then style.

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