Q&A: Barry Hughes - Senior Vice President - HOK London

Recent projects have seen HOK London architect Barry Hughes lead the design of the Marina Mall in Doha, a prime retail and leisure scheme located on the east coast of Qatar, as well as large-scale retail developments in India, Croatia and Slovenia. Here, the Texas-born architect talks trends, challenges and predictions...and living the dream.

RF. What drew you to a career in architecture and design?

BH. When I was a kid I loved to draw and was always tinkering with mechanical things. After a brief foray into engineering, I realised architecture was a better outlet for my mix of the artistic and technical interests. The fact that architects dress better was just an added plus! RF. What brought you to the UK from Texas?

BH. I started my career in Dallas and was lucky enough to work on projects all over the world. After flying back and forth a few too many times, the stars aligned and the company I worked for offered the opportunity to move. RF. What do you enjoy about designing for retail?

BH. I’m attracted to the social aspects of retail, and the way shops and restaurants help knit the urban fabric together. Retail activity has always served as a social lubricant in cities and towns, which is why I’m always a little disappointed by how lowly the architecture profession seems to rate retail design. Architecture is about creating reality, and a well-designed urban context is the best remedy for getting people out of technology induced isolationism. The internet is nice but shops are the real museums of the now. RF. We talk a lot now about retail environments providing an 'experience' rather than being simply a transactional space. What makes a great shopping experience?

BH. I love 'transactional' as a pejorative term. I think physical retail is about defining a space between the challenges of the internet and extreme luxury. The most prominent response to this challenge is trying to create an 'authentic' experience. But, I think people (too often described as 'consumers') are actually seeking a giving or caring experience. Authentic is overused, the key is in forming a relationship with the customer, and I think honesty and a sense of caring are true differentiators.

As we evolve, the trend will be to have fewer, better designed products, and the sense of caring that goes along with it. The internet can help make a decision, but nothing can substitute for a nicely curated selection and a shop keeper who knows their stuff. It’s the conversation with that shop keeper that elevates the customer’s appreciation and moves the dialogue from transactional to relationship. RF. Where do you go for a good shopping experience?

BH. I have [a] series of favourite shops, staffed by people who are passionate about what they sell. I’d say there is a close correlation between the caring and the excellence in the design of both the shops and products; I don’t want to name names for fear I forget somebody.

For a full on shopping experience, I’d say Borough Market on Saturday morning is tough to beat. I’m not a foodie but the buzz of people mixed with the variety of tastes and smells is always fantastic, especially around Christmas, when the smell of mulled wine permeates the air. Spitalfields on Saturday and Bricklane on Sunday afternoon are fantastic, although the people watching is sometimes better than the shopping. Lastly, Liberty and Selfridges, to see what’s happening. RF. Your design experience includes train stations and airports. How do you see retail developing in transport hubs in the future?

BH. All airports should be required by law to have a great newsstand. What passes for a newsstand in several prominent London airports has been letting the side down lately. As a person who spends too much time in airports, I think the trend toward a broader service offer has room to evolve. There are only so many things you can actually sell passengers before they get on a plane. Why not get a medical/dental check-up while you wait? There will be more real estate given up to showrooms and brand identity exercises which aren’t necessarily looking to move product there and then.

My dream is a mini fitness franchise popping up in major airports. A place where you can get in a workout and a civilised shower in an hour. RF. What will the high street look like 10 years from now?

BH. Bigger, smaller or more specialised. What we are seeing now is the correction borne out of the challenge the internet has presented to physical retail. There aren’t many ways to compete, unless it is a smaller more personal experience, or volume.

As 3D printing evolves I think we will begin to see shops that specialise in mass customisation, eyeglasses that fit your head or a phone that fits your hand etc. At some point many products will be manufactured on site, with the only differentiator being local design flair. This could lead to an explosion of second hand stores selling real stuff. What’s a Rolex worth if you can fabricate a replica accurate to the atom? It will be fun to watch. RF. What are you working on at the moment?

BH. A mixed-use project in Accra, a residential tower in Kolkata, and ferry terminal competition in Istanbul. RF. What's been your most ambitious project to date?

BH. Baku Flame Towers, but Marina Mall is extremely complex... maybe a masterplan we worked on in Moscow... we try to maximise the potential of every project. To paraphrase, ‘there are no small projects, only small ideas…’ RF. And lastly, what would be your dream project?

BH. I’m living the dream, although a tower in the City of London would be fun!

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