Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President
Photography: Carl Bower Thomas Vonier, FAIA, 2017 AIA President

Healthy cities, and the ones we seem to like best, tend to have ample and varied commerce. Most of the stuff of quotidian need is abundant and within easy reach. We certainly know the signs of troubled communities, the ones we try to avoid: empty shops, boarded-up windows, “for rent” signs everywhere, and lifeless streets and sidewalks. Essentially, no commerce.

Main Street has suffered from big-box stores and strip developments on the exurban periphery, but that tide seems to be turning. As with the advent of online retailers, the fact that people want more out of life than simply to fill grocery carts may account for the apparent demise of big-box stores. People respond well to retail environments that include restaurants, specialty shops, cinemas, and other recreational outlets.

Commerce needs greater focus as a target—and beneficiary—of good design. We say that architecture promotes commerce and propels economic vitality, but can we prove it? Can we demonstrate that well-designed commercial projects spur sales? Surprisingly, there seems to be little factual data upon which to draw.

This May, Le Monde published an article entitled “Bilbao Profits from the Success of the Guggenheim,” which cited 20 years of positive economic impacts on the area from the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, FAIA. The museum, which has become as much of an economic engine as a cultural space, brought 19.2 million visitors to the Basque city. In 2016 alone, the museum earned €485 million (about $580 million) in revenues for local shops, restaurants, and services, accounting for some 6,000 jobs in the local economy.

The “Bilbao effect” has its skeptics, but the figures cited in Le Monde uphold the idea that architecture and great design can elevate the ordinary, enhancing the quality of life and spurring commerce. Investment in good design can earn economic dividends. In general, Europe seems to pay more attention than we do to commercial architecture, with programs like the Prix Versailles spotlighting retail projects—hotels, stores, and restaurants—and elevating their importance in the public eye and in the world of architecture and design.

Commerce is an essential ingredient of strong urban culture, a vital element of the quality of life. It is important to recognize buildings and developments that exalt the ordinary retail experience—to reward projects that go beyond the ordinary in meeting basic needs.