Aeon Mall’s newest superregional shopping centre in Phnom Penh is a visual extravaganza and a fine expression of contemporary themes. Less than three months after its soft opening on 15 December last year, and still without any formal announcement of a Grand Opening date, Aeon Mall’s third and largest centre in Phnom Penh has the customary vacant space that malls do during this emergent phase. Much of this has been leased already and is just waiting for its occupants to open their premises.
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s. No matter though, they can take their time as far as the visitor is concerned. With its brilliant design, the mall has all but tricked the visitor into not noticing the vacant space at all. It used to be that vacant stores in a mall were both ugly and obvious. Then shopping centre operators figured out how to make empty shopfronts palatable and often even pleasing by erecting colourful hoardings in front that announced cheerfully to visitors that such-and-such tenant was opening soon. Aeon Mall’s new project in Meanchey in the south of the Cambodian capital – more informally referred to by the locals as Aeon 3 – has gone one better: Its playful artwork is so good and so well integrated into the experiential design motif of the whole centre that the visitor may not even notice vacancy, or, if they do, they may be a little regretful that eventually the tenant will be there instead of the hoarding. Image: Michael Baker This is by no means the first time that Japanese design has been employed with stunning effectiveness in a shopping centre outside Japan itself. In downtown Bangkok, for example, Japan design firm Nendo was deeply involved in the rightly hyped redevelopment of Siam Discovery (‘The Exploratorium’), which is still arguably Southeast Asia’s benchmark for design excellence six years after its opening. But Aeon 3 can stand proudly on at least the same level as the venerable Discovery. The Phnom Penh mall is exceptional from more than an aesthetic standpoint. Its various design features also effectively express contemporary themes, particularly preservation of nature, environmental education, health and wellness. Shopping-centre operators elsewhere would be looking at this as another incremental step toward the true experiential mall, mixing gawk-able digital imagery with playful art, aspirational brands, fine casual dining, amusement activities for children, and much more. This is a mall for the people. A new satellite city on the southern fringe The centre sits on a 1.74-hectare site about eight kilometres down Hun Sen Boulevard, a new 60-metre-wide ribbon of highway that runs north-south from the Phnom Penh city centre. On approach, the mall is a surreal sight: a massive grey-white box that dominates its surroundings because it has been plonked down into the middle of a vast emptiness with little in the vicinity in the way of residential or other commercial activity. This, however, is all about to change, and change quickly, because the area is now a hotspot for property investment that will support not only Aeon Meanchey, but competing centres in the area as well, including the recently opened Chip Mong 271 Mega Mall. Inside, Aeon 3 has a gross leasable area of 98,000sqm and a floor area of 180,000sqm, spread over four levels. Aeon has dubbed it the ‘edutainment mall’ and it is fair to say that the entertainment part comes through a lot more strongly than the education part. It is a visual feast, with modern digital screens positioned vertically and horizontally, and almost always within eyesight from any part of the mall. The screens show scenes from nature: elephants, giraffes, rabbits, bears, butterflies and various other creatures doing their thing in the wild. The digital screens are complemented by breathtaking stationary artwork, also with natural themes, that sweeps around the mall’s vertical surfaces. Image: Michael Baker The target shopper is affluent without being high-end. For example, there is a good repertoire of Japanese staples, including the two-level, 16,000sqm Aeon department store and supermarket, and quirky home-oriented favourites like Daiso and Kohnan Japan. There is also a Decathlon and other sporting goods stores, targeting Cambodia’s increasing interest in exercise, health and wellness. The health and wellness theme is not only expressed through the retail shops. There is also a 250-metre walking track winding all around the mall’s top level to allow some limited exercise. Not a bad indoor amenity in a city with such an unforgiving climate. The top level is also notable for two more features. First, there is an outstanding photographic installation, a wall curving for about 70 metres alongside the walking track with a series of photos that document the history of the centre’s own construction. The pics cover everything from the immense open plot of land all the way through to the mall’s soft opening last December. A second notable feature of Level 4 is the Sky Bridge, a glass walkway that spans 40 metres from one side of the mall to the other that affords an aerial view of the mall below – at least for those who don’t suffer from vertigo. For kids, Aeon 3 is a great day out with mom and dad: there is an outdoor park on the third floor and once they are finished playing they can go down to the second floor on an enclosed slide. Watching the sunset In keeping with the nature theme, one of the most interesting features of Aeon 3 is an outdoor, west-facing space with igloo-type structures housing small furnishings for family dining – families can bring their own food from home or buy it in one of the mall’s eateries – and for a clear view of the usually brilliant Cambodian sunsets. Overall, Aeon 3 makes a fascinating contrast with the new Chip Mong 271 Mega Mall about five kilometres to the north, which services an overlapping trade area. At Chip Mong 271, there are global brands such as H&M but the overall presentation is far more of the old-style meat and potatoes variety. Visitors are confronted with a big box with big retail names, but should not expect to be overwhelmed by the ambience. Aeon 3 is a fine achievement from a number of standpoints, but the densification of the trade area will take a little time and for a while the mall will be on the quiet side. This is one for the future – and for the people.