Delirious Shanghai

Thoughts on China 2010-2013

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    City of Malls

    Evan Chakroff
    Dec 23, '11 5:23 AM EST

    [Note: Over the past two weeks, I helped lead a tour of Ohio State University architecture students and alumni on a tour up the East China coast, from Hong Kong, to Shanghai, and inland to Beijing. The following few posts will be my brief impressions of the cities we visited…. First up: Hong Kong .]


    Hong Kong is a vertical city, an exemplar of three-dimensional urbanism, and a manifestation of economic forces constrained only by topography. The physical limitations of Hong Kong island combine with a seemingly endless influx of capital to create a city unlike any other, where skyscrapers reach ever-higher, and where the public space of the city extends vertically, forming a porous, expanded ground with unprecedented connectivity between blocks and buildings. The fascinating network of public space in the city proves incredibly challenging to analyze, and provides little framework for designers: the city seems to deny existing typologies while simultaneously generating new ones, providing an inadvertent model for the hyper-dense cities of the future.

    While many cities have pedestrian overpasses, in Hong Kong these have evolved into an incredibly complex network of high-speed pedestrian highways, complete with “exits” that return one to the slower, traditional street network. This hierarchical arrangement acts as a sorting mechanism, allowing slower window-shoppers or tourists to wander along the sidewalks, while determined businessmen sprint past above.

    The skyways and underpasses, weaving around the automotive circulation, provide pedestrians incredible freedom and a near-infinite number of potential routes, but it is the connection to and through enclosed semi-public space that I find most interesting. I’ve written before about the “expanded ground” and how infrastructural elements such as the Mid-Levels escalators activate the levels above and below grade to an astounding extent (allowing – for example – barbers, tailors, and noodle shops to lease space on upper floors with no apparent disadvantage to business), but where the complexity of Hong Kong’s public space really becomes evident is in the cases where the exterior skyways aren’t sufficient to provide a pedestrian path through the city. This is where Hong Kong’s malls – semi-public retail environments – break away from their US ancestors.

    The evolution of the mall typology can be traced back to the ancient agora, of course, but Hong Kong’s malls seem to have evolved from a more recent precedent: those freestanding buildings surrounded by parking we tend to regard as blights on the suburban landscape. The early malls of the United States were developer-driven projects: planned, enclosed environments whose primary design goal was consumption.  Their centripetal designs blocked or constrained views to the exterior, and tended to facilitate entry and inward circulation while inhibiting egress. Some Hong Kong malls certainly do tend to act as a kind of consumerist lobster-trap (see Jon Jerde’s Langham place, where “expresscalators” rocket shoppers to the top floor, where they are forced to “spiral” down past every storefront before exiting at street level), but most are also configured to provide routes through the city, with multiple entries and exists via secondary or tertiary circulation routes that serve as efficient paths through the interior of city blocks.

    Exterior skyways connect to Hong Kong’s malls at multiple points above-, on-, and below-grade, and the shortest pedestrian path from point A to B through the city will inevitably run through several distinct retail environments. Where malls in the US (and mainland China, and elsewhere) can be viewed as discrete objects with secure perimeters and clear design intent, Hong Kong’s malls are porous and interconnected. In Hong Kong, the semi-public space of “the mall” forms a major component of the primary pedestrian circulation of the city.



    As always, more photos at

    Next post: Macau & the city as spectacle....


    • I was in Hong Kong a few months a go. Your "high speed pedestrian highways" metaphor is wonderful and spot on. Singapore, which I am more familiar with, has a similar intricate pedestrian network which augments and in some cases totally replaces the sidewalk or the street. But Singapore does not have pedestrian "highways." There it's pretty much all shopping all the time. Someday soon I'm sure you'll be able to shop on the MRT.

      Speaking of malls, to an American of course the first reaction is to compare the Asian malls to our own. And to think that there is a connection and a borrowing. The US influences and infects the rest of the world, right? But I don't think that is the case. I think the origin is actually the market and its grownup version, the permanent market building. These exist everywhere. You find them in asia, in africa, in europe. There's a particularly beautiful one in Vicenza that was remodeled by Palladio. (But you knew that.)

      The posh, air-conditioned malls of Hong Kong are not really a different, alien species from the small uncovered side streets crammed with open air stalls. They are the same thing, just richer and better fed.

      Feb 2, 12 4:09 pm  · 

      Good Point. Need to be careful and not assume there's always a US precedent! i've never been to Singapore, but it's on "the list" - it would definitely be interesting to compare. 

      Feb 2, 12 6:01 pm  · 

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