Hong Kong: City of Malls

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 analysis, 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, weaving around the automotive circulation, provide the pedestrians with 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 circulation of the city.

[Note: This post inspired by a tour I led of Ohio State University architecture students, 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…. ]

As always, more photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/evandagan/


  • Addison Godel

    Great start, of course covers lots of the same things I was hoping to cover in my HK post, but more succinctly…

    To me the most interesting thing is that in HK, and to a lesser extent elsewhere on the trip (see Guangzhou’s flyovers), all of these urban devices are things that would normally be the kiss of death to pedestrian life; here, with the surging power of pure density*, they actually are necessary in order to make pedestrian life work at all. Without the malls there just would not be enough retail space per block to serve the population; with the malls, you can meet the demand, and also provide more walking space, since they plug into the sky-bridges and so on.

    Which is partly a way of saying that the equation is more complex than economy+topography=cityscape; it’s more like economy+topography=DENSITY, thus =cityscape…

    * – next blog title: PURE DENSITY. Next garden feature: SURGING POWER OF PURE DENSITY POOL.

    • Yeah…. these posts will be necessarily shorter than usual, as I want to get the ideas out there while still fresh (JG’s “human highway” reading, for example). I think you’re right about the density, but I don’t know if the malls really serve the daily lives of the population (I doubt anyone just swings over to Louis Vuitton on a weekly basis…). I would love to see a redevelopment project once one of these “stitched” malls reaches the end of its lifecycle… how great would it be to see the skylights pulled away and the mall re-populated with street vendors?

  • addison godel

    Hmm, depends which pedestrians and which malls – we should have checked into one or two over in causeway bay to see if the retail options were more MOR than in Central…and in Mong Kok I didn’t even pay attention to the non-lunch storefront selection, although I suppose the Hello Kitty dinosaur skull attraction counts.

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