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Divided we fall

Do Chinese-style shopping malls threaten inclusion and cohesion in our cities?

While the past of the shopping mall may belong to the United States, its present belongs to Asia. Consider how hybrid Asian models of mall design are now developing across cities globally. So how has such a problematic architectural form gained such traction as a mainstay of the urban realm?

Seen through the prisms of Hong Kong and Singapore the insular world of the shopping mall is seemingly antithetical to healthy, inclusive urbanism. Their ubiquitous podiums, speared by a forest of towers, employ the mall’s insular form to heighten their separation from the city without. As such, the question turns to where an urbanism founded on such divisions can contribute to the productive life of the city.

If, in a Western context, the syntax of a wall most typically denotes the boundary between a public exterior and private interior, the walled worlds of ancient China represent a far more complex process of layering as the habitat of everyday life existed internally.  ‘Publicity’ and ‘privacy’ were realised via progressively deep layers of internal striation – each layer defined by walled enclosure.  The city, in this sense, was codified as an unfolding interior consisting of many grades of ‘public’. This syntax, which inverts what we understand as urban space in the Western world, is critical to a meaningful exploration of the Chinese shopping mall. 

The point being that ‘public’ in China is a rather different physical experience to that in the west – namely that it resides beyond the walled boundaries that can make the open space of the Chinese city a hostile, disconcerting experience. This understanding has spurred the shopping mall’s naturalization in China’s burgeoning cityscapes. Its hybridization in China finds a pre-existing context and cultural idea of ‘public’ with which the typology’s form already shares much common ground.

Extending anywhere from two to ten storeys the shopping mall podium is now a ubiquitous presence alongside the teaming road axes that characterise open space in modern Chinese urbanity. Occasionally they stand as individual buildings in their own right, but most often their atrium binds together a complex mixed-use city section that combines public transport infrastructure, shopping, work and housing within a bounded city block. It is in this scenario that the shopping mall now underpins the conceptual unit of the modern Chinese city – a context that shares the shopping mall’s own ‘urban’ idiosyncrasies.

Britain provides a number of examples that illustrate how the lessons learned from Asia are being assimilated into the typology as a culturally hybrid proposition. Four key projects – each of which has acted as a totem of urban regeneration – stand out. Birmingham’s Bull Ring, Liverpool One and London’s twin Westfield’s (Stratford and White City) exemplify how the typology has become a large-scale urban proposition. This is achieved by merging hyper-density with aspects that more specifically address the cultural and physical context of the cities in which these malls have materialised. 

Most typically this means that the density and mixed-use that are interpreted vertically in Asia are spread over a horizontal field in these lower-rise contexts. Liverpool One uses the pedestrian ground of the city to create a series of expanding centripetal circuits that fuse more cohesively with its urban grain. Birmingham’s Bullring is much the same. The difficulty with each is the way that these circuits are used to feed a central armature consisting of multiple grounds that effectively deny connection with the outside city at their apogee.

Despite their collagist hyper-modern appearance, echoing Asian preoccupations with contemporary architectural styles rather than the ‘post-modern’ qualities more commonly associated with suburbia, it appears little has changed. London’s Westfield’s paradoxically appear to achieve further integration and further disconnection. Hovering parasitically over major transport interchanges they connect with the city while using the creation of distinct ‘grounds’ (independent of the true grade of the city) and strategic relationships with their supporting infrastructure as a means to cleave off areas that considered less desirable. An inward diagram prevails creating, in the case of Westfield Stratford, a worrying spatial template for the wider Olympic Park development.

The shopping mall typology has now reached a crossroads. If it now pervades every facet of the built environment then critical theory needs to question the types of social space that it seeks to produce.  What’s at stake is the right to shape a free-thinking, progressive space of urban interaction.  Only by understanding the machinery of consumption that permeates the shopping mall can its excesses be resisted, allowing the urban realm to remain a more  egalitarian and civic place. 

Nick Jewell, Associate at Ben Adams’ Architects was talking on his PhD study of the Asian shopping mall at the NLA in London in November.