It happened to me twice that I couldn’t find the exit of a building once I was in it. The first time was in a Las Vegas casino, where I learned the hard way that these things are designed to keep you inside at all times. The second time was in a Hong Kong mall. Actually finding an exit wasn’t the hard part, but finding your way back to the actual street level was the problem, as many levels in Hong Kong constitute as such in some way.
Together with New York, Hong Kong is a top tier skyscraper city. Here, the urban context is so extreme that the city has to come up with its own unique solutions when it comes to space and density. Given its historical en geographical context, and add into the mix that Hong Kong is Asia’s premiere shopping destination (check out this list of shopping centers in Hong Kong) gives rise to a quintessential Hong Kong typology: the mall city.
Mega Box shopping center. source: Wikipedia
Hong Kong malls are not like the shopping centers you find in cities where you and I live. These are huge complexes including train stations, hotels, apartment towers, offices, cinemas and yes indeed, very large shopping malls with hundreds of shops that sometimes go up more than 20 floors. Mall City examines these vertical shopping cities in two parts. The first one contains 7 essays by academics who look at this phenomenon from as many different angles. Part 2 contains the facts and figures: floor plans, cross-sections, infographics, images, numbers and a good number of case studies.
The book is so chock-full of information and imagery that its layout is a bit of a metaphor for the topic it covers. Like the malls themselves, this might seem as a bit cramped, and I wish some images were larger so you can take in the details a bit better. My favorite images are the floor plans of some of these complexes. If you think finding your way was difficult, try designing one of these:
Besides being an enjoyable read, it’ll be up to the eye of the beholder what else you can get out of this study. Since Mall City is a product of Hong Kong’s unique urban context, this is not a how-to in case you wanted to do ont of these in your city. What I got out of it is an understanding that you can use design techniques in order to get people into your building instead of outside, and once they are in, you can make it inviting enough for them to go up. Multi-level public space is quite rare but this book shows it is not impossible. Especially in a city where the shopping mall also doubles as a town square where you go to meet people and go out for dinner.
The book also raises some interesting issues. Many Chinese cities are now racing to become a shopping destination of their own and only the future will tell how this is going to affect business in Hong Kong. Also, it’s going to be interesting to see how Hong Kong malls are going to cope when shopping malls fall out of favor or go through some kind of transition, as many recent news sources are suggesting is currently happening in the United States.
Atrium in Times Square (left) and Mega Box
Mall City is a great book for those who want to get lost in the shopping meccas of a fascinating world city, without actually getting lost.