Research

Stefan Al, ‘Mall City: Hong Kong's Dreamworlds of Consumption’

Of all cities, Hong Kong has the densest and tallest concentration of malls, sandwiched between subways and skyscrapers. Its malls are also the most visited and have become cities in and of cities in and of themselves, accommodating tens of thousands of people who live, work, and play within a single structure. Edited by Stefan Al, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning, Mall City (University of Hawaii, 2016) highlights the effects of this development in Hong Kong to raise questions about architecture, city planning, culture, and urban life. Contributors include Carolyn Cartier, Cecilia Chu, Stan Lai, Gordon Matthews, Adam Nowek, David Grahame Shane, Barrie Shelton, and Jonathan Solomon. Following is an excerpt.

Hong Kong is the world’s laboratory of vertical urbanism. The city builds ever higher-density mega-complexes consisting of residential and office towers standing on a podium shopping mall, often integrated with railway infrastructure. These podium-tower developments are true megastructures, cities in and of themselves, accommodating up to tens of thousands of people who live, work and play within a single structure, without ever having to leave. They contain the world’s tallest malls stretching up to 26 stories, and stunning tall vertical atria with “expresscalators.” The complexes have become one of Hong Kong’s basic units of urban development, like the skyscraper is of New York City.

They really took off after 1976, when the government facilitated the complexes with a new planning control mechanism to streamline large mixed-use Transit Oriented Developments (TOD). One year earlier, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTRC) was established to build metro lines, and, uniquely, as well as to develop real estate, capitalizing on the transit stations it was to create. Unlike other cities where transit corporations are separate entities from developers, it could more easily achieve a seamless integration between subway stops and the attached buildings. These conditions helped create increasingly dense, mixed-use, and better transit-integrated projects. High population density is often associated with crowding, congestion and environmental problems, but Hong Kong’s podium-tower developments are examples of how density can be livable.

Nevertheless, all this density comes with strings attached. In many of the megastructures, the podium includes a mall that is deliberately placed on the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between all entry points into the structure and the residential, office, and transit functions — impossible to miss. Metro exits lead directly into malls and footbridges connect different malls so that pedestrians remain in a shopping continuum, not contaminated by the public realm. The implication of this urban form is that it sets in stone a culture of consumerism.

Mall City features contemporary Hong Kong as a unique rendering of an advanced consumer society. Retail space has come a long way since the nineteenth-century Parisian arcades—according to Walter Benjamin, the birthplace of capitalist spectacle, where for the first time luxury goods had been put on secular display. It has morphed from the Ur-form of the arcades to the department stores, and from the mall into the mall city: fully intertwined into people’s everyday lives. Hong Kong’s mall cities represent a new moment in the phantasmagoria of commodities, in which shopping is ubiquitous and mall atria are ever more mesmerizing, aiming to perpetuate a constant consciousness of shopping. If Paris was the paradigmatic consumer city of the nineteenth century, then Hong Kong is the consumer capital of the twenty-first century: a high-density “dream world” of mall cities.