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We have never found a good solution for shopping malls

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The AJ speaks to Ben Adams associate director Nicholas Jewell about his new book, Shopping Malls and Public Space in China

China’s rise as an economic superpower is unprecedented. Mammoth construction projects have gone hand-in-hand with a global outlook that has seen the country embrace free market capitalism. A key factor in China’s economic growth is the shopping mall. In his book Shopping Malls and Public Space in Modern China, Nicholas Jewell examines how the mall has become a key component of China’s growing cities. The AJ spoke to Jewell about the shopping mall’s role in Chinese life, public space, the class system and why architects needed to engage more with the building type.

Why shopping malls and why Chinese ones in particular?

It has been a preoccupation for me because they are generally a problem for architects. We have never found a good solution. It is the underlying capitalist agenda does not sit very well with the socialistic good intentions that architects have. The shopping mall in the West was invented by architect Victor Gruen – an Austrian émigré to the United States who conceived the shopping mall as a place for people in suburban America – a kind of town centre.

However, the equation between plan and profit that worked so well for developers that it made it quite hard for architects to claim the space very meaningfully. It made a repeatable spacial formula that multiplied through suburbia. Much of what we have done in the West is refine that formula.

 And how do things differ in China?

Before China there were Corbusian and Metabolist experiments in Singapore with internalised city rooms that condense the infrastructure of the city in new models. So you would have a tube network tapping into a pedestrianised atrium separated from vehicular movement. On top of that you would have offices or residential accommodation. These were bounded city block models that concentrated hyper-density in one place. China grasped the nettle of capitalism and said these are the models around us and this is something for us to follow. So it goes from being a suburban thing to a key component of the city.

 The mall atrium is often the highest public place you can get to in a Chinese city that you can throw yourself off

 So in China the shopping mall became more in tune with Gruen’s ideal?

Yes, it is much closer to fulfilling the original function for which it is conceived. There is a slightly different urban syntax that exists there. In the UK open space in the city is a park or a square where people stop and interact. Closed space is private. In China, those open spaces are symbolic State spaces and the public life of the city happens in various stages or layers of closure behind a walled world. Behind the huge axis of Imperial Beijing there are the Hutongs, which are containers of social life. If you look at the shopping mall it has a lot more in common with that kind of urbanity.

How has China reconciled these capitalistic models with communism?

When Deng Xiaoping came to power he said, ‘To get rich is glorious’ which prompted the move towards capitalism and erased the idea of the proletariat. Having buildings like this at street level are an important part of the ideological move away from that idea.

So how representative are these buildings of contemporary Chinese society?

There is a really alarming class structure that is evolving around them. There is the hidden wealthy elite that enter the building through a separate entrance and all the business is done in a private room. There is also a two-track system where they have a subterranean mall that is part of the same complex but very disconnected. Above ground you have the recognisable western brands and below ground there are two storeys of mall with up and coming Chinese brands that appeal to the growing middle class. All of that brushes up against the urban poor and the migrant classes in the city as well.

What affect is this tension having?

There is a phenomenon of suicide that is not really talked about but when you look around a mall you can see the signs of it. There are unnaturally high barriers at the side of atriums and security become very twitchy whenever you go near the edge. The mall atrium is often the highest public place you can get to in a Chinese city that you can throw yourself off. It feels very telling when you get these really rich spaces and a couple of roads back people are dirt poor. That last desperate leap is the only time they are noticed. The consumerist miracle is clearly not happening yet for everyone.

Given what you know about shopping malls does there need to be a greater engagement from the profession with the typology?

I think that as architects we have been really bad at understanding people who love going to shopping malls. I start the book by saying I do not like shopping malls very much. But if architects continue to think like that shopping malls will not get better. You need to understand the rules and the factors behind their creation to challenge them. If you are asking the right questions and deconstructing it then they can be put back together in a more meaningful way. 

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