Malls Get Shanghaied

China’s commercial hub has taken an approach to building livable neighborhoods that seems counter-intuitive to those used to North American trends in urbanization.

Asia, and in particular China, is the home of the mall in a way American consumer capitalists can only dream of. The world’s largest building, as measured by cubic floor space, is a shopping, entertainment, and office complex is in Chengdu. The world’s largest mall (as measured exclusively by shopping space) is the much-maligned South China Mall in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, which has lain mostly vacant since its construction a decade ago. Shanghai’s largest mall, Super Brand Mall, has a paltry 1.3 million square feet of retail space — clocking in at fifth in China and 43rd worldwide.

While Shanghai’s fast urbanization has led to distant suburbs and traffic snarl on par with America’s worst (what up Hotlanta!) sprawl, that does not mean that its malls are concentrated on the outskirts of town. Nor does it mean that Shanghai has not sought to do what many cities worldwide are doing in adding downtown density to “fill the donut hole”. Even in Shanghai’s historic center, the mall reigns supreme — and with unexpectedly positive results.

Shanghai presents a tricky proposition to anyone trying to figure out how to structure an urban core, and that’s without it being the largest city proper in the world. On one hand, it has a huge (and delightful) historical swath that bears preserving, with noteworthy architecture located in particular along its commercial arteries of Nanjing Road and Middle Huaihai Road. On the other hand, some of that history is made up mostly of large, gated mansions formerly owned by colonists that are downright bucolic for a metropolis of Shanghai’s size. Those are in turn often abutted by more nondescript, low-rise apartment blocks that are sometimes poorly maintained and don’t exactly inspire avarice from renters, even if they do just fine for the less well-to-do residents that occupy them. All of these places are subject to an intense market demand for commercial space and modern housing, much of it speculative, but all of it driven by the increasing wealth of Shanghainese wealthy and merely middle-class alike. What to do?

If you’re Shanghai, the answer is keep the most noteworthy and historical, and scrap the rest in favor of new living, shopping, and working places — and when you’re trying to cram as much as that as you can in a small space, that means building urban malls.

I didn’t understand Asia’s love affair with the megamall until I came to Shanghai, but it makes much more sense to me now, for two main reasons. First, it’s hot and humid outside for much of the year. Air-conditioning makes shopping a much more pleasant experience. Secondly and more importantly, many malls are built in core urban areas, which makes them pedestrian-driven waypoints for people who live and work in the city center instead of destinations in their own right for suburbanites.

Increasingly, the most noteworthy neighborhoods to live in are defined by the malls that form their nuclei. The Kerry Center has cemented Jing’an as the place to be for most upwardly mobile residents; it’s driven traffic to (and gentrification of) areas directly surrounding it. IAPM Mall has brought gaudy glam to Middle Huaihai and has reasserted its place as Shanghai’s foremost shopping street, although the foot traffic can be daunting to navigate. At Metro stations like Zhongshan Park and Dapuqiao, one can pass directly from the turnstiles to a half-dozen floors of shopping without ever seeing the sky — which, given the air quality on some days, is more boon than lament. Of course, there are many smaller, less noteworthy malls, including counterfeit goods purveyors, [insert product here] warehouses filled with stalls with names like Silk City or International Glasses City, humble fluorescent setups with just a few small shops, or fillers for what would otherwise be unused office space. But in many of the somewhat-to-very desirable places to live, it’s hard to walk from your front door to the metro without passing a few floors of retailers under one roof.

What has convinced me that Shanghai’s shopping-center fever is benefiting the city are the inventive ways in which malls are being incorporated into the lives of its users. Much has been made of transit-oriented development as the way forward in urban planning, and Crystal Galleria near the Jing’an Temple metro station is an impressive example. Like many malls, it is connected by an underground passageway directly to the interior of the nearest rapid-transit infrastructure, but the Galleria takes it a step further by incorporating a public bus terminal on the ground floor. It’s an ingenious idea that goes beyond seamless transfers from bus to subway; the tunnel decor fits that of the mall perfectly and incorporates vendors oriented towards commuters on the go (such as a smoothie seller) near the subterranean entrance of the mall without requiring them to enter. The upper floors of the mall are built directly over the bus lanes, forming a natural shelter so riders can wait without exposure to the elements. Another creative use of space is found at Metro City, a prominent mall in Xujiahui where I happen to go to the gym. Plenty of malls have movie theaters, but Metro City took it a step further by constructing Theatre Above, a 700-seat theater showing regular drama productions, under the same roof as dozens of shops and restaurants. A recent write-up in Time Out Shanghai details the mall’s owner and playwright Stan Lai’s vision of bringing the performing arts to the masses by incorporating them into our daily routines. Sure, there are plenty of gimmicky entertainment options present at some malls that are poorly suited for them — try stumbling out of a dingy dive at 1 in the morning into a brightly lit, mall cop-guarded atrium — but it’s nice to see consumer-oriented creativity in places that occupy prominent locations in Shanghai.

Ultimately, what malls here offer is not so different from what American yuppies or Euro hipsters want out of an urban living experience: plentiful, diverse consumption options and freedom from a car-dependent lifestyle. With the tremendous potential for financial reward encouraging foreign companies to locate their first Chinese toehold in Shanghai and prodding migrants from other parts of China to head east, there is certainly no shortage of the former. Since malls are so tightly wound into the fabric of the city (and necessarily so, since there’s no other way to fit so much traffic into the center), inevitably a sizable and varied chunk of commerce find its way indoors — often in places that many would have to traipse past anyways in the course of their daily routines. In another context, they would be a hellish concrete jungle, but in Shanghai they might be only way to satisfy the churn of buyers.

If there’s one knock on the malls in Shanghai, it’s that they are not always tasteful. The city boasts some singularly tradition-fusing architecture from bygone eras, and it is not always particularly concerned with keeping the historical atmosphere intact. A lazy tree-lined street can quickly devolve into a morass of pedestrians and impossibly shiny storefronts whose approach to tasteful branding is having meters and kilowatts of GUCCI above the door and a single pair of shoes next to it. But to me, the contrast renders Shanghai’s progress through the ages more stark, and makes Shanghai the city it is today. It’s one of the few places you can find the old and new, rich and poor, local and foreign, flashy and restrained, all in tight proximity — and perhaps even under one roof.

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