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Living Above Shops

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Living above shops is so common in urban societies it can probably be regarded as a defining characteristic, unlike say a rural or village society where the buying and selling of things takes place in the open-air or at covered markets. I won’t repeat a potted history of living above shops. [c.f. The Vertical City, (Sept. 2017)]

Living above shops has been happening at larger scales, first in Hong Kong where apartment towers on a shopping mall podium are an established typology. The following images are of Hong Kong’s Taikoo Estate, the first and central portion of which has nine apartment towers arranged on a three-storey mall podium called City Plaza. We last saw it in Misfits’ Guide to HONG KONG (Aug. 2017). It’s representative.

The nine apartment buildings each have entrance lobbies accessed from perimeter streets where the the mall podium has three pedestrian entrances and four delivery bay entrances.

The different entrances are like they are anywhere and are kept as far away from each other as possible. The relationship between delivery bays and ground level service corridors means that between every two street level mall entrances is a delivery bay and service corridor. Service corridors can go around the apartment entrances and their ground level final fire escapes but this restriction can be avoided if the ground level is renamed a lower-ground level and ground level reset to level one spanning a network of service corridors. If that’s not an option, then the rule for ground level is to do the best you can.

It’s a configuration nobody has seen any need to improve. It does the job. Around the world you can see how different countries have juxtaposed apartment buildings and shopping malls. Regional style variations exist but the approach is much the same. and they’re all monstrous in the same way.

South-east Asian countries have their own spin on this new international typology.

I say “typology” but it’s still just different building types juxtaposed because it’s economically advantagaeous for someone to do so. It’s a functioning marriage of economic convenience and may even be an arrangement with benefits for both parties and some of those benefits may be shared. Urban malls are best located on metro stations or other transportation nodes because it increases footfall and apartments are more attractive purchases if they are conveniently located for public transport. Metro stations are a third party in this relationship and building both above newly-construced ones benefits both. This is odd. The provision of food and the provision of shelter are both fundamental to our existence and it is strange that these two types of buildings have so far refused to fuse into some new thing having a synergy each type alone cannot provide.

People in one type may glimpse or be aware of people in the other type, but this isn’t done with the intention of either side benefiting from being paired with the other. It’s a loveless relationship.

MVRDV appeared to make a stab at reconciliation with their 2014 Rotterdam Markthal and its inhabitable wall enclosing a marketplace. Food and shelter were in close juxtaposition and, while apartment people could revel in their unusual view, the market people were mostly oblivious. The market added a curious value to the apartments but the apartments give nothing back to the market. Rather than a living wall of people, the trompe l’oeil of vegetables falling from the sky was the real star of the show.

I expect Markthal inhabitants are more likely to go down to the market and buy produce on market days than would people in a regular apartment-mall combo for, although it’s a question of mall management rather than architectural typology, the food sold in shopping malls is generally not our daily bread and if there’s any reason why shopping malls are about entertainment and experience above all else it’s because there’s more money in it. It may be counterintuitive for the people who live above shopping malls to not be the people who populate or use them but it’s still worthwhile to have people living in the vicinity of a mall in order to animate the area and make it appear to visitors as “a place to be and do things.” In the grand food chain of things, low-spending residents are cultivated to attract the higher-spending visitors, and visitor money is worth more than resident money.

It’s all a bit sneaky lulling people into a false sense of dependency when urban centres have many types of amenity people would like to be closer to. If a shopping mall can contain cinemas, ice-rinks, children’s activity spaces, offices, drama theatres, food courts, a medical centre, aquariums and restaurants as well as a variety of retail outlets of all sizes, then it can be anything anyone wants it to be and, if it can be anything, then it’s a universal space to which only people need to be added.

  • Shopping malls aren’t warrens of corridors and shops but a hierarchy of spaces to be freely moved about it in a manner carefully contrived to avoid backtracking.
  • A hierarchy of spaces develops from one or more atriums that exist for and wayfinding, but also to provide an architectural event that is all about space. Malls are never much to look at from the outside.
  • Malls were never intended to be just places to shop. They were designed as places that people would want to come to and, as such, are de-facto social centres in Canada, Australia and the UK as much as they are in Hong Kong.


The problem is that malls are a part of our lives yet remain distant from them. We engage with them on their terms. Despite the oft stated intention of shopping malls replicating the virtues of the urban street, their retail functions remain separate from living functions even when the latter is present. Guiseppe Mengoni’s 1867 Galleria di Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan is often claimed to be the ancestor of all shopping malls but it has never been appreciated for what it is and, because of that, has never been equalled let alone bettered. The synergy between pedestrian passageway, retail and (then) residential functions combine to make a beautiful piece of urban theatre.

• • •

The project site was that of the slightly down-at-heel Dubai mall we first saw in The Vertical City post.

  • A potential desire line links a crosswalk (near the intersection of the rear road) with Dubai Mall metro station (out of frame to the bottom right). It’s not as grand a connection as Galleria di Vittorio Emanuele II linking Milan’s Piazza del Duomo with Piazza della Scala but it’s a start.
  • The fact this desire line runs almost precisely east-west suggests the apartment slabs should too. It’s a good passive climate strategy anyway.
  • Apartment buildings are characterized by bland many windowed facades and malls are characterized by universal space punctured by occasional atrium incident. If apartment buildings have anything to offer malls, it is that they can define and extend the atrium upwards and make it more of an architectural or quasi-urban event. After all, this is what the living above shops always did for streets anywhere. Let’s not forget that the history of shopping malls was based in replicating the city street experience. Victor Gruen’s Southdale was a very peculiar and anomalous interpretation of 1930’s Vienese streets. Why not generate a shopping mall from, say, Fifth Avenue?

It’s okay. The bridging at the top is architectural flim-flam and not strictly necessary but as the rest of the building can be built on an 8m x 8m column grid there should be some unspent cash to pay for it. Also, it lends the development an air of monumentality, coherence and dignity that crude juxtapositions lack.

Like MVRDV’s Markthal, it’s grand on the inside and when looking in, but unremarkable from all other viewpoints. It will require dual-aspect planning not like a Unité but along the more ingenious pattern described in Detective Story

or The Piano and The Double-Sided Apartment.

One important difference with Markthal is that apartments can be double-sided for passive climate cross-ventilation advantage. Markthal plans suggest living rooms generally facing outwards and bedrooms facing inwards. Media promotion at the time made much of the designers’ insistence that windows facing the market must be openable so inhabitants can savour the ambience, etc. In the face of civil liability claims arising from childrens’ toys and miscellaneous objects falling from the windows of private into the pseudo-public space of privately-managed property, the designers obviously didn’t insist all that strongly. Such failures to convince aren’t generally mentioned unless they can be turned into PR advantage by a narrative such as “architect creativity thwarted by red-tape bureaucracy and clients lacking imagination!” 

Openable windows aren’t a problem with this proposal since the mall atrium workings are enclosed in their own climatically-controlled (and impact resistant) glazed box. The bedroom windows can at last be opened into what is the externalised atrium. It won’t be possible to savour the aural ambience of the mall but at least the apartments windows can be opened and the cross-ventilating air will bring ambient noise from somewhere. Since we won’t care where it’s from or value it any more or less than any other, it will be truly ambient. Ahh.

This apartment-mall unit doesn’t take a traffic or transportation system into account and probably won’t stand up to unlimited repetition in the grand tradition of urban mats and carpets.


None of these urban modules has the flexibility to be inserted into an existing street pattern. In contrast, a mall-apartment urban module generated from the congruence of location-specficic factors such as connectivity and climate can adapt to and enhance existing street patterns much as its illustrious ancestor did.



  • Hello! I’m big fan of both your conceptual and written work, I’ll admit, sometimes I kinda let it influence my way of thinking too much and makes me very subjective. But anyways, my question is, do you think such a typology would work in any section of a city, or is it more of a value-adding monument to a central area? Thanks.

    • says:

      Thanks Andrei – a good question! Perhaps not in exactly that form, but the principle of the verticality of the apartments adding something to the atrium ought to be applicable wherever malls and apartment buildings occur together. I’m currently in Brussels where people manage quite nicely without either as their historic way of living above shops remains adequate. Brussels has no need for something like that proposal. In other places – I’m thinking suburban Australia – shops have coalesced into malls but housing hasn’t coalesced into apartments. It wouldn’t work there. The proposal assumes a system of roads but would work best in places where there’s already a high population density, a large amount of pedestrian traffic and where shops have coalesced into malls. There’s not that many places. Hong Kong has already gone past that proposal. The proposal’s monumentality comes from it having no recognisable scale and that’s partly due to the mall having no windows and the (optional) bridge structure creating an extremely monumental entrance. I’m still working on it and will let you know how it turns out when the elevations are completed.


      (Brussels does have the very lovely Galerie de la Reine with apartments above shops. It’s from 1847 which predates Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II by a few decades.)

    • says:

      Dear Andrei,
      You were right about the Galerie de la Reine in Brussels. It was very lovely. One of the apartments was for rent when I passed by. I’m still organising all my photographs and information into a Misfits’ Guide to BRUSSELS that will appear sometime in the next few months.