Day 1: Permeability

Heading out Wednesday night in search of a late dinner, I had my first up-close encounter with the Kowloon streetscape. Our hotel is at the center of an upscale, touristy district called Tsim Sha Tsui, just north of Victoria Harbor (map).

Street-level permeability exists here to an extent I’ve never experienced before. Few storefronts at the ground floor, save a handful of banks and higher-end boutiques, have walls at all. Separated from the sidewalk by only a few inches of floor height, merchants do business in cheerful cubicle-sized spaces under fluorescent lights while people flow past and around and in and out. And it isn’t solely retail shops contributing to the flows of traffic to and from the sidewalk — escalators carry passengers to unseen destinations above- and below-grade; elevator lobbies and reception desks are open to the street. At the ground floor level, the line between public and private space is an utter blur.

At almost 10 pm midweek, the streets were bustling. It seemed that not a centimeter of space was wasted; even an alley between buildings was crammed with blooms, forming a haphazard flower shop. Brimming with merchandise of all types, size and quality — from luxury handbags to consumer electronics to pungent dried squid snacks — most shops took full advantage of their tiny spaces with meticulous organization and splashy merchandising.

Danish architect Jan Gehl, whose theories about designing for pedestrians and public space are recognized around the world, recommends engaging pedestrians with a new experience every four to five seconds. The porosity of the ground floors, narrow footprints of the shops, vibrant colors, and mix of textures on Salisbury Road combined to turn my head every second, if not even more often. The result was more thrilling than overwhelming, and the flood of lights and noise and life made the streets feel as safe and inviting at night as they do in daylight.

The stalls of retail, though housed within massive permanent structures, were reminiscent of a farmers’ market because of their diversity, size and fluid approachability. I wonder if this form evolved from Hong Kong’s more public (and locally focused) outdoor markets, and am curious about the cultural shift from outdoors to indoors, and public to private space. I’m hoping to learn more about these retail spaces that I can share throughout the week.

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