How to Lose a Sense of Place

You can’t touch the sculpture in front of Langham Place. It’s a nice bronze piece by Larry Bell, and it looks great from a distance, but if people touched it, their oily hands would ruin the metal. So there’s a security guard stationed out front, all day, every day, to make sure nobody crawls onto the sculpture’s tree-like limbs, which, most cruel of all, seem to invite you to climb them, or at least lean on them.

Since it opened five years ago, Langham Place has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in Mongkok. Its 700-foot office tower, capped by a glowing dome, can be seen from throughout the city, including my kitchen and bedroom windows, where I take strange comfort in its constant presence. The mall underneath is home to an independent radio station and a huge, unforgettable atrium ringed by outdoor café terraces. The last adjective I would use to describe Langham Place is “bland,” which can’t be said for most malls.

The way Langham Place treats the streets around it is another story. The entire complex occupies two narrow city blocks, connected by large enclosed footbridges above street level. One block is home to the office tower and shopping mall; the other contains a luxury hotel, minibus terminus and community centre. As you’d expect from such large buildings sandwiched onto such small blocks, the effect is that of a tunnel — you’re walking down the street past buildings of varying height and suddenly the sun disappears, the wind blows harder and you’re surrounded by huge, featureless walls. Whereas the interior of the mall is memorable and engaging, its exterior is a triumph of commercial gigantism.

There are several street-level entrances to the mall and hotel, including one at the corner of Argyle and Portland where Larry Bell’s sculpture stands, which has become a popular meeting place. But for the most part, Langham Place meets with street with blank walls, service entrances, fire-escape doors and windows covered by advertisements. It’s completely overwhelming, not in the way that Hong Kong’s frenzied streets normally overwhelm you, but in the way that the black hole of placelessness sucks all of the energy and inspiration out of your body. Like much recent architecture in Hong Kong, it feels like it was designed by people who don’t walk much and who don’t understand the experience of being a pedestrian.

These two before-and-after photos by Lee Chi-man give a sense of Langham Place’s overbearingness. Before, there was a variety of buildings, short and tall, many of them old shophouses of the type that has almost entirely disappeared from Hong Kong. There was a clutter of signs, small shops, plants growing from balconies and rooftops. Behind the buildings, a small lane contained Hong Kong’s famous bird market, the local manifestation of the millenia-old Chinese tradition of keeping songbirds.

2,600 people lived in the two blocks that became Langham Place. They were relocated in the late-1990s when the area was targeted by the quasi-public Land Development Corporation for renewal. The LDC was the predecessor to the present-day Urban Renewal Authority, and unlike the URA, its name was not disingenuous: it existed for the sole purpose of buying up rundown parts of the city, auctioning them to the big developers that control Hong Kong’s economy and political system, and pocketing the resulting profits, some of which trickled back to the government, some of which paid for the handsome salaries of LDC executives. Of course, the reason many of those areas were rundown in the first place is because they had been slated for redeveloped, often for decades before the actual renewal project took place, which discouraged new investment.

As the bird market and the eclectic buildings around it were demolished, Hong Kong lost many things: the cultural heritage of the market, the architecture of the shophouses, the economic incubation of small business, a diverse range of commercial and residential spaces, and affordable homes for 2,600 people, many of whom were likely relocated to public housing estates in far-flung parts of the city. In exchange for all that, property developers made money, Mongkok property owners cashed in on rising land values and the large corporations that own the chain stores in Langham Place found new outlets to increase their market share and raise their stock value.

The rest of us get a spiffy atrium, more of the same stores that exist everywhere else and a few token spaces for community facilities, small businesses and an indie radio station. Oh yes, and Larry Bell’s sculpture. We can look but we can’t touch.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday August 07 2010at 12:08 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “How to Lose a Sense of Place”

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Damn! I liked that bird market…

  • C. Szabla says:

    …but of course there’s still a bird market, in the park a little to the east, and for all their vitality, these high-intensity blocks in Mongkok go on and on, and feel somewhat monotonous. Langham Place at least breaks them up a bit. Does it do so in the most artful way? No, it feels like a vehicle to deliver the highest price per square foot. But I don’t agree that some intervention in to create a focal point and a slight disruption in the cityscape at this location was a total travesty.

  • Ange Wayne says:

    That’s incredible. The government really finds ways to protect the Sculpture in front of Langham’s Place. I like to go here and visit the place. Looks like fun to me.