The universal need to exchange, acquire, and sell is one of the foundations of any urban environment. Commercial activity demands an interaction between parties, and it is this coming together that makes commerce, and the architecture that supports it, by definition urban. Some markets, like Les Halles in Paris or the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, are architectural monuments that take on a symbolic role within the city. Others, like Ralph’s supermarket or the Bedok Centre Wet Market in Singapore, are innocuous, generic structures that are repeated throughout the landscape with cookie-cutter-like regularity. Both types are of interest, though, because of the role they play in the lives of people who use these buildings. As sites of daily activity frequented by people of all social classes and every ethnic group, coming together and interacting, commercial buildings play a more significant role in people’s daily lives than those of the government.
I propose investigating a city’s commercial structures as a particularly valuable way of understanding that city. While there is certainly significance to the residential and industrial architecture of a city and the distribution of and relationships between these zones, I feel that the commercial sphere is at the heart of a city’s urban nature, particularly in an analysis of specific architectures. Furthermore, commercial architecture is more universal and less subject to culturally specific types than, say, domestic architecture. So as part of any cross-cultural investigation, the commercial architecture should be more easily understood, and can serve as an entrance to understanding more complicated and culturally inflected conditions.
With the current economic crisis, there is something of a lull in the incredibly dynamic urban laboratories of Southeast Asia. Cities in almost all Asian countries have been developing at an incredible pace in recent years, and only now is the building frenzy beginning to slow down in some, but by no means all cases. But regardless of rising and falling economic indicators, Southeast Asia is still at the forefront of urban development. I chose to visit Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, seeing them as representative cities at three distinct points in their urban development. Singapore has basically concluded its first massive binge of urbanization, and is searching for an identity upon which to base further development. Hong Kong is the most established global metropolis of the three, but is in the throes of dealing with the debilitating one-two punch of economic recession and the return of political power from the colonial British government back to the People’s Republic of China. Shanghai, once “the Pearl of the Orient” or “the Whore of Asia” depending on your source and point of view, has fallen from cosmopolitan preeminence since the People’s Revolution of 1949, and is just starting a gargantuan building and infrastructure construction program in an attempt to reassert its urban prowess.