Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America.
Twice the size of the Mall of America, it has an Arc de Triomphe and a 1.3-mile canal with gondolas. But no one wants to come.
In this space, I have written before about dead shopping malls, past their prime and doomed by a business model stuck in the late 20th century. Although I am no fan of the architectural form or the way malls became de facto, mass-manufactured, neo-public spaces (while being vastly inferior to true public spaces) in American suburbs, there can be something profoundly sad when they fail.
The giant mall you see in the photos here, though, didn’t die. It has never lived, having been nothing but empty since it opened seven years ago. According to its Wikipedia entry, it has an astounding 2,350 available retail spaces, only 47 of which are occupied.
Meet the world’s largest shopping mall, the New South China Mall in Dongguan, China. It is twice as big as the huge Mall of America outside Minneapolis. Super-talented photographer Matthew Niederhauser describes the mall on his blog:
A local billionaire built it, and they did not come. The South China Mall was the most ambitious and largest retail space ever conceived in China, if not the world, when it opened in 2005. Constructed smack in the middle of the Pearl River Delta between Shenzhen and Guangzhou, about 4 million people live within six miles of it, 9 million within twelve miles and 40 million within sixty miles. Nonetheless, six years later, the South China Mall only maintains a 1% occupancy rate at best.
This unabatedly empty temple to consumerism remains unfinished on top floors and is only sporadically visited thanks to the attached amusement park, Amazing World. For the time being dust and dismembered mannequins reign over the 6.5 million square foot venture. Although China might be the fastest growing consumer market in the world, the South China Mall reveals the vulnerability of this burgeoning economic giant.
The mall has 7,100,000 square feet (163 acres) of leasable floor space and 9,600,000 square feet (220 acres) of total space. Wikipedia reports that "the mall has seven zones modeled on international cities, nations and regions, including Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Venice, Egypt, the Caribbean, and California." It has a replica of the Arc de Triomphe, another of the bell tower of St. Mark’s in Venice, and a 1.3-mile canal with gondolas.
What the New South China Mall (the owners added “new” to the name two years after the opening) doesn’t have is people or business.
Visit the official site here, or the English translation here. If you have time, this is a very good (poignant, even) short film about the mall, by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Green (you may have to sit through a 30-second ad at the beginning):
This post originally appeared on the NRDC's Switchboard blog.