Creating meaningful spaces in unlikely places

I was recently drinking with a British guy I randomly met at my neighbourhood watering hole. Of course we ended up on a favourite topic of expats and long stay visitors – what do you love or hate about the current city you’re staying in?

He had a lot of the usual, commonly-heard gripes about Bangkok: traffic, inefficiency and poorly made small sidewalks that make it impossible to walk with an umbrella during typhoon season. (The last one is mine btw, although it’s equally charming as it is a road hazard.) But he did have one praise.

The ability to turn an otherwise empty area into a social space with just a few chairs and a food stall or two. And of course, alcohol.

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Chairs, tables and food stalls outside of the mini super market

He had just unknowingly yet perfectly described one of my favourite spots in my neighbourhood. This being a tiny public spot outside Summer Hill, a non-descript community mall located next to the main Sukhumvit Road stretch. It’s unlikely to make it to any travel site or blogger’s top 10 lists, but every night, I always see locals just chilling out there without fail. They would buy some local beers from the mini supermarket nearby, dinner from the food stall, and proceed to sit down to listen to music by local performers of all shapes, sizes and greatly varying vocal ability (unfortunately).

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Photo from the internet

In the midst of the crazy Bangkok chaos, literally just a few steps away, here was a pocket of comfort and escape. This wasn’t any restaurant or mall in the conventional sense, but simply a humble open area for anyone to just gather and hang out. Only, it just so happened to sell food and drinks too.

In the Philippines, I can’t hardly begin to imagine just hanging out by the side of Edsa. Hawker centres and kopitiams are the closest analogues I can think of in Singapore, which is probably why they’re one of my favourite places when I used to live there.

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Skate park under the high way in Taiwan

This curious observation evoked a word that I came across at work: Placemaking. This is the idea of building our communities around places – even in the less obvious areas such as right next to a busy main road, or nestled under a highway in a skate park that I stumbled upon in Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taiwan. These might be somewhat indistinct spots, but I realise that they do have a sizeable influence on an area’s collective vibe.

“Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community. […]  More than just promoting better urban design, Placemaking facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.”

Placemaking is not a new idea, especially in the urban development and architecture industries. But given the rise of the experience economy, demand for authenticity and need for community (thanks Airbnb), I predict that this philosophy will only continue to become the norm, and increasingly relevant across all industries.

It’s also a topic that I’m keen to explore more on this blog. Well, it looks like I’ve unknowingly started already.

Remember what I wrote about malls?  Well, I realised that was also placemaking in action, albeit in a private, commercial space – as opposed to a public area. Either way, via the process of placemaking, any space can become more meaningful to the people who visit it. Even if it’s one that’s found on the side of the road.  

Reimagining retail for anti-mall explorers

Unlike many of my fellow countrymen, I’ve never really been one to enjoy malling. Our relationship was largely transactional at best – a place to run errands, grab a bite to eat, or catch a movie. Yes, I have hung out at the mall with my friends, but only because back then there simply was nowhere else to go. I remember that as teenagers we even made an ‘anti-mall’ pact, promising that we would hang out anywhere else but there. It’s not that I don’t enjoy shopping or browsing, but I hate doing it within the confines of a big, stuffy box.

But what if the ‘malling’ experience could break out of that multi-storeyed box?

Open house

Given my life-long indifference to malls, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed loitering around the Central Embassy mall’s top floor. Dubbed the ‘Open House’, it’s an open-floor concept designed to ‘blend general lifestyles with specific needs.’ After all, it’s one big book store, high-end food court, playpen and craft store, all mixed together to create a uniquely relaxing and casual atmosphere.

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Source: Central Embassy Website

I loved it because it was fun to explore, without any of the pressure that comes with stepping into a store or restaurant. Even if you’re “just browsing”, there’s enough interesting elements to keep you occupied – from the creative design, the yet-to-be-discovered band playing in the background or the dizzying array of books to read.

You might be familiar with this ‘blending’ concept in the form of co-working spaces that blur the line between work/life/play, creating holistic lifestyle spaces and communities. Open House is an evolution of that trend, only this time, it’s for the retail and F&B industry. At its heart, it utilizes multi-functional design to create a dynamic space so there’s a little something for everyone – even a decidedly mall-averse customer like me.

Trend: Multi-functional / multi-use spaces

Spotted at: Open House, Central Embassy Mall, Bangkok