Skymall, sometimes written Skymall and sometimes Sky Mall, is a new mixed-use development currently under construction in Chongqing’s University Town. These mixed-use developments, really lifestyle campuses, are small cities unto themselves that serve most of the basic needs for the residents, and try to do so in a way that distinguishes them from their rival colonies down the road. During their construction, a great amount of effort is put into their branding in the form of banners on all the construction site barriers as well as print material distributed at the base of escalators at subway stations. Some of the advertisements for other such developments focus on the relaxing atmosphere, some draw attention to the ecological virtues of the developer while others try to convince young parents of the suitability of the environment for raising one or two children. An adjacent development to Skymall was advertising with the slogan “Live a Taibei’s Life” showing the Taiwanese actress Lin Chi-ling, sometimes in a cocktail dress and sometimes in more in a relaxed dress pointing a paint brush at a canvas we can’t see. The marketing strategy is fascinating given that it is clearly offering a liberation from a mainland lifestyle to potential renters, while ostensibly ignoring the political complexity of coveting the disputed island. Anyway… Skymall seems to be pushing it’s scale and cosmopolitan offerings over the other possible benefits.
Skymall is located behind the Chongqing University Campus just shy of the G85 expressway, and on the other side of that, the mountains. Currently it is more than a mile from the nearest subway line, but if the promotional map is telling the truth, there will soon be a line 7 branching out from somewhere and connecting it to the rest of the world. After you have crossed miles of relatively unused land on the line 1 elevated train between Gele mountain and the Universities, it begs the question of wouldn’t this kind of development be more well-placed miles closer to the city center. Perhaps there is some draw for the locals to have an apartment at the base of the mountains, and the location would certainly be convenient for Chongqing University employees; but it is way too big to serve only that function.
Clearly Chongqing’s expansion is nowhere near complete, even if arguably over served. The phrase “fools errand” could certainly be applied to any effort on my part to second guess the urban planning of this city. Chongqing’s flavor is so strong in so many ways that one can imagine how developers might think that in order to design a certain lifestyle, it may be necessary to start from scratch, and at a bit of a distance. But can a cosmopolitan environment be a serious aspiration when the apartments are more than 2 hours from the airport by public transport. Certainly the name falls short at that distance.
In any case it is fascinating to see these places in this particular stage. Workers say they still have 6 months until it is complete. The mall area is currently vacant and unfurnished. It is staged with window graphics to represent the possibility of a forthcoming flourishing retail environment; but the use of cliched tropes riffing on existing brands parodies itself as much as it communicates the inevitablity of potential business. Most of the fake brands are in English, perhaps to sidestep the nuanced peculiarity of their improvised names while creating the international vibe, code for affluence and consumer mobility. Meanwhile, the greater residential site is currently peopled by workers, many of whom are living out their lives in temporary three story buildings built of corrugated steel and aircraft cable. The contrast between the lean practicality of the bunkhouses and the gushing optimism of the lifestyle banners is stark to say the least.