Impressions of Asian Streets

Asian cities do not necessarily have the formalist configuration of spaces and the highly defined public realm bequeathed to most European cities, nor necessarily a systemic organisational framework that underpins the urban structure. Where the typical European street has a typological uniformity that asserts a collective definition, the Asian street is more likely to reflect a heterogeneous assembly of types that vary in terms of form, scale and the degree of informality. This allows it to integrate a range of complex interactions including social rituals, ceremonial uses, market trading and economic transactions that relate more to patterns of activity than conceived physical form.  
Complexity and Correspondence Street configurations are shaped by early settlement imprints, but equally clearly by imposed regulatory regimes, land ownership structures, market imperatives and trading trajectories that often reflect intangible processes. These help to strengthen the perceived boundaries of urban space through a contextual juxtaposition that emphasises variety over harmonious form and one which establishes an effective dialogue between uses. Thus, Asian streets and urban places represent an urbanism of high adaptability but a disjointed image. ‘Places’ tend to be defined by types of activity, independent of compositional elements, expressed through asymmetrical forms to which the parts subscribe in accordance with practicality, patterns of movement, change and flexibility. All of these promote a symbolic meaning to a locality where a sense of place is marked through strong cultural and social associations. These also create an elusive relationship between what is known and what is seen.  
Temporal Transitions Temporal transitions in the Asian city reflect a relationship between the passage of time and the programmatic change of uses throughout the day and evening. This generally involves different
Streets in Asia are different from the ones in Europe. Peter Cookson Smith explores Impressions of Asian Streets
sets of users who inhabit street space at different times for different purposes, sometimes with a high degree of overlap. Locations are shared on a time basis rather than being used intensively, but intermittently by one particular interest group. Change through time is therefore a function of the availability of street space in relation to specific interest groups that have easy access to it, and the transition from day-time to nighttime uses that allow the community to become participants in a series of unfolding events. For example, the daily metamorphosis associated with the construction of stands for night markets and food stalls are expressions of public ritual that convolute the normal experience of urban space and both absorb and promote constantly evolving patterns of activity.
Articulated Margins and Threshold Spaces The street margin represents a public or semipublic space between the street and the building edge. In many Asian streets this tends to be treated as a transitional ‘threshold’ rather than a rigid demarcation, which acts as a functional space in its own right with a strong expressive quality where the informal street rhythm involves a daily reciprocity between different interests and rituals. Colonnaded walkways are still a feature of older city streets, articulating their edges in a consistent and unifying way, providing climatic shelter and creating space for adjustable display areas. The interface between ‘private’ and ‘public’ is thereby enlivened and animated by edge activities that percolate into the street itself and engage passers-by through overlays of use and display.
Persistencies and Palimpsests The evolving framework of land values and ownership patterns leads to an accretion of historical trace elements to the street, both physical and metaphysical. Historical persistencies and cultural overlays inject an influential presence in the form of such features as ceremonial spaces and speciality markets

Impressions of Asian Streets


forming an urban continuum that brings the past into the present and relates to time as well as use. Shop-lined street markets may have evolved in some cases from temple approaches, traditionally made up of stalls which sold offerings. Place identity is reinforced through adaptable fabric that can accommodate acceptable degrees of change, while retaining physical ‘permanences’ that have strong local associations.

Spiritual and Sacred Places

In many situations the location of temples, shrines, pagodas and other ceremonial features are identified through geomantic diagnosis in relation to natural features, producing a sense of harmony between perceived divine forces on one hand and the more transient material expressions of life on the other, creating an intuitive balance between opposing but complementary forces. Instead of dominating its surroundings, the temple establishes a low-key but purposeful presence which heightens its relatively informal relationship with the public realm. Places of spirituality generate a powerful identity in relation to many small trading establishments and stall holdings selling offerings and gifts. The juxtaposition of the spiritual and the urban achieves a relaxed co-existence through a combination of ceremonial and social gathering spaces. This fosters an intimate relationship with the community, which in many cases reflects the non-proselytising traditions of the predominant Asian religions.

Commodified Connections

Asian streets, particularly within business districts, increasingly incorporate contrasting interventions at different scales. Vertical peoplemovers and elevated skywalks cut through buildings and across street corridors servicing a



three-dimensional matrix of uses that demand a high level of access, where routes between uses work just as effectively in three dimensions as in two. Elevated and vertical connections introduce an extra dimension of urban movement that heightens the user’s encounter with layered commercial patterns, where an intensive mix of spatial situations heightens patterns of use and promotes constantly evolving matrices of activity along their path. This introduces a complex secondary typology of circulation channels made up of footbridges, escalator links, malls and atria which provide an intricate and episodic movement experience interwoven with retail distribution systems that stimulate consumption


In structuring an analysis of the Asian Street, while acknowledging the vast historical and cultural differences between cities and with limited commonalities in the urban landscape, it is prudent to steer away from normative models The traditional characteristic of the urban street is the orchestration of localised social and business ‘transactions’ that represent robust and variable relationships between different uses that co-exist in a successful expression of congruity and commonality. Along street frontages these accentuate the idea of the street as a place of social and commercial encounters, creating its own sense of variety, contrast and legibility. While the physical qualities of the street in terms of architectural design and consistency are important in the appropriate context, the compositional qualities of street design need to reflect the consistent features and ‘loose fit’ typologies that have created identifiable street forms with variable qualities. In physical terms this establishes a sense of ‘likeness tempered with difference’, while creating a framework for multiuse and multi-occupation.

All sketches are from ‘The Urban Design of Intervention: Imposed and Adaptive Places in Asian Cities’ published by MCCM Publications, 2014.