USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Density, Collectivism, and Cultural Norms

North Americans possess a spatial understanding which influences our daily routines and activities to an astounding degree. In Japan, many people in our small group – myself included – seem completely inept in transversing a dense urban environment that many Japanese navigate with ease. While seemingly normal in North America, our group seems wholly out of place in Japan as we naturally occupy whatever amount of space is available to us, rather than compressing our seventeen-strong unit into a more compact formation. Even when arriving in Japan by airport shuttle, we chose to “fan out” and occupy only one seat in each two-seat cluster, causing our group to inhabit nearly the entire bus rather than only a small portion of the available space. Many Japanese, on the other hand, appear to innately understand the great value of space in their hyper-dense society. Lines of people form without outside direction, passengers in subway cars sit so as to maximize space for others, commuters walk with purpose and an awareness of their compatriots. Though likely influenced by the spatial constraints of vast Japanese cities such as Tokyo, this respect is somewhat alarming for those visiting from North America. Our culture of bigness and individuality places little emphasis on a spatial understanding and consideration of a collective whole. Through careful observation, however, it is clear that many American behaviors are formed not through thought and necessity, but rather are the result of luxurious ignorance. Our norms are justified by an abundance of space, of time, of resources.

In fact, I would argue that these cultural attributes – specifically Americana and its unwavering attention to the narcissist – seeks to prevent many American cities from evolving beyond a mere aggregation of citizens and resources. Tokyo shows us how a city can function with astounding efficiency and complexity, while allowing complex urban mutations to flourish and develop in ways which would seem bizzare to the inhabitants of many North American cities. As I write, the fifty-story building adjacent from our Tokyo hotel shows offices, apartments, and restaurants uniformly distributed throughout its height, forming a complex sectional network of program and activity. Yet such a distribution of commercial and residential spaces would seem unthinkable in many North American cities. Restaurants on the twenty-fifth floor would see no business, offices vacant due to a lack of branding potential in a mixed-use building. Here, however, the residents of Tokyo innately embrace this complex organizational strategy, in turn generating an increasingly sophisticated and layered use of space. While American spatial paradigms offer successful urban relationships in many instances, it would appear as though cultural understandings more in tune with density and collectivism foster a new breed of activity and density not seen in the West.

– Taylor


Filed under: America, Architecture, Japan, Urbanism

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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