USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Catch Me If You Can

“Ten… Nine… Eight… Seven… Six… Five… Four… Three… Two… One… Ready or not, here I come!”

I’ve been on the hunt for about a week now.

The games of “hide and seek” to which I am accustomed usually lead to some form of physical discovery, whether it is of a place or of someone’s hidden location. Since we arrived in Shenzhen, I have been on a relentless search for something intangible: the identity of this city.

At times I find myself tiptoeing as I approach a street vendor’s display table, hoping to ambush my protean prey as it rests among the counterfeit copies of Seasons 1 through 7 of Sex and the City. To no avail, I wander along the boulevards connecting the massive blocks made up of innumerable hotel and bank towers, hoping to find even a small hint in the middle of this Central Business District. All I see are wide, practically vacant pedestrian walkways.

Suddenly animated, I launch myself at a full sprint thinking I have finally caught a glimpse of that which I am looking for, only to realize that my crafty target has led me deep into a poorly lit maze. With no sense of direction, I walk down endless corridors lined with stand after stand of products that may or may not be what they appear to be. In this estuary for the real and the fantastical, with what point of reference am I to navigate through the conglomeration that is Luohu District?

As I examine one of the most recent maps of the city provided by the concierge, it occurs to me that perhaps the object of my fixation has fled to one of the urban villages. Upon arrival at the Northeast corner of the intersection between Fuhua Road and Caitian Road, I realize that what was once on the map no longer is. Looking down I see that I am standing on a mound of rubble, impatiently waiting to be reshaped and formed into another tower. It seems I am not alone in this pursuit, for even the mapmakers cannot keep up with this elusive shape-shifter.

Roaming the outskirts of the city at the West end, I am once again led astray. Thinking I have reached the end of the road, and wanting to see the edge condition, I follow the newly carved path until I become aware of the fact that it is quite literally spilling into the sea. Is this some sort of hoax? There simply is no limit.

By this point I half expect something to jump out at me and shout, “Here I am!” before quickly disappearing. But how exactly do you catch something when you don’t know what you’re looking for?

It seems to be that the more I look, the less I find.

For now, I think I will set up post next to the statue of Deng Xiaoping overlooking Shenzhen. I’m not quite sure where he is pointing, but maybe if I stay long enough I’ll see something.


Filed under: China, Identity, Shenzhen, Uncategorized,

Footprints and Fingerprints

Every person is born with an individual identity…a unique fingerprint that no other person replicates.  In many respects, cities are like this as well.  Cities are born (and often reborn) with a specific agenda, and although many cities carry the same agenda, each is still maintaining its own identity – something that makes the city that city – a footprint on the planet.  After being in Shenzhen for 6 days, I found myself still struggling to grasp what gives this city its own identity.  There are the evident characteristics: a sprawling city, the strong urge for development and rebirth, the need to create an image for itself, and the artificiality of the city.  However, these are all qualities of plenty of other cities as well.  But what really makes the city?  Gives it an identity of who it really is?

If a city is generically urban, generically developing, and generically establishing its city, does that necessarily mean that it lacks any sort of culture or identity?  From my first impression, Shenzhen seemed to lack the cultural aspect of the formation of an identity in the way that I am familiar with.  This morning, we had a discussion about this identity (or lack thereof) of Shenzhen, and a point was brought up that generic urbanism can almost equate to an urban form of culture.  In a sense, every aspect of a city promotes culture.  It may not be the culture we are accustomed to, but it is some manner of fabricating a type of culture.  I think that coming to China (and every country for that matter), we all assumed that there was going to be this beam of culture that we are not quite acquainted with beaming in our eyes, but that was not so much the case in Shenzhen.

It was not until we went to a couple of urban villages in the city that we got a sense of the culture we expected to see all along.  It was unreal to see these villages muddled up in between all the development and sense of freshness that was experienced just one footstep outside of each urban village.  Each housing building was nearly butted up against the next one – so much so, that it seemed to be endless.  Nevertheless, within one step, we were on the complete exterior of the village, peering in on the urban village from the future.  One of the most remarkable moments that this occurred was standing literally on top of rocks from the demolition of one of the urban villages, looking out into the “identity-less” city.  Besides the initial culture we saw from the villages’ buildings, we also stumbled upon residents participating in outdoor cultural activities such as dancing and tai chi.

Experiencing these urban villages is what really illustrated a portion of a clear identity of Shenzhen through culture.  It was through the encounter of these villages that gave me an understanding and insight into the innate and somewhat hidden fingerprint that Shenzen bestows.


Filed under: Architecture, China, Culture

It’s Alivvvve!

While silently amusing myself with thoughts of Shenzhen, I realized this city is like Frankenstein.  It consists of all these parts that are chosen for their sheer ‘normality’ and sloppily sewn together. It is the Frankenstein monster before it is given life.  The creators aren’t really sure what they’ve created but are simply experimenting to see what works. I keep on waiting to find the hidden ‘Abby Normal’ brain.  But I can’t find it.  Each section we visit for the day is as homogeneous as the last.  The metropolis feels fake because of the mass lack of people who make a city run and give the city individuality and character.  Its 15 million or so residents hide from us where ever we go.  Besides a general lack of population, there also seems to be an enormous lack of diversity of typology.  I could walk around the city constantly lost because everything looks the same.  Regardless of the argument of whether or not Shenzhen is artificial or lacks diversity or real density, the fact is there is a whole new element of the city we had never seen before.  We saw Shenzhen in a one-dimensional manner which has dramatically changed upon today’s discoveries.  The monster was finally given life.

Just like Frankenstein’s monster, the kind and gentle qualities come from the parts that don’t quite fit in with the rest of the amalgamation; hence the beauty is in the inconsistency.  Today, I found the ‘Abby Normal’ brain.  Shenzhen actually has history more than 30 years old!  Not everything was exploded, and wiped from all memory.  We saw this at the urban village near the CBD- a village that had ‘jazzed itself up’ to keep up with the changing environment surrounding it.  This urban village does not fit with the rest of the normality of the city- it has age, variations in life style and living conditions, community activities, respite from the mechanics of city life.  All this are eccentricities to anything we have seen.  We also saw the remnants of another urban village directly infringing on the CBD.  Here we saw such raw life and activity.  This urban village existed as a scar to the homogeneous environment of Shenzhen.  Because of this it is being torn down.  However people are still living in some of the buildings as other parts are being demolished, children still walk through the demolition site on their way home from school, and aging men still play mysterious gambling games in the streets. All of these are signs of life and flavor I have never seen before in this city.  Finally, after climbing to the top of Lotus Hill Park to see the statue of Deng Xiaoping and the amazing evening view, we see more signs of life.  There were kites dotting the fading skyline!  There were people jogging, taking pictures, and on dates.  Finally this monster of a city is alive!


Filed under: Architecture, China, Uncategorized

What is Shenzhen?

“What is Shenzhen?”  This was the question asked of us this morning before heading out for the day.  While many of us recognized various urban conditions and critiqued the city from an economic and political stance, we struggled to address a critical aspect that helps define any and all cities; its cultural identity.  After nearly a week in Shenzhen, it is fair to say that we have not experienced a fair amount of the city’s “culture”, which left us asking questions of our own.  In particular, what issues are influencing this apparent lack of cultural identity, and how has the development of Shenzhen fostered this condition?

The rate of development is one major factor to consider.  It takes as little as a couple years for new developments to move from the design phase to completion in Shenzhen, a rate nearly ten times faster than that of the United States in some cases.  Because of this rapid pace, existing developments are quickly becoming obsolete.   As we have seen, the political and economic powers at play waste no time in demolishing these older developments, some less than a decade mature, to make way for new financial high-rises, government institutions and residential towers.  Unfortunately, many of these developments that are being destroyed are rooted in the initial culture of the city, which is now only found in the small-pocket “urban villages” of Shenzhen.  These were born from farmers who converted their land into housing developments to profit from the influx of migrant workers once Shenzhen began to grow.  Unsurprisingly, the fabric of these urban villages is much more culturally vibrant than the Americanized city grid in which our design project and hotel is centered.  Consequently, it is becoming increasingly harder for Shenzhen to retain this original culture, and furthermore hold on to an identity, if it is continually being replaced by new development.

It is also important to consider the physical growth of the city and its affect on Shenzhen’s identity crisis.  In particular, we can examine the prevalence of land reclamation.  Each year, several miles of infill is added to Shenzhen’s coast, and developed at the rapid pace mentioned above.   However, if we consider the standard supply-and-demand model for rationalizing the need for new development, Shenzhen exemplifies the opposite.  Here, there is an excess of supply before there is demand.  Developments are green-lighted with the economic assumption that they will be occupied.  Because of this, the so-called “threshold of development” is ever pushing outwards onto newer and newer reclaimed land.  In its wake are left the fledgling developments that are only a year or two behind, most of which haven’t had the time to establish a cultural foundation, or strengthen a citywide identity.  Time then becomes a critical dimension from which to analyze this condition.  As Walter Benjamin states in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to the history which it has experienced.  Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter.”  Without time to establish the history of such a development in the face of reproducing new multiples, cultural authenticity cannot take hold, and therefore the fabric cannot retain a cultural identity.

Ultimately, our original question of, “What is Shenzhen?” still remains unanswered.  Perhaps the cultural identity of this city is not as accessible as we have witnessed elsewhere.  Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong’s cultures were more easily identifiable, and physically prevalent within the fabric that we explored.  Maybe our observations of a city devoid of cultural identity are correct, and merely strengthen the argument that Shenzhen is too young to possess one, or too development driven to allow for one.  Or maybe we just aren’t looking hard enough.  Hopefully, we can shed more light on this answer with more investigation in the coming days.


Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. New York, NY: Classic America, 2009. Print.

Filed under: About, China, Culture, Identity, Reclamation, Shenzhen, Urban Village

Where’d all the good people go?

Shenzhen, the new economic prodigy China has been waiting and tirelessly working towards achieving. It’s a city filled with capitalist dreams with an unbelievably fast-pace economy that’s leading the country into a first-world state. Dreams of breaking ground in financial success has led to an entrepreneurial sprawl of corporate powerhouses touching base here with towering skyscraper offices lining the entire cityscape. The push for urbanization has set the stone rolling for land developers and contractors to go on a field day, building like there’s no tomorrow. With a hotel here, and an apartment complex there, the turn-around of Shenzhen’s urban landscape is overnight. But within all the excitement building this city, there’s one most particular and de-valued element absent that is perhaps most essential in making Shenzhen, or any city for that matter, vibrant: the people.

Our ventures through Shenzhen these past few days have made evident a phenomenon that is uniquely it’s own here, unseen in all the previous cities we have visited so far. Shenzhen is quite literally a “ghost” city; there’s a complete lack of social interface on the urban-streetscape level. This, in turn, heavily undermines and distorts any notion of urban centers throughout the city. Shenzhen seems to have employed the “build it, and they will come” urban strategy of densification as a catalyst, rather than densification as a necessity (i.e. Tokyo, Seoul). Plazas, shopping centers, parks, etc. end up as empty, superficial edifices that bring nothing to the community. A prime example is the city center, located at the heart of the Futian district. It’s comprised of both private and public programs; private being the city/central government complex (aka “the Hat) and public being the people’s square coupled with a localized park/garden. First, the plaza remains useless as a gathering/activity space when no one utilizes it. It’s only heavily utilized when performances are held there. Second, the garden is inherently flawed in that it is nearly inaccessible and difficult to navigate through, consequently the space remains unused most of the day. It took us a few wrong turns before we actually figured out where exactly we were oriented within the park, only to find ourselves lost within an unending maze. And the fact that no one was actually in the park to ask for directions made the process ever more confusing.

In “The Mass Ornament”, Kracauer mentions the impetus behind capitalism as an economic system that “does not encompass human beings”. In fact, the operative function of producing is more important that the human being. The mass ornament, as a functional collective, has no play in the formation of the socio-economic state. The rapid proliferation of Shenzhen building developments could only have been possible through a massive labor force, a force supplied through immigrant workers that migrated to Shenzhen out of desperation. Like any other resource, labor is nurtured to produce the maximum gain with the least amount of cost. With a constant influx of poor immigrants, it’s an endless resource construction companies have exploited towards the benefit of urban development. As a result, the city grows in economic power and price of living continues to rise, pushing out the poor migrants from staying, only to be replaced by many others just like them; a cyclical pattern. The key point is to remember is that these workers are constantly filtering in and out of the city, never permanent. Thus, this large constituency of workers is often non-participants in the everyday urban scene. With rising costs in housing and the economy, it’s no wonder that these poor migrants cannot afford to stay long in Shenzhen, only to leave their legacy behind manifested in the cold concrete, steel, and glass towers built by their hands.


Filed under: Architecture, Capitalism, China, Futian, labor force, mass ornament, Migrant, people, Shenzhen, socio-economics, Urbanism

Shenzhen: A Print of a Cultural Negative

Authenticity is not reproducible.  “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” is the main hypothesis of the article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  A work of art is a unique entity which cannot be reproduced under different circumstances from the original and still be considered an identical copy.  An identical copy of a piece of art can never exist.  For instance, there cannot be an authentic print of a photograph because the original conditions in which the photograph was initially taken can never be reproduced.  Does the same apply to a society’s culture?  How might an instant city go about attaining a culture which is truly their own?

Due to its rapid development within the last thirty years, the city of Shenzhen is essentially without a strong tie to any historic sense of a culture.  Shenzhen is struggling to not only define its culture, but to also create its culture from scratch.  Shenzhen’s current culture is just a print of an initial negative.  If Shenzhen is attempting to adopt China’s culture as a whole as their own, this will not be fully realized.  As “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” states, “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced…the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”  China’s historic and traditional culture will never be a part of Shenzhen’s identity.

The sense of humanity which is typically found in a city is missing in Shenzhen.  Streets appear to be barren.  A multitude of preemptive skyscrapers remain empty, waiting to be programmed and populated, and yet land is being cleared for more developments next to these desolate structures.  It is possible that Shenzhen does not require a culture in the traditional and historic sense.  Culture does not come inherently with a  newborn society, it must be developed over a period of time.  Without a culture is a society’s existence denied?  With the lack of a true human aspect, a culture is even harder to recognize.

Just like the goods being sold in the tiny, hidden market stalls of Shenzhen, the city’s culture is attempting to become a copy of a combination of China’s cultures.  Whether or not this copy is a “real copy” or a “fake copy” is yet to be determined.  If a culture is so unique that it cannot be reproduced, can a culture of reproduction become a culture in its own sense?  If the goal of a society is to fabricate a culture based on others, this culture then becomes a real culture in the sense that the society’s goal was to create  this fake culture.  Shenzhen has succeeded in attaining a culture of its own, albeit a real “fake copy” of a culture.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Architecture, Authenticity, China, Culture, Shenzhen, Uncategorized, ,

Authenticity is Overrated

A back alley in Shenzhen replete with knockoff merchandise.

Academics have long been accused of living in a state of separation from society at large.  The accusation even has its own recurrent idiom, the so-called ivory tower.  But given the strict admissions standards, high costs, and politics involved in simply being admitted to a leading university, this accusation of elitism is not altogether unfounded.  Thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer write from their privileged positions treatises on the relationship between art and authenticity with titles such as Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or the stunningly haughty The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

It’s not that Adorno and Horkheimer are wrong when they assert that “the culture industry confines itself to standardization and mass production and sacrifices what once distinguished the logic of the work from that of society”, but rather that they overstate the graveness of this sacrifice.  Further, they neglect to mention that standardization and mass production bring high art into the living rooms of ordinary Americans who would otherwise never be exposed to such profound work.  Might the artwork be diluted, removed from “its presence in time and space, its unique existence” as Benjamin insists?  Sure, but the inherent nature of masterworks is such that they are valued even in this state, even if seen behind a broken picture frame hanging from a wood veneer wall in a cheap motel.  If they weren’t, and if people weren’t still affected by their power and made the better for it, then surely no motel would spend the money to import a Chinese copy of Renaissance artwork to begin with.

With this in mind, I find it perplexing that Shenzhen has been second-guessed in its decision to create an art museum dedicated to the village of Dafen, the world’s epicenter of mass-produced and commoditized artwork.  Or that Urbanus, the stellar architecture firm behind the city’s most important public space in the Futian district, may be questioned in stepping up to design such a project as a tribute to the Shenzhen artists who preceded it.  The artwork coming out of Dafen may be fake in the corporeal sense, but demand for it across the world is very real in an economic sense.  Since economics teaches us that consumers are rational, we can infer that people derive at least some fulfillment from copied artwork.  If this is true, fretting about ‘mass deception’ would seem to be merely an exercise for those academics who have, well, a classic ivory tower disconnect from the more pressing problems of everyday life.

My question then: why did nobody propose the Dafen Art Museum sooner?

Matt Luery

Filed under: Authenticity, China, Fake-Real, mass culture, Shenzhen

Shenzhen: “Instant City”

The concept of what is real and what is not is a constantly reoccurring topic of discussion amongst our group here in Shenzhen, China. Everyone has their own conception of what they consider to be real and what they consider to be not real. One argument is whether or not Shenzhen is the Chinese Las Vegas? Is Shenzhen an area in and of itself that does not depend on the nuances between it and other cities but creates an identity of its own, as Las Vegas exists? If it is, then you have to take into consideration that key word: identity. Every city has its own identity, its own fingerprint, its own DNA, its own unique makeup that makes it distinguishable from the other cities not only in its region and country, but also the rest of the world. At present, Shenzhen has no identity. Shenzhen is a city, and yes, it is a city in China. But by no means does that make it a Chinese city. The population is somewhere around 15 million, with 3 million of those people being unregistered workers, labeled as “ghosts” by the Chinese government, as though they do not exist. Of the 12 million citizens, a fair majority comes from other parts of China. One can walk the streets and rarely catch a glimpse of someone over the age of 55. This is an exceptionally young city (almost 30 years old) when you compare it to other Chinese cities steeped in history such as Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Additionally, the urban fabric of Shenzhen does not respond to local geographic conditions. In the early 1980’s, when Shenzhen was a small fishing village, the Chinese government ordered the Peoples Liberation Army to dynamite and clear the mountains where Shenzhen is currently located. Dynamiting natural landscape: the initial move demonstrating the idea that this city would begin at zero, with no ties to its geography or its past. The problem that has surfaced as a result of that approach is the creation of an artificial city. It is artificial in the sense that most elements of this city do not possess Chinese characteristics; not naturally Chinese, anyways. How can it not be naturally Chinese when it was built by Chinese workers and financed by Beijing? All one has to do is look at the work of architecture being erected as of late throughout the city to see the counterargument:

Stock Exchange & Crystal Island by Office of Metropolitan Architecture [Dutch firm] (Collaborated with Chinese firm Urbanus)

Headquarters of China Insurance Group by Coop Himmelb(l)au [Austrian firm]

Kingkey Finance Tower by Farrells [British firm]

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport- Massimiliano Fuksas [Italian firm]

Seeing a pattern here?

This city is becoming an eclectic city, but an artificial one at that. Even the plant life here is artificial; the majority of the plants are imported from Hawaii. Could this be the genesis of a new breed of cities, cities that are not concerned with its context or previous history? Can this new kind of city be transported and transplanted as though it was a universal component in the metropolitan circuit board. Within the urban makeup you always have your ‘7-11’s’ or McDonalds, which represent programmatic pieces that are universal and can operate successfully wherever they go. They can be inserted into any urban makeup because they do not respond to the urban or social context in which they are placed; they are not context specific. What if we are able to have entire cities that are universal in that nature?

I am reminded of Peter Cook and Archigram’s piece, Instant City, which was written in the early 1970’s. The Instant City discussed the creation of not buildings, but “events” that are the result of high technology being infused into areas of low technology. This is comparable to the injection of economic investment and star-architect architecture that Shenzhen is currently experiencing. The writing describes how high tech airships would act as carriers for mass culture and would seemingly create a city instantaneously, as if there is a magic formula. In comparison to the cultural emanation of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong, there seems to lack a cultural originality here in Shenzhen. Instead of ‘mom n’ pop’ shops there are ‘Kung-fu’ Chinese fast food enterprises. The city lacks any historical district that is suppose to give city a sense of belonging and history, which in turn resonates emotional warmth and nostalgia. Everything in this city is manufactured and so now the next problem to solve is how to manufacture a culture in a city that lacks one? Is that culture created artificially, like the limitless amount of knock-off Gucci bags? Or is it something created by the people and not dropped from an Instant City airship?

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: Archigram, artificial, China, context-specific, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Culture, Farrells, Identity, Instant City, investment, Las Vegas, manufacture, mass culture, Massimiliano Fuksas, OMA, real, Shenzhen, Uncategorized,

Skin Deep

After our class’s first night in Hong Kong, we awoke with fresh eyes and began to observe the alien city around us. In contrast with Seoul, Hong Kong is a hyperdense amalgamation of structures, a myriad of objects which comprise one of the most dense urban environments on earth. In comparison to Seoul’s relative spaciousness, the minuscule amount of developable land in Hong Kong produces islands brimming with a gargantuan structures. Sixty-story apartment blocks sleep adjacent to office towers; architectural icons face derelict high-rise complexes. Of particular note, however, is the setting of our group’s first lunch in Hong Kong.

Serving traditional Chinese Dim Sum, this grandiose restaurant overlooks Hong Kong Harbour, while crystal chandeliers and elaborate moulding adorn every inch of the hundred-seat facility. No detail of its interior seems overlooked, from the stainless-steel serving trolleys to the silk-upholstered dining chairs. My impression of the restaurant was extremely favorable, cemented as an establishment with ambience of the highest calibre.

Yet, only the next day did I have the chance to again view the Dim Sum restaurant from its exterior. Rather than possessing a similarly opulent exterior condition, the restaurant lies on the top floor of a faded three-story modernist concrete structure. From outside, one can still catch glimpses of the chandeliers and off-white table cloths, yet the craft of its interior space is in no way revealed by its exterior condition. Moreover, the program throughout the rest of the building is no more well-suited to the structure’s exterior appearance, yielding a peculiar combination of spaces within a misleading envelope.

As one begins to observe the Hong Kong metropolis with even closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that perception and articulation of envelope is largely disconnected from the perception (and experience) of spaces contained within. Elaborate lighting fixtures peer out from office complexes caked with peeling plaster, an orgy of facade treatments comprise the facade of a singular apartment building, a glittering elevation masks a pawn shop and tea store. The sacred nature of space is far removed from the nature and condition of skin. Why should such a condition arise in one of the world’s most complex urban environments?

Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay entitled The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction may help provide an answer to this dichotomy. Within, Benjamin describes a particular “aura” which surrounds an original work of art, a sacred construct comprised of the artwork’s “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” which do not reside in a duplication of the original. Moreover, art which is fundamentally reproducible (for example, photography) challenges this sacred aura, instead superseded by a new value of exhibition, distribution, accessibility. In the raging metropolis of Hong Kong, the proliferation of object buildings (often duplicates of neighboring structures) provokes a shift in values, from an appreciation of authenticity and aura of container to an appropriation of building as envelope, and little more. Facade becomes shell, revealing nothing of its contents.

Indeed, North American environs seem at odds with such programatic conceptions. In a sea of single-use structures, a building containing a cornucopia of ill-related activities may appear somewhat unnerving. With a relative expanse of developable land, North Americans have no impetus to insert unrelated program into an ill-suited envelope. For cultures in increasingly densifying regions, however, this idealism is simply a luxury. No longer can observation of facade yield an understanding of contents. Formal language and syntax here are blurred, eliciting a multiplicity of meanings from a single structure – its interior may reveal one condition, its exterior another.

What is important, as a result, is an increased focus on observation. Though it may be second-nature to make assumptions based on one’s established paradigms, the above is proof that even “base” assumptions may mislead the viewer. In cities where image and function are at times completely distinct entities, relentless scrutiny of the built environment is key.


Filed under: Architecture, China, Urbanism

The Seoul in Kahn

A building of stark difference from its surroundings arises into your viewing plane.  There seems to be no entrance, but upon further inspection you realize its hiding behind dense shrubs.  You cross through a threshold to the primary circulation space.  In this interstitial space the great outdoors lie just outside your view while the main body of the building rises on the opposite side.  Stairs are presented, leading you to a seemingly ambiguous destination.  As you travel upward, you reach a platform that allows you a reprieve to investigate this mysterious vertical space.  You can see down onto the underground level from these circulation platforms.  The subterranean patio in your view includes personal effects of the office worker it services.  Directly across from where you’re standing there is a small office space removed from the programmatic body of the building.  The large window of that office space allows you a glimpse of the happenings of the floors you are not yet a part of.  While walking to your destination, you drag your hand along the cool concrete walls that were so well formed.  Smooth perfect geometries, exacting edges, crafted ties.  The concrete and darkness make for a feel of safety, permanence, and a faint essence of the sea.  Light cuts perfectly through the space to illuminate just what you want to see as it is meant to be seen.

What am I describing?

In another instance, you find yourself walking through a manmade canyon.  This space is vast and weighty.  While walking through this densely ephemeral space, your reflection distorts as you past the varying angles of glass.  A view is slowly presented to you.  It is perfectly framed by the buildings that make this space.  Suddenly, upon seeing this view, you realize the connection this view has to the building surrounding you and why this view was chosen and that it could be no other view.

What am I describing?

Are these imaginary spaces?  Certainly not.  Those who have been to the Salk Institute by Louis Kahn can identify with these experiential descriptions.  Yet so could those who have been to The Lock Museum  and Ehwa University in Seoul.  The first description is crafted to simultaneously describe the entry sequence to one of the laboratory towers at the Salk Institute as well as the entry sequence to the Lock Museum in Seoul by Seung HyoSang.  The second description is meant to describe the primary community spaces at both the Salk Institute and Ehwa University’s Student Center by Dominique Perrault.

South Korea is an extremely unexpected place to suddenly appreciate Kahn’s vast impact on architecture.  I don’t think any architect can doubt that the prolific work of Louis Kahn has resonated through the architecture field and will continue to do so for years to come.


Filed under: Architecture, Korea


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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