USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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

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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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