USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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“This place has no culture.”

Such were much our class’s opinion of Shenzhen upon arrival. Surrounded by skyscrapers, American city planning, and a distinct lack of unfamiliarity, many – myself included – seemed disheartened at the apparent falseness of Shenzhen. A Special Economic Zone, or SEZ, Shenzhen has undergone rapid development in the past two decades. Once merely the site of agricultural land, today Shenzhen stands as an image to the West of China’s rapidly developing economic prowess. Rather than relying on heavy industry to promote this image, the city displays bank towers, starchitect stock exchanges, and elaborate governmental headquarters as signs that China has arrived in the twenty-fist century. As if this wasn’t satisfactory, SOM, an American design firm, designed the urban plan for the city, painting Shenzhen with brush strokes of broad avenues and tree-lined sidewalks.

Rather than the awe and inspiration with which Shenzhen hopes to be received, our group at first reacted with bewilderment. Having left Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong behind, Shenzhen seemed to be a caricature of a city – all facade, no substance. Rather than a bustling nightlife, the district in which our hotel was located largely fell silent as each work day ended. We looked everywhere for the diversity and excitement which we had witnessed in our former locales, largely to no avail. Indeed, the impact from this experience was so great that many of my classmates have already written blogs as to the lack of substance seemingly present in Shenzhen.

This said, however, the culture of a place is not something so easily defined by such broad terms. Though many of us felt that Shenzhen possessed a distinct lack of cultural identity, I would argue facets of Shenzhen’s identity – similar to many of the more “generic” cities found in North America – possesses a lack of culture only in relativistic terms. Though our class was decidedly numb to it, the culture of Shenzhen is indeed alive and well, and to many residents of China may appear far more “cultural” than a large percentage of urban development within the rest of the country.

Indeed, such an understanding of place is one which follows from a careful analysis as to the definition and reproducible nature of what culture truly is. In Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s essay entitled The Culture Industry: Enlightenment of Mass Deception, Adorno and Horkheimer describe how mass marketing and media may reduce once-unique cultural production to a commodity, diminishing once-expressive arts to a mere extension of economic monopoly. Culture is no longer authentic; it is carefully manufactured to appease the masses, settling into well-worn grooves to satisfy the largest possible number of consumers. What may at first seem original is in reality calculated, premeditated, and wholly without the intentions of artistic expression and creativity.

Though at first Shenzhen may seem to be an extension of this copy-paste mentality of cultural production, producing an “instant city” devoid of uniqueness, our perception of Shenzhen as place lacking substance and cultural identity is wholly from from a North American understanding of normalcy. To say that a city has “more culture” or “less culture,” furthermore, may very well be false. Shenzhen’s cultural identity – especially within the district our group spent the majority of its time – is very strongly that of an economic, office-oriented center. Corporate culture is alive and well here, giving rise to a strict framework of programs and urban activities. Shopping malls pervade city streets, as do high-end retailers, foreign restaurants, after-work bars. Such urban activities may seem mundane to those raised within the confines of big-city Americana, but to many from China, the rest of Asia, and indeed much of the world, urban development of this nature may appear markedly dynamic and alien.

As Culture Industry details at length, cultural merit is relative. Mass production yields a loss of authenticity, but in a country steeped in communist ideology, a decidedly white-collar lifestyle stands in stark contrast to a cultural framework largely absent of similar values and norms. To say Shenzhen lacks culture, based on observing its seemingly-familiar atmosphere, is surely misleading. In fact, it may very well be considered a cultural node within the whole of China for the sole reason that its identity is carefully and deliberately transplanted from abroad, standing in opposition to much of the nationalistic ideology in which it rests.

– Taylor


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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