USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Tale of Two Cities

In preparation for our semester abroad this fall, we were given a packet that outlined the inconveniences of traveling abroad.  Most notably, there was a section on culture shock with a humorous description of five different personalities one may exemplify when faced with unfamiliar cultures and environments.  Despite sounding quite absurd, I knew from experience the severe impact culture shock could have on the personal psyche and perceptions of identity.  Just last summer I returned home after a five-week backpacking trip through Europe to be greeted by a city with an overwhelming sense of cultural deficiency.  The homogeneity of cultural attitudes and beliefs that I witnessed in Copenhagen, Munich, and Prague were clearly absent from the cultural eclecticism of Los Angeles.  Beyond the spectacles of Hollywood’s entertainment industry, and Disney’s theme parks, where was the underlying sense of a collective identity? What specific cultural manifestation could the majority of Angelinos point to and claim as their own?  Without such instances of comparison – afforded only to those who gain global perspective from traveling abroad – a comprehensive understanding of identity of place can rarely be achieved.

This fall, as we travel through four Asian countries and engage with a multitude of new environments, the familiar symptoms of culture shock will inevitably return.  In conjunction with the AAU program these places will challenge us on an urbanistic level just as they have on a cultural one.  Evaluating Los Angeles through the lens of these foreign environments will certainly lead to my increasingly apathetic attitude towards the city’s physicality.  LA’s characteristic smog, traffic and urban sprawl have all been accentuated by the cleanliness, efficiency and density observed in metropolises like Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong.  Similarly, their method of layering infrastructure puts LA’s vision of a utopian automobile driven city to shame.   These and many other revelations brought to light over the past few weeks all allude to Asia’s rapid departure from industrial age models of urban development.  The one-dimensional nature of western cities can no longer compete with the multi-dimensional efficiency of eastern metropolises.  However, my intent here is not to take a cynical approach to LA’s urban strategies or perceived cultural insufficiencies, rather it is to identify the strengths, which will keep it globally relevant.

After a weeklong emersion in Shenzhen, China’s experimental economic zone, it was clear that similarities exist between China’s present approach to urban development and those found in Los Angeles.  Shenzhen provided the ideal point of reference to which Los Angeles could be re-evaluated urbanistically.  For example, streets in both cities are laid out in a grid network of mega blocks – regardless of topographic interferences – thus eliminating any chance for close-knit urban activity to take affect.  Similarly, Shenzhen has no established downtown center as planners made the conscious decision to segregate density into discrete business districts, also known as CBD’s.  Considering each CBD takes up a sizable amount of urban fabric, all twelve of the districts that comprise Shenzhen essentially qualify as autonomous cities individually.  Compare this scenario to Los Angeles and one can easily draw connections to cities like Santa Monica, Culver City, Pasadena, and Burbank – all of which exist at such a large scale that they function independently of one another, diluting any notion of a single metropolitan identity.

So why is China negligently going out of its way to import western models of urbanism that have proven to be inefficient in cases like Los Angeles?  In Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s essay entitled The Culture Industry: Enlightenment of Mass Deception, there is reasoning behind China’s pursuit of universally accepted western styles.  Adorno and Horkeimer go on to state, “In every work of art, style is a promise.  In being absorbed through style into the dominant form of universality, into the current musical, pictorial, or verbal idiom, what is expressed seeks to be reconciled with the idea of the true universal…By claiming to anticipate fulfillment through their aesthetic derivatives, it posits the real forms of the existing order as absolute.”  Following this line of reasoning, it can be inferred that Shenzhen exists as a work of art, reflecting many styles in anticipation of suggesting fulfillment.  As it develops into a modern metropolis, it aims to embrace numerous “urban idioms”, which represent tried-and-true universal styles.  Styles predominantly defined in the 20th century western cities.  The mindset of China’s cultural industry is such that the mere perception of one of these stylistic elements, such as the mega-block in Shenzhen’s Futian District, or the suburban single-family communities, automatically implies affluence and authority.  Los Angeles thus becomes a branding model for cities like Shenzhen that hope to align themselves with universally accepted existing forms.

This year’s 2010 Expo in Shanghai could not have come at a more crucial time, as it focuses on this theme of “nation branding” in an increasingly interconnected world.  Pavilions give countries the opportunity to open their doors to various cultural industries and present themselves as a product for global consumption.  Those that present themselves in the most appealing wrapper will subsequently receive the most foot traffic.   Therefore, by transplanting elements from Los Angeles – a globally branded city – Shenzhen hopes to attain a similar level of global consumption. Even with the numerous shortcomings implicit in Los Angeles’ urban model, it is impossible to ignore the pervasiveness of it’s manufactured image.  Hollywood, after all, does a good job of selling itself to the world as a sun-drenched paradise.  In this sense, while Los Angeles will undoubtedly fall behind Shenzhen in terms of infrastructure, development, and overall efficiency it will remain the source for ideas.  The uniqueness of its cultural eclecticism will keep it globally relevant.

Bryn Garrett

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Los Angeles, Shenzhen

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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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