USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Urbanity and Cultural Relativism

Prior to touching down in Hong Kong at the beginning of this semester, I knew little about the people of China and even less about the cities they inhabit.  Moving beyond the obvious linguistic and political differences, I rather naively assumed the Chinese would be generally the same in their day-to-day mannerisms as anyone back home.  No matter where you are, people are people right?  Turns out I completely missed the mark.  In the last month traveling between Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing, and now Shanghai I have been nearly spit on in the middle of a crowded subway car, dislodged and cut in line as though it were the second grade, stared at for completely unreasonable lengths of time, nearly run over crossing the street during the ‘walk’ signal, and shoved out of the way while standing in an elevator.

I have been fortunate to do a bit of travel prior to this and am aware of the differences in temperament between, say, Americans and Britons or, even within the United States New Yorkers and Angelinos.  But while I can’t say I really anticipated any of this, the truth is I’m much less offended than I am fascinated.  Given the contrasts between Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and American culture it seems clear that cultural standards are highly relative depending on local history, politics, and general philosophy.

All of this begs the question, though, to what extent do cultural norms influence architecture or urbanism, and vice-versa?  For instance, while some would argue sprawling neighborhoods of single-family homes in America came about due to abundance of space or government policy after WWII, others might say this typology is a manifestation of classic American individualism.  By the same token intense density in Japanese cities may alternatively be attributed to a lack of buildable land or societal collectivism.  With each case, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

So what of China, with its sprawling superblocks and notably lax social conventions?  By my estimation Chinese culture is embodied in the rapid pace and sincere pride with which cities like Shenzhen and Beijing are growing, albeit built with less than stringent construction standards and little emphasis on Japanese-style refinement.  With architecture though, as with culture, right and wrong are two words best avoided.  Luckily for us, comparing and contrasting provide more than enough food for thought.

Matt Luery

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Culture, 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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