USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Tradition or Innovation?

Planners and politicians in both the United States and China face a single decision again and again when determining the course of urban development:  should historical fabric replete with identity and tradition take precedence over new development, even if that means slowing or halting growth, or does the economic value of this growth and potential for innovation outweigh any cultural relevance.  The decision is especially pressing in older, established Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai where growth transcends economics and enters the realm of politics…where each new skyscraper, rail station, housing development, or stadium is intended as a statement to the outside world that China aims to be the dominant power on the Asian continent.  This is a tough argument to compete against in the name of preserving old neighborhoods or temples.

In his philosophical text The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord explores this conflict abstractly, proposing that culture is aligned to negate itself.  In the chapter Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere, he asserts that the “struggle between tradition and innovation, which is the basic principle of the internal development of the culture of historical societies, is predicated entirely on the permanent victory of innovation”.  But by which standards is innovation permanently victorious?

It would seem innovation is in fact handily defeated by tradition when it comes to urban spaces.  The 400 meter skyscrapers of Pudong may be testaments to Chinese prowess in engineering and construction but the spaces people flock to on weekend nights are the narrow streets of Shanghai’s historic French Concession, not the vacuous boulevards across the river.  The spaces people go to shop, to dine, to drink, or simply to take a walk through the city are almost exclusively within Shanghai’s historic center.  By this metric then, declaring the new city, innovation and all, victorious over tradition seems inaccurate.

The same can be said for Beijing, where the lifeblood of the nighttime city runs through its inner ring and not in the disparate central business districts home to innovative architecture like the CCTV tower or Olympic Village.  Debord goes on to say that “culture is the meaning of an insufficiently meaningful world”.  Given this paradigm then, the actions of Chinese speak for themselves. People find meaning wherever there is culture, and this means in historical urban fabric.  I would classify this as a victory of tradition over innovation, and not the other way around.

Matt Luery

Filed under: China, Culture, history, Shanghai, tradition

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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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