USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Up in the Air

In the seventh chapter of Spatial Practices, titled Walking in the City, author Michel de Certeau considers the implications of viewing pedestrians from high atop the World Trade Center in New York.  He recognizes that elevation transforms us into voyeurs, at once detached from the city physically yet endowed with a uniquely invasive perspective.  From an observation deck, Certeau goes on, people on the streets move about as though writing urban text but without being able to read it. This privilege is instead conferred upon the voyeur, on whose initiative rests the opportunity to decipher and translate this text into something more than mere writing.  If pedestrian movements are the pen strokes, than streets and buildings are the spacing of the lines and layout of the paragraphs.

All this lends itself to comparison of urban writing just as novels do literary writing, and so I used my time atop Shanghai’s World Financial Center to do just this.  Drawing on memory from my own experiences looking down at New York, the movements and forms of Shanghai were rich in contrast.  In place of Manhattan’s rigid grid of streets and enormously diverse buildings stock was a pattern of superblocks and meandering roads containing tens of identical apartments practically begging for copy-paste Autocad jokes.  If New York has one-way avenues with narrow sidewalks packed with pedestrians, Shanghai has grand boulevards with ten lanes of car traffic, two lanes of bike traffic, and 20 meter sidewalks on either side.  These sidewalks are also filled, but pedestrians in Pudong pass only one cross street for every 400 meters, while New Yorkers might pass 4 during the same distance.  This tends to aggregate disparate circulation paths and limits opportunity for route improvisation, creating a more unified pedestrian body.  Combine this with an interchangeable and repetitive building stock, and viewing the urban fabric of these two cities from above suddenly reveals a great deal about the politics and society of their respective countries.

My experience definitely lent credence to Certeau’s idea of ground level pedestrians writing an urban text; the only shame is that at the Shanghai World Financial Center it costs a month’s worth of subway fare for a chance to read the book.

Matt Luery


Filed under: China, Michel de Certeau, Shanghai, Urbansim, Walking in the City

One Response

  1. Matt,
    In reading your post, I was struck by how Certeau’s comment is one of a certain amount of elitism. Somehow, Certeau is privileging the top down view as being more astute simply because it is different, while in fact, as your final comment reflects, it is merely the different way that the elite look down on the rest of us.

    As architects, we are often falling into the same death trap, the plan and site plan playing much the same elite myopic lens. Perhaps there is a better way to understand the urban environment. Walking through the streets of Florence, you are constantly being blocked and obscured by the urban context from seeing the city’s urban gem, the Duomo. It is almost as if, urbanisticaly, you are living a buried life, subterranean though you walk in sun light. In today’s mega cities, how much more true is this? Perhaps we need to re-imagine not how it looks from the top in the eyes of the few but from the sub-terra of the many.

    Check out Re-Write City; it’s a quick post and has some good things to say: http://antiadvertisingagency.com/demand-a-readwrite-city/.

    My favorite insight from the text: “There’s a reason kids want to write their names on walls. There’s a reason why people take graffiti seriously. Granted, graffiti writers don’t always know how to direct this energy, but I’d argue there’s some overlap with the reasons one writes their name on a wall and the reasons one runs for the school board. Being able to write means being able to affect your environment. To change it. You exist in the world not as a consumer, but an active citizen.”

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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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