USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Worlds Apart

The past three days spent in and around Xi’an gave us, for the first time this trip, a true look at agrarian lifestyle in a developing nation.  The stark contrast in living conditions between city dwellers and their poorer rural countrymen means while the former enjoy paved roads, sewage systems, ample electricity, and public transportation, the latter may use an outhouse at home and walk or bike to town on dirt roads.  The disparity is more alarming still when considering the lavish hotels, luxury automobiles, and world-class shopping all prevalent only an hour’s bus ride away in central Xi’an.

Because China’s development is relatively recent and still ongoing, this urban/rural divide is a uniquely temporal experience, where moving from urban center to countryside equates to a kind of developmental time lapse in reverse.  By the same token, traveling from farmland outside the urban fringe into the center of Xi’an may as well have been fast motion playback of a 35 year urbanization process beginning in the mid 1970s with discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

The developmental narrative goes something like this: begin on a narrow, crumbling road in the Jade Valley an hour outside of Xi’an surrounded by farmland, aging brick houses, and little activity other than an occasional scooter passing by; proceed into town, now on a two-way road lined by a street market…vendors selling food on wooden carts attached to bicycles or small vehicles…people in town seem surprised to see a bus and the scale of the vehicle is overbearing in the context; outside of town two lane road turns into four lane highway still surrounded by farmland, but after ten minutes the bus passes beneath an under-construction elevated expressway bound for Shanghai; twenty more minutes and four lane highway becomes six lane highway as fields disappear and 30 meter housing complexes take their place on the horizon…you are entering the urban fringe; traffic increases on the highway as housing complexes grow to 60 meters and double in number, meanwhile a sweeping highway interchange fast approaches; ten more minutes and the six lane highway becomes an eight lane highway as housing again increases in size and traffic becomes more intense…the surrounding grid of streets is buzzing with commercial activity, pedestrians, and people on scooters; ten more minutes of driving through what is now an urban canyon and the highway empties out onto a tree lined central boulevard in the city center surrounded by office buildings, hotels, apartment towers, restaurants, and shopping malls topped by glowing neon signs and video displays…a 6 lane roundabout appears ahead, busses are everywhere, people cover the sidewalks, and constant honking of horns is the only predictable outcome of all the traffic…you have entered central Xi’an.

Matt Luery


Filed under: China, narrative, rural, Urbanism, Xi'an

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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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