USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Absurdity, Sex, and Architecture

Our judgment of what is good or what is acceptable is widely based on what we see in the day to day as well as our own boundaries of what is exciting or simply ridiculous.  There is a degree of absurdity that makes something really interesting and exciting- that little rub of inconsistency and obscurity.   It is that little inconsistency of mystery or absurdity that sparks our interest as critics of the everyday.  In this sense, architecture is like sex.  Both seek to push boundaries in able to reach new heights of understanding.  This is portrayed and evaluated in parallel formats as we’ve seen by Rem Koolhaas, Sophia Coppola, Paulo Coelho and Godard’s own analysis.

Rem Koolhaas writes of this relationship in SMLXL.  He sites Japanese porn as this instance where it is more exciting to have the most essentials parts hidden from view.  In many Japanese pornographies the essentials are blurred out and left a mystery, revealing nothing but pixilation.  Rem relates his pixilation to miniature Mondrian paintings of flesh colored squares and dark lines.   These vague lines and color blocks reveal nothing and everything  because the excitement of what could be there is so much more promising than see the actual genitalia.  In this case it is the relationship of the unseen and the seen that relates to good architecture.  It is not the absurdity of the new and different but the allure of what could be there.  An architectural example of this is Mario Botta’s part of the Leeum Museum.   The exterior begs of mystery, giving no hint of what is inside.  The brick is pixilated unto itself, departing from what we expect it to be.  Upon entering you are shuttled to the top and forced to circulate in a downward spiral.    The cylindrical stairs are punctuated with framed views to reveal what lies ahead of you, but only as a glimpse.  When traversing each floor the circular plan furthers this selectivity.  One is never allowed to see the museum exhibit as a whole, there is no grand hallway lined with celadon blue ceramics.   Instead each piece is revealed to you in its own time, each turn you walk around allowing a new experience.   There is a constant sense of being teased by unknowing of what is around the up coming turn and never being allowed to see the whole.

In this way good architecture can vastly be related to Sophia Coppolla’s Lost in Translation.  The sexual relationship (or truly lack there of) between the film’s main characters is reflected in how the city is framed.    The sexual and visual tension between these characters is overtly apparent.  There is obvious attraction between these characters, shared feelings, but nothing is ever done about it.  They lie in bed next to each other, speaking so very intimately, but nothing physical ever happens between them.  This is reflected in how Tokyo is filmed.  In a sense, Tokyo becomes a visual embodiment of their sexual relationship.  When they positively interact we see the Tokyo Skyline from some high up floor- out of reach, beautiful and alluring in all the glory the Tokyo skyline can possess.  It is only when their relationship becomes tumultuous that we are allowed to see the city in any other way.  When there is no longer a tease or allure in those character’s relationship the city is no longer distant and alluring- it’s sonorous and crowded.  When they go out to lunch in the prime of their disgruntled state the bowels of Tokyo are shown- the street life, cars, taxis, honking, ect.

Finally, there is the attraction of the absurd.  This is an attraction we can’t help but simultaneous dislike and enjoy.  The absurd identifies with the book by Paulo Coelho Eleven Minutes.   The main character briefly gets drawn into the world of sadomasochist sex because of the clarity is brings her.  Physical pain helped to take her to the limits of what is her conceived reality.  However the absurdity involved is that each experience creates a new outlying boundary, therefore each following experience forces further exploration to get that previous high.  Each experience then becomes more absurd and desensitizing, creating greater distance from the original meaning.  A further example of this is in Godard’s Week End, a film so absurd it is literally a car crash in which you can’t help but stare.   Despite the obvious spectacle of absurdity throughout the film, the film opens by talking about a woman’s fetishized threesome.  She describes each act in her sexual encounter involving improbable positions, cracking an egg with her buttocks and cumming in a dish of milk.  Essentially these types of absurd sexual experience relates back to the absurdity of architecture.   They are removed from the everyday life, and have one far beyond that rub interesting inconsistency, so very far from its origin, that it is a bad thing.  Such architectural sites include Paju in South Korea or The Ring in Shenzhen.  Paju falls into absurdity due to the excessiveness of design.  Each building holds true in singular form but together, a town where everything is individually designed without consideration of its surroundings, becomes absurd.  It is too much and too far from its origin.   This is also true for The Ring but in a different way.  It’s the scale and perfect symmetry that makes it so absurd.  Its simply too large for anyone to walk casually, programmed or not.  Yet for some reason there is something rather enticing about both of these pieces of architecture.  For Paju, there is an allure that can’t really be explained except to say it is visually stunning.  That these publishers and stores care to define themselves by using architecture on this type of design scale is impressive.  Each building creates an identity and draw for itself.  The Ring stands to be even more impressive to me.  In a country like China, where the Great Wall can be seen from outer space, how does something as large and cumbersome as this massive ring as a centralization tool seem out of place?  It is by all means fantastical, yet still has a function that could only be fulfilled in a country such as China; in city like Shenzhen where everything is so new everyone is always looking for that next boundary to top.  But what could possibly be that next fix?

So is it better to seek that perfect mysterious moment or break out of the everyday?  Each architecture we’ve looked at through Asia and in truly in our lifetime seeks to accomplish at least one of these.  And so it is when we see these moments of inconsistency, mystery, or absurdity that makes that moment come to life and be more than simply the mundane.


Filed under: Architectural Absurdity, Architectural Spectacle, Architecture, China, Godard, Korea, Psyche, Rem Koolhaas, Uncategorized

Thinking Outside the Small Box

If one word can be identified with America, I think it would be individualism.  Individualism is our greatest strength.  But we’ve gotten high on ourselves, its become too much of a good thing.  Our individualism seems to now be misguided.  We need to re-evaluate and think about the huge improvements on our lives if we stopped to think a little bit more about the big picture instead of our single city microcosm.  I’m primarily identifying this problem with city planning.  We’re all worried about our little piece of the city block instead of how we could improve that little block by thinking statewide.  This strategy lacks a greater intelligence.  Reformed thinking could not only improve our economy but strengthen what is essentially American: individualism.

America thinks in a singular nature instead of thinking in a complete set.  Los Angeles as compared to Shanghai for example- yes, Los Angeles has its own little districts that each have a huge sense of regionalism.  But lets go from small to large.  First of all there seems to be a love of the object building.   A singular destination instead of the overall area I could affect- hence making a singular attraction instead of set of destinations.  For instance, Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall- the ultimate object building.  There is almost no supporting program surrounding it.  The closests one could call supporting program is the Dorthey Chandler.  It’s actually surrounded by parking lots.  Why isn’t there a 5-Star restaurant next door?  For that matter, why not several restaurants?  Boutiques? Coffee Houses? Not applicable in America.

On a larger scale, how about the smaller cities that are outliers of Los Angeles?  Those could easily be connected to Los Angeles proper created a satellite situation as Shanghai has with Qing Pu.  If there were easy, efficient, and reliable transportation to Cabazon, Palm Springs or Santa Barbara Los Angeles would be a very different place.  Especially with Los Angeles’ traffic, the idea of a day trip would have a very different characterization.  This could create ‘big box destinations’, as in whole districts for furniture or shoes.  Cabazon would probably be the most synonymous with this idea as it is entirely devoted to one specific type of shopping: outlets.  However the only time anyone ever goes to Cabazon is if they are already on their way to Palm Springs or Arizona- it is not a destination by itself.  It needs better transportation services to its location (one that doesn’t evolve strategic planning around traffic hours) and a bigger draw than stores whose merchandise is years old because so few people make it out that far away from the city center.  If Cabazon existed as a nodal destination, the space in between itself and the city center would fill in appropriately.

In essence I am asking LA, and America on a larger scale, for some urban intelligence.  If LA were designed, not necessarily master planned, with the notion of what could improve a given area by making points of interest, these areas would expand into the surroundings.  These areas would bring massive foot traffic and could better support a retailers economy.  This ultimately aligns with the American perception of itself because it promotes competition, encourages new business models and spurs economic growth.  Business that are in that ‘big box destination’ would have to identify what makes them different instead of relying on a name brand or being the only retailer to sell ‘x-type’ product in the local area.   What is more American than pronouncing individualism?


Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Infrastructure, Los Angeles, Urbanism

Downfall of Subways

Subways allow for an amazing proliferation of people throughout the city.  Railways are part of the infrastructure that defines a culture as civilized.  It recognizes that they have developed far enough industrially and economically to not only have need for such a thing, but the capability to construct these huge nodal linkages.

One can enter into this wormhole on one side of the city and arrive on the other side in just a few minutes.  The stop takes you within a few minute walk of wherever your destination may be.  You can exist underground- you switch lines entirely underground, shop underground, eat underground, all on your commute.  Emerge and submerge, never really knowing on what side of the ground plane you’re on.  Time becomes irrelevant, and yet the only thing prevalent.

The perfect example of the utmost efficient subway system is in Tokyo.  One never has to travel far to find a subway station, and the stop will take you to precisely where you want to go.  The subways are incredibly clean.  No one has to wait longer than a few minutes for a train to come, and it seems to always accommodate all its users.  In cases when the subway is really full it still remains highly civilized.  The front train care is always reserved for women only, so women would not feel uncomfortable being too closely packed to their stranger counter parts.  Even as a foreigner to the Japanese subway system there are always information booths available more than willing to give you directions or help with whatever problem you have concerning your subway experience.  For that matter, police booths exist at ground level, or ‘koban’, that can help direct you as well.  Ultimately, this system goes beyond providing the needs it was constructed for.  It creates a standard any city can only hope to live up to.

While speeding under Shanghai, I ponder my nearly hour long route to ‘work’.  More precisely how my commute breaks down to about 20 minutes of walking to the station, a 5 minute wait at the station, 15 minute train ride and finally a 15 minutes from the station to my place of work.  If I go during ‘traffic hour’ I have to wait for a couple of trains to finally fit in one.  If I wait for an off time I can hop on a train right away.  Once inside the train I feel like a sardine.  That’s when I start to wonder, when do demarcations of civilization cease to be civilized? – as someone’s elbow jams into my ribcage and the man rubbing against my frontloaded backpack burps loudly in the face of the woman smashed against him.  At the particular stop I take, to switch lines I must go above ground and walk couple blocks to reach the transfer, then buy a new ticket as their systems are not yet connected.

There is one main issue here: the subway does not meet the needs it was constructed for.  That is when it stops being civilized, when it can’t meet the demands made on it.  It is not efficient, or timely.  This subway is not part of large spanning underworld, it is simply pieces of what it could be.  Shanghai’s subway system is scheduled to double by 2022.  And it needs to, as of now the city is growing faster than the infrastructure that provides for it. It is only the city center that is well provided for by the subway system.  People’s Park is incredibly easy to maneuver via subway.  However on the current outskirts of the city there aren’t nearly enough stops or lines going to those far reaches of Shanghai.  Once additional lines are built there hopefully will not be a problem with overcrowding a train car or lining up for the third subway to arrive.  Shanghai is a huge sprawling city.  For the area the system covers it does quite well.  All of Tokyo only covers a fraction of the area Shanghai covers and furthermore has only been developing for a fraction of the time.


Filed under: China, Infrastructural Growth, Japan, Subways, Urbanism

Escaping the Generic

Stepping up to the register there was an initial sense of hesitation, what gesture would be required to convey a grande vanilla latte?  Should I point to the drink menu or simply perform the well-rehearsed ‘latte’ gesticulation? As I lifted my hands in preparation to place my order I was suddenly made aware of my surroundings.  The menu hanging on the wall was absent of Chinese characters.  The barista anxiously awaiting my order was certainly not Chinese.  I was acting out what many of us had joked would happen upon our return home – subconsciously behaving as if I was still in a foreign country.  Chuckling to myself, I knew what Andrew would have to say about this.  Even among the most generic of places, programs and activities there is a unique embodied sense of place.  To say that the many coffee shops we frequented during our travels abroad all entailed the same experience would be completely negating the physical, social, cultural, political, and economic context of their existence.  As was communicated during the Hong Kong workshop, there is a distinction to be made between a Starbucks in Hong Kong and a Starbucks in Los Angeles.

Although an argument over the location of a Starbucks appeared trivial in the context of an architecture critique, it really got me thinking about the role of the individual within the urban condition.  When I mention the individual, I am referring to the ‘mental’ state of interacting with the multiple layers of a city – the physical, social, cultural, political and economic forces that overlap in defining urban life.  While we often obsess over what is clearly visible, the physical, as being the dividing line between one locale and another, it is often the metaphysical elements that can be more telling of a place.  Taking the scenario of Starbucks we see little to no variation in its physical manifestation, but the social and cultural preconceptions that I hold as I visit each location vary.  Knowing that I can easily communicate my order without resorting to gesticulations can play a large part in my everyday experience of that place even though the interior décor is universally identical.  This may be a way of looking at the increasing uniformity of the world with a glass half full mentality, but it is an approach that the Chinese themselves have adopted whole heartedly in their building practices.  A physical building holds no significance in Chinese culture, but rather the land or place it resides on is of much importance.

After leaving with my coffee and heading towards the car park, I was reminded of an interview I read between John Rajchman and Rem Koolhaas on ‘BIGNESS’ (from 1992).  It was a question that Rajchman asked Rem that all too accurately stated what AAU had been grappling with throughout the semester and especially during our time in China.  It went as follows:

John Rajchman: You write of how we are approaching a “generic” urban condition (which, in S, M, L, XL, you show with grainy photos of Singapore in the rain) in which cities lose their specificities, as though all were approaching a condition of interlocking airports that might be anywhere. What kinds of innovation or singularity can arise in such an unspecific state?

Rem Koolhaas: What invention can appear in the generic? I predict a rehabilitation of abstraction in a much more drastic way than in early Modernism–a deliberate shedding of character, a minimalism, a rediscovery of the beauty of the purely quantitative over the geometric.

Rem’s response is quite polemical in my opinion.  At first I interpreted his response to the ‘generic’ urban condition to be generic itself.  Rehabilitation of abstraction seemed to completely disregard the critical regionalism or contextual influences that gives a building a sense of place.  Shouldn’t we be moving away from the subtext of the Modernist movement, which reflected a ‘fuck context’ approach? For him to suggest moving towards a state of hyper-modernism appeared synonymous with implementing a universally applicable urban condition.  Imagine a city living in autonomous existence, without regard for its natural environment.  Without reflecting the character of its physical, social, cultural, political and economic background.

However, as I continued to make the argument against Rem’s call for abstraction the more it began to make sense. From all the first-hand encounters of the generic condition I had experienced throughout Asia, maybe it was time to return to a state of abstraction.  Take for example, our final studio project, which called for the design of a 1km long urban node in Shangahi. Not only was the scale so large that it fully embodied Rem’s notion of ‘BIGNESS’, but it was located on a site that was essentially tabula rasa.  For many Asian cities tabula rasa is becoming the norm, as old establishments are dismantled in favor of generic architecture.  Unless projects are approached in the same manner as Xintandi or Tian Zi Fang than why not reinvent the generic by becoming abstract or minimalist – there’s nothing to lose, right?

Of course the answer to this polemical debate doesn’t have to go to that extreme, but there is some truth to Rem’s argument that implies a return to the mental associations an individual has with the city.  I would argue that the successful re-imagination of the urban condition would require us to return to a purely qualitative approach.   Our experience of the smaller aspects of lifestyle, that which is the everyday, can be scaled up to the size of a city.  The small scale can inform the large scale.  In this respect, there are many lessons to be learned from what we observed in Japan.  It was the mental which fully informed the organization of its buildings, infrastructure and cities.  Japanese minimalist design wasn’t striving to discover a context that it could consume and reproduce; it was simply focusing on the temporal qualities of space with elements such as natural light, wind and water.  I suppose the sense of place we feel within the contemporary built environment rarely originates from the built form itself.  As Rem says, “In Japan there is…a systematic avoidance of any contents. And that is very exciting: incredible buildings that are about nothing.”


Bryn Garrett

John Rajchman. “Thinking Big”.  ArtForum, Dec. 1994.


Filed under: Uncategorized

My 15 minute walk to anywhere

Since back in California I’m asked the typical questions. How was Asia? Did you like it? Did you have fun? What did you learn?

My response: Asia was great! I did not just like it. I loved it! It was so much fun. I learned…hmm

How to explain what I learned? You could always say it was life changing, amazing, beautiful. But even then it does not truly define what this experience has been. I don’t think any of us will be able to answer that question for a while, at least nothing more than a superficial response.

When we headed of to Asia we expected to see new and exciting things. We were studying cities and being thrown into one, though over whelming at times, was expected. I did think about the trip back. It is strange being home. I never realized how much of my life circled around suburbia. The first vestige of this phenomenon was flying into LAX. When landing in Shanghai you saw huge housing blocks yet as we flew over greater Los Angeles I realized how much our tiny track homes have taken over the landscape. From when we first flew over land onward I saw rows and rows of houses, each with their own patch of green with a driveway.  Even more, a grid of avenues and streets connecting to our extensive highway system defining these rows, creating a texture that was surprisingly flat.

After landing my Dad picked me up and we got on the freeway, hitting the customary traffic the 605 and 10. While we waited I looked over and watched as a metro train picked up about 15 passengers. Why is there a train stop in the middle of a highway? And 15 people, that is it? But is that really shocking? It is in the middle highway! Could you imagine this in Shanghai? The idea is laughable.  Haven’t these people though about putting systems like this within areas of high density, preferably anywhere else but amongst an abundance of cars.

Yet currently car-less I never realized how stagnant life can be when you don’t have a one, especially when the majority of your friends with cars are still in school. Before study abroad I accepted my lot in life but as I sat at home immobile I began to think about my options.

Option 1: Buy a car…yeah that is not happening any time soon.

Option 2: I could take the train to LA and visit some friends at SC. It’s a 45 minute bus ride from home to the station than another hour and a half travel time on the train. I finally reach LA and no one can pick me up. Alright wait for a bus, ten minutes if I’m lucky.  Get onto bus and arrive at USC in fifteen minutes. Total amount of time: Three hours. Please note that this time did not take into factor traffic, which would add an extra hour.

Option 3: Stay home and watch some T.V. I have a million shows to catch up on.

Unfortunately option three is winning. I am really starting to miss my fifteen minute walk to Shanghai South Railway station where I had an endless amount of destinations at my finger tips.

So next time someone asks me what I have learned in Asia I’ll talk about advocating better infrastructure and how putting it out in boonies does not help the user or the industry. And after my quiet, little tirade we can have a discussion on the pros and cons of such a system. Now that is putting my learning to good use.

– Precious

Image courtesy of railpictures.net – Copyright Charles J Freericks

Filed under: Uncategorized

Transposed City/Culture Shock

Although I had traveled quite a bit prior to this trip, the notion of “culture shock” is not something that disintegrates over time.  I had thought that because I had traveled before, the idea of culture shock was something that I was acclimated to, but that was not quite the case.  Of course there were the obvious “shocking” cultural things to the average traveler, however we were on this trip studying urbanism – not something that people generally look at or think about enough to notice anything too out of their comfort zone.  As we became immersed with the Japanese culture, the Korean culture, the Hong Kong culture, and the different regions of Chinese culture, I was noticing the food, the music, the customs, etc., but quickly realized that all of these habits were part of the larger picture: the city.

The longer we were in a specific city, the more we absorbed about the culture and functions of that metropolis.  It was easy to see the facts that made these cities completely different from Los Angeles, but much more difficult to find the similarities.  The most common similarity that they had with Los Angeles was simply that they are all dubbed “cities.”  However, after traveling throughout these Asian cities, it became more apparent about what a “real” city is all about.  Coming from Los Angeles, and that being what I was used to being called “a large city”, seems almost silly after being able to compare them to these other cities we visited.  The lack of systematic and perfectly functioning infrastructure is, in itself, a major lacking point of something that a city must have.

Especially while landing in our flight to LAX, looking out the window, I was able to immediately notice a major difference compared to what we had just left 14 hours before.  Looking out of the window upon arrival in places such as Hong Kong and Tokyo, the density could be seen from a far distance in the air.  The ground looked like a place that had been completely swallowed up by buildings, and actually was.  On the other hand, landing in Los Angeles, the scale of the city was entirely different.  LA takes on a more sprawling effect, with buildings that I once thought were tall…not so much anymore.  The experience I got on the days we took to explore smaller cities or towns outside of the main city, is how LA feels to me now – something that is a small portion of the larger whole, but that is not the case.  However, Los Angeles is the whole where we are.  Los Angeles is one of the biggest nodes of the United States, but now it looks semi-insignificant in comparison.

The scale-shift/city-shift got even more intense when I went back to my hometown, a place that is extremely smaller than Los Angeles, where everyone knows everyone, and everything is within walking distance.  I am starting to have a reverse culture shock, which is something I did not expect.  I expected that when I returned home, everything would be as it was, and I would still be accustomed to everything that I was before I left.  Taking a drive that I do often, permitting a view of our “city”, I realized how small my town is.  The lights of the buildings seemed as if they were at ground level…like lights on a street, rather than lights inside a building.  Being somewhere for so long, it is only natural to begin to become accustomed to the culture of that city, although I never expected my own home to become the culture shock.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Building Cities

I picked AAU because I wanted to learn about urbanism. I had no idea what I was getting into and that was the draw.  I always wanted to explore Europe but I saw that feasible. When would I ever go to Asia? The weekend before we left our professor, Andrew, set the initial framework of how we should begin to look at cities. First question; what makes a city? Our response; blank stare, a look we mastered quite well throughout the trip. With a few pokes and prods we began to throw words around about what a city is.  As the discussion continued we ended up with six words: physical, social, economics, political, cultural, and mental. Then Andrew threw another curveball, what is a metropolis? We had just finished watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and many of us talked about the imagery: huge towers, a crisscross of infrastructure, an underground life that facilitated the above. All of this implied, the XYZ, critical for the vibrancy of any city. Thus, metropolis was defined as is an urban morphology which encompasses the XYZ and the six words: physical, social, economics, political, cultural, and mental. It is the lack of some or all of these components that make a metropolis into a mere city.

At the end of our final review we talked about the growth of Asian cities and the static nature of American cities. The attitude towards Asia is optimistic, the passion is palpable, and in Asia architects can help build cities. The attitude towards America is bleak. In the US architects make pretty objects and the profession has grown static, we are now service providers.

One of the reviewers mentioned Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. In their time these schemes were visions of what could happen, a possibility in the future. In China these proposals are becoming reality. What architect does not want to be apart of that? A chance to build cities, how awesome is that. Earlier I asked the question, when I would ever go to Asia and after being here it is a strong likelihood that many of us will be back. Even if we are not located in Asia a majority of our projects will be located here. It’s a truth that many of us are going to face. The drive is in China. Everything is happening here. Now is our chance to jump in and make the best of it and to help design projects that take on the macro level as well as the micro.

So where does this leave America? The discussion of urbanism is pretty much non-existent and that is something we are going to find frustrating. Do all young architects with bright hopes and dreams for the future dash off to Asia? Or do we stay in the states and fight for the little that we can and hope like foolish idealist that we can unearth the urbanism that was buried years ago? The United States has decided that politics and economics will dominate and other four words; physical, cultural, mental, and social will be pushed to the back burner. What many do not realize is that all six must be weighed equally. The United States is all about check and balances and we need to see how urbanism in terms of infrastructure/XYZ can promote economic growth, sponsor cultural exchange, help to morph the physical, create a healthier political system, and foster a better social and mental life.

– Precious

Filed under: Uncategorized

The Autonomous Individual

“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.”

The flight back to the states granted the time for reflection on what had just happened to me (and hopefully all of us) in the last four months.  A journey like the one we just partook in has the ability to completely change one’s life, usually for the better.  In my perspective, this experience has allowed me to gain a better perspective on myself, what I want to accomplish in my lifetime, and where I fit into the equation of the metropolis.

At the beginning of the program, the readings we were assigned spoke about ideas and concepts of cities that we probably could not relate to just yet.  I thought I understood what the readings were trying to convey back then, but now, looking back, I realize that there is no way I could have comprehended these readings as well as I have while simultaneously traveling throughout metropolises in Asia.  As I reopened Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” I read the first sentence (quoted above) and instantly had a stronger stance on the reading.  Prior to this trip, I would think that being an autonomous individual would be a positive characteristic, however, I quickly realized how preserving my autonomy while in a foreign culture would be extremely detrimental to my ability to gain a new perspective and ascertain an understanding of various cultures and cities for that matter.

Being abroad offers something that is so far out of reach from a classroom’s offerings.  Reading pieces like Simmel’s, Ibeling’s, and deCerteau in the comfort of my living room at school would not have had even the closest impact on me as they did while in Asia.  Reading these articles and excerpts and then being able to look out of my hotel window into the city, walk the city, and be immersed in the culture is something that is of the utmost value…something that could never take place inside of a classroom.  Architecture is a field that requires this kind of supplemental knowledge.  Gaining a better understanding and perspective of architecture requires one to become aware of how this discipline affects people internationally (whether people realize it or not) and how simply by crossing the border to a neighboring country, these affects can morph into something unrelated, each carrying their own distinct qualities.

So, as Simmel points out, one of the biggest problems today is that we as individuals take too much interest in our own independence and persona that we forget (or lack the general interest) to look at the bigger picture…society, culture, architecture, history, as an international organism, rather than merely through the eyes of our own culture. There is so much that people miss out on every single day because they do not search for it.  Knowledge is always surrounding us, it just has to be found.


Filed under: Architecture, China, Japan, Korea

Notice the Differences

With 20 minutes left of our 15 hour long journey home, we got our first glimpse of Los Angeles after four months.  It was appropriate that our first experience with LA was from thousands of feet in the air, allowing for an immense birds-eye view of the city.  My initial reaction was, “It’s so flat”.  After departing from Hong Kong International Airport and watching the pencil towers and skyscrapers packed as tightly as crayons pass below us, the view of Los Angeles seemed disappointingly monotonous, with the exception of downtown.  Where I was used to seeing midrise apartment buildings in Shanghai, all I could see were single-family homes, lined up for miles.

Excited to get downtown for the Super Review, I decided to take the F Dash in support of public transportation (I also didn’t want to pay $37 or 246 RMB for parking).  The bus was filled with a diverse crowd of USC students, a Hispanic family, and people of Korean, Indian, and African American decent.  Accustomed to hearing solely Chinese and being stared at on the subway in Shanghai, I truly appreciated the mixing of cultures that is unique to Los Angeles.  Apparently I was too appreciative, as I proceeded to miss my stop.  I knew the route would loop around and head south on Flower St., so I wasn’t too worried.  However, four stops later, the bus driver informed the three of us left on the bus that it was his last stop, and we would have to get out.  Huh? It was 3:00 pm.  Why did his route end so early?  All I kept thinking was, this would never happen in China.  After depending on public transportation for four months, I was puzzled at this abrupt sense of abandonment.  Still pondering what had just happened, I walked back towards City National Plaza.  I immediately noticed that streets were not meant for pedestrians.  Forced to run across a road, I made it safely to the sidewalk where I was welcomed with… nothing.  There was not an activity in sight.  Where are the street vendors that follow and hassle you down the block?  And the delicious street food that contributes to the exciting aroma of city life?  I knew not to expect Shanghai, Hong Kong, or Tokyo, but I had expected more than nothing.  With the exception encountering a few pedestrians and homeless people, I found the streets sterile, desolate, and depressing.

We were told that the impact of our study abroad wouldn’t hit us until after we returned to the States.  After my experience in downtown, I am beginning to see how true that is.  When we arrived in Asia, our senses tingled with excitement of the new and shocking, and not until Shanghai did we fall into the familiarity of city life.  At the time it was difficult to compare these Asian cities to anything, since until Japan I had never experienced a real metropolis.  However now that we’re back, all I see around me is what could be, the potential that America holds.  Hopefully the lessons learned abroad will continue to reveal themselves as I travel home to Honolulu tomorrow, when I return to Los Angeles in January, and in every city that I explore in the future.



Filed under: Uncategorized

Peace and Quiet

Finally some peace and quiet! As I sit in my house in suburbia writing this essay, there are no horns blaring out the window, no maids yelling/ strangling each other in the hallway, and no listening to 17 other classmates bickering what to do for lunch. Like I said earlier, its nice to have some peace and quiet. I can make my own choices, without having to justify my every move to my peers. Instead of hiking to the train station, passing hawkers interrogating me “bagus, watch, hello?”, I can now get into my car, isolate myself from the world, and freely sing at the top of my lungs. After one crazy semester this is just what I needed, to literally clear my head of all the surrounding stimuli, and allow my mind to settle and digest everything that I have just encountered.

The truth is though; this shock of jumping into an environment that is desolate of exterior stimuli is kind of eerie. After being submerged and becoming a part of the urban fabric, I truly think this submersion will be one of the greatest experiences I had on my study abroad expedition. It’s easy to justify locations as being the highlights of your experience for example The Great Wall, or The World Expo, but in my opinion they are just blips on the larger picture of what we experienced over in Asia. For the first time in my life, I saw a sprawled density, a density that even when we were out in the boonies at our hotel, there was still a very active street life, with bystanders waiting at intersections, locals buying produce from the back of a truck, and shops lining streets that are not necessarily major thoroughfares. It is this lack of urban that creates isolation in suburbia, and I am starting to see how this is in many ways has been detrimental towards my development along with how our country has developed.

By creating nodes that become objects in the field, as opposed to a fabric, it creates an inward focus. Every time I leave my house I have to justify to myself where I am going and what I am looking to accomplish, whether this is going to drop off my laundry, catch up with a friend, or pick up dinner, every time I venture outside of my home it becomes a task. By always having an objective, it limits the spontaneous encounters that happen by chance, and hinders curiosity of what will be in the next alleyway or what new products will be in the windows as one passes by.

One element of the urban environment that is really interesting is its ability to create obscure conditions of program overlaps. For example having a grocery store, next to a grade school, backed by a subway station that the kids take home, enjoying their recently purchased snacks after school. By allowing these conditions to overlap onto one another different narratives and experiences start to play out, and become elements of the everyday. On the contrary creating nodes that are islands surrounded by a sea of pavement, strips the fabric of any potential of layering, restricting the diversity of the narratives that can take place.

Is there still hope? I think this is a question that everyone in our group is starting to ponder. Has America become so desensitized and lost in our ways that we have left behind the potential to create curiosity, ambition and tension with the built environment? Even Urban environments like Los Angeles, have become numb of experience, and have been characterized as a city for the automobile. We have stripped the layers out of the fabric and have replaced the fabric with isolated objects. In my opinion it’s easy to throw up our hands, and say America is done for, with our addiction to oil and economic depression. I don’t want to be that person that gives up hope, and walk away from the situation. Having the ability to take from my experiences abroad, and start finding ways to apply them back in our homeland, will hopefully start to create a better urban understanding. Taking on projects that push its impact on the urban environment, and understand no matter how large or small a project is, it has the ability to become something greater. Just like throwing rocks in a pond, no matter how small or how large the rock is it has the ability to have a greater rippling affect, than just the size of itself. This is not the end; rather it is just the beginning of a long journey ahead.


Ross Renjilian


Filed under: Architecture, Asia, Car, Density, High, Nodes, Renjilian, Ross, stimuli, Suburbia, Urbanism,


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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