URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

What now?

What now?

This fifteen-week program centered on urbanism in Asia is drawing to a close and I will soon be traveling back to America, my home. Home. It has become a foreign word that has been granted a new, albeit altered meaning these past few months. I have neither lived outside of my home country for as long as I have nor have I ever spent time in a region I knew so little about prior to my visit. I knew an insignificant amount about the architectures and cultures of Japan, Korea, and China, outside of the information taught in the classroom. This program changed that. I was complexly immersed in urbanism around-the-clock intensive course, ranging from Japanese infrastructure to the Hong Kong-Shenzhen high-speed rail. How many times did I hear the words ‘Shenzhen’ and ‘Hong Kong’ muttered in the same sentence, let alone just once before this trip? Now those words are representative of not just places or dots on a map, but ideas and strategies that stretch beyond the realm of architecture. I have been exposed to countless ideas being employed on the micro and macro urban level in three countries, all possessing the same goal: make the city more efficient; more sustainable and more connected. In essence, better. What would urban inhabitants be if they did not want to make the environment they lived in, better? Which leads me to the next chapter in my education of the urban: the American city.

The priceless education and lessons that we have learned on this trip would be completely meaningless to us if there were not an application of those items learned on the home front. Being a citizen of Los Angeles County, I expect my revelations to unfurl the second I step off the plane and into the oddly named Tom Bradley International Terminal. Odd you ask? Perhaps it is the seemingly miniature-scaled size of the terminal for an international airport that is so perplexing. Often the first terminal that many foreigners see when they either arrive at LAX, the terminal is an accurate depiction of how far America has fallen behind on the global stage. How would one who frequents Tokyo-Narita, Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, or Hong Kong International Airport think of the American’s terminal coming from the crème de la crème of international airports? Unfortunately, I do not think they would be very impressed to say the least. Even worse, once you leave the airport, you’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Before I go any further in my discussion concerning Asian urbanism and it’s comparison to the urbanism of Los Angeles, let me make one statement clear: I love L.A. I could live anywhere else but it wouldn’t feel the same as Los Angeles would feel. It is my home and who would I be if I didn’t try to make it better? I’m not merely criticizing all of its obviously blatant negative aspects for whining-sake, but to put the argument out in the open to be solved.

In the past few weeks there has been important progress in the city’s development of the metro-transit system. An amount of $546 million has been given by the Federal government to build a light-rail line from the Crenshaw district to Los Angeles International Airport. In an automobile-centric city, this could be the beginning of a transition from an automobile reliant city to one where multiple modes of transportation are used everyday to facilitate the movement of its inhabitants.

And yet, some people don’t think this is a good idea!

Tom Rubin, a mass transit consultant in Oakland, states in a New York Times article about the new Los Angeles Metro Expansion, “they have been pushing rail expansion for decades now and it has not had much of an impact in terms of increasing transit ridership. The big problem is that these are very, very expensive, and we wind up spending so much money on building these rail lines that there is not enough to operate bus service. So we wind up cutting back on bus operations and then raising fares, which drives the riders away.”

So, Mr. Rubin, should we just sit here and twiddle our thumbs while we pour money into bus services? Should we just put more buses and bus routes on an already overcrowded vehicular transit system in order to solve this problem? We are at this juncture in our city’s development for several reasons:

  1. Back in the early part of the 20th century, major financial players in the City of Los Angeles made the grand decision to eliminate the Pacific Electric Railroad and replace it with the automobile. It was a sound economic idea at the time, but now in the 21st century, we are back to square one, with the need of an expansive transit system, but stuck with a city that has already developed, making an installation of a mass transit system difficult and expensive.
  2. As a result of #1, we have put our reliance on a bus transit system as the major transit mode. The metro bus transit system is not a complete solution to an overall complex problem. There needs to be multiple levels of transit solutions put into place. There’s no point in putting all your eggs into one basket if that basket is going to be stuck in gridlock along with everyone else.

Mr. Rubin, being as you are from Oakland and assumingly familiar with the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, I am sure you know that the BART isn’t successful simply because the Bay Area has invested the majority of its money in buses. There are multiple levels of infrastructure in place that help in not only lessening traffic congestion, but also creating connections to transportation hubs like San Francisco International Airport. The city of Los Angeles is not going to have a prodigious mass transit system overnight but we have to start somewhere.

I’m trying to open your eyes, America!

Improving your cities should not be about corporate involvement, political crossfire, or lobbyists in Washington. We’ve gotten to a point as a country where you can’t put a Stop-sign on deserted road without half the population screaming their heads off because of three words: “me, me, me.” ‘What am I going to get out of this?’ ‘Why are they going to get this and I’m going to get that? ‘What am I going to lose?’ If you have not noticed, we are ALL losing. You’re arguing over who gets the life-vest made of gold while the ship is taking on water. The days of American superiority in all sectors is waning and everyone is too stubborn or reluctant to take a step back and think of what can benefit the country, and not the individual.  Maybe a trip to Japan or China would open your eyes.

This program is not a 15-week deal and you’re done with it. When you come home, you possess that critical skill set that is applicable not only to buildings, but to cities. Cities that you live, work, and enjoy your time in. You have the ability to critically analyze and process what  someone is telling you about topic a, while being able to cross reference it with topic’s c through z and then some. You can’t just turn it off. You don’t think in black and white any more, but in the grey. You think in the grey because that is where the dialogue is and where progress can be made.

I still have my fears, though. Fears that there will be deaf ear turned to pleas for reason. Fears that there will be closed eyes turned away from unfamiliar ideas. Some people will not want to hear what I have to say.

I fear this:

“You’re wrong, Christopher. Do you know what you’re saying? You want to put a subway stop in the middle of residential area and you think this will promote economic growth? Tokyo? Yea, right. This will never happen. You’ve been to Asia, that is all fine and dandy, but you need to wake up and realize you’re not in Asia anymore. You are in America now. Some of the cities you saw might work, but they won’t work here. Take your head out of the clouds and come back to reality.”

What do I say?

I can’t tell them I know better than they do. I can’t be disrespectful of their knowledge and experience, but what of mine? Does not my knowledge and first-hand experience count for something? Isn’t the study of architecture about the multiplicity and exchange of various ideas and philosophies? We don’t have to agree on it, but there must exist a dialogue. If we don’t have that, then what are we doing as architects?

I still don’t know what I’d say. Do you?

I know one thing.

At the end of this trip, I realize that I can only hope to be one of the Fallen Angels, riding my Beijing Bicycle every Weekend, asking for sushi but instead getting the request Lost in Translation, and letting it all digest in the Belly of an Architect.

If you can understand any of that, you’ll know exactly what to say.

-Christopher Glenn

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
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
Students:
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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