USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

China At a Crossroads

Many of my classmates have blogged in recent weeks as to the incredible pace of development underway in China. In one of the most rapid economic transitions ever to take place, the nation now stands on the brink of possessing a new level of global influence. Only thirty years ago, Chinese economic and political philosophy favored isolationism and socialist economic policies; today it is a major influence on the international community, a country where mass production and first-world consumeristic practices have taken a firm hold. Over breakfast in Xi’an, a quick glance through newspaper headlines reveals a reader’s digest version of overtly contemporary concerns affecting China today: “Putting A Brake On Inflation,” “2010 Entrepreneur Of The Year Award Winners,” “High Speed Rail On Agenda.” The list goes on.

Clearly, great insight is given to the more quantitative indicators of China’s rapid transition to world economic and political power. Sadly lacking from these articles, however, is a more qualitative analysis of Chinese culture and its newfound identity in the twenty-first century. Surely, China’s abrupt about-face must have profound implications on Chinese society, its people, its urbanism. How exactly will this swift transition impact China’s citizens?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in Henri Lefebvre’s The Everyday And Everydayness, a meditation on what many of us would otherwise disregard – the day-to-day-ness which would otherwise seem unimportant, yet affects every patriot of so-called modern culture.

Before the series of revolutions which ushered in what is called the modern era, … [living] presented a prodigious diversity. This diversity has never been well acknowledged or recognized as such; it has resisted a rational kind of interpretation which has only come about in our own time by interfering with and destroying that diversity. Today we see a worldwide tendency toward uniformity. […] The everyday is a product, the most general of products in an era where production engenders consumption, and where consumption is manipulated by producers: not by “workers,” but by the managers and owners of the means of production (intellectual, instrumental, scientific).

The everyday, in Lefebvre’s definition, is a uniquely modern phenomenon, affecting the urbanites of the most developed cities, regions, and countries around the world. He continues:

In modern life … the everyday imposes its monotony. The days follow one after another and resemble one another, and yet – here lies the contradiction at the heart of everydayness – everything changes. But the change is programmed: obsolescence is planned. Production anticipates reproduction; production produces change in such a way as to superimpose the impression of speed onto that monotony. Some people cry out against the acceleration of time, others cry out against stagnation. They’re both right.

Without a doubt, this concept of everydayness will soon take hold in much of China, and more immediately in its urban centers. Yet much of the country – most specifically Shanghai – stands at a bizarre intersection of the more empirical measures of the everyday (as seen in the newspaper described above) and the psychological everyday which Lefebvre illuminates in his essay. Though skyscrapers fill the skyline of central Shanghai, my classmates and I often remark that residents of the city often maintain practices more closely associated with rural life – spitting in the streets, chickens de-feathered on the sidewalk, garbage left haphazardly outside shops and in alleys. The uniformity, and mechanistically produced life described in The Everyday And Everydayness has yet to fully take hold, though at a distance, one may easily mistake the skyline of central Shanghai for that of a long-established urban center.

This juxtaposition of mechanistically produced urban landscape and urban life likely has its roots in China’s rapid development over the past thirty years. Not long ago, China was far from a world economic power; a nation steeped in socialist philosophy, it was largely removed from an increasingly capitalistic world. Today, however, a renewed vigor on economic production has given China newly-minted economic and political power, and with it, a shift toward a first-world standard of living. As Lefebvre states, the everyday of the modern city is indeed a product, closely tied to the physical –  the architecture of the modern city acting as an ever-present character, facilitator, catalyst to the modern life – yet in times of rapid development, the disparity between the physical and the mental can seem stark.

In the case of present-day Shanghai, a more traditional, less mechanistic way of life persists amidst an increasingly modern infrastructure and urban environment. However, it is only a matter of time before the physicality of modern-day Shanghai and the everyday illuminated in Lefebvre’s essay become inextricably linked. In this sense, our stay in China in the infancy of its modern self gives our class a extremely rare look at this connection between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of development, industrialization, urbanism and modern life; the birth of a modern city, not in its physical sense, but rather in its mental.



Filed under: Architecture, China, Urbanism

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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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