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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Back To Reality…

We’ve now returned home from our semester abroad.

After spending a few days in Los Angeles, and as a means to relate our time in Asia to that of our life in North America, I’d like to bring to light the time our class spent in Shenzhen once more. As my blog entry written shortly after leaving Shenzhen indicates, as do many of my classmates’ posts, this newly-minted city in China was at times a less than thrilling place to visit.

Having left Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong behind, Shenzhen seemed to be a caricature of a city – all facade, no substance. Rather than a bustling nightlife, the district in which our hotel was located largely fell silent as each work day ended. We looked everywhere for the diversity and excitement which we had witnessed in our former locales, largely to no avail.

We spent our final weeks of the program in Shanghai, a city which exudes the diversity and excitement I mentioned in the excerpt above. Even a “typical” day in this vibrant city presents a fascinating cross-section through the everyday of Shanghai – streets lined with food vendors, winding subway passages, upscale restaurants beside convenience stores. As my friend Matt details in his post My China, these unexpected phenomena helped to give each of us a deeply personal memory of the city. Rather than simply jumping in a car each day and arriving at our chosen destination, we were forced to interact with the urban condition. We witnessed the unexpected, the unusual, and, at times, the magical.

The Saturday after I arrived home in Los Angeles, having been reunited with many of my friends from school the night before, I walked through downtown as a means to escape the confines of my apartment. Such a walk was a common occurrence during our semester abroad, but my experience on this particular Saturday seemed anything but. Rather than seeing the vibrant street life of Shanghai, I was confronted with a landscape seemingly devoid of energy. Almost all restaurants were closed, sidewalks lay empty. Rows of small markets and shops, found almost everywhere in Shanghai, replaced with imposing, towering facades, each object of a building turning its back to the street, interrupted only by the occasional plaza. In fact, this scene seemed to have more in common with my experience of The Beijing Olympic Stadium than with a busy city center.

If at first our experience of Shenzhen seemed shocking due to the relative sterility of its environment, downtown Los Angeles on a Saturday afternoon is nothing short of terrifying. Perhaps due to the proportions of its city grid, perhaps because of the prominence of the automobile as mode of transport, perhaps due to the importance of security and privacy, downtown here feels decidedly closed. Los Angeles’s city center has seemingly devolved from the center of the so-called “city of tomorrow” to a financial center which empties instantaneously at the end of every work day. Rather than eating at Subway – a far cry from the diet I had acclimated to after three months abroad – I was forced to leave the area in order to find restaurants that were both palpable and open for business. In the center of the city? Really?

What makes this situation especially poignant, however, is how this object-centric, mono-programmatic approach to urban design is often employed for its symbolic value in developing cities, without acknowledgement of the experience it generates. Rather than the dense, programmatically-hybridized towers of Tokyo, the winding pedestrian bridges of Hong Kong Island, or the shop-lined streets of Shanghai, Los Angeles’s object-centric core fosters isolationism and desolation. Other cities may draw inspiration from this approach largely for the symbolic value – think Shenzhen as a political statement to the global community – but may not fully understand the relatively stagnant urban life which grows from these gleaming, business-centric towers.

This discussion is but a small sample of the topics analyzed during our time in Asia, and returning to North America so suddenly seems, at times, disorienting. If anything, however, our semester abroad has given us a new ability to dissect the urban environment and its constituents: the physical, social, economic, political, cultural, mental. Walking through Los Angeles on Saturday was like seeing the city anew for a second time, its once-familiar corridors and freeways now screaming with insight. Removing oneself from the familiar is often a daunting task, but after four months on the other side of the world, this distance only makes the familiar and unfamiliar appear in sharper focus.

– Taylor

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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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