USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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.



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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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