URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Tourist Wonders or Architecture Blunders?

The Summer Palace replica in the Pearl River Delta getting a fresh coat of paint

From knock-off purses, to fake Apple stores, to replicas of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and the Summer Palace, China has it all.  Although tourists like myself may hunt for a good fake designer purse or pair of sunglasses, when it comes to experiencing the sights and history of a place, there is no acceptable substitute for the authentic.  Many tourists will tolerate or even seek out a few must-see gimmicks, yet these showy displays occupy a secondary status to experiencing the truly cultural experiences present in a particular locale.  Indeed, it is the placement of these showy displays and other mass appeal spectacles within the cultural and historical context of a locale that provides greater meaning to them.  For example, while I enjoyed the gaudiness of the Hong Kong light show, the value that I pulled from this experience did not come from my shallow enjoyment of strobe lights moving in sync to an annoyingly catchy tune, but rather from my understanding of this experience as a part of the larger historically and culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong.  At the heart of the rich culture that I experienced during my exploration of Hong Kong is the everyday lives of the people who work and reside here, rather than from extravagant tourist attractions that make a spectacle of history.  Yet, during my first foray into the Pearl River Delta region of China, I found that, unlike Hong Kong, the commoditization of culture as spectacle often obscured any connection with the authentic history I was in search of.  From my experience, I concluded that, in many ways, China is similar to the fake designed bags that permeate the country.  From a distance, one is impressed by its apparent authenticity, but on closer inspection, the mediocre detailing gives it away as a real-fake.

The speed at which China is advancing, razing old structures, and constructing new infrastructure is astounding.  This rapid proliferation of new infrastructure within the expanding Chinese metropolises is motivated by the desire to manufacture spectacle.  China appears intent on creating the illusion of wealth and prominence because it is confident that this image will spur further investment in and growth of their economy.

For the most part the display of designer buildings is impressive as long as you maintain a sensible viewing distance from the structure or remove your glasses so as to remain ignorant of the clumsy construction details.  However, my real complaint regarding the value that the Chinese place on the spectacle of the new is how this value assessment has negatively impacted the preservation, understanding, and appreciation of the role of history in their society.  This dilemma is particularly evident in the response to the mass devastation that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.  With many of China’s historic landmarks either damaged or destroyed, the Chinese were faced with the challenge of how to repair the rift in its history left by what was lost.  Unfortunately, the same technique and value judgment that is placed on the new infrastructure is applied to the restoration of the old.  Therefore, the same poor detailing that is evident in the seam of a curved glass railing of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House is also visible in the questionable mitered brick corner of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Childhood home.

Detailing Blunder in Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

Mitered brick corner in replica of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's childhood home

Apart from the prevalence of painfully amateur architectural details, the critical problem in the restoration of these historic sights is that these efforts appear to be more focused on redesigning or improving these landmarks so that they are more in line with the value that the Chinese place on the new rather than reconstructing them in a way appropriate to the design and age of the original.  For example, while visiting the former site of the historic Panyu Pao Mo garden in the suburb of Guangzhou, I was unpleasantly surprised by the flashing LED light eyes of the life-sized dragon that confronted me.

Needless to say, after two straight weeks full of this kind of spectacle I began to become frustrated and mildly disgusted by what I regarded as a flagrant mockery of China’s rich cultural history.  It was at this point that a comment made by another caused me to question whether my skeptical view was fair.  I realized that I was judging the Chinese’s representation of their history without regard to the impact that the damage to and destruction of many important relics and landmarks of their history during the cultural revolution had on their current attempts to design and construct new buildings and repair damaged landmarks.  As Guy Debord discusses in his work, “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere,” the function of the spectacle is “to bury history in culture.”  So for the Chinese, the spectacle of culture is used to conceal a lack of  physical relics of their history following the Cultural Revolution.  So, while their efforts at restoration may seem pitiful to the critical eye of a western architecture student, one must look at their efforts with a certain degree of leniency and compassion since their actions are merely attempts to repair the unfathomable loss of history that they experienced and to try to recreate something for which little or no records exist.  Therefore, what right do I have to judge their efforts?

– DEM

Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, Authenticity, China, Culture, everyday, Fabric, history, Hong Kong

The Dark Knight of Guangzhou

A hero, a villain, a facilitator, a complexity, a connector; Guangzhou’s Bus Rapid Transit system is all these things. It is the bane of the rich and the automobile enthusiast, eradicating almost half of the formerly 16-lane Zhong Shan Road. Yet it is the savior of those who have no means of transportation, provides a sigh of relief to the sustainable thinkers, and induces wide-eyed wonder for the young aspiring architect. Inspired by one of the world’s most robust public transportation systems located in Bogotá, Columbia, the behemoth spans 29 kilometers with 26 bus stations along its length, as well as bicycle stations, to make even the narrow-alleyed urban villages accessible. This feat was accomplished in just over 5 years.

As I was riding the B2A line of the BRT back in the direction of our hotel located on the outskirts of the city, I was fully expecting to have to hop onto a taxi for the last leg of the trip. My jaw dropped as the bus pulled onto our street and stopped not a hundred yards from the hotel. That’s what 2 Yuan got me. It’s a pity I only just learned about this phenomenal system the night before we left Guangzhou for Zhuhai. Until next time old friend…

When I first think of strategizing the layout of an urban infrastructure, I would probably only think to connect major city nodes that have the most foot traffic in order for the system to be sustainable and operate at maximum efficiency. Although The BRT may have laid its foundations upon that strategy, its reach has spread beyond simply connecting major nodes. By connecting even the currently obscure outreaches of the city, it creates accessibility to those areas. This encourages the business workers of the city center to live in these cheaper areas by eliminating the problem of commute, which in turn attracts parasitic businesses to line these routes, increasing real estate value, and all in all, stimulating economic growth. The infrastructure has evolved from being the parasite to the predator.

The system reminded me of California and its proposal to construct a high-speed railway from Bakersfield to Fremont. Both systems are, or plan to be, running through a lot of “no-man’s lands,” both hoping that this infrastructure will create jobs. California’s mistake however is that it does not establish a connection between two critical masses, being Los Angeles and San Francisco, to get the foot traffic necessary for the economy to develop along the railway. Guangzhou, as is the case with many Chinese cities, already has that critical mass of people in the sheer size of its population.

So how can such an effective, albeit radical, public transportation system come into being in such a short span of time? A strong central government and a loose set of policies definitely expedite the process. In the United States, our lobbyists hold an iron grip on the speed of any form of infrastructural development. It’s ironic really, that our government, by the people and for the people, is coupled with an individualistic mindset that ultimately does not benefit the majority of its population as far as urbanism is concerned. The everyday in the lives of us citizens really boils down to a product, as Henri Lefebvre states in The Everyday and Everydayness, that is not in our control, but in the control of the “managers of the means of production (intellectual, instrumental, scientific).”

So is a strong central government flawless? Of course not. From the outsider’s perspective, I obviously do not experience the pains and struggles that such a system places on its enormous lower class. But in the end, it is more of a matter of a collectivist versus an individualist mentality. The BRT, as I mentioned, was made primarily for the benefit of the poor, and was in fact supported by many automobile industries in China. In LA, the poor silently cry for an equivalent BRT system as the automobile industry continues to lobby for money to be spent on additional lanes to the 405. The BRT is the system of infrastructure that Los Angeles needs, but not the one it deserves right now. Until our lobbyists learn to sacrifice a little for the greater good, our infrastructure can’t be our hero. It’ll remain a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.

– Muhi

Filed under: Automobile, Collectivism, Infrastructural Growth, Infrastructure

The Cost of Culture

While the procession of luxury brands Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Dior had me dreaming of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, or New York City’s Fifth Avenue, it was the man who spat on the sidewalk beside me that roused me back to reality in Shenzhen, China.  As I soon discovered, this experience constituted my first glimpse of the juxtaposition of the raw with the refined that would come to characterize my foray into the Pearl River Delta (PRD).

The contrasting social and economic condition that pervades the PRD is a direct byproduct of the speed at which this region has morphed from farmland into an economic powerhouse.  This rapid pace of development is a double-edged sword, however, that fosters the dramatic growth of metropolises like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, bringing jobs, financial resources, and improved infrastructure to these locales while simultaneously posing a dangerous threat to the cultural legacy of the region.

Traveling through the Pearl River Delta, it became quickly apparent that the Chinese government’s implementation of Central Business Districts (CBDs) within cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou has been instrumental in spurring this transformational momentum.  The premise of the CBD was to manufacture the appearance of wealth and stability in order to attract more wealth to the region in the form of foreign investments.  To achieve this appearance, the Chinese government channeled the necessary funds into constructing and branding a concentrated region in a way that inspired the respect and trust of western investors.   As intended, foreign investors responded to this marketing tactic by becoming interested in the region and investing money in it.  This influx of foreign capital stimulated growth that in turn generated more wealth in the region.

As the success of Shenzhen and Guangzhou illustrates, however, appearances can be dangerously deceiving.  While the allure of big names like Prada, Ferrari, and Koolhaas captivated Western investors, many remained blissfully unaware of the real life struggles of the working-class farmers who dominated the Pearl River Delta a mere thirty years ago.  For the most part, this rural past remains hidden behind this ostentatious façade of wealth.  As the financial capital continued to flow into the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, these cities began to expand beyond the boundaries of the CBDs.  As this occurred, the citizens quickly abandoned their farming and industrial roots for the embrace of the wealth associated with the growing metropolises.  These metropolises then mutated as rapidly as the Central Business Districts that spurred them had been manufactured.  The obsession with money that drives these metropolises was intensified in Shenzhen and Guangzhou by the incredible speed in which wealth was acquired and exchanged, drastically altering a generation of citizens’ ways of life almost overnight.  As Georg Simmel articulates in his work, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,”

“Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominators of all values; irreparably it hallows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, their incomparability.”

While the designer stores which plaster the streets of Shenzhen portray an aura of wealth and sophistication that the metropolis is marketing, the Chanel boutique here could just as easily be the Chanel store in Paris, New York or Beverly Hills.  These high-end chains only reference their own brand and not their position within a specific urban fabric.  Beyond the façade of wealth in Shenzhen and Guangzhou lies the painfully sterile reality that the almost overnight accumulation of wealth has blinded the citizens to the many aspects of their culture and history that are valuable and that make them unique.   The rush to achieve wealth and development has obscured the value and necessity of balancing progress with preserving and, at times, assimilating the cultural attributes of a society which gives it a unique identity.  What is left in the wake of this rapid transformation are periodic reminders of the culture, such as the raw rural mannerisms that are alien to the new face of the mutating metropolis.

View atop a Kaiping Diaolou

It was not until I experienced the no man’s land that still exists between Shenzhen and Guangzhou that I began to comprehend the self-sustaining lifestyle that these mutating metropolises continue to encroach upon.  Here, the undisturbed landscape camouflages the World Heritage protected villages of Kaiping.  The tops of the towering Diaolou houses are the sole indicator of the intricate, western influenced villages that lie beyond.  The Daiolous were built by the villagers as a means of defense against bandits.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the villages were populated by newly wealthy Chinese who returned from working in Europe and the Americas to build homes for their families inspired by Western Architecture.  Walking through these tranquil villages I was captivated by the villagers simple, self-sufficient lifestyle.  This way of life has become foreign to those who populate the metropolis, each contributing a single skill within the highly specialized market economy.  The crude mannerisms have become the sole unfortunate link between the people’s raw past and refined future.  Looking out from atop one of the Daiolou houses the beauty that exists in the simplicity of the village lifestyle made me to question whether the rapid mutation of metropolises in the PRD has caused the urban population to disengage from the value of their former way of life.

– DEM

Filed under: China, Culture, George Simmel, Metropolis, Shenzhen

Road or River?

I suffered my first few near death experiences in a taxicab on the roads of Shenzhen. The white, yellow, solid, and dotted lines seemed like some nice artwork someone had painted on the road. I lost count of the times a car almost turned directly into my passenger door. And as our cab driver swerved in and out of lanes as though weaving a rather elaborate rug, I clenched my hands, bit my lip, and wondered how on earth we were still alive.

As I continued to watch in between gasps of breath and my life flashing before my eyes, I began to notice that the traffic was acting like a fluid river. Like a river, the traffic had no breaks or gaps in the stream. As holes would open, cars would come fill the spots. If someone were turning, cars would simply go around. If the traffic began to be congestion, the cars would start doubling up in lanes or start driving on the shoulder much like a river getting blocked up.

I derived that the reason the cars didn’t hit each other through all their random bold movements was because all of the drivers on the road were extremely aware of each other. For every action a car had, all the cars around it would have a reaction.

The reason there is a heightened sense in all of the drivers is because of the city’s fast growth. The people of Shenzhen have not yet acquired what Simmel in The Metropolis and Modern Life refers to as the quantitative mind of the metropolitan. Their mindsets have not had time yet to evolve from the qualitative emotional village mentality to the calculative metropolitan mentality. The people don’t yet see other people as numbers.

In western metropolitans, the traffic is very orderly so that people have to think less about what other people are doing, in order to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed by their environment, and can focus more on their own every day. However, the people in Shenzhen have a sense of others individuality and are very conscious of other peoples movements and paths.

This difference in mentality can also be seen in the simple way people use their vehicle horns. In a western metropolis, people use their car horns when someone cuts them off or does something out of the order of the road causing their conscious to break from the order and recognize someone else’s individuality. In Shenzhen, people use their horns as an informative tool to let other cars, buses, and bikes know of their position in the flow and causing the other vehicles to recognize their individuality. For example, when merging into a highway, a person from Shenzhen might honk letting the bike in the lane over know that they are now next to them. While in Los Angeles, the bike would honk at the merging car for coming in to close to them.

Though Shenzhen’s new fast growing economy has shown “dominance it has not truly shown a “inconsiderate hardness” that typically couples economic success. Though Shenzhen still holds its qualitative mindset, the upcoming generations may gain the quantitative metropolitan mindset.

 

-Alexis Dirvin

Filed under: AAU, Asia, Car, character, China, Circulation, development, Emotion, individuality, Psyche, Public Transportation, Shenzhen, streets, traffic, Transporation

Pregnant Woman or Road Obstruction?

The injection of anabolic steroids artificially creates an internal bodily environment that dangerously over-exhausts resources to the point where the physical body starts to deteriorate. In the confines of the human body where resources are finite in both quantity and capacity to perform, the major organs such as the kidney take on fatal damage. When the Chinese government injected its designated cities with its own performance-enhancing drugs, vast stretches of vertical architecture popped up like bulging muscles on a human body at inhuman speeds, interconnected by veins that made up a complex network of urban transportation.  But unlike the human body, China seems to be flourishing, economically speaking, without deteriorating. It thrives not only at larger scales of big businesses but at the microscopic level of the man who runs an obscure one-hundred-square-foot snack shop in an obscure alley several blocks away from a major street (something that would never work in less dense, horizontal cities like Los Angeles). The sheer density and quantity of its resources argues that China was actually in dire need of this artificial injection of economic juice.

In cities like Shenzhen, however, significant damage occurs at the social level where the individual seemingly tolerates collective co-existence but in his fundamental actions and mindset displays what at first seems to be a lack of “respect” for other individuals. But is it really a lack of respect or am I just seeing it that way as a westerner accustomed to my pedestrian right of way. I witnessed a pregnant women trying to cross a small street at a green light, having to stop and retreat backwards several times because the oncoming cars would obnoxiously honk their horns and refuse to stop. In order to maintain such a high level of economic efficiency and intensity, a few seconds of pedestrian priority become a luxury that that collective cannot afford. The density of both the people and the built environment does not necessarily equate to an increased awareness and respect for the quality of other’s lives but rather, as Simmel argues, leads to a desensitization of the people brushing and driving past you.

What surprises me most about the pregnant woman is her reaction to the cars honking and driving past her. She is perfectly tolerant. In fact, she doesn’t even “react at all… An incapacity emerges to react to sensations with the appropriate energy.” Simmel notes that the “metropolitan child” develops a “blasé attitude” by which they are not merely tolerant of these situations, but they just simply have no reaction of any kind. It is an accepted way of life. Just as Americans don’t respond to the presence of clean, drinkable tap water at restaurants. The pregnant woman doesn’t raise her hand in fury and confidently demand her right of way as would happen in the States. But rather, she tries to weave through the incoming cars and dangerously make her way through them, while holding up her belly. In the States, such a sight would be so ridiculous that it would be comedic to watch. At the same time, when pedestrians try to cross at a red light, the oncoming drivers are not honking in anger, demanding their right of way, and rolling down their windows to curse and flip off the pedestrians. Rather, they honk and weave through traffic with the same face of reaction-less tolerance.

Is the significance of human life diminished to a dispensable commodity that requires this kind of fast-paced, machine-like social mindset in order to survive? It seems from the actions and expressions of the people that it is not so much that the importance and quality of human life is diminished but more that the importance of economic efficiency is amplified to the point that certain social sacrifices must be made. At the end of the day, the pregnant woman makes her way across the street and carries out the rest of her day, probably running through dozens more cars on her way back home.

 

– DK


 

Filed under: Density, Desensitize, everydayness, pedestrians, Transportation,

[in]accessibility

Westerners tend to pass judgment on the accessibility policies of Asian urban societies.  Coming from a people that has been taught that every single individual must be physically able to participate in any given activity (no matter how likely he is to desire to do so or how his participation in said activity would better society) the Western tendency is to criticize Asia within an ethical domain.

The conditions in Hong Kong are as such that it is unaffordable for the needs of the few [physically handicapped] to trump those of the collective.  Land value is so high that every square centimeter allotted to sidewalk width is cutting millions of dollars out of potential revenues.  Admittedly, I had a problem with this at first, because in my mind the implication of this was that the people of Hong Kong value financial gain over their fellow man.  However, I have come to realize that the issue is more complicated than that.  In addition to having a high earning potential, land in Hong Kong is precious because the city, like so many Asian cities today, is so densely populated.

Central–Mid-levels escalators, Hong Kong

Any opportunity to move travelers in the z direction—that is to lift pedestrians off the streets and onto elevated walkways, or lower them into they subway system (MTR)—means that the street traffic can flow more smoothly.  And in a city like Hong Kong, where the public bus system is so successful, letting the vehicular traffic exist on its own horizontal plane is in everyone’s best interest.  True, the z movement in Hong Kong is not always handicapped accessible.  But without it, and with wider sidewalks and more parking spaces needed, the city would not work the way it does.  Hong Kong is kept functioning by its fast-paced movement and innovative infrastructure (such as the 800 meter Central–Mid-levels escalators that can take a pedestrian across town in twenty minutes), so any effort made to accommodate the handicapped population would render the entire city useless.

So is the integrity of Hong Kong’s policies based on American standards even a valid debate?  When we bring this issue under the ethical umbrella, we as Westerners fail to see the bigger picture.  We are so focused on the way this issue makes us ‘feel’ that we become blind to the facts.  One indisputable truth is that we cannot, in fact, accommodate every single individual within every sector of society; but ADA laws requires us to put forth a great effort, and at huge economic expense.  Moreover, in the United States, it has become commonplace to take legal action against one another for the most frivolous of reasons.  As such, instead of working toward the evolution of the greater good (that is, on the urban scale), architects and developers have adopted a policy of risk management.  This is not to say that having our soap and paper towel dispensers placed at 48 inches off of the floor is compounding our highway congestion, or that requiring less than five pounds of force be needed to operate said fixtures is preventing us from adopting valuable infrastructural mechanisms.  What is true, however, is that ADA ramp and minimum width requirements, to name a few, have prevented the inception of innovation like that which is taking place in Hong Kong.

In America, we tend to employ a strong sense of entitlement.  In spite of the fact that physically handicapped Americans comprise only 8.2 percent of the population, they maintain a great breadth and specificity of ‘rights’.  In our increasingly touchy society, developers working under the heavy threat of lawsuits if they violate these ‘rights’ refuse to take risks that—yes—could possibly fail, but also have the potential to make our cities more vibrant and efficient.  As a result, what doesn’t exist should, and what does exist is static.  Moreover, American entitlement extends to our understanding of space.  Because we have vast amounts of land on which to build, we have developed a pattern of urban sprawl, especially in Los Angeles.  But are we entitled to ‘sprawl’?  Is it in our best interest?

‘Sprawl’ may be partly responsible for our sense of entitlement toward ease of mobility and personal space.  The dense Hong Kong population, compounded with the limited buildable land, has demanded that infrastructure be put in place to get the majority—not the minority—from point a to point b with maximum efficiency; conversely, the reality that we Los Angelinos get in our personal vehicles to go almost anywhere, along with the fact that we can fire up the engine in the car that’s five yards away from us at a moment’s notice, has indoctrinated us with the belief that the complete mobility of the individual—enjoyed independently from that of our fellow man—is the best way of life.  But are we completely and independently mobile?  Or are we in reality slaves to the traffic, letting the threat of freeway congestion make our decisions for us.  Nevertheless, the way Los Angeles infrastructure and programmatic layout has been established, we do in fact have no other choice, so the entitled approach to accessibility holds steadfast.

The unilateral way that Westerners understand Asian accessibility is therefore inadequate in and of itself.  As outsiders, we are not in a position to point fingers; inaccessibility is not an ethical issue, as we might want it to be, but a necessary evil.  There is no question that accessibility is a dilemma in Hong Kong, but before we leverage heavy criticism we must realize that it is a Hong Konger problem, not an American one, and that Hong Kongers can just as easily criticize us for our infamous traffic congestion.  In Hong Kong, oneself is his primary means of mobility, whereas in Los Angeles (and not all but most other American cities) one’s car is.  Thus, if we cannot relate to mobility of the average person, we should not pass judgment on that of the handicapped person either.

R.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Rubbing Shoulders with an LA Princess

As a thorough bred Angeleno, I have been conditioned to believe that making unintentional physical contact with a stranger is a serious offense if apologies are not exchanged. If I am walking along the luxuriously wide streets of Los Angeles, it is relatively easy to visually determine a path of travel that lets me avoid rubbing shoulders with passerby. Maintaining one’s distance is an unspoken but unanimously accepted code of conduct. Any occasional intrusion of a stranger’s path or brief touch may be forgiven by a “pardon me,” but on the whole, one can usually walk several city blocks and remain sterile in LA. I took these rules as commonplace, but I quickly learned in Hong Kong that maintaining one’s personal space is far from a universal practice. For the first days during my stay in Hong Kong, I muttered “sorry” and “excuse me” whenever I brushed arms or shoulders with fellow pedestrians (which, incidentally, happened quite frequently), but I was usually met with confused or blank expressions. I considered a language barrier to be part of the issue, but the sheer lack of effort made by the locals to return any apology made me think differently.

Within a population-dense city, physical contact is naturally bound to occur frequently. In that sense, the elimination of apology in the case of contact seems logical and highly convenient in a place especially like Hong Kong. If avoiding contact is the etiquette for walking the sidewalks of LA, than a mutual understanding that space is limited seems to be the established attitude for Hong Kong natives. Touch is inevitable and an ephemeral aspect of the city, and resultantly, it is an acceptable social condition.

The loose mentality that Hong Kong people hold toward keeping personal space can also be felt within the architecture of the city. The streets that present opportunities for contact between strangers visually reveal this attitude. The entrances of the small shops of the older Hong Kong fabric meet and readily blend into sidewalks. The demarcation between neighboring vendors is informal and often vague. Passerby can feel the cold air of AC units blowing into the street, and merchandise is displayed within an arm’s length away. The stacking of brightly lit shop signs and advertisements looks just as chaotic as people moving in the street. It is a spectacle to behold.

Being such a visually inclined person, feeling the difference between LA and Hong Kong was bizarre. The physical disconnect that I grew up with in LA undoubtedly estranged me, and Hong Kong felt a world’s away. Having someone always next to you was an unshakably haunting thought, but I also realized how equally problematic the LA alternative was. These two conditions are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but their effects on man are surprisingly the same. Desensitization takes place. In The Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel describes the phenomenon as follows: “the nerves find in the refusal to react to their stimulation the last possibility of accommodating to the contents and forms of metropolitan life” (415). Man tolerates his surroundings and environmental conditions to live another day. A few awkward touches here and there, but life goes on.

♥Julia K.

Filed under: Hong Kong, Interaction, Los Angeles, Sensory

The Shackles of Freedom

In the middle of Shenzhen’s central business district, one can find children riding their tricycles, neighbors enjoying a game of badminton and villagers of all ages socializing in a public plaza. Though busy boulevards and skyscrapers surround the Huang Gang village, this community can still exist as an urban village because the landowners are resisting financial pressure from the government. As a result, rows of generic high-towers become the backdrop for a working class community. Of the new developments just outside the village, four prominent towers now stand on land that was once a portion of Huang Gang village because several villagers took the liberty to sell their land to the government. There is not a trace of 7-story apartments to signify the neighborhood that used to reside there or the public sphere that allowed people to gather. Instead these new buildings are engulfed in the larger mechanism around it.

The built environment is a reflection of people’s personal agendas. Their freedom of individuality often times translates to the pursuit of wealth. So whether it is to maintain the urban village in order to receive constant rent payment or to sell land to the government, landowners have the freedom to determine the destiny of their land. In turn, they are also unconsciously constructing the social conditions that people dwell in.

Along the dried river front in Xiao Zhou village of Guangzhou, students set up their outdoor painting studios and senior villagers congregate to play cards. These everyday activities are remnants of the peaceful artist community, but traditional vernacular that once encouraged these cultural activities has gradually been reconstructed in succession by landowners who wish to profit from rent collection. Singular decisions to redevelop personal property have amounted to the destruction of old town fabric.

Aside from the pursuit of wealth, freedom of individuality can also mean the pursuit of uniqueness and irreplaceability in order for one to distinguish him/herself from one another.  Some artists who were initially attracted to the quiet atmosphere of Xiao Zhou village slowly took flight in search of inspiration elsewhere, while other artists made efforts to sustain original buildings. Tucked away in narrow alleys are shops and cafes that preserved architectural heritage and uniqueness within authenticity.

Wooden Door Cafe (Xiao Zhou Village, Guangzhou)

Similarly, villagers of Nan She village in Dongguan protected their cultural inheritance from the Song, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Senior citizens’ emotional and cultural attachment to architectural productions from the past led to preservation of five hundred year old residences and ancestral homes. Though villagers had the liberty to refurbish their homes, almost everyone chose to leave their homes in original conditions or simply moved away from the village, leaving ancient ruins behind. As a collective, their traditions have remained unique and irreplaceable for centuries, so much so that the government placed the village under strict preservation in 2005.

Nan She Village, Dongguan

Recently, Vice President Biden mentioned in an article in the New York Times that China’s people aspire towards fundamental rights. But these examples of social and architectural constructions within the villages of Huang Gang, Xiao Zhou and Nan She are evident of a kind of liberty that goes beyond fundamental rights. Individuals are able to exercise the freedom to pursue wealth and the freedom to be irreplaceable. It has been said that when Chinese people look forward, they are looking toward money. (Coincidently, the word forward and money have the same pronunciation in Mandarin.) As people in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Dongguan transform the destiny of their land, there is always more to be done to keep up with China’s rapid developments. This cycle of building and rebuilding puts pressure on individuals who utilize their freedom to strive for money. Perhaps those who move beyond the sole desire to amass wealth are closer to breaking free from the shackles of freedom.

angie

Filed under: Freedom, individuality, Shenzhen, Urban Village, ,

Road to Individualism?

Collectivism emphasizes the interdependence of people in some collective group and the priority of group goals over individual goals. In the Chinese tradition, collectivism has long meant that an individual does not work to accumulate wealth for himself but rather for his family and for the community. However, as China begins to advance in its developments, it has also seemingly taken a more individualistic road towards its future. The government has slowly begun to reduce its grip on social and collectivist processes and new policies aid in creating a society in which capitalism serves as a leading social value such that personal wealth is becoming increasingly more important than other social values.

As Simmel notes in his essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and the society. For him, the greatest dilemma of modern society is that it frees individuals from historic and traditional bonds for greater individual freedom, yet at the same time, individuals are also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. In big cities such as Hong Kong, we are constantly bombarded with an inflation of external and internal sensory stimulus: from the sweaty arm of a stranger that brushes against you as you cross the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, to the overwhelming visual stimulation of signage that covers the view of the sky in Causeway Bay. The metropolis creates rapid crowding of changing images and sharp discontinuity in a single glance that fosters a situation where one must buffer him/herself from a constantly changing environment. This phenomenon can easily be illustrated with the subway scenes of Hong Kong, even though there seems to be little to no sense of personal space, no one seems to be bothered by the fact that there will always be someone brushing against them as they pass by. People simply sit quietly and stay to themselves on the subway, listening to music or playing with their smart phones. Everyone seems to be immersed in their own world: disengaged and isolated, tuned out to their bustling external environment.  And in turn, this protection manifests itself in the rise of logic and intellect where social interactions become rational and instrumental, with little considerations to emotional and personal concerns. Everything in the city becomes measurable and calculated; qualitative value is reduced to quantitative. Things therefore have no intrinsic value and are instead measured by the external objective value of money, time and power, yielding what Simmel calls “blasé”, a superficial and indifferent mentality to the people living within it.

HK subway: immersed in their own world

This mentality is also manifested in the built environment around these cities. Like the urban village, Huang Gang, in Shenzhen, we learnt that the villagers decided to tear down all the old village houses to construct new 5 to 6 storey buildings with commercial spaces located at the bottom, so that they can rent them out to different tenants for greater revenue. Little of the old fabric was maintained, and instead is replaced with generic looking low-rise village buildings, commercialized to maximize profit. Another example of this mentality is visible through the restoration efforts of the BaoMo Garden in Panyu. Described as “one of the new top eight sights in Panyu” on its information pamphlet, this “National class AAAA scenic spot” has been restored to the point where nothing seemed authentic anymore. In fact, it almost felt very theme park-like – with traditional Chinese music playing through the speakers located everywhere in the garden, the out-of-place European street lamps, the flashing light bulb eyes for the stone dragons that spurt water out of their mouths, and the vendors that tried to sell you souvenirs and fans at every turn of the corner – everything about the place was so marketed and commercialized that it seems to have somewhat lost its sense of cultural heritage.

However, in spite of all these consequences of individualism, there are still efforts, such as the Urban-Tulou by Urbanus and the “Di Wu Yuan” housing development by Vanke, made to reinstate the sense of collectiveness within our society. These projects are designed to help preserve community spirit among low-income families by inducing greater opportunities for social interaction through the attention paid to the design of their public spaces. According to Urbanus themselves, the Urban-Tulou project also explored ways to “stitch the tulou within the existing fabric of the city”.  This idea can be illustrated in the way the project comes in contact with the ground plane – by lifting the housing units on the first floor to free the ground floor for through-access commercial uses, it allows the spaces to be accessible to both the residents of the project as well as the community around it; expanding the sense of collectiveness to the greater community. It is always nice to see projects such as these that are made to induce collectivism within a seemingly individualistic modern society where everyone is preoccupied with work and with the accumulation of personal wealth. One can only hope that the idea of collectivism in China will not be left behind at the expense of the accumulation of wealth, and that more projects with an agenda on community spirit will be developed in the future to counter-balance the forces of individualism.

Grandparents and children playing in the parks of Di Wu Yuan

– Jeanette

Filed under: Collectivism, community, development, individuality, Materiality

SHENZHEN: Chasing the Chinese Dream

As a fellow Hong Kong citizen, we view Shenzhen as the “Hong Kong want to be” and never realized that Shenzhen have already surpass Hong Kong economically. My prejudice slightly changed after arriving in Shenzhen after three years hoping that this will change my stereotypical thinking. But unfortunately Shenzhen SEZ (Special Economic Zone) was a disappointment after the four days excursion.

The moment we cross the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, I felt the emotional detachment towards the city. I agree that the rapid growth of Shenzhen is fascinating; I know that economically they are surpassing many other cities but I cannot seem to find their heritage and identity. Twenty years ago Shenzhen was covered with farmlands with mostly local farmers.  Twenty years later it is renamed the “Special Economic Zone” and became an immigration hub within the China province. The authentic Shenzhen locals will soon extinct and demolish by the materialism that drives this experimental city. Some might argue that Shenzhen’s heritage and history is their rapid growth, and they can be remembered as one of most successful Special Economic Zones. In comparison, Hong Kong began as a fisherman’s wharf and through Opium War and World War II it is shaped to be the way it is today. Hong Kong was once a British colony and was heavily influenced by the western world. After the 1997’s handover to China, it was renamed Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) under the Basic Law. The emotional attachment towards Hong Kong will never change because of its heritage and history as a city.

In Simmel’s article “The Metropolis and mental Life” he stated, “Money is concerned only with what is common to all: it ask for exchange value, it reduces all quality and individuality to the question: How much?” Shenzhen not only focuses on the speed of economic growth but transforming Chinese’s materialistic values. Social status became their priority and individualism ruled their minds. Louis Vitton and Gucci handbags became their way of expressing their wealth and class; purchasing Hong Kong real estate became their hobbies. Shenzhen have simply brainwashed most Chinese that money can buy happiness. Simmel later noted, “Cities are first of all, seats of the highest economic division of labor.” In contrast to the American dream during gold rush where Chinese people are seeking for better lives in California.  Shenzhen is the “Chinese dream” where many local Chinese immigrate to Shenzhen for better lives, and to seek opportunities to become wealthy. In their minds, Shenzhen is an experimental city that promises success and wealth and have already surpass Hong Kong to become the highest GDP in China.

Heritage cannot be reproduced, history cannot be rewritten. Shenzhen can only be remembered as Deng Xiao Ping’s experimental master piece, a city that transformed from farmlands to a special economic zone in two decades. Shenzhen will never be emotional attached because most history is wiped out by the growth and development. Shenzhen will only be remembered as the Chinese Dream that once the Chinese seek for wealth and better living.

AY

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , ,

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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