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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Beauty is Only Skin Deep

Within the city of Zhongshan, a city of six million people in the Pearl River Delta region of China, the powers that be have refurbished Sun Wen Xi Road—formerly a deteriorating patch of old urban fabric—and turned it into a lively, hip shopping area.  But has it truly been renovated?

Shoppers enjoy all of the features of trendy new malls—a different pop song screaming from each storefront, the promise of stylish brands within, ice-cold air conditioning blasting out of doorways—and the whole assembly is appropriately packed behind a front elevation resembling something much like a Caruso project; it is quaint, pseudo-traditional, and most importantly clean.  However, it takes a mere twenty steps down one of the now discrete inlets that lead into the depths of the old fabric to find that the old is still very much in existence.

Meanwhile, understanding how the conditions of Sun Wen Xi Road relate to skin comes down to an understanding of scale.  On the immediate human scale, the stucco walls that face the road compose a skin, in the traditional sense of the word.  However, take a step back, and the row of store lining said road becomes the skin, but now in a more conceptual way.

The "Beautiful"

As such, the façade lining Sun Wen Xi Road is not in fact the pastel colored stucco with white accents, but the stores themselves; it is merely a several-meter thick habitable skin.  So habitable, in fact, that it can accommodate activity.  So what is this heavy coat hiding?  Just beyond the flash is a similarly programmed street of retail, however these shops are quite different.  In fact, one might even call these stores ‘shady,’ or even ‘risqué.’  These shops, which are not unusual to China, sell things like imitation watches, handbags, and clothing items, in addition to less refined items such as cheap lingerie (see Sun Wen Xi Road plan).  In one instance, a vendor in a passageway (which I may call the ‘intermediate zone’) even goes so far as to adopt the logo and signage of the American eyeglass retailer LensCrafters, despite the fact that his store was merely

LensCrafters

a wall hung with cheap imitations.  Looking up and seeing that more than one person has hung his laundry out to dry over the corridor between storefronts (which, by the way, is significantly narrower than the refurbished section) makes it apparent that these spaces are still very much occupied. The implication of this is that the less refined program primarily serves the immediate residents, while the ‘freshly applied’ skin serves those in a different class level.

So what does this mean?  Is the city of Zhongshan trying to hide the true nature of its urbanism, or is it simply trying to make a buck?  Was this renovation project meant to draw visitors to the area, or did they rebuild Sun Wen Xi Road in hopes that it will bring up the local culture?  And finally, if this is the case, is it a valid strategy?  Perhaps people do not actually want to see a thin veil over the truth, but do in fact want to see the substance of a city which is clearly composed of layers of integrated program, as well as a complex history neither of which are visible through the mundane façade.

 

R.

Sun Wen Xi Rd. plan

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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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