USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Age of Accessibility and Notion of Authenticity

Advancement of technology and the great sense of virtual connectivity, secured by the Internet, have seemingly brought everything within our reach.  You no longer need to go to the Louvre museum to see Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.  You could simply go online and look at a virtual copy of it.  You can even print out a high quality picture of it and hang it up in your living room if you want.  Technology has influenced the daily life of average people and has provided households with tools that facilitate access and connectivity.  These advancements have dramatically changed our culture.  The fact that an average person could go online and connect to almost anywhere in the globe, access a load of information, and even add information and his/her interpretation to the pool of data online, really blurs the ideas of authenticity of ideas and information.  Also, the fact that most common people have access to tools that allow for production and reproduction of works of art redefines issues of copyright.  Downloading movies and music off the Internet is an example of that.  Nowadays many people have the capability of illegally downloading almost any songs or recently released films.  So issues of copyright start to become about refraining from an activity that you otherwise, with a little bit of effort, have the capacity of doing.  Again this is an outcome of providing average people with efficient and easy-to-use tools at their disposal.  But what one might find intriguing is the extent to which reproduction of an artwork diminishes the value of the artifact.  Also, how accurately could one describe what is fake or what is real?  Is copied article or a fake-real object without merit? 

ImageDafen village, in Shenzhen China, is a great phenomenon to study.  This community is mainly made up of artists whose occupations are replicating famous paintings of artists around the world, especially westerners.  Looking at classical western art the value of the artifact was embedded in accurately and realistically depicting the subject matter and in doing so creating your own style and technique.  In case of modern art the value of the work is understood in terms of the message the artist is trying to convey through the piece and, in many cases, the process of making that piece starts to have more importance than the final outcome.  In the contrary to western art, what Dafen village artists are doing is not about originality of the artwork or the inserted message.  Their skill lays in their astonishing ability to replicate.  This is what distinctively sets western and Dafen village artists apart.  One could argue that original artists of some of the reproduced paintings you would see in the village perhaps could not have replicated their work as accurately as these community based artists. An idea that really appealed to me is the way these local artists go about dealing with the issue of copyright.  The Dafen village artists are all trained to copy a certain style or even a certain element in a painting (the eyes, the beard, etc.).  So when producing a painting a number of these artists participate at the same time each drawing only a portion of the piece.  The fact that the painting is reproduced through collaboration of multiple artists and not just one person is a loophole in dealing with copyright issues.  The works of these artists really start to question the notion of authenticity and copyright.

According to Walter Benjamin’s essay The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction “reproduction of work of art jeopardizes its authenticity and authority”. But at the same time Dafen artists do not mechanically reproduce these famous artworks.  The fact that these articles are painted by hand part of the painter’s soul gets engrained in the object through the process.  In a way, the larger effect of the reproduced art in Dafen village is that it dilutes the halo of inviolability that surrounds the iconic artworks of our time, such as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or Claude Monet’s Water Lilies.  In other words, it makes art more accessible to public and great pieces of art are no longer that untouchable mystery.  I tend to agree with Mr. Benjamin when he said “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element:  its presence in time and space.” Yet what lends value to reproduced paintings of Dafen village is not their originality or authenticity but the mastery of these artists at the art of non-mechanical flawless duplication.




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Dafen Village Artist

Dafen Village Artist

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“Made in China”

“Made in China”

Urban Hive & Guangzhou Opera House

The juxtaposition of the images of the Urban Hive commercial tower by In-Cheurl Kim and the Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid would most likely draw untrained eyes initially toward the latter. The playful form of the opera house is a radical accomplishment of structure and space that is framed to compositional perfection. But what is impossible to notice from the beautifully lit and digitally enhanced images online is the quality of its detail and construction. Blatantly smeared paint on the glass rail panels and large unsmoothed spots of plaster left over by the hands of rushed and unskilled labor show clearly how China has been constructing its architecture. Meanwhile, the Urban Hive tower, can be read as repetitive or even “boring” at the superficial level with its uniformly porous exterior; however, this seemingly less interesting form is actually an extroverted structural skin constructed in a way that the Chinese would not be able accomplish at the speed at which it is developing. It is a 230 foot tall concrete skin that is almost entirely cast in place. Kim is highly respected among Korean architects for taking this route instead of using pre-cast modules which would have obviously been the more economical, time-efficient, easily adjustable method for such a repetitive skin pattern.

Cast-in-place concrete

And yet it is possible for the building to be constructed with such a high level of quality because the nation has matured over time enough in its development to come to the conclusion that quality has some kind of desired significance. Regardless of its benefits in the long-term strategy of growth and development, the nation seems to have recognized the significance of producing quality at the cost of reducing quantity in building construction.

This kind of quality in building construction in Korean cities is apparent throughout the city at the urban level. Regardless of the kind and degree of vibrancy at the pedestrian level compared to Chinese cities, streets in Korean cities are significantly cleaner and greener even though some are much older than those of many Chinese cities. It is not simply a difference in the amount and density of shoes that have stepped on a given square meter of land, but rather everything from the quality of the layout of pavers to the absence of trash and drops of saliva. These clean streets are decorated with sufficient and well-maintained greenery that make all its wide boulevards psychologically wider by giving it visual breathing room.

Ultimately, this pursuit of quality seems to come from the country’s age. Korea is at an age that is still young enough to be expanding and developing at a rapid pace like many Chinese cities, but has, at the same time, enough years of experience and trials under its belt to pursue and understand the importance of a quality life and society. This maturity culminates beautifully in the recently renewed and revitalized Cheonggyecheon River at the heart of Downtown Seoul.

Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, Korea

It is a stream decorated with stones and gentle green that flows through a contrasting sectional frame of skyscraping steel and concrete. Its specific direction of “Design” and decoration can be argued but it is unquestionably a widely used public space for the community that is even used during business hours because of its strategic location in between a long stretch of commercial high-rises. A city that is willing to spend a hefty 386 billion Korean dollars to implement such urban spaces simply for free and unmitigated public enjoyment (and not commercial gain), is a city that has matured enough to afford the money, time and political will to do so.

But after three years of careful constructing the Urban Hive, the equivalent Chinese counterparts would have designed and constructed dozens more. Is the quality of smooth plaster and even paint worth the sacrifice of building dozens more projects generating money, advancing infrastructure and widening the availability of demanded program? Spending just two months in China has lead me to a kind of calculated tolerance towards this idea of quantity over quality in growth. While the westerner might see “quality” in a single program within the boundaries of a single building, perhaps the Chinese find “quality” in the sheer density and availability of an incredibly wide plethora of programs all spread out, but accessible by intelligent infrastructure.

Intersection with seven multi-story indoor malls, restaurants, and three subway lines

While we look down at the singular quality of products that are “Made in China,” we fail to realize the sheer quantity and widespread availability of goods they produce and provide worldwide. In fact, China has managed to accomplish this feat in a mere few decades of rapid development. We can only begin to imagine where the country will be in the decades to come.

– Daniel

Filed under: building, China, construction, Facade, Infrastructure, Korea, Program, Uncategorized

The Afterlife of Architectural Icons

The chance to host an Olympic Games or a World Exposition is not only an honor, but also an important face-saving opportunity for the host country and city.  The global media coverage of these international spectacles gives the host the perfect platform to market themselves to the world.  For China, hosting both an Olympic Games and a World Expo within a two-year period offered an unprecedented strategic opportunity for the Chinese Government to alter past negative conceptions of China and prove to the World that they were a major player in the world economic market.   Therefore, China was determined to make these events as spectacular as possible using the physical structures constructed to house these events as essential elements of this effort to impress.  Although I came to China a year too late to share in the excitement of the Shanghai World Exposition and almost four years too late to take in the spectacle of the Beijing Olympics, it is impossible to overlook the many remnants of these events in both cities. From the airport signs, that welcome foreign tourists in English and that still point towards the sites of the former Expo or Olympic Sites, to the emblems of the events tattooed upon the sides of buildings, to the bars who serve beer in mugs etched with the Olympic rings and the words “Beijing 2008,” it is impossible to escape the reminders of these impressive, yet temporal events.

In China, there exists an intense and uncanny sentimentalism over the hosting of the Olympics and the Expo that I have not often encountered within the constantly morphing Chinese urban environment.  One cannot fault the Chinese for their pride in hosting such global events, especially when you consider the initiative it took them to construct entire infrastructural systems almost from scratch in order to accommodate the millions of tourists that would flock to take in the festivities in both cities.  For example, while Shanghai added a new airport terminal and expanded several metro lines, Beijing constructed twelve of its fourteen metro lines within the past ten years among other things to prepare for the event.   However with just as much money invested in the creation of iconic buildings to brand the spectacles as on the necessary infrastructure to support them, I question whether the afterlife of the iconic structures will ever amount to more than empty monuments that serve as reminders of the brief and increasingly distant spectacle for which they were erected. Acknowledging that all eyes would be on the venues hosting the Olympics and the World Expo, the Chinese utilized eye-catching architecture to brand Beijing and Shanghai as innovative global cities.  Ironically the economic burden of constructing these super-sized arenas and display facilities coupled with the short-lived use of such structures rendered them ill suited to transition to be a useful component of the urban landscape once the event that spurred them has concluded.  Thus, although considerable effort was expended to construct structures that would awe its viewers, insignificant thought was given to how the structure would be used once the event for which it was constructed had ended.

Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium (The Bird's Nest)

As an architecture student it is easy to get excited about seeing the work of a starchitect firsthand, so when I had the opportunity to visit Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium – popularly referred to as “The Bird’s Nest” – my anticipation level was high.  As spectacular as it was to see this mega-structure illuminated at night, the few pictures I took were enough to cement my memory of the project’s physical splendor.  Other than marketing tours of the 80,000 vacant seats within the arena and housing an overpriced Olympic souvenir shop, the Bird’s Nest remains stagnant and without a purpose.  At one time, a plan existed to convert the top tiers of the stadium into a venue for shops and restaurants and to preserve the lower levels as a soccer stadium and an occasional concert venue.  Unfortunately, this plan never materialized, and the impossibility of filling 80,000 seats deterred any sports team from anchoring activity within the arena.  As a result, Beijing has been left with no choice but to capitalize on the minimal profit they can make by marketing this pricey white elephant as a tourist attraction.

Exposition Boulevard one year after the Shanghai World Expo

In Shanghai, most of the pavilions of the World Expo were razed after the conclusion of the Expo in accordance with the World Exposition regulations.  A few structures, however, remain. These structures, which are deserted and almost completely fenced off, serve as eerie reminders of what the site once was.  Boarded windows, closed fast food restaurants, and vacated transportation hubs that eased the movement of the participants through the Expo, are painful reminders that this area, which once had a purpose, no longer has one.  Even the multi-level Exposition Boulevard that once served as the park’s main thoroughfare has lost its purpose, it remains fenced off like the majority of the structures remaining on the site, forcing the few remaining tourists to walk alongside, rather than on it.   However, unlike Beijing, plans at least are underway to reuse the few structures that remain.  For example, the Chinese pavilion has re-opened as a museum to Chinese Heritage, and the Shanghai Cultural Arena has recently been renamed the Mercedes Benz Arena, hosting numerous concerts and shows since the close of the Expo.  There are also plans to build a new museum on the site that will pay tribute to past World Expositions.  Nevertheless, this fragmented but positive transition is overshadowed by the vast amounts of open land left in the Expo’s wake.  Apart from the weeds that have sprouted up behind the fences that demarcate the vacant lots, the area has not changed since the Pavilions were dismantled.

The failure to use these iconic structures in a meaningful way or to develop the empty lots left in the wake of these events has a trickle-down negative effect on the businesses, schools, and residents of the area.  When these icons sit stagnant, so too do all the spaces and businesses that parasitically depend on them to make a profit and thrive.   In Shanghai, the Shanghai Expo provided the Chinese government with the opportunity and impetus to displace the harmful industrial pollution of the Jiangnan Shipyard that formerly occupied the Expo site.  In so doing, however, it also displaced almost 18,000 residents, only to have the land that once housed them remain empty a year after the World Exposition festivities have ended and no concrete plan for the utilization of the area have been made public.  Regardless of the moral issues I may have about this forced government relocation, the displacement of these citizens came at an enormous economic cost to the city of Shanghai.   Shanghai must now depend on the sale of these vacated properties in order to recoup their loses. The fenced-off restaurants, vacated ticket booths lines, and partially dismantled elevated walkways that mar the barren site are the last faint hints of the once vibrant Exposition. The memory of what these grounds once were will continue to plague these sites until a new function or structure fills its place, invigorating the site and erasing the memory of these white elephant icons.

Partially dismantled elevated walkways one year after the Shanghai World Expo

The Iconic Buildings constructed for the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Exposition impressed the image-focused global media. However, reflecting upon the effect that the Olympics had on Beijing and that the World Exposition had on Shanghai, it appears that after these festivities have come to a close, the sites that hosted these spectacles are the only area of the city that has trouble acclimating to everyday life.  The problem is that these structures and ceremonial spaces are far from the everyday, they represent a crowning moment of achievement in China’s face-saving history.  It is ironic that these spaces that successfully marketed China as a key player in the global economy now are one of the only places in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai that sit stagnant.  I guess that means that these White Elephants fulfilled their purpose, but at the same time I wonder if all the money put into them was worth it for a fleeting moment of fame.  I would argue that it is the least glamorous and rarely discussed infrastructural advancements that were made in preparation for these events that will ultimately prove to have the most profound and positive effect on the everyday life of the residents of these cities in the future.  The lasting, albeit less publicized, legacy of the robust transportation network – airports, roads, trains and subways — has the potential to stimulate the future progression of these cities so much more than the impact of the stationary icons that initially symbolized these events.


Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, China, olympic bird nest, Shanghai Expo 2010

HSBC Headquarters

Though 26 years old, the HSBC headquarters, designed by Norman Foster and Arup, remains quite unique and cutting edge in its structural design. It lacks the typical interior columns of most high rises, relying instead on a series of suspension trusses which the floors hang off of, allowing for an open floor plan throughout the building, a 40 meter tall atrium, as well as the building’s urban move: a virtually column-free ground floor that allows the public to move freely underneath. Today, the space is occupied every sunday by the migrant workers of Hong Kong.

– Muhi

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Horizontal Skyscraper / Vanke HQ by Steven Holl

A reinterpretation on the vertical skyscraper typology, the horizontal skyscraper seeks integrate urban landscape into a skycraper’s program by lifting the program above the ground plane. A formal manipulation on the vertical columns not only change the building formally, but it also seeks to address certain views for the users.

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Life Beneath the Asphalt

Too often times do we associate the act of designing to simply an object and overlook the fact that it is the spaces between the individual objects that begin to shape our experiences. The city essentially is not object oriented in the scale of architecture, but functions as a collective whole with emphasis on the relationships between the various components within it, creating an urban narrative that gives meaning to its people. The existence of public open spaces therefore becomes an important component in stitching the city together and helping it function as a collective whole. One aspect of public open space can be found through the use of landscaped pedestrian walkways within the dense urban context.

Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, discussed in his essay Politics, Power, Cities, the importance of public spaces as an urban equalizer, “In public spaces people meet as equals, stripped bare of their social hierarchies”.  Public pedestrian spaces such as, parks, waterfronts, and promenades are all means to a more inclusive and in turn more collective society. These spaces show respect for human dignity regardless of the level of economic development of a society, and begin to compensate for inequality in other realms. The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul is a successful case demonstrating how public green spaces have helped change the quality of life of its inhabitants.  Contrary to its current state, during the early fifties, the Cheonggyecheon stream was a terribly filthy, trash-filled waterway when Korea was just beginning to run the course of industrialization.  The stream became so deteriorated that the Korean government had the Cheonggyecheon covered up with concrete in 1958, and ten years later an elevated highway was built over the concrete in order to relieve traffic congestion in the city. For half a century, a dark tunnel of crumbling concrete encased more than three miles of a placid stream that bisects the bustling city, until former Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak decided to liberate the Cheonggyecheon from its dark sheath and revert it back into a stream with green pedestrian corridors surrounding the exposed waters. Today, it has become one of the few places in downtown Seoul where all the citizens of the city can congregate together, you will find children playing with their parents, young couples strolling hand-in-hand, the elderly sitting on the park benches, and even the rich business elite eating lunch in the shade underneath one of the bridges. The stream has not only become a pedestrian space, but also a recreational space, a place for all the citizens of Seoul to enjoy.

However, that is not to say the urban restoration of Cheonggyecheon came easily and without criticisms. The approximate cost for the restoration project was a whopping 384 million USD. It was a major undertaking as not only did they have to remove the highway, but also after years of neglect and development the original stream was nearly dried out – 120,000 tons of water had to be pumped in annually from the Han River, its tributaries, and the groundwater from subways in order to maintain its current state. In addition, there were also tremendous efforts made to compromise with the existing conditions, which involved hundreds of meetings with businesses and residents over a period of two years. The main criticism the project received early on was that it was expensive and an “inefficient” form of urban renewal, because open spaces are essentially not programmed in the architectural sense, cost money to maintain, and have no direct revenue – all values that are deemed inefficient. However, is urbanism only about efficiency? And though it is important, does it have to be defined by completely optimizing efficiency? Quoting Yi, our professor in Seoul, “a city is not only about the performance, but also about the narrative. Performance is only functional, while narrative gives the city meaning”. As an urban equalizer, the Cheonggyecheon does bring about diversity and a greater sense of community for the people of Seoul to work towards a more collective society. One cannot argue the fact that after the Cheonggyecheon restoration project it has not increased the quality of life of its citizens as well as marketed the city of Seoul to the world, as it has become one of the signature landmarks of Seoul that is enjoyed by people of all ages as well as races.

Cheongyecheon stream: a place for people of all ages – a grandfather playing in the stream with his granddaughter

Cheongyecheon: Before and After Comparison

Jeanette C.

Filed under: Collectivism, Landscape, narrative, ,

Seoul National University Museum of Art_OMA

Seoul National University Gallery_OMA

The form of the Seoul National University Museum of Art is influenced by the desire to physically connect the community to the University.  Situated adjacent to the main entrance of the campus, the museum creates a node for SNU students and the surrounding community to interact.  A pedestrian thoroughfare that links the campus to the community cuts into the side and underbelly of the mass defining the museum’s large cantilever. The cantilevered mass is composed of a steel truss shell that bears upon a central concrete core.  This system gives the illusion that the cantilevered steel mass is floating, defining the large public space over which it extends.  The museum’s interior programs are organized to accommodate the exterior cut of the pedestrian thoroughfare.  Thus, the auditorium and lecture hall spaces are strategically placed to take advantage of the cantilever’s sloped underbelly, utilizing this incline to define the seating rake. The concrete core encompasses the central circulation spiral and library.  All of the various programs are connected and interact within this central axis.  The porosity of the central core allows one activity to flow into the next without the limitation of doors. Together, the cut of the pedestrian thoroughfare and the structure that accommodates the cantilevered form define the space both inside and outside of the museum, creating a seamless procession  of circulation and program.


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The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



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