USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Failure, and the City

Throughout many parts of rapidly developing China remarkable juxtapositions exists. It is not in the least bit uncommon to see wealth, right next to poverty. Or is it uncommon to observe beautiful natural landscapes, interjected with mechanized industrial complexes. However, in Shenzhen there exists a particular juxtaposition, that when carefully examined, could provide deep insights into the way that, architects, planners, and urbanists think about the city. One instance of the juxtaposition is typically a tight aggregation of small buildings reaching five to six stories in height that spreads over, what would be three to four city blocks. Within this instance, the streets are full of people gathering in multitudes of shops and restaurants. Small businesses line the streets, and vendors enthusiastically sell anything from clothes and food to furniture. However, in this instance forms of oppression also exist, prostitution and drug abuse among others are evident. Furthermore, sanitation and other infrastructure components are often lacking quality in this instance. The other instance occurs often times just on the other side of a street of the first. It is typically defined by newly constructed towers in a controlled complex. The complexes often provide resources such as educational facilities for young children or facilities for leisure such as restaurants. The former instance typically is identified as an urban village while the latter is one of the common copies of new Chinese developments.

The insights that can be gained from these two instances arise not from their individual qualities but instead from circumstances of their creation. The Urban villages exist as a combination of residual policies left from the communist organization of China, and market demands created by the wave of urbanization. The borders of the urban village are determined through a governmental process where negotiations are made between villagers and the provincial government. The negotiations result in the former agricultural land of the villages being exchanged with the government for compensation. The resulting islands of land owned by the villagers after some time become surrounded by the city. The villagers often take advantage of the opportunity this creates by building apartments or commercial space that are then leased, which provides income for the villagers. The villager’s right to develop their property usually results in what is typically known as an urban village. Subsequently, government or a developer becomes reengaged and negotiates again in an effort to replace the urban village with new, usually tower, developments.

When the city is considered as a whole both of the two conditions, of urban village and modern skyscraper development, exist within the same ecosystem. Both conditions are results of political policies and economic demand. Both conditions satisfy a certain niche that is needed by the city. In certain yet distinct ways both conditions represent a form of chaos evident in the city. As much as politicians, developers, planners, and architects try to control the physical outputs their efforts will not affect the underlying chaotic inputs. In the essay “What Happened to Urbanism,” Rem Koolhaas writes, that the chaotic inputs,” happens when things are not designed, it cannot be engineered, it infiltrates, architects can only resist it and fail.” However, even with lack of control comes responsibility. The urbanist has tools to activate the city for higher potential. The tools might be as tangible as infrastructure, architecture, or public space. Or the tools might be intangible such as culture, community, and pride. However, even with these tools urbanists have failed to improve the potential of cities, in fact sometimes they failed spectacularly. Nonetheless the city has flourished. Koolhass argues that regardless of failures architects and urbanists need to take a stand on urban issues. By taking a position these professions can in fact learn from their mistakes and hopefully improve in the future. In China the issue of the Urban Village and skyscraper is evolving. The country is taking a stand, and learning from mistakes. It is now that many professions have the opportunity to guide the course of this work and have a historical impact.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Social Class Struggle

     Shifts within the global economy have generated the manner in which the land is used including the rearrangement of residential neighborhoods or in the case of Shenzhen, the urban villages. Urban villages are pre-existing villages where the city has infiltrated its surrounding by building around them. With aims to reform and improve rural living standards, urban villagers simply wanted to ease into the urban rather than have higher income and social influence. Whole villages are being torn down and replaced by redevelopment housing ranging from mid-rise to high-rise where in many cases migrant villagers cannot afford the new rent.

“Class struggle” where the government ignores the demands of the residents has established social hierarchies. Consequently urban development is affected by the class struggle. The speed of redevelopment reflects the desire of “wanting” to take over as a dominant role within the global economy. The market has invaded the way we live and what shapes our cities thus there is an immediate need to build. Speed acts as a conceptual driving tool for the market force. Yet the social construction of cities relies on a balanced ecosystem. There must be different socio-economic statuses in order to run a functioning system.

The city as a whole triggers the emotion attached to experiences. The city is constantly changing along with the social engagement. Culture shapes form similarly to the constant morphology of a city; both are ever changing. But one may ask how does one see through the layers over time to gain an authentic essence of the city? As cultural engagement changes including people and the architecture, the urban process becomes evident.

Initially an economic experiment with political intent, Shenzhen proved to redefine the definition of a city. Within thirty years, the population of Shenzhen went from 35,000 residents to 14,000,000, becoming an instant city essentially overnight. The land is fertile due to its close proximity to the Pearl River Delta, which made the area fall under a desirable condition of urban emergence. From rice fields the area was flattened out to provide land for factories and housing. The new metropolis came into existence with no intermediary paving landscape into large highways. The new expansion created transit features and access to capital. Globalization became an ultimate agglomeration. Improving the general standards of living, reforming collectivism and opening Chinese markets, Shenzhen became what it is today, a market driven urbanization that governs and sustains the economy. The question is, should this define or influence the future development of cities? As of now, a city that is inching its way closer to a utopian lifestyle is proving that this may be the route to take.

11/25/2013 Paula M Naarvaez

Filed under: China, Shenzhen, , , , , , ,

Voyeurs or walkers?

Too often do we associate our designs to be used by the users at a specific manner. Designed space is used by a variety of users. Hence, the way humans interact with space is different for everyone. This applies to cities as well. Not only do we have to investigate the basic forms and structures and macro view of the cityscape, but also the culture and social aspect of the city. Hence, to fully understand a city, we have to observe the city from a geometrical and anthropological perspective.

De Certeau explores the two types of cities, the geometrical and anthropological. As a voyeur overlooking the city from a bird’s eye view, he only understands the overall physicality of the city. Being so detached from the city, it is impossible to understand the city. Certeau comments that “this panorama-city is a ‘theoretical’ simulacrum whose condition of possibility is an oblivion and a misunderstanding of practices.” Contrastingly, the anthropological city allows him to truly understand these practices, analyzing the city while walking in the city and engaging with the people. The relationship between the person, the space, and the surrounding crowd provides a bigger picture of how city acts upon users and how users act upon space.

Before arriving to Shanghai, I have always observed the city geometrically. Based on iconic photographs and maps of Shanghai, I know that the city is divided into two sides, PuDong and PuXi. Like any other “tourists”, I am amazed by the skyscrapers on the Central Business District (CBD) and by the skyline. However, purely remembering the iconic image of Shanghai’s skyline does not fully explain true mechanisms of the city – the economic, social, political, and physical aspect of Shanghai.

More importantly, immersing myself to Shanghai for the past two weeks gave myself an anthropological perspective of the city. A visit to the bund on China’s public holiday was a perfect opportunity to emerge myself into the local culture. It was a Friday night and a Chinese public holiday. I was finally part of the crowd of the locals walking and pushing along NanJing East Road to reach to the Bund. The experience was more than just enjoying the skyline of the Bund. It was more about viewing the crowd at the Bund than the skyline. While finally standing on the boardwalk of the bund after a twenty-minute struggle walking from the subway station, I was still having trouble enjoying the scenery. People were yelling to each other. A woman lost her son in the crowd. Hence, frantically pushing the crowd and calling her son’s name and talking to the phone at the same time. A man was trying to help his son to get the best view of the bund among the crowd hence pushing us and moving the crowd to get the best position on the boardwalk. Even policemen were part of the crowd, constantly blowing their whistle and waving their arms to hopefully construct order. Blowing whistles, honking cars, screaming kids, shouting policemen, and loudly talking people. Noise level at the bund had definitely risen to its highest capability.

It was then that I started to realize the real culture of this city. Glamorous buildings and skyscrapers are only iconic images for the world that Shanghai is going to be the most developed city. But to fully understand how Chinese locals utilize the city, it is important to observe their activities. Observations at the bund show that Chinese locals like to be loud and crowded. If the crowd of Chinese locals were to be replaced with Japanese locals who are known for having high discipline, the atmosphere at the bund would be different. Rather than people pushing around, spitting without hesitation, singing, or blowing the whistle, people would be quietly strolling along the boardwalk, sitting at the benches enjoying the night view, or casually sipping their beer with friends. Hence, different people with different cultural background manipulate the atmosphere of the city.

This further brings to the question of whether Shanghai’s rapid economic development of the city fits coherently with its social and cultural development. It is obvious that Shanghai has improved and developed drastically for the past ten years. The CBD proves Shanghai’s capability to achieve high economic standards by creating more building to generate money, and inviting western companies to facilitate globalization. However, it is also evident that Shanghai still needs improvement on its social and cultural development. Situations such as locals spitting at public casually, or fighting and pushing to get into the subway, or even cutting the line to pay at the “Uniqlo” store, clearly shows the lack of education for the majority of Chinese locals.

In conclusion, Shanghai shows its glamorous side geometrically. The built structures, such as skyscrapers at the CBD district and all western companies, show that Shanghai has well achieved economically. However as the city is seen from an anthropological perspective, the lack of education is shown. A better balance between the economic development and the social and cultural development would mould the city even better geometrically and anthropologically.

Filed under: City, Uncategorized, , , , , ,

The Symbiosis Between Information Technology and Cultural Interactions

“While advances like the telephone and automobile clearly had wide-ranging impacts on the twentieth-century city, the recent wave of information technology promises to prove many more”- Scott Page and Brian Phillips, Urban Interfaces Designing the In-Between

Technology has become so vital in our lives that it facilitates almost everything around us. It allows us to gather information and increase our awareness of different programs as the distribution of communication, interaction and information is constantly morphing on a day-to-day basis. It now holds a greater presence within our lives more than ever.

As cities are shifting towards technology based, the physical city and its inhabitants are relying on the developing network of communication infrastructures. Cities including Tokyo and Seoul have fully immersed into this concept. Tokyo’s transit stations, in particular Shibuya Station, are catering to its population density, entertainment, and commercial intensity. The city has tapped into digital technology resulting in its commercial centrality to reflect human patterns and culture. Seoul has immersed itself into a completely wireless city- regardless of the location within the city, one is guaranteed to have access to a wi-fi network above ground and below ground (ie. metro subways). The web presence is substantial, unlike any other city I have visited. Upon landing into the ICN Airport, I was immediately connected to the internet via iPhone. I had no network data yet the internet allowed me to stay connected- I was “in the network” and I was connected up until my departure one week later.

Information is constantly being created and distributed. Heavily influenced by “the perspectives of media, speed, and personal perception”, the representation of our world impacts the way in which we design (61). The evolution of technology affects the way we conceptualize design. With vertical and horizontal connections, the vertical builds upwards as the horizontal allows information technology to spread among the landscape through infrastructure.

Connections are formed between networks of the urban fabric or physical beings such as social networks. Formed communities via the web have created spatial constraints as they manipulate the manner in which the user desires to be apart of something. The downfall is that physical impacts are decreased which then blurs the distinction between virtual and physical space as location-awareness diminishes. The virtual interface focuses on the particular needs of the individual catering to personal environments. We are influenced by the physical form that acts as a vehicle for “modulating streams of images (62)”. Projected images such as advertisements or entertainment media instill in the user a desire to match what they see. Advertisements for reconstructive surgery were plastered all over Seoul. A city known for its surge in aesthetic surgery clinics, there is a need to perfect the physical form. The persuasive ads to achieve a ‘specific look’ send underlying messages of pressure to cave into the generic. As the city conforms based on economic exchange, this need for personalization overrides the importance of the collective users. The quantity versus the individual places the individual under the generic, simply a number within the population.

The need to regenerate the technological based society means that the system will collapse, it does not have the ability to personalize. It all reverts back to the idea that money is a driver for culture. There is a desire to discover new advanced technology as this has a direct correlation to power. The more information given and known keeps the distribution of communication going tapping into the culture that feeds into this phenomenon.

11/26/2013 Paula M Narvaez

Filed under: Architecture, Culture, Japan, Korea, Tokyo, Urbanism, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Temporal Transformation

Architecture in Tokyo has more layers than initially meets the eye. They transform into deeply layered vertical landscape of light, hue, and structure throughout various times of day, which reflect the transformation that the community goes through as the day changes. Mornings are governed by the motion of a sea of white collared shirts, rushing through the metro station on their way to who knows where. At this time, the buildings are homogenous in mood and coloring, as they are preparing to fill up with the morning crowd. By the afternoon the city shifts as the second wave of people rush though, children on their way home from school, people leaving their places of work, to cafes or shopping centers, making a paced transition to their home, while the buildings start to light up and fill up with people that are done with their daily obligations and are starting to leisurely enjoy themselves. By night fall the city is in chaos with the influx of people that are on their way to be social, whether it is at the bars, clubs, restaurants or just to be seen in the crossings, the entire city comes to life with motion; at this point the buildings are illuminated with every color imaginable, most displaying billboards or other advertisements trying to catch the eye of every passerby. Throughout the day the people morph from monochromatic worker bees to luminescent social creatures, and the buildings follow suit.

Everyday, as if by clockwork, this transformation happens. In a city where refinement is a guiding factor in social and psychological development, it is hard to not notice the highly structured transformation as it unfolds throughout ones explorations.  In “Walking in the city”, De Certeau talks about the ability for places to become habitable by the local authority governing the social uses of spaces. This is apparent in the shifting of life in these buildings due to the transformation of the local authority throughout the day. The facades of these buildings catalyze this transformation through the shifts it goes through as the day passes and the people go about their daily lives.

The façade becomes more than the division of interior and exterior spaces by becoming a portal to the split personalities of the city throughout time. The development of this “façade” appropriation happens at the city scale, through the divisions of neighborhoods, to the street scale, at the division of commercial streets, to the building scale, at the physical boundaries. Each space has it’s own identity through the market that it subsists of as well as the social standards that revolve around it throughout time. It is the shift in users throughout the day that allows for the temporal evolution brought on by users as they transform throughout the day.

In conclusion, the evolution of Tokyo happens at the scale of the person as they evolve throughout the day. As De Certeau says, the local authority governs the habitability of spaces and this is true in Tokyo due to the reuse of space throughout the day allowing for the transformation of work to leisure and play to happen at the efficient and rapid pace that it does.


Filed under: Uncategorized


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