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.


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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu

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