USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Thinking Outside the Small Box

If one word can be identified with America, I think it would be individualism.  Individualism is our greatest strength.  But we’ve gotten high on ourselves, its become too much of a good thing.  Our individualism seems to now be misguided.  We need to re-evaluate and think about the huge improvements on our lives if we stopped to think a little bit more about the big picture instead of our single city microcosm.  I’m primarily identifying this problem with city planning.  We’re all worried about our little piece of the city block instead of how we could improve that little block by thinking statewide.  This strategy lacks a greater intelligence.  Reformed thinking could not only improve our economy but strengthen what is essentially American: individualism.

America thinks in a singular nature instead of thinking in a complete set.  Los Angeles as compared to Shanghai for example- yes, Los Angeles has its own little districts that each have a huge sense of regionalism.  But lets go from small to large.  First of all there seems to be a love of the object building.   A singular destination instead of the overall area I could affect- hence making a singular attraction instead of set of destinations.  For instance, Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall- the ultimate object building.  There is almost no supporting program surrounding it.  The closests one could call supporting program is the Dorthey Chandler.  It’s actually surrounded by parking lots.  Why isn’t there a 5-Star restaurant next door?  For that matter, why not several restaurants?  Boutiques? Coffee Houses? Not applicable in America.

On a larger scale, how about the smaller cities that are outliers of Los Angeles?  Those could easily be connected to Los Angeles proper created a satellite situation as Shanghai has with Qing Pu.  If there were easy, efficient, and reliable transportation to Cabazon, Palm Springs or Santa Barbara Los Angeles would be a very different place.  Especially with Los Angeles’ traffic, the idea of a day trip would have a very different characterization.  This could create ‘big box destinations’, as in whole districts for furniture or shoes.  Cabazon would probably be the most synonymous with this idea as it is entirely devoted to one specific type of shopping: outlets.  However the only time anyone ever goes to Cabazon is if they are already on their way to Palm Springs or Arizona- it is not a destination by itself.  It needs better transportation services to its location (one that doesn’t evolve strategic planning around traffic hours) and a bigger draw than stores whose merchandise is years old because so few people make it out that far away from the city center.  If Cabazon existed as a nodal destination, the space in between itself and the city center would fill in appropriately.

In essence I am asking LA, and America on a larger scale, for some urban intelligence.  If LA were designed, not necessarily master planned, with the notion of what could improve a given area by making points of interest, these areas would expand into the surroundings.  These areas would bring massive foot traffic and could better support a retailers economy.  This ultimately aligns with the American perception of itself because it promotes competition, encourages new business models and spurs economic growth.  Business that are in that ‘big box destination’ would have to identify what makes them different instead of relying on a name brand or being the only retailer to sell ‘x-type’ product in the local area.   What is more American than pronouncing individualism?


Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Infrastructure, Los Angeles, Urbanism

My Last Argument

My friends and I argue a lot.  From the nutritional value of milk, to the mathematical reasoning behind terminal velocity, there is always something to debate.  Slowly, over this past semester, it seemed as if everything was becoming an argument.  I could no longer go anywhere, see any building, or experience any part of the city without debating its meaning on multiple levels, if not with my fellow classmates than in my own head.  It is somewhat reminiscent of that time following the first semester of school, our minds freshly exposed to the beginnings of architectural process and thought.  Form, space, program, circulation all took on new meanings, and we haven’t viewed a building the same ever since.  It almost feels that way all over again, only this time with respect to urbanism and the city.  Nearly every notion I had about the city prior to coming on this journey has now been tested and put through the ringer, time and time again.  What I once thought I had figured out has five new points of understanding.  We all know by now that there isn’t a definitive right or wrong in this course of study… there is much gray area in between the black and the white.  In effect, we can only argue for what we reason as viable solutions to architectural and urban challenges.  So now that we are home, how do we continue these arguments that we have been struggling with all semester, and furthermore how do we decide which ones are worth fighting for?

I flew into Washington Dulles International Airport last night, the final stop for me before home.  There’s all this hype at the airport over a new underground tram system that was just installed, linking the four terminals together and eliminating the previous and less efficient shuttle system.  It was late and stormy out, so my parents told me to get a taxi home.  Forty minutes later and sixty dollars poorer I arrived at my front door.  The entire ride home, I couldn’t stop telling myself how ridiculous this was.  One of the largest international hubs on the eastern seaboard, serviced only by roads!  No metro, no trains, no other infrastructure.  I wanted to argue… take the money and the time you spent on that tram system and put it towards a subway line into the city center, and eventually one out to the suburbs.  Save thousands from pricey and unsustainable commutes, and expedite public transit between major urban nodes.  This is worth arguing for.  The high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco is worth arguing for.  Projects such as these now seem infinitely more significant than figuring out the structural layout or the façade system of my next project.

Ultimately, we have to stay curious and continue to question the relevance of our work and our studies within the context of a more macro scale.  This semester provided us with a rare opportunity to witness the process and the results of such urban awareness, which remains at the forefront of the Eastern metropolises’ agendas.  It won’t be easy to leverage all that we have learned back home, seeing as the western mindset has a different take on many of the issues we explored.  But if we continue to make our own arguments, and continue to find cause in the urban, than the purpose of this semester, in my opinion, will have been fulfilled.  There is no way we can possibly synthesize all that was presented to us, but we are now equipped with four, five and six new lenses through which to view our environments, lenses that many of our peers won’t have yet.  It would be a shame not to put them to use.  In the words of our professor, we can only be led to water.  It is up to us to remain thirsty.


Filed under: About, America, Architecture, Uncategorized, Urbanism

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!


My experience in Shanghai has been a humbling experience of sorts. I’ll be the first to admit that before the trip, I had negative pre-conceptions of China as still being largely third world, despite the endless news reports of its quick economic development. If you asked me what my expectations of China were prior to leaving on this trip exactly three and a half months ago, I’d quite simply say:

“Well, it’s probably going to be smelly, dirty, and gloomy”.

Now, while I would say most of that is generally still true, I cannot doubt the fact that I am genuinely appalled and afraid of where China is and fast becoming in the global community. A plethora of high-speed rail developments, no shortage of planned economic zones, heavily invested by leading international businesses, epicenter of global events, and did I mention the growing population of 1.4 billion?

If that’s not enough to strike fear in your adversaries, then I don’t know what will.

But it’s not just China. Our initial drive through Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong provided a small (personally, I wish we spent MUCH more time there) glimpse into true “urbanism” as we call it. Layered densities both horizontal and vertical, hybridity of programmatic elements, successfully integration of infrastructural systems; all these are characteristics of what we saw, felt, experienced. In short, we experienced an everydayness that was foreign to us, and yet at the same time intriguing and exciting because, quite simply, it worked.

But what does that all mean for us now, especially post-trip while we’re safely back within the completely different world of America? If anything, this trip has opened my eyes to the deficiencies that plague a stagnant America that is utterly stuck in its tracks. Of course, we do enjoy many freedoms unparalleled in most countries, but America is far from its glory days. If the 20th century was about America, then the 21st century is increasingly becoming about China.  Friedman’s “From WikiChina” article, albeit humorous, provides an insightful look into perhaps how the world is continuing to view us. Friedman states, “ The Americans have replaced working to exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself ‘exceptional’, only others can bestow that adjective upon you”. Ouch, but so true. I mean, what’s so exceptional about American infrastructure? We have 10 lane freeway expansion projects in LA that stretches for miles, but the only exceptional thing about that is perhaps the iconic smog generated from all the car traffic. We can’t even agree to pass a bill to install a network of high speed rail transit systems that will even go over 90 miles per hour. The realization of such an infrastructural revolution within America is a lesson that can be taken from Asia, where high speed is a necessity of most people’s transportation. Like cities such as Los Angeles, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to move from point A to point B without taking hours in traffic congestion. Also, the mobility of the individual becomes increased tremendously, allowing a greater opportunity for distributed intra-national economic growth. But no, industries that include airlines have lobbied hard against it in an effort to erase the competition; this along with many other political/economic factors have ubiquitously hindered any real change in our infrastructure.

Friedman is right when he says, “…the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things”. We are often so entrenched in our ideological beliefs that we live in a black and white world. This is that, this is not and cannot be that. Lefebvre touches upon this “situation” as he calls it: “ A modern object clearly states what it is, its role and its place.” Americans often view society and place in the same manner: a mall is just a mall; a train station is where people get on and off a train, etc. But there’s so much more to that, the possibilities of experience and juxtaposition of program and space are endless and intriguing if only we operated in the grey area. Tokyo Midtown was not just an office building complex, it was a subway station, mall, hotel, private residences, outdoor park all interweaved and layered to create a different kind of urban environment that was continuously engaging the public at different levels. We saw, in Hong Kong, the IFC mall turned into an airport terminus with an express rail line that directly linked the airport to the subterranean level. The airport then became more than itself, it was a transportation hub and also a lifestyle center, complete with cultural amenities, retail shops, restaurants, cafes, etc; the phenomenon of “infratecture”.

Lefebvre states: “Today we see a worldwide tendency to uniformity”. But beyond that, the tendency is also towards a sense of complacency. Complacency for how things are, how comfortable things can get. If given the same opportunity to see/experience the things I have in these last 15 weeks, there are people I know who would be unwilling, simply because their life back home is all too comfortable. Therein lies the greatest danger, and unfortunately America has become lost in its own complacency. If we do not stimulate ourselves with curiosity and intrigue, what good is replicating what has already been done before? How can we affect the world around us if all we know how to do and think is through mimicry? Asia, specifically China, is the new frontier, pioneering the world into the 21st century through technology, infrastructure, and most importantly urbanism. It’s about time America woke up from its dreams of what once was and realize we are losing the race in a world has long since moved on.

So when I return, upon being bombarded with “What did you see?” or “How was Asia?”, I’ll simply reply:

Wow, you wouldn’t even believe me if I told you…


Friedman, Thomas, “From WikiChina” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/opinion/01friedman.html?src=twrhp

Filed under: America, China, Infrastructure, Japan, Korea, Lefebvre, Psyche, Urbanism

My China

As a class we have talked often about experiential phenomena in the city.  Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai…they all have high rise buildings, elevated expressways, subway systems, bustling boulevards, bright lights, and throngs of people.  We have seen this together as a group but experience, the interpretation and comparison of small differences, occurs on an individual basis.  Experience is the stuff of memories, the ideas we take away from a place and the ones that resonate with us even if nobody else pauses to notice.

With only a couple weeks left in China, two thoughts chase me around everywhere I go.  The first is my excitement to return home to California, where life will regain a sense of normalcy.  The second is fear that this normalcy will handicap me, that my jolting experience abroad will by comparison render anything back home inadequate – or worse, boring.  So what is my experience? What has China been to me?  Here are a few of my favorite parts of the day – the things I look forward to when I wake up and the things I will miss most.  This is my China.

-At the beginning of the fifteen minute walk to the subway station, we cross a large boulevard shortly after leaving the hotel.  A concrete pedestrian island separates lanes of car traffic passing in front and bike traffic passing behind.  When I huddle on this island with ten other people, the city whizzing by on all sides, I imagine a boulder sitting still in a fast moving river.  This is the most peaceful part of the day.

-Whenever I get change at a market, it’s always a mystery whether the cash register attendant will give back One Yuen notes or coins.  I try to guess which one it will be, and secretly hope to get coins because the notes feel small and insubstantial.  Occasionally the coins will be counterfeit, but nobody seems to pay too much attention.

-Most subway stations have a pair of soldiers standing silently at the entrance and exit.  For some reason one of them stands on a one-foot tall pedestal, and the other on the ground.  The shorter soldier always stands on the pedestal.  This makes me happy.  I have not sought out any further explanation, and don’t plan on doing so.

-When ordering drinks, ‘lemon iced tea’ is almost always written as ‘ice lemon tea’.  If you say the former, servers will correct the order of your words.  To order Coca-Cola do not ask for ‘Coke’ or you will get a confused look.  Ask for ‘Cola’.  Drinks invariably come with knotted straws that force your beverage to make a loop-the-loop as you sip it.  The jury is still out on whether this adds anything to the experience.

-The undersides of elevated expressways are all brightly lighted.  A nighttime cab ride passes underneath, on top of, and above floating ribbons of color twisting their way through high-rise canyons.  I think about how this looks futuristic, and also a little bit silly.

-Elevators usually have no button for number four, because the Chinese word for it resembles the word for death.  This always reminds me of how many American buildings omit a thirteenth floor.  Superstition both amuses and annoys me but I’m not even sure why thirteen is superstitious to begin with, so I find the Chinese version more legitimate.  Checking for this is always the first thing I do in an elevator.

-Inside the subway station there is a long corridor you must walk down between the entrance and turnstiles.  At rush hour the corridor is filled with people, some walking briskly, some walking four abreast, some on their cell phones, some listening to music, some holding briefcases, and some completely unremarkable.  All these people moving at different paces make it impossible to walk the length of the corridor in a straight line.  You have to judge speeds, make passes, navigate groups, twist and turn your body, rub shoulders, and keep alert.  I love this.

Matt Luery

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, everydayness, experience, phenomena, Urbanism

A Weekend in Xi’an

On our recent trip to Xi’an, I was exposed to the last frontier of China.  On the outskirts of Xi’an around Qingyun Ma’s Jade Valley Winery, small clusters of dilapidated houses and a vast, green patchwork of farmland covered the landscape.  I was in agruarian China, right at the cusp before development.  Next to the clusters, I could see the construction of a new school and a small town center starting to take form.  This experience of being away from the city was a relief, but for the people who lived there, this was their everyday life.  For cityfolk like me, anything beyond the city that I did was a spectacle, or even absurd.

In Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday and Everdayness, he sees the world destroying diversity and working towards uniformity.  He stated that “Every complex ‘whole’ from the smallest tool to the greatest works of art and learning, therefore possessed a symbolic value linking them to meaning at its most vast: to divinity and humanity, power and wisdom, good and evil, happiness and misery, the perrennial and the ephemeral.  These immense values were themselves mutable according to historical circumstance, to social classes, to rulers and mentors.  Each object was thus linked to some ‘style’ and therefore, as a work, contained while masking the larger functions and structures which were integral parts of its form.”  However, because the “functional elements was itself disengaged, rationaled, then industrially produced, and finally imposed by constraint and persuasion: that is to pay, by means of advertising and by powerful economic and political lobbies”  these everyday items have lost their “essence.”  We have been numbed by society to not see differences and be curious about the world.

Our class had to take cars to visit Dean Ma’s father’s house and one mode of transport was in the back of a pickup truck.  Riding on the back of a pickup truck in America is different than riding it in the Xi’an countryside even if the pickup trucks were the same.  With my conditioned mode of thinking, I have rationalized that its dangerous and the police would not hesitate to issue me a ticket for such ridiculous behavior.  But in Xi’an, I wanted to ride the back of the pickup truck because there were no such thing as rules to govern me.  I was responsible for my own injuries because it was my decision to ride in the back of the pickup truck.  For the people living in the Xi’an countryside, people ride in the back of trucks all the time.  Society has conditioned me to think that riding anywhere besides the passenger seats is considered unsophisticated and dangerous.  Most of my classmates and I WANTED to sit in the back of the pickup truck because we could break free from society’s constraints and enjoy the Xi’an countryside in an absurd, but memorable way.  Our bickering to ride in THAT pickup truck in THAT setting subconsciously justified our appreciation and desire to experience the everyday.

This event reminded me of the film Weekend because it extremitized the everyday by making it completely ridiculous and because of its absurdity, thus making events more memorable.  One particular scene filmed a traffic jam with cars set ablaze and dead bodies sprawled, but some people have casually parked their cars having a picnic, or running around.  At the time, I was thoroughly confused and thinking “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON”, but those emotions and thoughts jolted me out of my complacent mindset of what a movie should be.  But does the absurdity of the everyday imply that it’s impossible to occur?  I would argue that it is more improbable than impossible that the absurdities occur, especially in a desensitized world today.  But when noticed, they give me a jolt of excitement that I immediately want others to also see.

Back in the city, I visited Xi’an’s city wall.  The width of the wall was wide enough for charriots to pass through, and now as a tourist attraction, visitors can ride a bicycle along it.  After recently watching Beijing Bicycle, this strange coincidence came full circle.  In the movie, the bicycle becomes takes on a character because the movie shows it being more than it is.  For one character, the bicycle is a dream to have, enjoy, be cool and to attract a girlfriend.  The other character values the bicycle because it is his way of making a living delivering packages.  Both become attached to the bicycle that stir a range of emotions like sadness, courage, fear, and worry.  The bicycle transcends its normal meaning of transporting a person from point A to B.

Seeing the Beijing Bicycle and Weekend helped me understand that I was not just riding a bicycle.  I was riding it on a relic and ancient artifact of the city.  I was seeing the roofscape of the buildings inside the city wall.  I was seeing the new skyscapers just outside of the city wall.  Riding a bicycle on the street would not have given me this same experience [nonetheless riding a bicycle in a country that doesn’t give the pedestrian the right of way is another expierence].  The meaning of this bicycle went beyond just riding it, but all the other sights that came about after I started pedaling.

I am ashamed of the fact that I have been numbed by society and blinded to see the excitement and beauty around the city.  Now that I notice that simple things that occur in the city as part of the everday experience, the city is not just a place where I inhabit. It is a larger, living organism that has varying scales of activity that my curiosity allows me to see.


Filed under: America, beijing bicycle, China, conditioning, Desensitize, everyday, experience, society, transcend, weekend, Xi'an

Us and Them.

The days of European imperialism in Shanghai are technically long over, technically.  Thousands of expats reside throughout Shanghai today.  They tend to group together, creating foreign specializing communities.  As a foreigner myself, I tend to gravitate toward these foreigner oriented areas.  However specialized these areas are, one cannot but recognize how this specialization exists throughout the city and within the mindset of the locals as well.

I have seen a definitive difference between what is meant for locals and what is meant for expats.  There seem to be two sets of everything.  I first noticed this some time ago while eating out.  Looking for affordable places for lunch there are two types, ones that are local oriented and one that is expat oriented.  The local oriented food consists of really excellent street food and small vendors which cost less than 10rmb per person.  The other class of restaurants is generally upwards of 60rmb for lunch.  Decent, sit down restaurants for dinner are also polarized.  The Chinese version can be as little as 30rmb, while its western counterpart can be about 120rmb for dinner.  Although you will find a really high end Chinese restaurant for 120rmb dinner, or more even, you will not find western food the prices of Chinese food.  Furthermore, upon going into any of these Western restaurants there are not Chinese families here.  There are very westernized Chinese people, mixed couples, Asian business professionals- not families, not people who wouldn’t already be capable of travelling out of country.

Conversely, while in the Electronic district with my Chinese speaking friend I became subject to different kind of separation.  While haggling, my friend was told she could get a better price because they are of the same, both ‘native’ Chinese, not some foreigner.  Until the seller realized I was with her, and she was probably also a foreigner, then the deal was off.

When reading a local equivalent of LA Weekly expat edition, I realized how extensive this divide truly is.  I found an article about where to buy jeans, it specifies if you are proportioned like locals then you can go to this place, but if you want more western sizes then go to this place.  Or if you don’t mind being inundated in street culture and haggling then go here, but if you want to be waited on by an English speaker go here.  I continued reading to find an article about some European women who couldn’t find quality leather purses they wanted here, so they just started their own purse manufacturing company here.  This is more than just entrepreneurial.  This is identifying a level of quality that can only be identified with those who are NOT local.   This is about class divide, not a racial divide.  However unlike most immigrant situations, it is the immigrants who are the well-to-do and elite.

Beyond a sense of elitism, there is more.  As comparing immigrant communities in the US to those here there is a large defining difference.  Most immigrants come to the US and assimilate into ‘American’ life.  Most try to hold onto their own culture while still meeting American expectations.  Here there doesn’t appear to be any effort to assimilate.  In Shanghai, the effort is shown by making whatever place they settle into more like their own culture.  Instead of integrating their own culture into that of the local one, their culture dominates and the local culture starts to absorb their changes.  This difference once again becomes the most prevalent to me in food, but not in the prices, in the authenticity.  Almost every cuisine in the US has dishes that are not native to the cuisine, but American takes.  They are dishes developed by immigrants with an understanding of their own cultural food and an understanding of American goods and tastes.  An example of this is cioppino. Cioppino is rich seafood stew associated with Italian cuisine; it was developed by Italian American fisherman in San Francisco based on their local catches.  The same is true numerous types on makizushi.  These ‘Japanese’ sushi rolls are made inside out (rice outside of the nori, instead of inside) with cooked food like tempura soft shell crab inside.  These are purely American interpretations that have become so widely popular they have moved beyond the US borders and right back into the cultures they started from.  This doesn’t happen for Chinese interpretations of food.  Food doesn’t really ‘fusion’ here, it’s either/or but never both.  I can actually live in Shanghai without ever eating Chinese food or any semblance thereof if I so choose.  Does this exist because of the earlier mentioned elitism?  One cuisine is too pure for fusion with another? Or is there no demand for fusion?

Shanghai is an atmosphere of separates- separate food, separate prices, and separate clothing sizes creating two overall vastly different experiences.  Are both foreigners and locals choosing to stay separate? Is it possible that it is not the foreigners at all but the locals who refuse this integration?  Could Chinese people be so accustomed to China’s previous cultural isolation that fusion is just not even a question yet?




Filed under: America, China, Fusion, Psyche, Shopping

The Urban Order

In the contemporary city, the notion of idealized urban space is extremely hard to come by, given all the prerequisite considerations of urban design.  At a contextual level, you must respect the existing fabric, and consider the significance of your intervention as a functional and polemical component within a greater network.  From an economic perspective, projects must adhere to the monetary stipulations of private investors and corporate developers.  Politically speaking, the proposal must be approved by the city, and follow the appropriate codes and regulations.  With such a dense layering of systems that urban interventions must work around, it is useful to examine their operation from a spatial perspective.  According to Wolf Prix’s assertion in Aesthetics + Urbanism, “the actual dynamics of urban transformations” are free from the rigid orders, namely the grid, of many of the cities in which they exist.  “Contemporary urban interventions take place in an amorphous and imponderable space, analogous to chess figures moving horizontally across blurred television screens – but the grid of the chessboard has disappeared, as have the rules determining how the pieces move.  Yet the figures remain.”  This speaks of a new spatial order, detached from the linear streets and orthogonal parcels that make up a calculable system.

When we begin to observe this distinctly urban spatial order, critical nodes within the city are brought to the foreground, along with their infrastructural links, and their interactions then surpass the dominance of the literal grid.  “The more the background recedes… the more distinct the figures can become; in the wake of the implosion of the old order, it is these figures that make a city.  Their coming together creates force fields of tension and new, dynamic urban spaces.”  As I try to visualize and substantiate what this order looks like as a diagram, the image of a subway map comes to mind.  Major urban nodes are identified by their respective stations, and linked by infrastructural transit lines.  If this order were to be superimposed over the surface grid of the city, there would be an understandable difference.

Prix goes on to argue that, “this process is infinitely more complex than laying down a grid and filling it up square by square with architecture.  Space is no longer predetermined, but rather develops through the tension and interrelationships between figures.”  What I find interesting is that this “new model of urbanism” seemingly necessitates the pre-existence of a spatial order to develop within.  Without the rigid order of a city system, the dynamic quality of the urban order could not form within and throughout.  This is also facilitated by the many considerations mentioned previously, which cause a distribution of urban interventions based on factors other than ideal location within the city.  Thus, dynamic urbanism is possibly dependent on an existing system of order, and evidenced by the many metropolises that we have visited in which it thrives.


Filed under: About, America, Architecture, China, Urbanism

The John Galt Line

While being in Asia I have come to truly grasp the importance of public transportation, but more specifically a high speed rail line.  A high speed rail allows cities to densify in a healthy way.  Such a rail could allow major cities to connect quick and efficiently.  People could potentially live in San Jose, work in Los Angeles, and go out for the night in San Diego.  This would distribute the economy, promote specialization and essentially be America’s next evolutionary step.

A high speed rail line has certainly been the hot topic in US politics.  Upon reading an article articulating the US’s challenges with a high speed rail, I can’t help but think Atlas Shrugged has truly foretold the American existence.  In Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Dagny Taggart (the true head of a Taggart Transcontinental) fights to construct the most efficient train line to transfer people and promote industries.  The world seems to be against her, claiming the speeds she purposed for the line are too dangerous, the loads too are large, and the costs are not worthy of its goals.  Against all odds she gets some semblance of her original design made, by doing it on her own despite others approval.  She fights against a majority who fear new ideas, progress, decisive thought, and essentially individual achievement.  The success of this built line is incredible but short lived, as socialist policies are passed- capping the speed of the rail and the length of the freights, requiring equal production from all steel companies regardless of capacity, and restricting passage to certain states to equal those of its neighboring states regardless of local industries.

To parallel this work of fiction, is truth.  The above mentioned article quotes Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promising to build a high speed rail in 25 years.  At this, one can’t help but scoff.  Twenty-five years of railway in Shanghai will produce 22 lines and about 877 km of track (the first line opened in 1995, and there are currently 12 lines and the Maglev).  The Shanghai Maglev goes more than twice as fast as the proposed American line.  In the US, there is actually a federal speed limit for trains on a Class 5 rail topping out at 90 mph. In fact these speeds are characteristic of trains in the 1940’s.  There is also the issue of not wanting to fund replacement tracks to allow for more efficient uses.  By dramatically underfunding all rail initiatives, the government is dooming any rail line to fail.  If we, as Americans, create policies that limit innovation and forward movement we will be destined to live in archaic conditions.  The US government is quite scarily becoming like the one in Atlas Shrugged.  Which raises some very hard hitting questions about our society: have we become a nation of non-producers like the fictional America of Atlas Shrugged?  Why are we afraid of the future, change, and innovation?  America needs to rise up to the challenge and become the ‘can-do’ country it’s known as.

This is not to say that what works for China, or even Western Europe, will work for the US.  However what we are currently operating as does not work- case in point being the California debt or even national debt.  For a more precise example, see Southern California.  People moved inland to affordable housing, simultaneously driving up to 3 hours to get to their jobs closer to cities.  Once the price of gas went up, this became improbable, and people lost their homes.  A high speed rail would change all this, it could have prevented it.

The irony is China, a communist country, is surpassing a ‘capitalist’ one in innovative infrastructure.  This seems to debunk Rand’s philosophies and strong anti-socialist position.  Or have our roles simply changed?  Has America become un-American?  America seems to be aligning itself with the Dr. Stadler mindset of Rand’s creation.  Dr. Stadler, was once considered the leading scientific mind of the age, then denies innovation to ensure further funding of his institute.  We have gone from greatness at even greater sacrifice to mediocrity that is comfortable.  Has America sold out to simply keep things how they are?

Who is John Galt?




Filed under: America, Ayn Rand, China, high speed rail, Infrastructure, Psyche, Urbanism

Mobility and The Automobile


The United States has been criticized for its lack of public transportation, and ability to move around urban centers. This is largely in part due to the automobile development being one of the primary sources for America’s economic and industrial strength. With American automobile manufacturers pumping out new makes and models, the automobile has become a fashion accessory to the average American household. Many times we are not talking about one car per household, rather one car per person, and now we can start to understand why America is having such congestion problems. The truth is though that America is fixated on the car. Even if robust public transportation systems were in play, my guess is that many Americans would still opt to travel by their beloved automobile.

Sprawl has been a key contributor towards the automobile lifestyle. The American model of suburbia has been fully utilized, and has allowed our cities to reach out hundreds of miles from their epicenter. America has the land, which allows us to live in low-density situations. This creates the “American Dream” lifestyle with the two-story house outside of the city surrounded by a white picket fence, and a yard for the kids to play in. This dream has been adopted by millions of Americans, and has contributed to this object sprawl across America. The ability to connect these different objects becomes daunting. Even worse are sprawled cities like Los Angeles with higher populations being scattered over a large area, allowing no hierarchy across the landscape. In these conditions public transportation becomes extremely difficult to make efficient connections to move people amongst the fabric. Public transportation becomes fully utilized when its convenience is greater than the car. This is seen in cities like Boston, and New York where street congestion and parking conditions are nearly impossible. Public transportation also becomes a viable business model in environments with higher density. Higher density equals more people in given areas, which provides quicker turn over rates and shorter distances. Low sprawl environments don’t have enough people per given area allowing for public transportation to be inefficient.

Another reason for this automobile craze is the luxury factor. In America the auto industry is celebrated similar to high fashion. Promoting the idea that the car is a reflection of you, and a tool for measuring success. With so many makes and models, which fall into different value systems such as cost, performance, versatility, and aesthetics, the car has advanced from people mover to a work of art and design. America has literally put the car up on a pedestal, and has shown it not only to the United States as the best way to move, but has also sold this model to the world. The automobile in America has become the most respectable way to not only travel, but to travel in style and “convenience” to the individual.

The success of the automobile also comes from the means of obtaining one. In America having your very own car is as simple as 199 down, 199 a month for 48 months, and a tagged on 1.9 % interest rate. Although this terminology doesn’t sound simple, this strategy of borrowing has made the car easily obtainable. It is difficult for many families to put down $30,000 for a car, but when you spread that cost out over 48 months, the car itself becomes more realistic. The truth is that with our given lack of public transportation, it is nearly impossible to live outside of urban density without a car. This cause and effect relationship is based on the demand for cars, and the ability to get financing for them; the two systems feed off of each other. In retrospect  Oprah’s motto;  “EVERYBODY GETS A CAR” is almost the reality.

It is through these various factors that the “land of the automobile” has been born, and as a country we have strived and became comfortable with the presence of our companions. Houses have been fitted with a two or three car garage, and a long driveway connecting our objects to our overbuilt/ under built roadway infrastructure. City streets are split down the middle allowing people to only cross at intersections. As a country we have accepted to travel 10 miles in either 10 minutes, or 2 hours. Our dependence on the automobile has started to become a burden on our country. The dependence on oil in order to keep The United States functioning has created excruciating tension that makes us enslaved to oil prices. We have to rely on other countries for importing oil, for we cannot even come close to producing as much as we consume. The automobile has given Americans the opportunity to sprawl, and has created new terminology such as rush hour, which focuses on the absurd number of people traveling, within certain time constraints of the day, into and out of the downtown areas. Even with all of these problems, America still willingly depends on the automobile as their primary source of transportation, and many see no other model to be fit.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: America, Architecture, Automobile, Car, Congestion, Problems, Public, States, Suburbia, Transporation, United, Urbanism, , ,

Lookin’ Good

I can confidently say that many of us in this program, myself included, were firstly intrigued by architecture because of its aesthetic value.  Even up to the point when we all decided to choose it as our course of study and possibly our career, the thought of designing a visually appealing, beautiful building principally fueled our pursuit of architecture.  There is no doubt that by now we are able to transcend our initial aesthetic conceptions of what great architecture is, and to consider the functional, polemical, and societal implications of design.  But at the end of the day, we still want our work to look good, and more so, to look unique.  What happens then, when this allure of creating the next iconic and significant architectural aesthetic becomes harder and harder to realize?  As Winy Maas of MVRDV points out in Towards and Urbanistic Architecture, “The notion that from a technical standpoint everything that can be constructed coincides with the awareness that every type of architectural object has been made.  Have we reached the limits of architecture?”

The current digital age and the universal access to information, photos and drawings of nearly all significant projects of the past and present are without question leading contributors to this crisis.  Maas points to the, “rapid spread of ideas through international magazines, the increasing opportunities for collaborating with local architects abroad, the speed of technology, and the employment of a common pool of students [that] lead to a convergence rather than a differentiation of architectures.”  We have witnessed this constantly over the past months.  Last week at the design office where class is held, as I browsed through the many physical models of the firm’s projects with several classmates, we couldn’t help but designate each to its’ respective stylist.  Koolhaas, BIG, SOM… the list went on, without crediting the actual designer with any originality.

This example only refers to the pinnacle of architecture, however, which in reality makes up only a trivial percent of the built environment.  The crisis is even more noticeable in what remains.  From the cookie-cutter McMansions of Orange County to the endless public housing towers of Hong Kong, the fabric suffers from a majority of the same.  “Currently, the world is dominated by cheap, banal structures, a sea in which the architectural object ceases to exist.”  This condition is rationalized, however, by economic and political viability.  Replicable construction processes and efficient floor plan extrusions minimize the need for pricy design consultants and maximize occupancy and developer profits.  In the end, everyone gets what they want, but the quality of design and visual distinctiveness suffers.

The question still remains then, how do we as architects realize a new aesthetic amidst the overwhelming uniformity of the existing fabric, without merely referencing a previous architecture?  Maas suggests that this crisis “bifurcates the role of architecture.  On the one hand the interior becomes more important, and on the other, the urbanism is brought to the fore.”  In my opinion, the solution rests with the latter of these.  Urbanism encompasses an entire list of issues that surpass those of just architecture, a list that is ever diversifying and thus has the potential to inform a new aesthetic.  Time, scale, infrastructure, growth, migration, mobility, specialization and climate are some of the larger issues Maas identifies that will literally, “shape architectural practice in the decades to come.”  The aesthetic potential of the urban agenda and urban design has continued to amaze me, especially now that we have been tasked with creating such.


Filed under: About, Aesthetic, America, Architecture, China, MVRDV, Towards an Urbanistic Architecture, Urbanism, Winy Maas


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