USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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

Tourist Wonders or Architecture Blunders?

The Summer Palace replica in the Pearl River Delta getting a fresh coat of paint

From knock-off purses, to fake Apple stores, to replicas of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and the Summer Palace, China has it all.  Although tourists like myself may hunt for a good fake designer purse or pair of sunglasses, when it comes to experiencing the sights and history of a place, there is no acceptable substitute for the authentic.  Many tourists will tolerate or even seek out a few must-see gimmicks, yet these showy displays occupy a secondary status to experiencing the truly cultural experiences present in a particular locale.  Indeed, it is the placement of these showy displays and other mass appeal spectacles within the cultural and historical context of a locale that provides greater meaning to them.  For example, while I enjoyed the gaudiness of the Hong Kong light show, the value that I pulled from this experience did not come from my shallow enjoyment of strobe lights moving in sync to an annoyingly catchy tune, but rather from my understanding of this experience as a part of the larger historically and culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong.  At the heart of the rich culture that I experienced during my exploration of Hong Kong is the everyday lives of the people who work and reside here, rather than from extravagant tourist attractions that make a spectacle of history.  Yet, during my first foray into the Pearl River Delta region of China, I found that, unlike Hong Kong, the commoditization of culture as spectacle often obscured any connection with the authentic history I was in search of.  From my experience, I concluded that, in many ways, China is similar to the fake designed bags that permeate the country.  From a distance, one is impressed by its apparent authenticity, but on closer inspection, the mediocre detailing gives it away as a real-fake.

The speed at which China is advancing, razing old structures, and constructing new infrastructure is astounding.  This rapid proliferation of new infrastructure within the expanding Chinese metropolises is motivated by the desire to manufacture spectacle.  China appears intent on creating the illusion of wealth and prominence because it is confident that this image will spur further investment in and growth of their economy.

For the most part the display of designer buildings is impressive as long as you maintain a sensible viewing distance from the structure or remove your glasses so as to remain ignorant of the clumsy construction details.  However, my real complaint regarding the value that the Chinese place on the spectacle of the new is how this value assessment has negatively impacted the preservation, understanding, and appreciation of the role of history in their society.  This dilemma is particularly evident in the response to the mass devastation that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.  With many of China’s historic landmarks either damaged or destroyed, the Chinese were faced with the challenge of how to repair the rift in its history left by what was lost.  Unfortunately, the same technique and value judgment that is placed on the new infrastructure is applied to the restoration of the old.  Therefore, the same poor detailing that is evident in the seam of a curved glass railing of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House is also visible in the questionable mitered brick corner of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Childhood home.

Detailing Blunder in Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

Mitered brick corner in replica of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's childhood home

Apart from the prevalence of painfully amateur architectural details, the critical problem in the restoration of these historic sights is that these efforts appear to be more focused on redesigning or improving these landmarks so that they are more in line with the value that the Chinese place on the new rather than reconstructing them in a way appropriate to the design and age of the original.  For example, while visiting the former site of the historic Panyu Pao Mo garden in the suburb of Guangzhou, I was unpleasantly surprised by the flashing LED light eyes of the life-sized dragon that confronted me.

Needless to say, after two straight weeks full of this kind of spectacle I began to become frustrated and mildly disgusted by what I regarded as a flagrant mockery of China’s rich cultural history.  It was at this point that a comment made by another caused me to question whether my skeptical view was fair.  I realized that I was judging the Chinese’s representation of their history without regard to the impact that the damage to and destruction of many important relics and landmarks of their history during the cultural revolution had on their current attempts to design and construct new buildings and repair damaged landmarks.  As Guy Debord discusses in his work, “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere,” the function of the spectacle is “to bury history in culture.”  So for the Chinese, the spectacle of culture is used to conceal a lack of  physical relics of their history following the Cultural Revolution.  So, while their efforts at restoration may seem pitiful to the critical eye of a western architecture student, one must look at their efforts with a certain degree of leniency and compassion since their actions are merely attempts to repair the unfathomable loss of history that they experienced and to try to recreate something for which little or no records exist.  Therefore, what right do I have to judge their efforts?


Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, Authenticity, China, Culture, everyday, Fabric, history, Hong Kong

Absurdity, Sex, and Architecture

Our judgment of what is good or what is acceptable is widely based on what we see in the day to day as well as our own boundaries of what is exciting or simply ridiculous.  There is a degree of absurdity that makes something really interesting and exciting- that little rub of inconsistency and obscurity.   It is that little inconsistency of mystery or absurdity that sparks our interest as critics of the everyday.  In this sense, architecture is like sex.  Both seek to push boundaries in able to reach new heights of understanding.  This is portrayed and evaluated in parallel formats as we’ve seen by Rem Koolhaas, Sophia Coppola, Paulo Coelho and Godard’s own analysis.

Rem Koolhaas writes of this relationship in SMLXL.  He sites Japanese porn as this instance where it is more exciting to have the most essentials parts hidden from view.  In many Japanese pornographies the essentials are blurred out and left a mystery, revealing nothing but pixilation.  Rem relates his pixilation to miniature Mondrian paintings of flesh colored squares and dark lines.   These vague lines and color blocks reveal nothing and everything  because the excitement of what could be there is so much more promising than see the actual genitalia.  In this case it is the relationship of the unseen and the seen that relates to good architecture.  It is not the absurdity of the new and different but the allure of what could be there.  An architectural example of this is Mario Botta’s part of the Leeum Museum.   The exterior begs of mystery, giving no hint of what is inside.  The brick is pixilated unto itself, departing from what we expect it to be.  Upon entering you are shuttled to the top and forced to circulate in a downward spiral.    The cylindrical stairs are punctuated with framed views to reveal what lies ahead of you, but only as a glimpse.  When traversing each floor the circular plan furthers this selectivity.  One is never allowed to see the museum exhibit as a whole, there is no grand hallway lined with celadon blue ceramics.   Instead each piece is revealed to you in its own time, each turn you walk around allowing a new experience.   There is a constant sense of being teased by unknowing of what is around the up coming turn and never being allowed to see the whole.

In this way good architecture can vastly be related to Sophia Coppolla’s Lost in Translation.  The sexual relationship (or truly lack there of) between the film’s main characters is reflected in how the city is framed.    The sexual and visual tension between these characters is overtly apparent.  There is obvious attraction between these characters, shared feelings, but nothing is ever done about it.  They lie in bed next to each other, speaking so very intimately, but nothing physical ever happens between them.  This is reflected in how Tokyo is filmed.  In a sense, Tokyo becomes a visual embodiment of their sexual relationship.  When they positively interact we see the Tokyo Skyline from some high up floor- out of reach, beautiful and alluring in all the glory the Tokyo skyline can possess.  It is only when their relationship becomes tumultuous that we are allowed to see the city in any other way.  When there is no longer a tease or allure in those character’s relationship the city is no longer distant and alluring- it’s sonorous and crowded.  When they go out to lunch in the prime of their disgruntled state the bowels of Tokyo are shown- the street life, cars, taxis, honking, ect.

Finally, there is the attraction of the absurd.  This is an attraction we can’t help but simultaneous dislike and enjoy.  The absurd identifies with the book by Paulo Coelho Eleven Minutes.   The main character briefly gets drawn into the world of sadomasochist sex because of the clarity is brings her.  Physical pain helped to take her to the limits of what is her conceived reality.  However the absurdity involved is that each experience creates a new outlying boundary, therefore each following experience forces further exploration to get that previous high.  Each experience then becomes more absurd and desensitizing, creating greater distance from the original meaning.  A further example of this is in Godard’s Week End, a film so absurd it is literally a car crash in which you can’t help but stare.   Despite the obvious spectacle of absurdity throughout the film, the film opens by talking about a woman’s fetishized threesome.  She describes each act in her sexual encounter involving improbable positions, cracking an egg with her buttocks and cumming in a dish of milk.  Essentially these types of absurd sexual experience relates back to the absurdity of architecture.   They are removed from the everyday life, and have one far beyond that rub interesting inconsistency, so very far from its origin, that it is a bad thing.  Such architectural sites include Paju in South Korea or The Ring in Shenzhen.  Paju falls into absurdity due to the excessiveness of design.  Each building holds true in singular form but together, a town where everything is individually designed without consideration of its surroundings, becomes absurd.  It is too much and too far from its origin.   This is also true for The Ring but in a different way.  It’s the scale and perfect symmetry that makes it so absurd.  Its simply too large for anyone to walk casually, programmed or not.  Yet for some reason there is something rather enticing about both of these pieces of architecture.  For Paju, there is an allure that can’t really be explained except to say it is visually stunning.  That these publishers and stores care to define themselves by using architecture on this type of design scale is impressive.  Each building creates an identity and draw for itself.  The Ring stands to be even more impressive to me.  In a country like China, where the Great Wall can be seen from outer space, how does something as large and cumbersome as this massive ring as a centralization tool seem out of place?  It is by all means fantastical, yet still has a function that could only be fulfilled in a country such as China; in city like Shenzhen where everything is so new everyone is always looking for that next boundary to top.  But what could possibly be that next fix?

So is it better to seek that perfect mysterious moment or break out of the everyday?  Each architecture we’ve looked at through Asia and in truly in our lifetime seeks to accomplish at least one of these.  And so it is when we see these moments of inconsistency, mystery, or absurdity that makes that moment come to life and be more than simply the mundane.


Filed under: Architectural Absurdity, Architectural Spectacle, Architecture, China, Godard, Korea, Psyche, Rem Koolhaas, 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