USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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

Reproductions and Representations

A reproduction of an object is an exact replica.  If this reproduction is given a different context and environment, is it still an exact replica?  A reproduction of an entity taken out of context is no longer a reproduction, but a representation of the original.  Furthermore, an exact reproduction is impossible to come by.

The Shanghai World Expo removes each represented country from its original context.  This creates a small entity of the original country in Shanghai.  This entity is neither a true representation of the country, nor an exact representation.

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by Walter Benjamin states that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.  This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.  An ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.  Both of them, however, were equally confronted with its uniqueness, that is, its aura.”  Both the Greeks and the clerics of the Middle Ages revered the statue of Venus, yet in different ways.  An object is viewed in contrasting perspectives when given different surroundings and context, although it is the same object.

Benjamin also points out that “one’s social function removed from the field of vision.  Nothing guarantees that a portraitist of today, when painting a famous surgeon at the breakfast table in the midst of his family, depicts his social function more precisely than a painter of the 17th century who portrayed his medical doctors as representing this profession, like Rembrandt in his ‘Anatomy Lesson.’”  It does not matter if the surgeon is represented practicing his craft, or at breakfast, it is still the same surgeon.  The surgeon’s surroundings do not matter, the surgeon remains as the same person, no matter where he is currently located.  Although, when depicted at breakfast with his family, this surgeon is not identifiable as a surgeon, and rather, is just a man having breakfast with his family.

On the other hand, when a representation of an original is given a new context, where this representation would inherently never occur, the same fact does not hold true.

The representations of each country at the Shanghai Expo are not authentic.  Because taken out of context, these reproductions become false representations of the countries rather than genuine reproductions.  What do these reproductions then become?  What does this mean for the viewers who believe that these reproductions are true representations?

The countries present at the Shanghai Expo are then portrayed falsely because of the distorted context.  The viewer then interacts with these fabricated conditions, and believes that they are a true representation of the country.  For example, after visiting the Macau pavilion, at first glance, the visitor is almost meant to believe that bunnies are a large part of Macau’s identity because of the Macau pavilion’s physical appearance.

If a viewer believes they are viewing an authentic representation, then it becomes authentic for the viewer.  The viewer is then left with a false truth about the country they have just “visited” by way of the Shanghai Expo.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Architecture, Authenticity, China, Expo, Shanghai,

Around the world in 80…minutes?

A few days ago, a few of us visited Windows of the World, a Shenzhen amusement park that contains 130 scaled reproductions of some of the most famous tourist attractions in the world. Walking around the park was one of the most bizarre and ironic experiences I’ve had. In one view-frame would be superimposed in layers: New York Manhattan Island, the Easter Egg Islands, the Volcano’s of Hawaii, an Aztec Temple, the statue O Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, and the backdrop of Shenzhen high-rises. Five minutes’ walk later I would be greeted with the Egyptian pyramids at one-third scale next to the Eiffel Tower and the park monorail. The more and more I was bombarded with these peculiar and completely laughable scenes, the more the issue of authenticity versus falsity begged to be considered. In Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin states that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” By this argument, these scaled replicas – reproductions of the original ‘art’ or the historic relics themselves –  are not ‘real’ because they lack the very context and history that conditioned the original building artifact.

Windows of the World brings to mind a similar urban phenomenon more familiar to Westerners: Las Vegas. Albeit at a larger scale, Las Vegas also contains a small scale Eiffel Tower (The Venetian), roman palaces (Caesar’s Palace), the New York skyline (New York-New York), and the Egyptian pyramids (Luxor).Like Windows of the World, It contains physical imitations of the original, but unlike Windows of the World, I would argue it is entirely more ‘real’ because it doesn’t profess to replicate but rather references the original. One visits Las Vegas as a form of escapism, whereas one visits Windows of the World to see replicas. This is also an issue of identity.  Vegas exists as its own entity, contains its own unique character. Does  Windows of the World have a similar persona even though the objects that make it up lack a “presence in time and space”?

Perhaps it is the very absence of contextual presence that in itself gives ‘identity’ to Windows of the World. As our group entered the park, the main sign outside the amusement park stated in bright letters “Welcome to our World”. At first I found the sign to be completely comical and ironic: how is a representation of the artifacts of all the other countries of the earth in any way unique to ‘their’ world. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that the very fact that this replicated collection of other worlds coexist in these few physical acres becomes in fact a new ‘world’. In Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin further points out that “an ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.” Benjamin is stating that the same physical object when situated in different contexts take on different significances based on the environment that imposes those meanings on the object. The same can be said for Windows of the World. These historical artifacts no longer carry any of their original spatial or temporal contexts but rather have taken on completely new ones, meanings that have been imposed on them by their current environment, that of Shenzhen. Windows of the World and the replicas within have embraced a completely new identity, uniquely as a representation of Shenzhen – just as the Luxor, Caesar’s, and The Venetian have come to be known collectively as Las Vegas.

~ Evan Shieh

Filed under: America, Architecture, Authenticity, China, Identity, Imposed Meaning, Las Vegas, Reality, Replication, Shenzhen, Walter Benjamin, Windows of the World

Shenzhen: A Print of a Cultural Negative

Authenticity is not reproducible.  “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” is the main hypothesis of the article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  A work of art is a unique entity which cannot be reproduced under different circumstances from the original and still be considered an identical copy.  An identical copy of a piece of art can never exist.  For instance, there cannot be an authentic print of a photograph because the original conditions in which the photograph was initially taken can never be reproduced.  Does the same apply to a society’s culture?  How might an instant city go about attaining a culture which is truly their own?

Due to its rapid development within the last thirty years, the city of Shenzhen is essentially without a strong tie to any historic sense of a culture.  Shenzhen is struggling to not only define its culture, but to also create its culture from scratch.  Shenzhen’s current culture is just a print of an initial negative.  If Shenzhen is attempting to adopt China’s culture as a whole as their own, this will not be fully realized.  As “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” states, “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced…the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”  China’s historic and traditional culture will never be a part of Shenzhen’s identity.

The sense of humanity which is typically found in a city is missing in Shenzhen.  Streets appear to be barren.  A multitude of preemptive skyscrapers remain empty, waiting to be programmed and populated, and yet land is being cleared for more developments next to these desolate structures.  It is possible that Shenzhen does not require a culture in the traditional and historic sense.  Culture does not come inherently with a  newborn society, it must be developed over a period of time.  Without a culture is a society’s existence denied?  With the lack of a true human aspect, a culture is even harder to recognize.

Just like the goods being sold in the tiny, hidden market stalls of Shenzhen, the city’s culture is attempting to become a copy of a combination of China’s cultures.  Whether or not this copy is a “real copy” or a “fake copy” is yet to be determined.  If a culture is so unique that it cannot be reproduced, can a culture of reproduction become a culture in its own sense?  If the goal of a society is to fabricate a culture based on others, this culture then becomes a real culture in the sense that the society’s goal was to create  this fake culture.  Shenzhen has succeeded in attaining a culture of its own, albeit a real “fake copy” of a culture.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Architecture, Authenticity, China, Culture, Shenzhen, Uncategorized, ,

Authenticity is Overrated

A back alley in Shenzhen replete with knockoff merchandise.

Academics have long been accused of living in a state of separation from society at large.  The accusation even has its own recurrent idiom, the so-called ivory tower.  But given the strict admissions standards, high costs, and politics involved in simply being admitted to a leading university, this accusation of elitism is not altogether unfounded.  Thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer write from their privileged positions treatises on the relationship between art and authenticity with titles such as Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or the stunningly haughty The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

It’s not that Adorno and Horkheimer are wrong when they assert that “the culture industry confines itself to standardization and mass production and sacrifices what once distinguished the logic of the work from that of society”, but rather that they overstate the graveness of this sacrifice.  Further, they neglect to mention that standardization and mass production bring high art into the living rooms of ordinary Americans who would otherwise never be exposed to such profound work.  Might the artwork be diluted, removed from “its presence in time and space, its unique existence” as Benjamin insists?  Sure, but the inherent nature of masterworks is such that they are valued even in this state, even if seen behind a broken picture frame hanging from a wood veneer wall in a cheap motel.  If they weren’t, and if people weren’t still affected by their power and made the better for it, then surely no motel would spend the money to import a Chinese copy of Renaissance artwork to begin with.

With this in mind, I find it perplexing that Shenzhen has been second-guessed in its decision to create an art museum dedicated to the village of Dafen, the world’s epicenter of mass-produced and commoditized artwork.  Or that Urbanus, the stellar architecture firm behind the city’s most important public space in the Futian district, may be questioned in stepping up to design such a project as a tribute to the Shenzhen artists who preceded it.  The artwork coming out of Dafen may be fake in the corporeal sense, but demand for it across the world is very real in an economic sense.  Since economics teaches us that consumers are rational, we can infer that people derive at least some fulfillment from copied artwork.  If this is true, fretting about ‘mass deception’ would seem to be merely an exercise for those academics who have, well, a classic ivory tower disconnect from the more pressing problems of everyday life.

My question then: why did nobody propose the Dafen Art Museum sooner?

Matt Luery

Filed under: Authenticity, China, Fake-Real, mass culture, Shenzhen


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