USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

A Building’s Second Life

Robert A.M. Stern’s position to not “take new land…[but] to reclaim wasted abandonded land” advocates a new idea of revitalizing old land and buildings, giving them a second life. Furthermore, he states that abandoned land is a “result of changing patters of industry and settlement.” Since the urbanization of China, cities like Beijing and Shanghai has seen its agricultural land turn into massive scale developments to accommodate the large influx of people moving into the city needing housing. This rapid transformation has led to both the destruction and preservation of different historic reminders like old industrial factories and traditional housing structures. In the previous blog post, I referenced the Tianzifang’s revitalization into a tourist shopping and sightseeing destination. China also had industrial areas that were vacated and intended to become another housing development. However, instead of clean slating the land, artists and artisans have found a second use for these factories and thus creating China’s creative industries.

After visiting Shanghai’s M50 [Moganshan 50] and Beijing’s 798, both serve as an alternative tourist destination that does not give visitors the instant gratification which typically comes with visiting other frequented destinations like the Bund or Forbidden city. The content of both creative industries is paced differently so that the visitors that visit are interested in looking through the art and leave with their own interpretation of the art. Beijing 798 and M50 serve as prime exhibition spaces for both the famous and the up and coming artists and have the inherent concept of reusing abandoned spaces. However, they greatly differ in their intentions of displaying the art.

Urbanistically, 798 has main streets with smaller offshoots that lead to the galleries, boutiques, cafes, and studios. I was unable to fully explore 798 in 3 hours because each path led to various clusters of these programs that I wanted to uncover. The scale of 798 is larger than that of M50, and its expansiveness offets the megablock housing developments and fabric surrounding it. On the other hand, M50 utilizes the factories by subdividing them into many smaller spaces that houses similar programs that are accessible from the ground level or a centralized circulation space. M50 only occupies a small area along the Suzhou Creek and has expensive riverfront residences neighboring it. The site is pinned against a park and walkway along water edge for the public to enjoy. Across the river, more walls of housing towers rise and overlook M50 factories.  It’s location along the creek suggests the residents who live around there have a bit of wealth to purchase some of the art pieces.

The most significant difference is how the artwork displayed in the M50 and 708 galleries. The factory spaces at 798 exhibited each piece of work similar to that of a museum. However, the factories at M50 were divided into smaller spaces only allowing less space in between each artwork or sculpture, similar to products being sold at a store. Some galleries even had VIP seating areas for the patrons of the artists or galleries. M50’s attitude of selling art rather than exhibiting it for the public became apparent when I attempted to photograph the pieces I wanted to remember. I was frequently yelled at for violating the no photography rule, while at 798, I was encouraged to take my time examining the artwork and document the pieces that interested me. I could walk around without supervision while at M50, the hostess supervised me like was going to do something with the painting by looking at it for so long. At 798, the workers were interested in talking about the art and conversing with me, asking for my opinions while the ones at M50 were busy doing paperwork to kill time until a wealthy patron came to buy an art piece.

Commercially driven M50 suffers from the lack of visitation because it expects art to be bought, rather than enjoyed by the public. After going to both creative industries on a weekday, M50 is a ghost town compared to 798. 798’s generous display of art stirred interest and sparked more unexpected activities to occur like the tattoo convention and wedding shoots. Regardless, both creative industries remind visitors buildings’ pasts and their  new second life.  It is necessary to compare the success of 798 and M50 as precedents for further creative industries to follow with similar intent– to exhibit innovative art and to preserve an area’s history for generations to come.


Filed under: Beijing 798, China, commericalism, gallery, M50

Going Astray for…

Beijing’s 798 is one of China’s contemporary art districts supported by a broad range of art galleries, cafés, artist studios, bookstores, and shops. Before entering 798, I considered the irony of Beijing, being the capital of Communist China and control center of censorship, allowing social commentary charged art to be displayed. Upon entering the first gallery, every piece of art had commentary on Chinese culture, past and present. I continued through 798, and immediately stopping the Cuba Avant-Garde art show. After seeing waves of galleries displaying Chinese artists, why was it that Cuban art was able to make it to 798?

I wandered into the Xin Dong Cheng art space seeing a various display of Cuban art, understanding that most pieces had a social commentary on the Cuban socialist government. I was drawn to Rene Francisco Rodriguez pieces because of its simplicity, but its high attention to detail.

This first piece displays a monochrome composition of people forming the Cuba with a stray figure wandering off to the right corner. Upon looking closer at the drawing, everything was composed of Q-tip sized dots for each person’s head, body, and legs. Rather than painting the background gray and dotting the people in, the artist painstakingly dotted every square centimeter of the canvas, making it impossible to ignore his intention for doing so.

The dotted paint seemed to represent the idea of socialism and everyone being equal. From far away, the picture appeared as a nicely shaded island of Cuba, indicating the country as a whole unified piece. Looking closely, the human figures appear to illustrate that Cuba is composed of individuals for the same good of socialism. However, what about the Stray veering off to the right?

Socialism on paper seems like a viable political concept. But in reality, not everyone is content with its agenda and outcome. Equality is great, but how much do you have to give up in order for everyone to be at the same level? How much are people willing to sacrifice for the common good? The stray figure symbolized the individuals who weren’t able accept the socialist Cuba and left for another life, deeming themselves as outcasts of the whole picture of Cuba. Perhaps the author sees himself as this single person, using art as a way to display his feelings towards Cuba’s communist regime.

From this analysis, I started to draw connections to China. The most obvious similarity is their communist government. Both countries underwent a transformation that affected the overall lifestyle of their citizens and many fled to other countries to pursue a better life. However, since then, China has had a different interpretation of Socialism than Cuba and has yielded extreme development results. Cuba’s growth has not evolved to that of China’s and perhaps gives many individuals like the artist frustration that the whole country can’t seem to progress further. It may have also been the intention of the curator to show very subtly the uncertainty and perhaps negative aspects of communism through the Cuban lens.

Looking at China’s fast pace of development, there is a mix between Communism and Capitalism. Few would say that China is completely socialist, but many policies like the lack of land ownership still remind people of its overarching communist stance. In America, we pride ourselves for having freedom of speech and press, but when these rights are challenged, there is a notion that people don’t necessarily have the liberty to express their opinions. We also pride ourselves on democracy, which is seldom seen because few policies are decided to benefit the people. As a communist country that has extreme censorship and human rights issues, China has been able to benefit its people with infrastructure, while America the Free is busy with airline companies lobbying against high-speed rail. The rate of progress for China has increased exponentially while the United States’ has slowed to a snail pace if not halted in the past decade.

The Stray in the painting is leaving Cuba, but where is it going? At this point the communist/capitalist hybrid system of China produces results while the United States, which advertises freedom and democracy, is stuck in a development slumber. Will the stray turn back, go to a country that has a similar system, but yields results, or a country that “promises” liberty?


Filed under: America, Beijing 798, Capitalism, China, development, promises, Reality, Rene Fransico Rodriguez, social commentary, socialism


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