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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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.

_Joyce

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

Duality of the City

The phenomenon of city growth illustrates much more than the physical manifestation of the physical urban environment. It is both the physical and the metaphysical that encompass the complexity of urban architecture and the individual experience of the everyday life. In essence, we can say that the city, as a metropolis, exists and functions with dualistic tendencies; it is material and immaterial, public and private, past and present. Most Chinese cities, especially, Beijing, have had a long cultural history leading up to the end of the 20th century. However, the recent jump from the city in response to global modernization has created an uneven displacement of old city versus new city fabric. As a consequence of this vast expansion of new cultural production, the modern Chinese city is continuously operating within a zone intersecting the real, surreal, and the extinct city. In Xiaoshuai Wang’s film Beijing Bicycle, the characteristic urban qualities of the city and urban everyday are portrayed and focused through the discourse of old versus new. Wang’s visualization through thematic means conveys the disparage between the quintessential image of Beijing against the backdrop of the city’s transformation into a contemporary metropolis.

The film is mainly focused on the built form, the manifestation of the development and change of Beijing’s fabric from old, panoramic hutongs, to tall, vertical skyscraper cities. I am reminded of a telling scene, where Wang depicts the modernization of Beijing through a series of sequences showing the congestion of car traffic. Yet within this gridlock, we see the seamless flow of bicycles, old and young alike, weave through traffic in-sync creating a wonderful image of order amidst chaos. Wang’s fast-paced thematic vision encompasses the physical spaces in an intimate fashion, revealing the microcosm of the crowded, dirty, and narrow alleys of the hutong districts. These images are all portrayals of Wang’s image of the urban everyday life; crisscrossing alleyways, compactness are in fact the reality of the everyday to most rural immigrants. Wang’s focus is not on the modernization of Beijing, although he does pay respect to it, but rather a depiction into the disappearing fabric of old Beijing; the result of urbanization and metropolitan living. The cinematic experience of Beijing Bicycle presents a focus on a city that has been shaped by many different portrayals that have often hidden or eradicated the true urban. The thematic context presents a rather disjunctive view of Beijing as polemical, sprawled, and diverse; it is an illustration of the Beijing’s change from historical to modernity/commercial. And yet within the chaos and confusion, the city is the setting and container in which people’s lives take place. The story of a country boy who tries to make it in the big city is intertwined with a schoolboy struggling to gain the attention and recognition he desperately desires. The result is a wonderful narrative of two lives meeting and changing each other. All in all, the image of the city is never repetitive nor homogenous, never merely a single portrayal, but a combination of many images and experiences. Through Beijing Bicycle, Wang hopes to convey the sentiment that perhaps the city transcends just the material, but becomes more representative about the experiential and metaphysical.

_Jonathan

Filed under: Architecture, Beijing, beijing bicycle, China, cinema, Duality, film, history, hutong, Modernization, physical, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Xiaoshuai Wang

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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.

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AAU FALL 2013:

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

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
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
Students:
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