USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Revitalized by Programming

Buildings go through life cycles, a time period in which the use of the building no longer suites its original purpose. Some developers choose to knock down and start over, but others choose a different approach by reprogramming, and creating a new life out of something that flat lined. Here in China, we have seen a couple of precedents that reexamined the potential for old warehouses, by converting them into trendy creative industries.

Through gentrification, old warehouse districts have been converted into lofts, studios, galleries, cafes, shops, event spaces, and coffee houses. By tailoring these projects towards artists, collectors, and the public, these districts start to become thriving communities, allowing artists to live and work amongst their clients and other artists. These vibrant settings bring people from all over to appreciate artwork, and also to support the parasitic programs. Through successful gentrification, these creative industries become their own ecosystems that support art and the community.

We had the opportunity to visit a couple creative industries in China, The first one we visited was called OCT in Shenzhen, which was designed by Urbanus. Looking at an old warehouse district they were able to use the shells of the existing buildings, and retrofit them with gallery spaces, creative offices, lofts, and cafes. A steel and glass network of bridges, corridors, and storefronts, parasitically connect and feeds off of the existing fabric. This parasitic network grows through the different warehouses creating a communal public space that connects the multitude of retrofitted loft buildings. This contrast of new and old creates this distinctive texture that allows the two systems to be understood for their individual characteristics, and collectively as a way to create a unique public condition. The project is still under construction, but one could imagine these parasitic connections filled with people actively participating and being a part of the creative industry.

798 district in Beijing, created a creative industry by taking over an old artillery factory that was no longer used for manufacturing. 798’s quaint town atmosphere is created through its different street scales including: a major artery cutting through the district, side streets focusing on a smaller more intimate scale, and pedestrian friendly alleyways full of tiny shops, and art. The streets are lined with galleries marked by intricate entryways that carve into the old fabric, giving a fresh edge and identity to the individual warehouses. As you move from gallery to gallery you pass through a series of vaulted spaces and pristine white walls, contrasting the rough brick and aged wood. This district creates more of an attraction than a community, but the specificity allows the creative industry to be very unique, and engaging to the public. By taking out the sterile atmosphere and high admission fees, 798 creates a completely different setting for art that in my opinion, can become more appealing to a broader range of people. Art museums have their place, but this different setting gives art a new audience and appreciation.

The interesting design element behind these creative industries is the importance of program. These buildings were designed with the intentions of manufacturing, and ended up becoming vibrant creative industries. Instead of the buildings being torn down, the shells of the buildings were recycled and given a new life. The importance of program is not necessarily in the form of the space; rather it is in the strategy of program allocation, and finding a concept that creates stimulating environments. The ability to create culturally rich, and vibrant public spaces, out of something that was once intended for private mass production, demonstrates the importance of program strategy. As architects we may not have control of what happens to our projects when we finish the initial design stages, but if we envision interesting concepts, and strategic program strategies, we will hopefully see our ideas successfully carried on. If not the project may be reprogrammed to better fit its users, and sometimes that is just as exciting too.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: 798, Architecture, Art, Beijing, China, Culture, Districts, Gentrification, OCT, Parasitic, Program, Programming, Renjilian, Renovation, Revitalized, Ross, Shenzhen, Urbanism, Urbanus, , ,

Mobility and The Automobile II

CHINA/ united states

China is currently undergoing rapid rates of development. As China becomes stronger as a nation, we are starting to see quantitative data that is truly jaw dropping. Throughout China, within the next twenty years, they are looking at creating 400 new airports to be built throughout the country, and the talk of airports only begins to touch the surface. With each of these airports, come complex connection systems including high-speed rails, local rails, subways, and intense highways connecting automobile and bus networks. All of these connections happening at a single node create the ability to connect these nodes creating a dense network of fluid transportation from city center to city center. This master plan is also being executed at an extraordinary speed, and if successful the ability for people to move from city to city will better promote larger distributions of people and commerce throughout China. With this robust network of public transportation, the role for automobiles in China starts to become almost insignificant. When you can get from Hong Kong to Shenzhen in approximately 14 minutes, why would you travel the hour it takes to get there by car?

The truth is though that the car is still a very important player in China, and this is mostly due to foreign influence and China’s new “capitalistic” business model. The car is still marketed as a luxury item. In china you see a higher distribution of luxury name brands on the road compared to other countries. These high-class automakers have launched their campaigns across China, and China has bought into their luxury model. In order to get a car in China, you not only have to buy the car, but you also have to buy the limited, distributed license plates. It is through this exclusivity that makes the car a luxury item within itself, through the basic principals of supply and demand. The role of the car in China is not necessarily driven based on transportation needs; rather it is based on image, wealth, and social standing.

These ideas of social standing through materialistic objects are demonstrated in the film “Beijing Bicycle”. The film focused on lower, middle, and upper classes of Beijing, and the tensions that exist amongst the three classes. The story’s true protagonist was actually a bicycle, which literally was passed back and forth through the different social classes. Guie’s character represented the lower class, where he was currently stuck. Guie was the first to obtain this shiny, new mountain bike that allowed him to experience and work for a middle class life. It was through this material object where he literally saw a better future for himself, in which other characters commented on how this Bike will truly raise him out of poverty. On the other hand, Jian represented the middle class in Beijing, and he also obtained the same bike for duration of the film. The bike was used as a way to blend in with his classmates. When the bike was out of Jian’s possession he immediately felt insignificant, and alienated himself from his peers. This contrast on the importance of a single bike to two completely different people and classes shows the power behind materialistic objects in China.

The end of “Beijing Bicycle” framed a street view, and the power of this image really summed up the complexity material objects have in China. The streetscape seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary for Beijing. The difference was the filter that the film set up to view this scene. After watching the impact one bicycle had on two completely different people, demonstrated the power of material objects in Chinese culture. The streetscape then took the idea of the bike and applied it to the automobile. The street was busy with car traffic up and down the center of the streets, and pushed off to the side was another lane of strictly bicycle traffic. This image addressed the idea on how severe social issues are in China, and how obtaining material items for transportation has become one of the key players in determining social standing.

The automobile plays significant roles not only in America, but also in China. In America the idea of necessity plays a crucial part on why we have so much dependence on the automobile. In Contrast, China could technically function without cars, but the idea of luxury plays a larger role in why cars have become so widely accepted. When the car gets put up on a pedestal, as the glorified form of transportation there is no doubt that it will create the desire to obtain one. With China pumping out more and more licenses every day, soon supply will meet demand, and we will start to see the car becoming more obtainable to the Chinese people, very much how the car became more obtainable to the American People. With China’s extreme infatuation with the intrinsic properties of materialistic objects, I question how far off they are from becoming another form of a congested America? With their new market driven economy the idea of ego will take larger precedent than with the ideas of a functioning society. Will the automobile become the new bicycle? If this does become the situation, then China will greater influence a two-tiered society, in which the car will act as one of the greater obstacles for the lower and middle class to overcome.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: AAU, Architecture, Automobile, Beijing, Bicycle, Car, China, Circulation, Congestion, Public, Renjilian, Ross, Transportation, Uncategorized, Urbanism, , , ,

The Sleeping Giant

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

-General Isoroku Yamamoto after the bombing of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

The Harvard-educated Yamamoto, quoted above, accurately predicted the insurmountable awakening of the United States industrial machine as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II and forever altered the international power structure of the 20th century. For the rest of the century, the United States would be the benchmark by which the rest of the world measured itself, in regards to economics, politics, infrastructure, and industrial might. That was then. This is now. At the dawn of the 21st century, the sleeping giant that was awakened by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor is asleep once again, sedated by complacency on the world stage. While the rising stars of China and India work steadfastly day and night to reach the plateau currently occupied by the red, white, and blue, the Lone Superpower nation squabbles within its ranks, letting the partisan politics of its Republic keep its eye within itself, not on the world around it.

The encapsulation of the nations current predicament can be seen in the topic of high-speed rail development. At present, China, amongst other top economies in the Asia, have, are developing various high-speed rail systems in order to lay a solid infrastructural foundation that is needed for their growing countries. This is not an Asian phenomenon though. Western Europe famously has one of the most thorough and efficient rail-networks in the world. Once one is in a European country, they have unlimited access to the rest of the continent by train, instead of by plane. It is cheaper and more efficient to move by train.

The U.S., however, has seen little logic or appeal for this infrastructure layer of high-speed rail. Why take a high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco when one of the many airlines can offer a relatively low price?

O, let me count the ways.

For examples-sake, let’s imagine that you are flying out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for a business meeting in San Francisco. There’s no problem, the flight is only about an hour long, much faster than using any high-speed rail that would take about two hours and forty minutes (according to California High-Speed Rail Authority Development). But wait, there is that transit time just to get to LAX and then security, and knowing that there is guaranteed to be traffic in route, so you have to give yourself at least two hours just to get to the airport. So, in all, we are talking about three hours just to get to San Francisco International Airport, where you will then have to arrange for another travel means of getting to your business meeting inside the city, and not twenty minutes south of the city where the airport is. Then again, if you took the high-speed rail, not only could you have gotten to the Bay Area more quickly, but also then transferred to the efficient Bay Area Rapid Transit train system that would have brought you even closer to your destination. Not only is the high-speed rail connecting the major urban nodes of San Francisco to Los Angeles, but it is also connecting the two cities micro-transit systems.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

O.K., American Public, you are still not impressed with the fact that you would save more time and possibly money by taking the high-speed rail. A high-speed rail development would also boost the economic growth along the entire rail network. We are in a recession are we not? Imagine being able two live in central California and be able to work in either the San Francisco or Los Angeles area, without paying the often-outrageous living and property costs. It might take you an hour to get to work, but what’s the difference between spending an hour on the train and an hour stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway. We have already seen the economic impact of Japan’s bullet train. According to the Shanghai Daily, the Shinkansen, connecting Tokyo and Osaka (two of Japan’s largest cities) has “rejuvenated rural towns that would otherwise be too distant from major cities.” Not only are “living costs lower [in the in-between areas], but residents can commute to either city while the city’s own business will be developed.” This practice has also been put into use in China, where a high-speed rail planned between Shanghai and Hangzhou will, according to article in the Shanghai Daily, “eventually integrate the cities and force Hangzhou businesses to become more competitive.”

This is known as the Dumbell Effect. You’ve seen it already, America, every time you go to your local malls. Have you not noticed how your Nordstrom’s, and your Macys chains anchor the ends of the mall, with smaller retailers in between? The larger retailers act as the points that draw you, the shopper, through the mall from one end to the other, with the in-between smaller retailers benefiting from this movement. Imagine that on more macro-scale, such as California.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

Are we starting to get the picture?

“No,” replies the airline industry, “the high-speed rail would kill our already fragile industry. We couldn’t take that competition.” Competition. Capitalism. Is that not what this country thrived on for so many decades? Competition not only with the rest of the world, but within ourselves, has made our country better as a whole. We live in an era of globalization, where not only are the world’s economies connecting with one another through trade and technology, but everything is shared, most of all information. We are living in an era of supermodernism, where our cities are growing similarly and facing the same problems as well. The sprawl of Los Angeles and the issues it is facing are some of the same ones that Beijing and Madrid are facing as well. There is bumper-to-bumper traffic on the streets alongside Tiananmen Square just as there is gridlock on the streets alongside Pershing Square.

::Punching the sleeping giant::

“O, China is a developing country. Of course they are going to have those types of problems.”

Then what is our excuse for having those problems? We are the Long Superpower! Even worse, what is our reason for doing little or nothing about it? Partisan, partisan, partisan. Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green Party, Tea Party: everyone wants to do it their way, or no way at all.

Randai O’Toole writes in his USA TODAY article “We can’t afford the luxury of high-speed rail,” about how the enormous cost of implementing a high-speed rail system is too high and not worth the cost. He writes how the $500 billion cost of President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail proposal is comparable to the $450 billion paid to the Interstate Highway System, “which provides more than 4,000 miles of passenger travel for every American, miles that Americans were not traveling before the system was built. Mr. O’Toole, when was the Interstate Highway system put in place? If my memory serves me correctly, it was after World War II. You’re going to sit there and write that an infrastructural system over half a century old is still serving our country adequately, even in a new century? Please tell that to millions of Los Angeles citizens who spend hundreds of hour in gridlock every year. And no, adding another lane to the 605 freeway is not going to alleviate traffic congestion enough so there is not traffic grid-lock seven days a week.

::Kicking the giant::

Mr. O’Toole goes on to make the claim the high-speed rail would only serve the urban elite.

“Since most high-speed rail stations will be in downtowns, the main users will be downtown workers such as lawyers, bankers, and government officials. Yet less than 8% of American jobs are in central city downtowns, meaning all Americans will subsidize trains used by only a small urban elite.”

So, Mr. O’Tool, are you saying that only the urban elite of New York utilizes the cities subway and commuter rail transit systems? Or how about how the upper class is the main user group on the Los Angeles metro lines everyday during rush hour? Recheck the demographics of public transportation user groups and you will find that fair majority of its users are of the lower and middle class.

“High-speed trains in Europe and Asia may be a boon to American tourists, but they haven’t proved transformational in those regions either. France and Japan have the world’s most extensive high-speed rail networks, yet their average residents ride the high-speed trains less than 400 miles a year.”

“Haven’t transformed those regions either.” Is Japan, along with the United States, one of the top economies in the world? Have you been to Tokyo, Mr. O’Toole? Perhaps one of the reasons that the average resident rides the high-speed train less than 400 miles a year is because the geographic area of Japan is only 145, 925 square miles with a population of 127 million people (that’s 873 people per square mile), compared that to the United States, with an area of 9.8 million square miles with a population of 310 million (83 people per square mile). It is also perhaps that more often than not, the average Japanese person’s home and work is often in close vicinity because of the country’s small area. And if they do not live in close proximity to their work, Japan’s metro and commuter transit system is one of the most widely used and efficient means by which to travel. In the United States, where the average American might work in the city but live in the suburbs, the conceptual framework for the argument changes.

As for high-speed rail not transforming regions, look at the high-speed rail being put into place between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, two Chinese cities with populations of fifteen and seven million respectively. An hour drive separates the two cities, but will soon be connected by a high-speed rail that will move users from one city to the other in 14 minutes. 14 minutes. It is estimated that the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Metropolis will be amongst the largest metropolises in the world, containing a population of over 20 million people. America’s largest city is New York City, a mere eight million. How’s that for transforming a region, Mr. O’Toole?

::Dropped piano on the sleeping giant::

Come on, America, you can’t afford not to wake up.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: American mall, BART, Bay Area, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Beijing, California, Dumbell Effect, economic growth, Economics, Globalization, high speed rail, Hong Kong, Infrastructure, Interstate Highway System, japan, Los Angeles, lower class, middle class, Osaka, partisan, Pearl Harbor, Politics, President Barrack Obama, randai o'toole, rural, san francisco, Shenzhen, Shinkansen, sleeping giant, supermodernism, Tokyo, traffic, Uncategorized, upper class, urban areas, usa today, World War II, Yamamoto,

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.


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

A City In Motion

Sitting amidst Beijing’s afternoon rush-hour congestion, I couldn’t help but be lulled to sleep by the melodic ebb and flow of traffic.  It had been two months since I relinquished my automotive lifestyle and Beijing’s daily commutes couldn’t have been more effective at remedying my symptoms of homesickness.  Our perception of the city was becoming ever more framed by the windows of our tour bus as it traversed the congested network of concentric ring roads.  This was a far cry from the bicycle-laden Beijing of two decades prior, when navigating the city by human power alone was a viable option.  Now, as the city wraps up construction of its 6th ring road, which will undoubtedly not be its last, the human experience is increasingly being consumed by automotive gridlock.  The prevalence of this phenomenon can be attributed to China’s recent jump in rates of car ownership, even surpassing that of the United States.  In an attempt to kick-start China’s automotive industry, personal automobiles are being targeted as the preferred form of transport.  Many residents are driving their cars as status symbols – bicycles are perceived as third world entities and subways are characteristically proletarian – rather than because the car gets them to their destination more quickly.

The Chinese are betting heavily on infrastructure as the foundation for long-term economic growth, but whether that infrastructure entails road networks or regional rapid transit is an important distinction to be made.  Looking at two of China’s fastest developing cities, Shenzhen and Shanghai, there is a clear dichotomy in the approach to urban infrastructure.  After the fall of the Maoist regime, Deng Xiaoping set up the “Guangdong model” which consisted of removing government interference and handing infrastructural development over to the private sector.  If the private sector didn’t deem public transport as an integral part of the city’s future growth it would simply not invest in it.  As a result, Shenzhen’s first subway line was not completed until a year ago, since the road network was assumed to be sufficient.  After Deng Xiaoping came Jiang Zemin hailing from Shanghai.  The “Shanghai model” he proposed was much more government influenced, much more planned and controlled.  It was grounded on the provision of a public infrastructure on which industry could thrive.  If Shanghai’s projected population growth of 20 million residents by 2020 were to rely on the automobile alone, the streets would be overburdened and mobility would come to an utter standstill.  Extensive regional public transit thus became the only logical response for China’s rapid urbanization and the “Shanghai model” has since become the dominant approach to infrastructural development.

Commuting via metro around Shanghai over the past few weeks has given me a first hand experience and appreciation for this “Shanghai model”.  Just fifteen years after establishing its first metro line, Shanghai now holds the title of having the world’s longest network of rapid transit with a total of 420km of line and 282 stations.  This feat is even more remarkable considering Shanghai has only completed half of its rapid transit expansion plans.  By 2020, “this city alone will have more rapid transit mileage than the entire country of Japan.”  So although the flow of rural immigrants into municipalities will likely increase over the next decade, cities like Shanghai will be aptly prepared for a sustainable growth in density.  Nate Stein in his article Sky’s the Limit in Well Planned City of Shanghai, outlines the significance of having rapid transit systems for the convenience of commuters to reach various nodal destinations across the city; “Besides geographic and political boundaries, a city may have an invisible boundary at the distance that is about 45 minutes from downtown.  Beyond this border, people will look for work outside of the downtown area to avoid the long commute.”  He goes on to say that Shanghai’s growth potential was greatly expanded when its ‘invisible border’ was pushed further outwards as a result of its extensive subway system.

Moving beyond the economic and political ramifications of infrastructural development, there is huge potential for Chinese cities to dictate the quality of the human experience.  So much of a city dwellers day-to-day life revolves around getting from one part of the city to another.  How people traverse urban fabric, whether it be horizontally or vertically, efficiently or inefficiently, collectively or individually, directly affects their quality of living.  In Xiaoshuai Wang’s Beijing Bicycle, the act of cycling through Beijing’s vibrant hutongs gives a romanticized view of the city – whilst my personal experience of the city was more characteristic of the never-ending traffic jam in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End.  While cycling allows the user to move at their own pace and dictate their own path, the automobile restricts one’s movement to the road and puts them at the mercy of existing road conditions.  Conversely, there is a sense of scale in Beijing Bicycle, which seems to foster human interactivity.  People cross paths spontaneously or ride in groups through a maze of narrow alleys and streets – it certainly leaves the motorist with something to be desired.

As our time in Asia winds down, I can’t help but be reminded of my own human experience back home in Los Angeles.  In light of the remarkable gains of the “Shanghai model”, Los Angeles doesn’t appear to have an optimistic outlook for it’s economic and infrastructural development.  What took Shanghai three years to complete will take Los Angeles a painstakingly long 30 years (2039 being the projected completion date of 3 new metro lines).    Until decisive action is taken to prepare for our increasingly urban futures, I can only hope that the extra lane on the I-405 will shorten my daily commute.

Bryn Garrett

Yonah Freemark.Shanghai’s Metro, Now World’s Longest, Continues to Grow Quickly as China Invests in Rapid Transit.”  The Transport Politic

Filed under: Beijing, Bicycle, China, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Subway, Urbanism

“Terrain Vague”

While in Beijing, our group visited district 798, one of China’s contemporary art and cultural industries. While most of us, including me, went into the many galleries to observe the various art exhibitions that were put up, I spent the majority of the time walking the back alleys, hidden corners, and deserted streets that make up district 798, looking for something else. Just as much as the art contained in the designated galleries intrigued me, so did the ‘art’ that many of us take for granted, art that exists not in designated sheltered spaces but that which exists in these alleyways: graffiti.

During a workshop in Seoul, the term ‘terrain vague’ was employed to describe socially and functionally undefined urban space. The lexical meaning of ‘terrain vague’ also includes ‘vacancy’, ’emptiness’, and ‘absence’ while at the same time holding a possibility for meaning or function to be applied to these non-confirmed spaces. In contemporary modern architecture, many buildings are designed today as ‘objects’ – focal points of form and the space they contain, yet many times completely insecure of their relationship to the urban space that the building exists in. These object buildings tend to exist in an absent state, autonomously broadcasting the obsessive authorship of the architect and their arrogance in form-making. Buildings like these tend to homogenize the space displaced around them that is just as much a part of the existing urban texture as designed urban space.

At the time, I hadn’t truly grasped the meaning of this term, but walking through district 798 it became more and more clear to me what Professor Koo was referring to. ‘Terrain vague’ is urban space with no meaning, and it is artists like these that define this ‘leftover’ space. Often times, the ‘negative’ space or space ‘poche’ that is created by object buildings on a site become unaddressed and left homogenized. Spaces like back alleys, corridors, ‘butt’ ends of buildings are now becoming inhabited by graffiti artists not necessarily concerned with the money, fame, or the credit their ‘high-end’ art counterparts produce and display in galleries. Rather, they are much more concerned with a sub-cultural movement of rebellion, often expressing social or political commentary. It is activities like these now give these neglected ‘negative’ building spaces meaning, giving a social and cultural intention to spaces in the urban fabric unaddressed by the buildings that make them.

Walking through the alleyways of district 798, I was reminded very much of a famous grafitti artist based in the UK who goes by the code-name of Banksy. Banksy’s works have dealt with an array of political and social themes including anti-capitalism, anarchism, and existentialism, with commentary on the human conditions of greed, hypocrisy or despair. Banksy claims that graffiti art is much more ‘true’ to the art form because it is uninhibited and uncensored by the limitations placed on ‘high-end’ art: like the cost of entering and viewing it in a gallery, or the spatial and dimensional constraints demanded by galleries or patrons. Unlike traditional applications where type, layout, and design serve the needs of buyers and sellers, artists like Banksy through irony and sarcasm create with no social pressure and labels such as ‘success’ or ‘failure’, carry no allegiance to anyone.

While shunned by some as vandalism and deemed by many city officials as illegal, Graffiti writing is growing to become an integral part of global fashion, music, graphic design, and illustration. In trying to understand how counter intuitive shifts are eventually accepted by society, architect Bernard Tschumi wrote in his treatise, Violence in Architecture , “If the Sistine Chapel were used for pole-vaulting events, architecture would then cease to yield to its customary good intensions. For a while the transgression would be real and all-powerful. Yet the transgression of cultural expectations soon becomes accepted. Just as violent Surrealist collages inspire advertising rhetoric, the broken rule is integrated into everyday life.” Recognize that graffiti, just like architecture and other modes of meaning or concept that is given a graphic or formal interpretation by said artist or architect, becomes as Tschumi describes it: just a pause in which our current violation that can be absorbed and one day become accepted in society. Architectural space doesnt exist as a framework of function unless imbued with meaning or intention. The activities performed in spaces like the Sistine Chapel whether that be something as absurd as pole vaulting, or graffiti artists in spaces like the alleyways of 798s, give definition to that space; over time these transgressions of new activities become integrated into society and everyday life.

~ Evan Shieh

Below is a dark and politically charged opening sequence that Banksy did for the Simpsons, aired just a month ago on Oct. 10/2010. Anybody else reminded of the ‘real copy’ art production in China discussion we had and rethinking what it really means to be ‘Made in China’.

Filed under: Architecture, Banksy, Beijing, Bernard Tschumi, China, District 798, Graffiti, Graffiti Artists, negative space, Terrain Vague, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Video

The tree does not exist.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Does this tree even fall?

If this tree is not real for anyone, it does not exist.

How does one ground work in a living social context versus just raising consciousness?

Trevor Paglen’s Experimental Geography: From Cultural Production to the Production of Space states that “humans create the world around them and that humans are, in turn, created by the world around them. In other words, the human condition is characterized by a feedback loop between human activity and our material surroundings. In this view, space is not a container for human activities to take place within, but is actively ‘produced’ through human activity. The spaces humans produce, in turn, set powerful constraints upon subsequent activity.” Does the space define its use or does the use define its space? Spaces are “produced” by its users. However, the inherent nature of a space also aids in producing human activity.

Without human activity, space would cease to exist as a usable function. If the space remains unused, does it still exist as space? Or as a vacuum? A black hole? A void?

If a real space cannot exist without human activity, how can one differentiate between an illusion and what is real? With no living social context, an entity is not in existence. When given a living social context, an entity becomes tangible, even if the entity only exists for the human who has produced this context.

Is there a difference between reality and a dream world? If the user is put into a surreal environment, this environment becomes real for the user. Because human activity has realized this environment, it exists for all users. Is one forced to become a member of society? If the surreal is real to them, why can’t one live in the surreal? Space does not exist if it has no user, yet the surreal can exist if it has one follower.

In Beijing’s 798 Arts District, the artist Liu Xiaofang had an exhibit in one of the gallery spaces. She writes, “we all have our own childhood memory, they can become twisted and unrealistic over time.” Her triptych depicts “a little girl…she seems emotionless with all her feelings blend into a state of day dreaming.” One image shows the girl staring at a cloud in the sky, while the next image illustrates the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. If this little girl has a daydream about the cloud in fact being a mushroom cloud, this bomb existed for her. The bomb then becomes palpable, if even only for the little girl. If a fabricated memory is remembered as the truth, this memory becomes real.

The nonexistence of an unused space is similar to China’s censorship of free speech. To the Chinese, everything they are not allowed to be exposed to does not exist because they lack knowledge of it. To those who can see through the veil of censorship, censorship does not exist. If one knows that a censored item truly does exist beyond censorship, but one is not able to access it, what does this article become? Is it real? Fake? Nonexistent? Momentarily nonexistent?

If an individual cannot express their thoughts because of the lack of free speech, these thoughts only exist to the individual. They do not exist for anybody else. For a specific user, if something does not exist for that user, it does not exist at all.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Beijing, censorship, China, existence, space

Factory 798-In the middle of the Beijing Dichotomy

During our time in Beijing, our group was fortunate enough to spend part of a day at the Factory 798, a former industrial-turned-artist district in the Chao-yang district of Beijing. Although there is a factory named ‘Factory 798,’ the district is made up of a number of former factories that now house artist studios, exhibitions, shops, cafes, and restaurants. The genesis of the area began when artists moved into the industrial complex after the factories were deemed obsolete and shut down. There have been several attempts by the government and developers, who want to bulldoze the area and put in expensive developments, to shut down the area. Fortunately, such attempts have failed and the 798 zone is thriving.

While touring the complex, I came across an exhibition by the artist Wang Du entitled Top Secret-Flying Carpet III. Wang Du employed incredibly complex pencil drawings composed of objects relating to aerospace and the Forbidden City, two entities that seemed completely unrelated to me. The fighter jets depicted in the drawings were incredibly dynamic, their movements sketched over and over again in a progression across the canvas. This movement eventually created one connected motion of the same fighter jet, making it difficult to recognize one full fighter jet by itself.  When the aircraft were depicted on the same canvas as the Forbidden City, the two were draw separately, only connected by movement lines that indicated that their movement originated from the city, which seemed to float in space by itself.

Wang Du’s pieces caused me to reflect on why he would chose to depict these two unrelated objects and with just pencil, leaving them colorless and in black and white. Much of the contemporary art that I had viewed prior in the day had many colors and their message, critical to say the least, was more clearly viewable.

From what I am able to deduce from the Top-Secret gallery is that Wang Du is commenting on the secrecy, and further more the dichotomy imagery, that Beijing possesses. The southern part of Beijing is the location of the country’s aerospace industry. The aerospace industry in China is a state-run military industry and thus a highly top-secret. The secretive nature of the industry has prevented the growth that much of the rest of Beijing has seen in terms of commercial, financial, and residential center growth. Wang Du’s pieces are making a modern-day reference to the days when the Forbidden City was off limits in the manner that the aerospace industry is in present day. Now that the Forbidden City has become a tourist attraction, does this mean that China is finally completely open? No. Instead, in a society that lacks the imperial family, the industry of military technology and government control, has taken its place as the hush-hush medium of the day.

Beijing has become a city of black and white, with Factory 798 acting as the grey mediator that allows us to see both sides. If the top-secret aerospace industry of southern Beijing represents the black, then the Olympic Village represents the white. The Olympic Village, located just north of the Forbidden City, is the epitome of the image that Beijing wants to relay to the international community. That much was seen in China’s preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, where the government would bulldoze entire undesirable areas overnight because they did not want them to be seen.

The fact that both the aviation industry and the Olympic Village are both along the north-south axis created by the Forbidden City links them all together. So if this is the scene that the artist has painted for the viewer, what role do areas like Factory 798 play? Factory 798 offers an alternative interpretation of Chinese society in contrast to places like Tiananmen Square, where the Chinese Communist ideology is touted gloriously. 798 offers a glimpse into the grey region that is not commented on by CCTV or read about in the papers. It offers the opportunity for Chinese artists to utilize and showcase their own critical lens of Chinese society when they are unable to do elsewhere without reprisal from the government.

We see a similar set up in Shanghai, with the creative industry M50, which is similar to Factory 798, but on a smaller scale. Nevertheless, the soul of the two is the same: expression. In looking at it from an international perspective, one begins to question the presence of such creative industries not only in China, but also in countries like the United States, where there are no political or social boundaries to creativity and expression. Why is there not an abundance of Factory 798‘s and M50‘s in a country that would be completely open to their existence. The creative industry circuit in the U.S. could be accurately described as scattered and decentralized. Artists do not feel the need to gather together and instead rather stand alone. This perception of the individual is where the cultural differences between a nation like the U.S. contrasts to that of China, which is primarily focused on the whole. There is safety in numbers in China and this has resulted in an intriguing and continual growth of places like Factory 798.

One might wonder why the Chinese government could even fathom allowing a place where capitalistic creativity and expression can run freely. Yet this is the same government who has advocated the creation of cities like Shenzhen and encouraged the existence of cities like Hong Kong, who utilize capitalism as a means of operation. By implementing contrasting economic operational methodologies, as well as political and social ideologies, China has thus seen a creation of the ‘in-betweens,’ which has been the most fascinating observation as of yet.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: aerospace industry, Art, Beijing, Capitalism, communism, creative industries, critical art, factory 798, in-between, olympic village, top secret, Uncategorized, wang du

Growing Pains

In the early 1980’s. China’s economic policy went through a major change, combining both a centralized, socialist government structure with a market-based strategy in order to raise the standard of living. Consequently, China has been on a incredible growth-run for the past decade, and even more so recently, surpassing Japan as the second largest economy in the world. China’s game of “catch-up” with the rest of the world powers has no doubt resulted in a growing effort to revitalize and create a new image of China as an emerging world power both in terms of economics and politics. As the so-called “sleeping giant” emerges in the next decades, the eyes of the world rest upon China as the next big experiment/spectacle. With such international acclaim and pressure, the Chinese government has really made hard efforts to propel the new national and modern image to the rest of the world.

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing marked one of the greatest events in China over the past half-century. It was one of the first real efforts of China to embrace the notion of globalization by hosting an international phenomenon within their country. For a country that had for a long time retained much pride in its separation from the West, this was a major step toward a new China that had a global perspective in mind. International corporations, businesses, industries, and of course architects like Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron made a stake in cities like Beijing, rich in traditional culture. But the problem became apparent that a culture clash was evident. The rapid pace of development in such places like Beijing threatened the existing culture that had been there for centuries. Old fabric of traditional hutongs was being wiped and replaced by mega-block office towers or hotels/apartment complexes. And yet, with all this growth and modernizing developments, the congestion and environmental repercussions are enormously daunting, from the LA-like haze that fills the skies to the gridlocked intersections that plague the ring roads around the city. The image of modernization, clichéd with glass office towers and high-rise residential blocks lining the sky was what China was aiming for, but the consequences, as a result, has not really increased the standard of living at all.

Shanghai’s World Expo 2010 provides yet another instance of “country branding” China has instigated. The blocks upon blocks of the world’s finest architecture, all congregating in Shanghai speaks enormously about China’s global reach and political power to host such an event. However, behind the pretty pieces of architecture that line the waterfront still lies a third-world, poverty stricken class of people who make a large part of the social structure within China. Even though China has branded it’s own successful kind of market-driven economics to compete globally, it has precipitated a greater schism between the elite and lower classes. It’s amazing to see such beautiful pavilions, but even more amazing and mind-boggling to see people spitting in one! The point is, China may have propagated this image of clean and modern, but the people are a different story. The constant pushing and pulling in line, the spitting, the trash throwing, etc. are all cultural conditions of behavior that have been long accepted. You cannot possibly instill a new ideology within a cultural generation that has been nurtured upon long-standing socialist policies. Keeping in mind that China is still in its growing pains, perhaps the only hope is to look onto the new generation of Chinese consumers who are becoming more and more globally aware/functional and mindful of their role in a world totally beyond their own.


Filed under: Architecture, Beijing, China, economy, Image, modern, shanghai expo, sleeping giant, third-world, Urbanism


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