USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Twilight Zone

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man it is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity it is the middle ground between light and shadow between science and superstition and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.  This is the dimension of imagination.  It is an area which we call- the Twilight Zone.”

This quotation is one of many introductory narrations of the Twilight Zone series.  It contantly reminds me of the various “realities” that I have expierenced throughtout the trip. Obivously, I am in a different world because I’m in China, but it is the strange and complex polemic layers that transforms a situation, moment, or place into this undescribable limbo.  The most recent event was when I visited Songjiang Province’s Thames Town.

Thames Town’s creation relates to the larger issue of Shanghai’s sprawl.  Because the government understands its consequences, it has implemented satellite towns such as Songjiang and Qingpu as new city centers that will eventually build up with density.  Rather than travelling from the outskirts of Shanghai into the city, one’s workplace will be in the new satellite city center.  Then, infrastructure will start connecting the satellite towns to greater Shanghai.

The success of these satellite towns is still to be determined, but regardless, it is exciting to see a city in the in between stages of development.  This stage is caught between light and shadow, superstition and science, fear and knowledge.  It applies from the macro Shanghai to the indvidiaul town.  On the city scale, I’m temporarily thrown into these unknown worlds and then yanked back out as I return to Shanghai.

Immediately surrounding Thames Town is modern housing developments typically seen throughout China and bustling streets with various activity.  Once I entered Thames Town, everything from the streets, architecture, telephone booths, and traffic lights were British.  But I am in China…

Despite its adoption of another city’s context, there was no other human life form in the town other than my peers and the occasional photo entourage.  I can’t classify this as a ghost town like the Wild West because there wasn’t mad rush to physically be there and a slow decrease of residents that eventually leaves a town empty.  The only rush was to buy the property.  With only a 20% occupancy rate, the mix-use retail that underneath struggled to stay in business after its first year.  Now the majority of the street level retail is empty or taped up with the exception of some photography studios profiting from picturesque glamour shoots.

On paper as an urban and marketing strategy, it is a great idea to theme many of these towns after European cities.  The housing units become limited edition collectors items.  Others see Thames Town as an affordable way to “leave” the city and take their wedding photos in a British backdrop.  Sure this area was able to sell all its units in 48 hours, but how sustainable is it to create an artificial town with the vital ammenities with no one to inhabit it, compared to the naturally occuring developments located in the outskirts of Shanghai where people have to travel to and from the city center everyday?

It is especially strange to me that the immediate context outside of Thames Town is thriving and oozing with activity that this expensive real estate development lacks.  Thames Town is a the a “real” Twilight Zone where it is built to be a functioning part of the city, but is missing the actual inhabitants to allow it to flourish.  In a wedding photo, it could be taken in England 10+ hours away, but in reality its only a 45 minute drive from Shanghai.  It’s a great copy of a British town, but right outside is Songjiang, a satellite town of Shanghai. Shanghai is in the “communist” People’s Repulic of China, but given its growing economy, China has adopted a Western influenced aesthetic for branded goods and lifestyle.

If I had to REALLY describe Thames Town, I couldn’t because of its multiple and complicated twists of contradictions.  The oveall ambiguity of categorizing and labeling Thames Town makes it this Twilight Zone.  But then, does everything with multiple polemical layers be categorized as the Twilight Zone?  Maybe Thames Town was made as this accentuation of the Chinese addiction to imported culture.  In that case, those who know about this are extremely amused and entertained.


Filed under: Architecture, Branding, China, satellite town, Shanghai, Songjiang, Thames Town, Twilight Zone

Not Just Packaging

The following video compiles a series of video clips taken at the Shanghai World Expo 2010. At the World Expo, countries are promoted through their pavilion design. Exterior elevations and appearance are very important, and These wrappers become the primary way for branding. Focusing on the exterior makes sense since a majority of people will only see this wrapper, due to obscene lines (some take up to 4-5 hours to get through). On the inside, each country creates its own narrative to display their  culture and identity. The Expo’s theme, “Better City, Better Life”  is clearly present in a majority of the pavilions demonstrating their “green” lifestyle. By using different forms of media, each pavilion was able to create unique environments to display their ambitions, lifestyles, and ideas for the future. This small compilation of pavilion narratives samples some different takes on countries presentations. I hope my time waiting in line provides you with some insight towards the Shanghai World Expo 2010.
Ross Renjilian

The music used was recorded in different exhibits accordingly as follows
Australia, Austria, Portugal

Filed under: 2010, Architecture, Australia, Austria, Branding, China, Denmark, Expo, Identity, Netherlands, Norway, Pavilions, Portugal, Shanghai, Spain, Video, World, Wrapper, ,

2 V L


Before I left for Asia, I thought finding my Starbuck’s double, tall, vanilla latte would become a difficult task; on the contrary it has now become an everyday ritual. Even with the language differences, the Baristas know the Starbucks lingo and, after I ramble off my order, they smile back and say, “Will that be all”. Some of the food items are unique to the Starbuck’s region, but all in all it’s just like any other Starbucks back at home. This comfortable atmosphere and exchange simplifies the ordering process, which creates a enjoyable experience.

I started to analyze this relationship I had with the coffee house. Why is it that I continually choose something that is completely western, while I am in Asia for the experience? The surface answer is that it’s easy; I know when I walk into a Starbucks that I will walk out with something that I am satisfied with. I understand what I am ordering, and I am able to convey what I am looking for to the other party.

I brought up this idea in a critique, which talked about the ideas of globalization and branding. The idea that I could have nearly identical exchanges in both the United States and Hong Kong started to sicken me. How could Hong Kong, a city with so much character and uniqueness, have a Starbucks on every corner? I felt that Hong Kong was loosing touch with its identity, and caving into the corporate America model. Starbucks is Starbucks is Starbucks

But is it? A great analogy was brought up during my critique about the idea of appearance, and the distance in which the object is viewed from. For example from far away a surface may look smooth, but as you start to move closer, and actually have the ability to touch the surface, you can realize that the surface is actually a rough texture. This notion of how far you zoom in and analyze the material really provides a greater depth to the problem. The same can hold true for Starbucks. When I first analyzed the situation I took it for its surface value. Walking into the coffee house, I identified with its logos, colors, smells, and tall, grande, viente way of life. At the surface it was Starbucks. On the other hand though this is the phenomenon. Half way across the world Starbucks has the ability to create identical experiences. When I started to look at this as a positive trait, as opposed to a negative, I realized that this is truly spectacular. I am ordering my double, tall, vanilla latte in Hong Kong. In every way this is a Hong Kong coffee house, a place where its residents and tourists come to relax, socialize, and brew up ideas.  Two completely different cultures can truly experience and appreciate the same/ but different Starbucks coffee house.

Starbucks is Starbucks is Starbucks mentality is not the end of culture, rather it is a bringing together of cultures. It creates a common tie between America and Hong Kong in which, two completely different cultures could actually sit and talk over the same cup of coffee. As mentioned before this is truly a phenomenon that comes down to Starbuck’s ability to not only make coffee, but to create an atmosphere that appeals to very different people. After stepping back, and zooming into the situation I realized that the concept of globalization might start to blur boundaries among different countries and cities, but at the same time create truly unique connections. Although Starbucks is a corporate America brand, many people in the east have accepted the Starbucks brand as their own. Urban cities are not necessarily about one culture; rather they are about many different cultures coming together. The urban environment plays as the backdrop to many different programs, and it is through different filters that we can start to realize how these different programs play out. You could have two identical programs with two different backdrops, and these backdrops could completely change a person’s experience and interaction with the program. It is this unpredictable factor that makes urbanism a complex riddle that may not have an answer, but when the ingredients mix together just right, you get that perfect double, tall, vanilla latte.

Ross Renjilian


Filed under: America, Branding, Double, Globalization, Hong, kong, L, Latte, Renjilian, Ross, Starbucks, Tall, Urbanism, V, Vanilla, ,


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