USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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

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

Where’d all the good people go?

Shenzhen, the new economic prodigy China has been waiting and tirelessly working towards achieving. It’s a city filled with capitalist dreams with an unbelievably fast-pace economy that’s leading the country into a first-world state. Dreams of breaking ground in financial success has led to an entrepreneurial sprawl of corporate powerhouses touching base here with towering skyscraper offices lining the entire cityscape. The push for urbanization has set the stone rolling for land developers and contractors to go on a field day, building like there’s no tomorrow. With a hotel here, and an apartment complex there, the turn-around of Shenzhen’s urban landscape is overnight. But within all the excitement building this city, there’s one most particular and de-valued element absent that is perhaps most essential in making Shenzhen, or any city for that matter, vibrant: the people.

Our ventures through Shenzhen these past few days have made evident a phenomenon that is uniquely it’s own here, unseen in all the previous cities we have visited so far. Shenzhen is quite literally a “ghost” city; there’s a complete lack of social interface on the urban-streetscape level. This, in turn, heavily undermines and distorts any notion of urban centers throughout the city. Shenzhen seems to have employed the “build it, and they will come” urban strategy of densification as a catalyst, rather than densification as a necessity (i.e. Tokyo, Seoul). Plazas, shopping centers, parks, etc. end up as empty, superficial edifices that bring nothing to the community. A prime example is the city center, located at the heart of the Futian district. It’s comprised of both private and public programs; private being the city/central government complex (aka “the Hat) and public being the people’s square coupled with a localized park/garden. First, the plaza remains useless as a gathering/activity space when no one utilizes it. It’s only heavily utilized when performances are held there. Second, the garden is inherently flawed in that it is nearly inaccessible and difficult to navigate through, consequently the space remains unused most of the day. It took us a few wrong turns before we actually figured out where exactly we were oriented within the park, only to find ourselves lost within an unending maze. And the fact that no one was actually in the park to ask for directions made the process ever more confusing.

In “The Mass Ornament”, Kracauer mentions the impetus behind capitalism as an economic system that “does not encompass human beings”. In fact, the operative function of producing is more important that the human being. The mass ornament, as a functional collective, has no play in the formation of the socio-economic state. The rapid proliferation of Shenzhen building developments could only have been possible through a massive labor force, a force supplied through immigrant workers that migrated to Shenzhen out of desperation. Like any other resource, labor is nurtured to produce the maximum gain with the least amount of cost. With a constant influx of poor immigrants, it’s an endless resource construction companies have exploited towards the benefit of urban development. As a result, the city grows in economic power and price of living continues to rise, pushing out the poor migrants from staying, only to be replaced by many others just like them; a cyclical pattern. The key point is to remember is that these workers are constantly filtering in and out of the city, never permanent. Thus, this large constituency of workers is often non-participants in the everyday urban scene. With rising costs in housing and the economy, it’s no wonder that these poor migrants cannot afford to stay long in Shenzhen, only to leave their legacy behind manifested in the cold concrete, steel, and glass towers built by their hands.


Filed under: Architecture, Capitalism, China, Futian, labor force, mass ornament, Migrant, people, Shenzhen, socio-economics, Urbanism

When Space Transcends the Urban Condition

Observation deck at the DMZ

Over 20 million people live and work in the metropolitan area of Seoul, South Korea.  The city’s dense network of subways, highways, and tall buildings extends as far as the horizon on either side of the Han River and in almost all directions.  Current growth patterns see Seoul’s original urban fabric of low-rise buildings being replaced en masse by Tokyo-style mega developments built over subway stations and shopping malls.  All of this vertical development is justified, made necessary even, by increasing land values in the central city where transit coverage and cultural amenities are most heavily concentrated.  Needless to say, excess space is in short supply.

China's flag rises above that of Hong Kong

A comparable situation exists in Hong Kong, one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions, and is even more pronounced due to severe limitation of buildable land.  This limitation is a consequence of both geography (the territory is comprised of mountainous islands) and policy (previous British colonial rule demarcated 75% of land as nature preserves).  The lack of available land is so extreme that it has now become economical for developers to artificially extend the boundaries of Hong Kong Island in order to build just a handful of buildings on reclaimed land.  Sometimes, as in the case of the convention center, the harbor is dredged for years to construct a single building.

Yet while these two cities deal with approximate economics of land use, they are linked in a more significant fashion by their complete reliance on empty land holding no development potential whatsoever: political buffer zones.  Whatever the magnitude of growth and increase in real estate values that has occurred in these cities over the last half century, no land holds more value to Seoul than Korea’s DMZ and to Hong Kong than its undeveloped border with mainland China.  Without these buffer zones, it is almost certain that neither city would exist in its present form.  This is because these two zones separate capitalistic, market driven societies that host international business from communist, state-run economies to the north.  To be sure, North Korea and mainland China hold widely different viewpoints on global politics and economics.  While Pyongyang remains highly isolated and stagnant, Shenzhen is growing explosively and increasingly fostering closer ties to its more famous neighbor to the south.  But the fact remains that native Hong Kongers seldom identify with the mainland and many young people are leery of 2046, when China’s ‘one country, two systems’ approach to governing Hong Kong comes to an end.

In visiting Seoul and Hong Kong then, I have witnessed for the first time politicization of space.  These are spaces shaped and defined not by designers or planners but by national security interests and economic preservation.  Like architecture however, their usefulness and purpose lies in the void, not the walls that shape it.

Matt Luery

Filed under: Capitalism, China, DMZ, Government, Hong Kong, Korea


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