URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Shifting Surveillance and the Home

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Driving from the airport, located on the periphery, to Xian’s walled center I was once again struck by the immensity and monotony of construction creating urban China. The huge array of tombstone, residential towers was mind numbing. We have witnessed such developments throughout China, but the construction bursting the edge of Xian reached a new level. Maybe it was the pollution and its proximity, towers being constructed adjacent to coal fired power plants, at distances which I would have before thought inconceivable. Also it could have been the juxtaposition; the construction of such towers is emphasized by the building height limitations imposed on the walled center. When standing on the wall, the verticality and force behind market driven development pushes as closes as it can to the center creating a new wall, dwarfing the original. Such development stresses the physical cost that urbanizing requires but it also alludes to a transformation of people, of their goals, needs and sociability. Urbanization’s most visible effect is seen in its physical manifestation, but urbanization , driven by the dominant influences of market forces and globalization, is just as much about the sociological and psychological changes necessary to transform a diverse rural population into urbanites, integrating them into the global consumer pool. Architecture or at least building types play a pivotal role in the transformation, both physical and psychological, occurring in China.

The transformation, psychologically, is closely tied to issues of surveillance and systems of control within architecture. Juxtaposition has been a topic of discussion throughout our travels and it is pertinent in this case as well. There seems to be a strong shift/change in regards to surveillance when comparing pre-open door typologies to post-open door. More specifically, typologies before the opening, such as the Hutong and Shikumen as well as agrarian villages, seem to be driven more by social surveillance, as a result of bottom-up, need-based development. Typologies post open door, seem to approach qualities of surveillance and social control from a top-down organization, guided by the market. This results in a shifting and complex relationship between the desires for anonymity and the need for communality within the Chinese population. Walking through developments that may be considered bottom-up, one is struck by the density and overlapping lifestyles that occur. There is a beauty to it but also detractors. The shikumen neighborhoods of Shanghai become self-sufficient microcosms within the greater city, incubators of small-businesses and informal-economies. Yet at the same time I have come into contact with the reoccurring critique, that qualities of social surveillance are too strong. The inability to escape the watchful eye of one’s neighbor is reminiscent of communist China, when everything was supposedly shared.

In contrast the tower apartments completely demolish the notion of bottom-up surveillance and self-sufficient development. Surveillance is not a quality that develops over time but is now imposed from the onset. From guarded gates to cctv cameras, the building’s future is sealed. The ability for change overtime is done away with, housing complexes become islands. In these complexes privacy is attained, but at the loss of community, as in high-rise complexes across the globe, it is very common to not even know the people living on the same floor. Though from an architecture standpoint this typology is so easy to critique it cannot be denied that is desired, attaining a tower apartment is viewed as practically the most important investment a Chinese citizen can make. After discussing this topic with various professors and students I have begun to realize that the definition of home ownership here is far different then my own. Under the consumerist wave that the economic reforms brought, the home has become a complete financial product, a source of wealth generation.

Filed under: change, China, community, conditioning, Freedom, Globalization

To Plan Efficiently is to Plan Proactively

Adjusting to China has taken some time, to say the least there are some deep nostalgic feelings longing to return to Tokyo. From personal observations, Shanghai is not as uniform as Tokyo in a sense of having a clear manner of going about the everyday, yet the city as a whole works as a cohesive unit. There is an existing chaotic order that allows the city to function everyday. The bottom up agenda gives lead way for a loose mindset, meaning that there are no set rules, but rather there is much more responsibility for the individual to conclude each and every decision. When crossing the street, oncoming cars are not scared to challenge the pedestrian, whereas in the States, it is law that pedestrians have the right of way. Interestingly, the city facilitates people’s way of life.

Shanghai holds a strong market force driven by solely the economy. Following a westernized marketing strategy where marketing culture has become prominent. Routines are facilitated by the city where there is an awareness of what is happening and done in our daily lives that then facilitate what we do and how we use the city. In Shanghai, there is a chaotic order but there is still no difference in how actions are played out. The generic fabric is dilapidated but this is in due part because Shanghai is a few decades old. The city works the same way here in Asia, but differently in the West. Walking down the street may be an easy task as it does not impact our ability to complete it. For example without using a car for transit, the task at hand can still be done while in Los Angeles, the distance of programs makes it difficult; the systems facilitate the ability to tap into certain programs due to the infrastructure makeup. These programs impact our lives, as the ability to obtain something can be a simple arbitrator. The advanced technology facilitates our mobility as the methods of transit allow to physically and mentally go to another place. To physically experience the act of travel assimilates “the real”.

The importance about programming in a shorter more decentralize way is to keep a sustainable marketing agenda. Here in Shanghai it is possible to make a living on the streets as a street vender. The concept of a mobile program is plausible. Equivalent to the food truck craze in the United States, the theoretical engagement between the behavior of the city and the social prove that there is no need for a required infrastructure. Arguably there is more social and cultural engagement between the vender and customer. This idea of mobile programming allows room for open dialogue between the two also blurring the existing boundaries of the formal and informal infrastructure. The streets are a part of the social infrastructure where the activities begin to blur the public and the private merging the activities. The systems of the social are no spectacle but simply just life.

10/19/2013 Paula M Narvaez

Filed under: China, Shanghai, , , , ,

Social Class Struggle

     Shifts within the global economy have generated the manner in which the land is used including the rearrangement of residential neighborhoods or in the case of Shenzhen, the urban villages. Urban villages are pre-existing villages where the city has infiltrated its surrounding by building around them. With aims to reform and improve rural living standards, urban villagers simply wanted to ease into the urban rather than have higher income and social influence. Whole villages are being torn down and replaced by redevelopment housing ranging from mid-rise to high-rise where in many cases migrant villagers cannot afford the new rent.

“Class struggle” where the government ignores the demands of the residents has established social hierarchies. Consequently urban development is affected by the class struggle. The speed of redevelopment reflects the desire of “wanting” to take over as a dominant role within the global economy. The market has invaded the way we live and what shapes our cities thus there is an immediate need to build. Speed acts as a conceptual driving tool for the market force. Yet the social construction of cities relies on a balanced ecosystem. There must be different socio-economic statuses in order to run a functioning system.

The city as a whole triggers the emotion attached to experiences. The city is constantly changing along with the social engagement. Culture shapes form similarly to the constant morphology of a city; both are ever changing. But one may ask how does one see through the layers over time to gain an authentic essence of the city? As cultural engagement changes including people and the architecture, the urban process becomes evident.

Initially an economic experiment with political intent, Shenzhen proved to redefine the definition of a city. Within thirty years, the population of Shenzhen went from 35,000 residents to 14,000,000, becoming an instant city essentially overnight. The land is fertile due to its close proximity to the Pearl River Delta, which made the area fall under a desirable condition of urban emergence. From rice fields the area was flattened out to provide land for factories and housing. The new metropolis came into existence with no intermediary paving landscape into large highways. The new expansion created transit features and access to capital. Globalization became an ultimate agglomeration. Improving the general standards of living, reforming collectivism and opening Chinese markets, Shenzhen became what it is today, a market driven urbanization that governs and sustains the economy. The question is, should this define or influence the future development of cities? As of now, a city that is inching its way closer to a utopian lifestyle is proving that this may be the route to take.

11/25/2013 Paula M Naarvaez

Filed under: China, Shenzhen, , , , , , ,

“Made in China”

“Made in China”

Urban Hive & Guangzhou Opera House

The juxtaposition of the images of the Urban Hive commercial tower by In-Cheurl Kim and the Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid would most likely draw untrained eyes initially toward the latter. The playful form of the opera house is a radical accomplishment of structure and space that is framed to compositional perfection. But what is impossible to notice from the beautifully lit and digitally enhanced images online is the quality of its detail and construction. Blatantly smeared paint on the glass rail panels and large unsmoothed spots of plaster left over by the hands of rushed and unskilled labor show clearly how China has been constructing its architecture. Meanwhile, the Urban Hive tower, can be read as repetitive or even “boring” at the superficial level with its uniformly porous exterior; however, this seemingly less interesting form is actually an extroverted structural skin constructed in a way that the Chinese would not be able accomplish at the speed at which it is developing. It is a 230 foot tall concrete skin that is almost entirely cast in place. Kim is highly respected among Korean architects for taking this route instead of using pre-cast modules which would have obviously been the more economical, time-efficient, easily adjustable method for such a repetitive skin pattern.

Cast-in-place concrete

And yet it is possible for the building to be constructed with such a high level of quality because the nation has matured over time enough in its development to come to the conclusion that quality has some kind of desired significance. Regardless of its benefits in the long-term strategy of growth and development, the nation seems to have recognized the significance of producing quality at the cost of reducing quantity in building construction.

This kind of quality in building construction in Korean cities is apparent throughout the city at the urban level. Regardless of the kind and degree of vibrancy at the pedestrian level compared to Chinese cities, streets in Korean cities are significantly cleaner and greener even though some are much older than those of many Chinese cities. It is not simply a difference in the amount and density of shoes that have stepped on a given square meter of land, but rather everything from the quality of the layout of pavers to the absence of trash and drops of saliva. These clean streets are decorated with sufficient and well-maintained greenery that make all its wide boulevards psychologically wider by giving it visual breathing room.

Ultimately, this pursuit of quality seems to come from the country’s age. Korea is at an age that is still young enough to be expanding and developing at a rapid pace like many Chinese cities, but has, at the same time, enough years of experience and trials under its belt to pursue and understand the importance of a quality life and society. This maturity culminates beautifully in the recently renewed and revitalized Cheonggyecheon River at the heart of Downtown Seoul.

Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, Korea

It is a stream decorated with stones and gentle green that flows through a contrasting sectional frame of skyscraping steel and concrete. Its specific direction of “Design” and decoration can be argued but it is unquestionably a widely used public space for the community that is even used during business hours because of its strategic location in between a long stretch of commercial high-rises. A city that is willing to spend a hefty 386 billion Korean dollars to implement such urban spaces simply for free and unmitigated public enjoyment (and not commercial gain), is a city that has matured enough to afford the money, time and political will to do so.

But after three years of careful constructing the Urban Hive, the equivalent Chinese counterparts would have designed and constructed dozens more. Is the quality of smooth plaster and even paint worth the sacrifice of building dozens more projects generating money, advancing infrastructure and widening the availability of demanded program? Spending just two months in China has lead me to a kind of calculated tolerance towards this idea of quantity over quality in growth. While the westerner might see “quality” in a single program within the boundaries of a single building, perhaps the Chinese find “quality” in the sheer density and availability of an incredibly wide plethora of programs all spread out, but accessible by intelligent infrastructure.

Intersection with seven multi-story indoor malls, restaurants, and three subway lines

While we look down at the singular quality of products that are “Made in China,” we fail to realize the sheer quantity and widespread availability of goods they produce and provide worldwide. In fact, China has managed to accomplish this feat in a mere few decades of rapid development. We can only begin to imagine where the country will be in the decades to come.

– Daniel

Filed under: building, China, construction, Facade, Infrastructure, Korea, Program, Uncategorized

The Afterlife of Architectural Icons

The chance to host an Olympic Games or a World Exposition is not only an honor, but also an important face-saving opportunity for the host country and city.  The global media coverage of these international spectacles gives the host the perfect platform to market themselves to the world.  For China, hosting both an Olympic Games and a World Expo within a two-year period offered an unprecedented strategic opportunity for the Chinese Government to alter past negative conceptions of China and prove to the World that they were a major player in the world economic market.   Therefore, China was determined to make these events as spectacular as possible using the physical structures constructed to house these events as essential elements of this effort to impress.  Although I came to China a year too late to share in the excitement of the Shanghai World Exposition and almost four years too late to take in the spectacle of the Beijing Olympics, it is impossible to overlook the many remnants of these events in both cities. From the airport signs, that welcome foreign tourists in English and that still point towards the sites of the former Expo or Olympic Sites, to the emblems of the events tattooed upon the sides of buildings, to the bars who serve beer in mugs etched with the Olympic rings and the words “Beijing 2008,” it is impossible to escape the reminders of these impressive, yet temporal events.

In China, there exists an intense and uncanny sentimentalism over the hosting of the Olympics and the Expo that I have not often encountered within the constantly morphing Chinese urban environment.  One cannot fault the Chinese for their pride in hosting such global events, especially when you consider the initiative it took them to construct entire infrastructural systems almost from scratch in order to accommodate the millions of tourists that would flock to take in the festivities in both cities.  For example, while Shanghai added a new airport terminal and expanded several metro lines, Beijing constructed twelve of its fourteen metro lines within the past ten years among other things to prepare for the event.   However with just as much money invested in the creation of iconic buildings to brand the spectacles as on the necessary infrastructure to support them, I question whether the afterlife of the iconic structures will ever amount to more than empty monuments that serve as reminders of the brief and increasingly distant spectacle for which they were erected. Acknowledging that all eyes would be on the venues hosting the Olympics and the World Expo, the Chinese utilized eye-catching architecture to brand Beijing and Shanghai as innovative global cities.  Ironically the economic burden of constructing these super-sized arenas and display facilities coupled with the short-lived use of such structures rendered them ill suited to transition to be a useful component of the urban landscape once the event that spurred them has concluded.  Thus, although considerable effort was expended to construct structures that would awe its viewers, insignificant thought was given to how the structure would be used once the event for which it was constructed had ended.

Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium (The Bird's Nest)

As an architecture student it is easy to get excited about seeing the work of a starchitect firsthand, so when I had the opportunity to visit Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium – popularly referred to as “The Bird’s Nest” – my anticipation level was high.  As spectacular as it was to see this mega-structure illuminated at night, the few pictures I took were enough to cement my memory of the project’s physical splendor.  Other than marketing tours of the 80,000 vacant seats within the arena and housing an overpriced Olympic souvenir shop, the Bird’s Nest remains stagnant and without a purpose.  At one time, a plan existed to convert the top tiers of the stadium into a venue for shops and restaurants and to preserve the lower levels as a soccer stadium and an occasional concert venue.  Unfortunately, this plan never materialized, and the impossibility of filling 80,000 seats deterred any sports team from anchoring activity within the arena.  As a result, Beijing has been left with no choice but to capitalize on the minimal profit they can make by marketing this pricey white elephant as a tourist attraction.

Exposition Boulevard one year after the Shanghai World Expo

In Shanghai, most of the pavilions of the World Expo were razed after the conclusion of the Expo in accordance with the World Exposition regulations.  A few structures, however, remain. These structures, which are deserted and almost completely fenced off, serve as eerie reminders of what the site once was.  Boarded windows, closed fast food restaurants, and vacated transportation hubs that eased the movement of the participants through the Expo, are painful reminders that this area, which once had a purpose, no longer has one.  Even the multi-level Exposition Boulevard that once served as the park’s main thoroughfare has lost its purpose, it remains fenced off like the majority of the structures remaining on the site, forcing the few remaining tourists to walk alongside, rather than on it.   However, unlike Beijing, plans at least are underway to reuse the few structures that remain.  For example, the Chinese pavilion has re-opened as a museum to Chinese Heritage, and the Shanghai Cultural Arena has recently been renamed the Mercedes Benz Arena, hosting numerous concerts and shows since the close of the Expo.  There are also plans to build a new museum on the site that will pay tribute to past World Expositions.  Nevertheless, this fragmented but positive transition is overshadowed by the vast amounts of open land left in the Expo’s wake.  Apart from the weeds that have sprouted up behind the fences that demarcate the vacant lots, the area has not changed since the Pavilions were dismantled.

The failure to use these iconic structures in a meaningful way or to develop the empty lots left in the wake of these events has a trickle-down negative effect on the businesses, schools, and residents of the area.  When these icons sit stagnant, so too do all the spaces and businesses that parasitically depend on them to make a profit and thrive.   In Shanghai, the Shanghai Expo provided the Chinese government with the opportunity and impetus to displace the harmful industrial pollution of the Jiangnan Shipyard that formerly occupied the Expo site.  In so doing, however, it also displaced almost 18,000 residents, only to have the land that once housed them remain empty a year after the World Exposition festivities have ended and no concrete plan for the utilization of the area have been made public.  Regardless of the moral issues I may have about this forced government relocation, the displacement of these citizens came at an enormous economic cost to the city of Shanghai.   Shanghai must now depend on the sale of these vacated properties in order to recoup their loses. The fenced-off restaurants, vacated ticket booths lines, and partially dismantled elevated walkways that mar the barren site are the last faint hints of the once vibrant Exposition. The memory of what these grounds once were will continue to plague these sites until a new function or structure fills its place, invigorating the site and erasing the memory of these white elephant icons.

Partially dismantled elevated walkways one year after the Shanghai World Expo

The Iconic Buildings constructed for the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Exposition impressed the image-focused global media. However, reflecting upon the effect that the Olympics had on Beijing and that the World Exposition had on Shanghai, it appears that after these festivities have come to a close, the sites that hosted these spectacles are the only area of the city that has trouble acclimating to everyday life.  The problem is that these structures and ceremonial spaces are far from the everyday, they represent a crowning moment of achievement in China’s face-saving history.  It is ironic that these spaces that successfully marketed China as a key player in the global economy now are one of the only places in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai that sit stagnant.  I guess that means that these White Elephants fulfilled their purpose, but at the same time I wonder if all the money put into them was worth it for a fleeting moment of fame.  I would argue that it is the least glamorous and rarely discussed infrastructural advancements that were made in preparation for these events that will ultimately prove to have the most profound and positive effect on the everyday life of the residents of these cities in the future.  The lasting, albeit less publicized, legacy of the robust transportation network – airports, roads, trains and subways — has the potential to stimulate the future progression of these cities so much more than the impact of the stationary icons that initially symbolized these events.

_DEM

Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, China, olympic bird nest, Shanghai Expo 2010

Tourist Wonders or Architecture Blunders?

The Summer Palace replica in the Pearl River Delta getting a fresh coat of paint

From knock-off purses, to fake Apple stores, to replicas of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and the Summer Palace, China has it all.  Although tourists like myself may hunt for a good fake designer purse or pair of sunglasses, when it comes to experiencing the sights and history of a place, there is no acceptable substitute for the authentic.  Many tourists will tolerate or even seek out a few must-see gimmicks, yet these showy displays occupy a secondary status to experiencing the truly cultural experiences present in a particular locale.  Indeed, it is the placement of these showy displays and other mass appeal spectacles within the cultural and historical context of a locale that provides greater meaning to them.  For example, while I enjoyed the gaudiness of the Hong Kong light show, the value that I pulled from this experience did not come from my shallow enjoyment of strobe lights moving in sync to an annoyingly catchy tune, but rather from my understanding of this experience as a part of the larger historically and culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong.  At the heart of the rich culture that I experienced during my exploration of Hong Kong is the everyday lives of the people who work and reside here, rather than from extravagant tourist attractions that make a spectacle of history.  Yet, during my first foray into the Pearl River Delta region of China, I found that, unlike Hong Kong, the commoditization of culture as spectacle often obscured any connection with the authentic history I was in search of.  From my experience, I concluded that, in many ways, China is similar to the fake designed bags that permeate the country.  From a distance, one is impressed by its apparent authenticity, but on closer inspection, the mediocre detailing gives it away as a real-fake.

The speed at which China is advancing, razing old structures, and constructing new infrastructure is astounding.  This rapid proliferation of new infrastructure within the expanding Chinese metropolises is motivated by the desire to manufacture spectacle.  China appears intent on creating the illusion of wealth and prominence because it is confident that this image will spur further investment in and growth of their economy.

For the most part the display of designer buildings is impressive as long as you maintain a sensible viewing distance from the structure or remove your glasses so as to remain ignorant of the clumsy construction details.  However, my real complaint regarding the value that the Chinese place on the spectacle of the new is how this value assessment has negatively impacted the preservation, understanding, and appreciation of the role of history in their society.  This dilemma is particularly evident in the response to the mass devastation that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.  With many of China’s historic landmarks either damaged or destroyed, the Chinese were faced with the challenge of how to repair the rift in its history left by what was lost.  Unfortunately, the same technique and value judgment that is placed on the new infrastructure is applied to the restoration of the old.  Therefore, the same poor detailing that is evident in the seam of a curved glass railing of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House is also visible in the questionable mitered brick corner of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Childhood home.

Detailing Blunder in Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

Mitered brick corner in replica of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's childhood home

Apart from the prevalence of painfully amateur architectural details, the critical problem in the restoration of these historic sights is that these efforts appear to be more focused on redesigning or improving these landmarks so that they are more in line with the value that the Chinese place on the new rather than reconstructing them in a way appropriate to the design and age of the original.  For example, while visiting the former site of the historic Panyu Pao Mo garden in the suburb of Guangzhou, I was unpleasantly surprised by the flashing LED light eyes of the life-sized dragon that confronted me.

Needless to say, after two straight weeks full of this kind of spectacle I began to become frustrated and mildly disgusted by what I regarded as a flagrant mockery of China’s rich cultural history.  It was at this point that a comment made by another caused me to question whether my skeptical view was fair.  I realized that I was judging the Chinese’s representation of their history without regard to the impact that the damage to and destruction of many important relics and landmarks of their history during the cultural revolution had on their current attempts to design and construct new buildings and repair damaged landmarks.  As Guy Debord discusses in his work, “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere,” the function of the spectacle is “to bury history in culture.”  So for the Chinese, the spectacle of culture is used to conceal a lack of  physical relics of their history following the Cultural Revolution.  So, while their efforts at restoration may seem pitiful to the critical eye of a western architecture student, one must look at their efforts with a certain degree of leniency and compassion since their actions are merely attempts to repair the unfathomable loss of history that they experienced and to try to recreate something for which little or no records exist.  Therefore, what right do I have to judge their efforts?

– DEM

Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, Authenticity, China, Culture, everyday, Fabric, history, Hong Kong

The Cost of Culture

While the procession of luxury brands Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Dior had me dreaming of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, or New York City’s Fifth Avenue, it was the man who spat on the sidewalk beside me that roused me back to reality in Shenzhen, China.  As I soon discovered, this experience constituted my first glimpse of the juxtaposition of the raw with the refined that would come to characterize my foray into the Pearl River Delta (PRD).

The contrasting social and economic condition that pervades the PRD is a direct byproduct of the speed at which this region has morphed from farmland into an economic powerhouse.  This rapid pace of development is a double-edged sword, however, that fosters the dramatic growth of metropolises like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, bringing jobs, financial resources, and improved infrastructure to these locales while simultaneously posing a dangerous threat to the cultural legacy of the region.

Traveling through the Pearl River Delta, it became quickly apparent that the Chinese government’s implementation of Central Business Districts (CBDs) within cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou has been instrumental in spurring this transformational momentum.  The premise of the CBD was to manufacture the appearance of wealth and stability in order to attract more wealth to the region in the form of foreign investments.  To achieve this appearance, the Chinese government channeled the necessary funds into constructing and branding a concentrated region in a way that inspired the respect and trust of western investors.   As intended, foreign investors responded to this marketing tactic by becoming interested in the region and investing money in it.  This influx of foreign capital stimulated growth that in turn generated more wealth in the region.

As the success of Shenzhen and Guangzhou illustrates, however, appearances can be dangerously deceiving.  While the allure of big names like Prada, Ferrari, and Koolhaas captivated Western investors, many remained blissfully unaware of the real life struggles of the working-class farmers who dominated the Pearl River Delta a mere thirty years ago.  For the most part, this rural past remains hidden behind this ostentatious façade of wealth.  As the financial capital continued to flow into the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, these cities began to expand beyond the boundaries of the CBDs.  As this occurred, the citizens quickly abandoned their farming and industrial roots for the embrace of the wealth associated with the growing metropolises.  These metropolises then mutated as rapidly as the Central Business Districts that spurred them had been manufactured.  The obsession with money that drives these metropolises was intensified in Shenzhen and Guangzhou by the incredible speed in which wealth was acquired and exchanged, drastically altering a generation of citizens’ ways of life almost overnight.  As Georg Simmel articulates in his work, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,”

“Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominators of all values; irreparably it hallows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, their incomparability.”

While the designer stores which plaster the streets of Shenzhen portray an aura of wealth and sophistication that the metropolis is marketing, the Chanel boutique here could just as easily be the Chanel store in Paris, New York or Beverly Hills.  These high-end chains only reference their own brand and not their position within a specific urban fabric.  Beyond the façade of wealth in Shenzhen and Guangzhou lies the painfully sterile reality that the almost overnight accumulation of wealth has blinded the citizens to the many aspects of their culture and history that are valuable and that make them unique.   The rush to achieve wealth and development has obscured the value and necessity of balancing progress with preserving and, at times, assimilating the cultural attributes of a society which gives it a unique identity.  What is left in the wake of this rapid transformation are periodic reminders of the culture, such as the raw rural mannerisms that are alien to the new face of the mutating metropolis.

View atop a Kaiping Diaolou

It was not until I experienced the no man’s land that still exists between Shenzhen and Guangzhou that I began to comprehend the self-sustaining lifestyle that these mutating metropolises continue to encroach upon.  Here, the undisturbed landscape camouflages the World Heritage protected villages of Kaiping.  The tops of the towering Diaolou houses are the sole indicator of the intricate, western influenced villages that lie beyond.  The Daiolous were built by the villagers as a means of defense against bandits.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the villages were populated by newly wealthy Chinese who returned from working in Europe and the Americas to build homes for their families inspired by Western Architecture.  Walking through these tranquil villages I was captivated by the villagers simple, self-sufficient lifestyle.  This way of life has become foreign to those who populate the metropolis, each contributing a single skill within the highly specialized market economy.  The crude mannerisms have become the sole unfortunate link between the people’s raw past and refined future.  Looking out from atop one of the Daiolou houses the beauty that exists in the simplicity of the village lifestyle made me to question whether the rapid mutation of metropolises in the PRD has caused the urban population to disengage from the value of their former way of life.

– DEM

Filed under: China, Culture, George Simmel, Metropolis, Shenzhen

Road or River?

I suffered my first few near death experiences in a taxicab on the roads of Shenzhen. The white, yellow, solid, and dotted lines seemed like some nice artwork someone had painted on the road. I lost count of the times a car almost turned directly into my passenger door. And as our cab driver swerved in and out of lanes as though weaving a rather elaborate rug, I clenched my hands, bit my lip, and wondered how on earth we were still alive.

As I continued to watch in between gasps of breath and my life flashing before my eyes, I began to notice that the traffic was acting like a fluid river. Like a river, the traffic had no breaks or gaps in the stream. As holes would open, cars would come fill the spots. If someone were turning, cars would simply go around. If the traffic began to be congestion, the cars would start doubling up in lanes or start driving on the shoulder much like a river getting blocked up.

I derived that the reason the cars didn’t hit each other through all their random bold movements was because all of the drivers on the road were extremely aware of each other. For every action a car had, all the cars around it would have a reaction.

The reason there is a heightened sense in all of the drivers is because of the city’s fast growth. The people of Shenzhen have not yet acquired what Simmel in The Metropolis and Modern Life refers to as the quantitative mind of the metropolitan. Their mindsets have not had time yet to evolve from the qualitative emotional village mentality to the calculative metropolitan mentality. The people don’t yet see other people as numbers.

In western metropolitans, the traffic is very orderly so that people have to think less about what other people are doing, in order to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed by their environment, and can focus more on their own every day. However, the people in Shenzhen have a sense of others individuality and are very conscious of other peoples movements and paths.

This difference in mentality can also be seen in the simple way people use their vehicle horns. In a western metropolis, people use their car horns when someone cuts them off or does something out of the order of the road causing their conscious to break from the order and recognize someone else’s individuality. In Shenzhen, people use their horns as an informative tool to let other cars, buses, and bikes know of their position in the flow and causing the other vehicles to recognize their individuality. For example, when merging into a highway, a person from Shenzhen might honk letting the bike in the lane over know that they are now next to them. While in Los Angeles, the bike would honk at the merging car for coming in to close to them.

Though Shenzhen’s new fast growing economy has shown “dominance it has not truly shown a “inconsiderate hardness” that typically couples economic success. Though Shenzhen still holds its qualitative mindset, the upcoming generations may gain the quantitative metropolitan mindset.

 

-Alexis Dirvin

Filed under: AAU, Asia, Car, character, China, Circulation, development, Emotion, individuality, Psyche, Public Transportation, Shenzhen, streets, traffic, Transporation

Absurdity, Sex, and Architecture

Our judgment of what is good or what is acceptable is widely based on what we see in the day to day as well as our own boundaries of what is exciting or simply ridiculous.  There is a degree of absurdity that makes something really interesting and exciting- that little rub of inconsistency and obscurity.   It is that little inconsistency of mystery or absurdity that sparks our interest as critics of the everyday.  In this sense, architecture is like sex.  Both seek to push boundaries in able to reach new heights of understanding.  This is portrayed and evaluated in parallel formats as we’ve seen by Rem Koolhaas, Sophia Coppola, Paulo Coelho and Godard’s own analysis.

Rem Koolhaas writes of this relationship in SMLXL.  He sites Japanese porn as this instance where it is more exciting to have the most essentials parts hidden from view.  In many Japanese pornographies the essentials are blurred out and left a mystery, revealing nothing but pixilation.  Rem relates his pixilation to miniature Mondrian paintings of flesh colored squares and dark lines.   These vague lines and color blocks reveal nothing and everything  because the excitement of what could be there is so much more promising than see the actual genitalia.  In this case it is the relationship of the unseen and the seen that relates to good architecture.  It is not the absurdity of the new and different but the allure of what could be there.  An architectural example of this is Mario Botta’s part of the Leeum Museum.   The exterior begs of mystery, giving no hint of what is inside.  The brick is pixilated unto itself, departing from what we expect it to be.  Upon entering you are shuttled to the top and forced to circulate in a downward spiral.    The cylindrical stairs are punctuated with framed views to reveal what lies ahead of you, but only as a glimpse.  When traversing each floor the circular plan furthers this selectivity.  One is never allowed to see the museum exhibit as a whole, there is no grand hallway lined with celadon blue ceramics.   Instead each piece is revealed to you in its own time, each turn you walk around allowing a new experience.   There is a constant sense of being teased by unknowing of what is around the up coming turn and never being allowed to see the whole.

In this way good architecture can vastly be related to Sophia Coppolla’s Lost in Translation.  The sexual relationship (or truly lack there of) between the film’s main characters is reflected in how the city is framed.    The sexual and visual tension between these characters is overtly apparent.  There is obvious attraction between these characters, shared feelings, but nothing is ever done about it.  They lie in bed next to each other, speaking so very intimately, but nothing physical ever happens between them.  This is reflected in how Tokyo is filmed.  In a sense, Tokyo becomes a visual embodiment of their sexual relationship.  When they positively interact we see the Tokyo Skyline from some high up floor- out of reach, beautiful and alluring in all the glory the Tokyo skyline can possess.  It is only when their relationship becomes tumultuous that we are allowed to see the city in any other way.  When there is no longer a tease or allure in those character’s relationship the city is no longer distant and alluring- it’s sonorous and crowded.  When they go out to lunch in the prime of their disgruntled state the bowels of Tokyo are shown- the street life, cars, taxis, honking, ect.

Finally, there is the attraction of the absurd.  This is an attraction we can’t help but simultaneous dislike and enjoy.  The absurd identifies with the book by Paulo Coelho Eleven Minutes.   The main character briefly gets drawn into the world of sadomasochist sex because of the clarity is brings her.  Physical pain helped to take her to the limits of what is her conceived reality.  However the absurdity involved is that each experience creates a new outlying boundary, therefore each following experience forces further exploration to get that previous high.  Each experience then becomes more absurd and desensitizing, creating greater distance from the original meaning.  A further example of this is in Godard’s Week End, a film so absurd it is literally a car crash in which you can’t help but stare.   Despite the obvious spectacle of absurdity throughout the film, the film opens by talking about a woman’s fetishized threesome.  She describes each act in her sexual encounter involving improbable positions, cracking an egg with her buttocks and cumming in a dish of milk.  Essentially these types of absurd sexual experience relates back to the absurdity of architecture.   They are removed from the everyday life, and have one far beyond that rub interesting inconsistency, so very far from its origin, that it is a bad thing.  Such architectural sites include Paju in South Korea or The Ring in Shenzhen.  Paju falls into absurdity due to the excessiveness of design.  Each building holds true in singular form but together, a town where everything is individually designed without consideration of its surroundings, becomes absurd.  It is too much and too far from its origin.   This is also true for The Ring but in a different way.  It’s the scale and perfect symmetry that makes it so absurd.  Its simply too large for anyone to walk casually, programmed or not.  Yet for some reason there is something rather enticing about both of these pieces of architecture.  For Paju, there is an allure that can’t really be explained except to say it is visually stunning.  That these publishers and stores care to define themselves by using architecture on this type of design scale is impressive.  Each building creates an identity and draw for itself.  The Ring stands to be even more impressive to me.  In a country like China, where the Great Wall can be seen from outer space, how does something as large and cumbersome as this massive ring as a centralization tool seem out of place?  It is by all means fantastical, yet still has a function that could only be fulfilled in a country such as China; in city like Shenzhen where everything is so new everyone is always looking for that next boundary to top.  But what could possibly be that next fix?

So is it better to seek that perfect mysterious moment or break out of the everyday?  Each architecture we’ve looked at through Asia and in truly in our lifetime seeks to accomplish at least one of these.  And so it is when we see these moments of inconsistency, mystery, or absurdity that makes that moment come to life and be more than simply the mundane.

//Lexie

Filed under: Architectural Absurdity, Architectural Spectacle, Architecture, China, Godard, Korea, Psyche, Rem Koolhaas, Uncategorized

Thinking Outside the Small Box

If one word can be identified with America, I think it would be individualism.  Individualism is our greatest strength.  But we’ve gotten high on ourselves, its become too much of a good thing.  Our individualism seems to now be misguided.  We need to re-evaluate and think about the huge improvements on our lives if we stopped to think a little bit more about the big picture instead of our single city microcosm.  I’m primarily identifying this problem with city planning.  We’re all worried about our little piece of the city block instead of how we could improve that little block by thinking statewide.  This strategy lacks a greater intelligence.  Reformed thinking could not only improve our economy but strengthen what is essentially American: individualism.

America thinks in a singular nature instead of thinking in a complete set.  Los Angeles as compared to Shanghai for example- yes, Los Angeles has its own little districts that each have a huge sense of regionalism.  But lets go from small to large.  First of all there seems to be a love of the object building.   A singular destination instead of the overall area I could affect- hence making a singular attraction instead of set of destinations.  For instance, Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall- the ultimate object building.  There is almost no supporting program surrounding it.  The closests one could call supporting program is the Dorthey Chandler.  It’s actually surrounded by parking lots.  Why isn’t there a 5-Star restaurant next door?  For that matter, why not several restaurants?  Boutiques? Coffee Houses? Not applicable in America.

On a larger scale, how about the smaller cities that are outliers of Los Angeles?  Those could easily be connected to Los Angeles proper created a satellite situation as Shanghai has with Qing Pu.  If there were easy, efficient, and reliable transportation to Cabazon, Palm Springs or Santa Barbara Los Angeles would be a very different place.  Especially with Los Angeles’ traffic, the idea of a day trip would have a very different characterization.  This could create ‘big box destinations’, as in whole districts for furniture or shoes.  Cabazon would probably be the most synonymous with this idea as it is entirely devoted to one specific type of shopping: outlets.  However the only time anyone ever goes to Cabazon is if they are already on their way to Palm Springs or Arizona- it is not a destination by itself.  It needs better transportation services to its location (one that doesn’t evolve strategic planning around traffic hours) and a bigger draw than stores whose merchandise is years old because so few people make it out that far away from the city center.  If Cabazon existed as a nodal destination, the space in between itself and the city center would fill in appropriately.

In essence I am asking LA, and America on a larger scale, for some urban intelligence.  If LA were designed, not necessarily master planned, with the notion of what could improve a given area by making points of interest, these areas would expand into the surroundings.  These areas would bring massive foot traffic and could better support a retailers economy.  This ultimately aligns with the American perception of itself because it promotes competition, encourages new business models and spurs economic growth.  Business that are in that ‘big box destination’ would have to identify what makes them different instead of relying on a name brand or being the only retailer to sell ‘x-type’ product in the local area.   What is more American than pronouncing individualism?

//Lexie

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Infrastructure, Los Angeles, Urbanism

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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