USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Detours & Stagnancy

Currently, the infrastructure of Los Angeles does not compare to that of Asian cities.  Public transportation is hardly utilized in Los Angeles, while it is the main form of transportation in virtually all Asian cities.  While Shanghai’s entire metro system was constructed in five years, Los Angeles’s Expo Line is taking years to complete the single line.  The debate over the high speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles has gone on longer than it took to build Shanghai’s entire metro system.  Why does America refuse to take the steps to match other country’s infrastructural systems?  The social debate may be what is causing the lack of progress.  With the lack of the social aspect, Shanghai is able to push ahead.

Michel de Certeau’s Walking in the City explains that “the walking of passers-by offers a series of turns…and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures.’  There is a rhetoric of walking.  The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path… Like ordinary language, this art implies and combines styles and uses.  Style specifies ‘a linguistic structure that manifests on the symbolic level…an individual’s fundamental way of being in the world’; it connotes a singular.  Use defines the social phenomenon through which a system of communication manifests itself in actual fact; it refers to a norm.  Style and use both have to do with a ‘way of operating’ (of speaking, walking, etc.), but style involves a peculiar processing of the symbolic, while use refers to elements of a code.  They intersect to form a style of use, a way of being and a way of operating.”

de Certeau’s walking rhetorics are formed by the creation of a pathway defined by certain turns and detours.  In terms of infrastructure, it could be said that Los Angeles is moving forward in a straight line, without turning.  This creates a stagnant sense movement.  Where Los Angeles is stagnantly moving, cities like Shanghai are taking detours in order to progress.

Socially, on the other hand, the relationships of city to pathway is reversed.  Shanghai has little forward movement socially, while Los Angeles is detouring from a straight path.  Shanghai’s social stagnancy may be helping at the time being.  With a strong social draw, much of the current and rapid progress apparent in Shanghai may have not been attainable, much like Los Angeles today.

In each city, these two pathways merge in order to create the city’s essence.  Infrastructure and social.  The city’s infrastructure could be considered the “style,” while the social aspect is how the style is “used.”  One cannot exist without the other.  At the time being, for both Shanghai and Los Angeles the two pathways merge to create almost identical pathways because of the strong detours for one pathway and the stagnancy of the other for each city.  What will happen when one of the stagnant pathways dramatically takes a turn?

Thanks to Mao’s Cultural De-Revolution, China is struggling to catch up to other cities socially and societally.  What will happen when Shanghai’s social aspects match their infrastructure?  Cities like Los Angeles will slowly become forgotten and overlooked, unless they change the way that they are currently operating.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: China, Infrastructure, Los Angeles, Shanghai, social

China At a Crossroads

Many of my classmates have blogged in recent weeks as to the incredible pace of development underway in China. In one of the most rapid economic transitions ever to take place, the nation now stands on the brink of possessing a new level of global influence. Only thirty years ago, Chinese economic and political philosophy favored isolationism and socialist economic policies; today it is a major influence on the international community, a country where mass production and first-world consumeristic practices have taken a firm hold. Over breakfast in Xi’an, a quick glance through newspaper headlines reveals a reader’s digest version of overtly contemporary concerns affecting China today: “Putting A Brake On Inflation,” “2010 Entrepreneur Of The Year Award Winners,” “High Speed Rail On Agenda.” The list goes on.

Clearly, great insight is given to the more quantitative indicators of China’s rapid transition to world economic and political power. Sadly lacking from these articles, however, is a more qualitative analysis of Chinese culture and its newfound identity in the twenty-first century. Surely, China’s abrupt about-face must have profound implications on Chinese society, its people, its urbanism. How exactly will this swift transition impact China’s citizens?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in Henri Lefebvre’s The Everyday And Everydayness, a meditation on what many of us would otherwise disregard – the day-to-day-ness which would otherwise seem unimportant, yet affects every patriot of so-called modern culture.

Before the series of revolutions which ushered in what is called the modern era, … [living] presented a prodigious diversity. This diversity has never been well acknowledged or recognized as such; it has resisted a rational kind of interpretation which has only come about in our own time by interfering with and destroying that diversity. Today we see a worldwide tendency toward uniformity. […] The everyday is a product, the most general of products in an era where production engenders consumption, and where consumption is manipulated by producers: not by “workers,” but by the managers and owners of the means of production (intellectual, instrumental, scientific).

The everyday, in Lefebvre’s definition, is a uniquely modern phenomenon, affecting the urbanites of the most developed cities, regions, and countries around the world. He continues:

In modern life … the everyday imposes its monotony. The days follow one after another and resemble one another, and yet – here lies the contradiction at the heart of everydayness – everything changes. But the change is programmed: obsolescence is planned. Production anticipates reproduction; production produces change in such a way as to superimpose the impression of speed onto that monotony. Some people cry out against the acceleration of time, others cry out against stagnation. They’re both right.

Without a doubt, this concept of everydayness will soon take hold in much of China, and more immediately in its urban centers. Yet much of the country – most specifically Shanghai – stands at a bizarre intersection of the more empirical measures of the everyday (as seen in the newspaper described above) and the psychological everyday which Lefebvre illuminates in his essay. Though skyscrapers fill the skyline of central Shanghai, my classmates and I often remark that residents of the city often maintain practices more closely associated with rural life – spitting in the streets, chickens de-feathered on the sidewalk, garbage left haphazardly outside shops and in alleys. The uniformity, and mechanistically produced life described in The Everyday And Everydayness has yet to fully take hold, though at a distance, one may easily mistake the skyline of central Shanghai for that of a long-established urban center.

This juxtaposition of mechanistically produced urban landscape and urban life likely has its roots in China’s rapid development over the past thirty years. Not long ago, China was far from a world economic power; a nation steeped in socialist philosophy, it was largely removed from an increasingly capitalistic world. Today, however, a renewed vigor on economic production has given China newly-minted economic and political power, and with it, a shift toward a first-world standard of living. As Lefebvre states, the everyday of the modern city is indeed a product, closely tied to the physical –  the architecture of the modern city acting as an ever-present character, facilitator, catalyst to the modern life – yet in times of rapid development, the disparity between the physical and the mental can seem stark.

In the case of present-day Shanghai, a more traditional, less mechanistic way of life persists amidst an increasingly modern infrastructure and urban environment. However, it is only a matter of time before the physicality of modern-day Shanghai and the everyday illuminated in Lefebvre’s essay become inextricably linked. In this sense, our stay in China in the infancy of its modern self gives our class a extremely rare look at this connection between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of development, industrialization, urbanism and modern life; the birth of a modern city, not in its physical sense, but rather in its mental.


Filed under: Architecture, China, Urbanism

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


Located in the Qingpu district of Shanghai, Zhujiajiao is a water town lined with never ending merchants, colorful smells, and a culture that dates back 5000 years.  This video is a short compilation of my experience through this tiny village: the sights from a river boat ride and the sounds of walking through the merchant streets.  As it is impossible to remember every moment of an experience, the video slows down to focus on a few select flashes of the everyday culture in Zhujiajiao in order to enhance the reality of this unique place.



Filed under: China, River, Shanghai, Video, Zhujiajiao

Tea is Tea

Walking back from lunch one afternoon I decided to stop by a local convenience store to pick up drink. Standing there, in front of the glass refrigerator door, I am overwhelmed with my selections…. of tea.

Black teas, milk teas, oolong teas, green teas, herbal teas, lemon teas, “wang lao ji”….. WHICH ONE??!

I close my eyes and blindly grab the closest bottle; I mean, does it really matter? Tea is tea.

In my time spent in various Chinese cities, my observations of capitalism and free-market economic policies within the confines of modern China suggest that the modern Chinese society is all about the “spectacle”, an idea Guy Debord predicates in his text “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere”. Debord defines culture first and foremost as “the general sphere of knowledge”. How fitting that in this last decade, the influx of information and information technology has advanced the world tremendously. Global communications and transferring of information has allowed platforms for cross-cultural exchange, from which China has now emerged as a major powerhouse in the new century. However, with the advancement of culture (or knowledge), the idea of the image presupposes all aspects within a society; knowledge becomes a commodity of a society of the spectacle. Surveillance is a large component of this as cities and government are now more and more prone to monitor their citizens. China, still a Communist government, still employs close watch and censorship over information outlets such as the Internet, television, printed media etc. We’re all reminded of this everytime we turn our VPN on to access social networking sites like Facebook, or staring up at CCTV surveillance cameras that seem to be everywhere.

Now we go back to the tea, how? Culture naturally is issued from a historical point of view and often struggles between tradition and innovation, which seems to plague many modern societies/cities. Debord states that. “Cultural innovation is impelled solely, however, by that total historical movement….tends toward the transcendence of its own cultural presuppositions-and hence toward the suppression of all separations”. Tea, both a widely celebrated beverage and long-standing ceremonial ritual in China, has met this drastic fate in a modern, consuming Chinese society. The fact that this once highly relegated ceremonial drink that was, at times, reserved for aristocrats is now being cheaply sold in mass quantities means the inevitability of that cultural item’s loss of significance. The uniqueness of the quality, or scarcity of the type of flavor becomes meaningless in a free-market system that encourages industrialized mass production and multiple competitors. The individual/consumer becomes desensitized with quantity, and this is what Debord calls the disappearance of separations.

This past weekend we made a trip to Xi’an where I was fortunate enough to visit an actual teahouse. Upon arriving at the front door of the courtyard house, I was stopped by the hostess. She pointed to a sign that said “20 RMB Tea Ceremony”. It didn’t occur to me in that instance, but now reflecting on that moment, I am conscious now of what Debord was getting at. Similarly to Benajmin’s argument in Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the society of the spectacle within the cultural sphere reduces what was once considered true art in the sense of enrichment, to the spectacle within a purely consumer-centric society. In essence, this devolution, if you will, of culture to a merely another product completely negates any real, intrinsic value it previously had. I recently read an article published earlier this year about Starbuck’s discovering that Chinese people actually like drinking tea….what a shocker. Needless to say, this was a market study that led to the recent introduction of  “ nine new tea drinks in China including three original-leaf Chinese-style tea drinks, four original-leaf foreign tea drinks, and two handmade special tea drinks”. I found an interesting quote from the article about the current move from Starbuck’s to “get in touch” with the Chinese:

“This is not the first time that Starbucks is trying to (slowly) localize in China. China Daily points out that there is already a tea-themed Starbucks location in Shenzhen and over the past few years, Starbucks has taken to selling their own mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival and zongzi during the Dragon Boat Festival”.

It seems in an age of globalization, the purity and significance of culture becomes one of the first to take a hit from the ever-changing society of the spectacle. What happens to our perceptions of culture? What is real vs. fake culture? The everydayness of walking the city presents itself with various images and advertisements of “culture”, fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, etc. Consumption and negation within the modern era leads us ever closer to the blurring between reality and the surreal, which toggles the understanding of our own culture.



“Starbucks discovers that Chinese people like tea”,


Filed under: China, Culture, Debord, knowledge, Psyche, spectacle, Starbucks, Tea, Walter Benjamin

My China

As a class we have talked often about experiential phenomena in the city.  Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai…they all have high rise buildings, elevated expressways, subway systems, bustling boulevards, bright lights, and throngs of people.  We have seen this together as a group but experience, the interpretation and comparison of small differences, occurs on an individual basis.  Experience is the stuff of memories, the ideas we take away from a place and the ones that resonate with us even if nobody else pauses to notice.

With only a couple weeks left in China, two thoughts chase me around everywhere I go.  The first is my excitement to return home to California, where life will regain a sense of normalcy.  The second is fear that this normalcy will handicap me, that my jolting experience abroad will by comparison render anything back home inadequate – or worse, boring.  So what is my experience? What has China been to me?  Here are a few of my favorite parts of the day – the things I look forward to when I wake up and the things I will miss most.  This is my China.

-At the beginning of the fifteen minute walk to the subway station, we cross a large boulevard shortly after leaving the hotel.  A concrete pedestrian island separates lanes of car traffic passing in front and bike traffic passing behind.  When I huddle on this island with ten other people, the city whizzing by on all sides, I imagine a boulder sitting still in a fast moving river.  This is the most peaceful part of the day.

-Whenever I get change at a market, it’s always a mystery whether the cash register attendant will give back One Yuen notes or coins.  I try to guess which one it will be, and secretly hope to get coins because the notes feel small and insubstantial.  Occasionally the coins will be counterfeit, but nobody seems to pay too much attention.

-Most subway stations have a pair of soldiers standing silently at the entrance and exit.  For some reason one of them stands on a one-foot tall pedestal, and the other on the ground.  The shorter soldier always stands on the pedestal.  This makes me happy.  I have not sought out any further explanation, and don’t plan on doing so.

-When ordering drinks, ‘lemon iced tea’ is almost always written as ‘ice lemon tea’.  If you say the former, servers will correct the order of your words.  To order Coca-Cola do not ask for ‘Coke’ or you will get a confused look.  Ask for ‘Cola’.  Drinks invariably come with knotted straws that force your beverage to make a loop-the-loop as you sip it.  The jury is still out on whether this adds anything to the experience.

-The undersides of elevated expressways are all brightly lighted.  A nighttime cab ride passes underneath, on top of, and above floating ribbons of color twisting their way through high-rise canyons.  I think about how this looks futuristic, and also a little bit silly.

-Elevators usually have no button for number four, because the Chinese word for it resembles the word for death.  This always reminds me of how many American buildings omit a thirteenth floor.  Superstition both amuses and annoys me but I’m not even sure why thirteen is superstitious to begin with, so I find the Chinese version more legitimate.  Checking for this is always the first thing I do in an elevator.

-Inside the subway station there is a long corridor you must walk down between the entrance and turnstiles.  At rush hour the corridor is filled with people, some walking briskly, some walking four abreast, some on their cell phones, some listening to music, some holding briefcases, and some completely unremarkable.  All these people moving at different paces make it impossible to walk the length of the corridor in a straight line.  You have to judge speeds, make passes, navigate groups, twist and turn your body, rub shoulders, and keep alert.  I love this.

Matt Luery

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, everydayness, experience, phenomena, Urbanism

A Weekend in Xi’an

On our recent trip to Xi’an, I was exposed to the last frontier of China.  On the outskirts of Xi’an around Qingyun Ma’s Jade Valley Winery, small clusters of dilapidated houses and a vast, green patchwork of farmland covered the landscape.  I was in agruarian China, right at the cusp before development.  Next to the clusters, I could see the construction of a new school and a small town center starting to take form.  This experience of being away from the city was a relief, but for the people who lived there, this was their everyday life.  For cityfolk like me, anything beyond the city that I did was a spectacle, or even absurd.

In Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday and Everdayness, he sees the world destroying diversity and working towards uniformity.  He stated that “Every complex ‘whole’ from the smallest tool to the greatest works of art and learning, therefore possessed a symbolic value linking them to meaning at its most vast: to divinity and humanity, power and wisdom, good and evil, happiness and misery, the perrennial and the ephemeral.  These immense values were themselves mutable according to historical circumstance, to social classes, to rulers and mentors.  Each object was thus linked to some ‘style’ and therefore, as a work, contained while masking the larger functions and structures which were integral parts of its form.”  However, because the “functional elements was itself disengaged, rationaled, then industrially produced, and finally imposed by constraint and persuasion: that is to pay, by means of advertising and by powerful economic and political lobbies”  these everyday items have lost their “essence.”  We have been numbed by society to not see differences and be curious about the world.

Our class had to take cars to visit Dean Ma’s father’s house and one mode of transport was in the back of a pickup truck.  Riding on the back of a pickup truck in America is different than riding it in the Xi’an countryside even if the pickup trucks were the same.  With my conditioned mode of thinking, I have rationalized that its dangerous and the police would not hesitate to issue me a ticket for such ridiculous behavior.  But in Xi’an, I wanted to ride the back of the pickup truck because there were no such thing as rules to govern me.  I was responsible for my own injuries because it was my decision to ride in the back of the pickup truck.  For the people living in the Xi’an countryside, people ride in the back of trucks all the time.  Society has conditioned me to think that riding anywhere besides the passenger seats is considered unsophisticated and dangerous.  Most of my classmates and I WANTED to sit in the back of the pickup truck because we could break free from society’s constraints and enjoy the Xi’an countryside in an absurd, but memorable way.  Our bickering to ride in THAT pickup truck in THAT setting subconsciously justified our appreciation and desire to experience the everyday.

This event reminded me of the film Weekend because it extremitized the everyday by making it completely ridiculous and because of its absurdity, thus making events more memorable.  One particular scene filmed a traffic jam with cars set ablaze and dead bodies sprawled, but some people have casually parked their cars having a picnic, or running around.  At the time, I was thoroughly confused and thinking “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON”, but those emotions and thoughts jolted me out of my complacent mindset of what a movie should be.  But does the absurdity of the everyday imply that it’s impossible to occur?  I would argue that it is more improbable than impossible that the absurdities occur, especially in a desensitized world today.  But when noticed, they give me a jolt of excitement that I immediately want others to also see.

Back in the city, I visited Xi’an’s city wall.  The width of the wall was wide enough for charriots to pass through, and now as a tourist attraction, visitors can ride a bicycle along it.  After recently watching Beijing Bicycle, this strange coincidence came full circle.  In the movie, the bicycle becomes takes on a character because the movie shows it being more than it is.  For one character, the bicycle is a dream to have, enjoy, be cool and to attract a girlfriend.  The other character values the bicycle because it is his way of making a living delivering packages.  Both become attached to the bicycle that stir a range of emotions like sadness, courage, fear, and worry.  The bicycle transcends its normal meaning of transporting a person from point A to B.

Seeing the Beijing Bicycle and Weekend helped me understand that I was not just riding a bicycle.  I was riding it on a relic and ancient artifact of the city.  I was seeing the roofscape of the buildings inside the city wall.  I was seeing the new skyscapers just outside of the city wall.  Riding a bicycle on the street would not have given me this same experience [nonetheless riding a bicycle in a country that doesn’t give the pedestrian the right of way is another expierence].  The meaning of this bicycle went beyond just riding it, but all the other sights that came about after I started pedaling.

I am ashamed of the fact that I have been numbed by society and blinded to see the excitement and beauty around the city.  Now that I notice that simple things that occur in the city as part of the everday experience, the city is not just a place where I inhabit. It is a larger, living organism that has varying scales of activity that my curiosity allows me to see.


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

Becoming the Everyday

One views and interacts a city differently through a camera lens than without the guise of the lens. Through the lens, one can never truly experience the city. Preoccupied with taking photographs of what appears to be exciting and new does not let the photographer become aware of the small nuances of a city. The attempt to become part of a city occurs as these subtleties begin to be noticed.

“The concept of the everyday illuminates the past. Everyday life has always existed, even if in ways vastly different from our own. The character of the everyday has always been repetitive…In the study of the everyday we discover the great problem of repetition… The everyday is situated at the intersection of two modes of repetition: the cyclical, which dominates in nature, and the linear, which dominates in processes known as ‘rational’… In modern life, the repetitive gestures tend to mask and crush the cycles. The everyday imposes its monotony. It is the invariable constant of the variations it envelopes. The days follow one after another and resemble one another, and yet—here lies the contradiction at the heart of everydayness—everything changes. But the change is programmed: obsolescence is planned. Production anticipates reproduction; production produces change in such a way as to superimpose the impression of speed onto that of monotony.” This is Henri Lefebvre’s interpretation of the everyday as stated in The Everyday and Everydayness.

Is it possible for an outsider to become a part of the everyday? Can they become an element of the monotony?

For example, after being in Shanghai for a few weeks, when walking from the subway station to MADA s.p.a.m., one is no longer bombarded by street peddlers, trying to sell their “bags-watch,” because they recognize the walker, who constantly tells them “no.” Once the peddler begins to recognize certain cycles and constant variations to their day, they begin to anticipate certain aspects. One has effectively become part of the peddler’s everyday. Because one is part of the peddler’s everyday, does that make one part of the city’s everyday?

There is a difference between the city becoming one’s everyday and one becoming an everyday aspect of the city. The city becomes part of one’s everyday once one becomes a passive member of society. When getting pushed out of the way by locals, one begins to mindlessly push back. One is no longer phased by everyday occurrences which may not be routine. Although one may have become a passive member of society, this does not mean that one is part of the society’s everyday. A temporal aspect of the everyday, maybe. The city becomes a monotonous part of one’s life, but the same does not hold for one’s impact on the city.

The repetitive cycle of outsiders coming and going becomes a part of the everyday. The linear aspect of the everyday is how the city’s everyday impacts one’s life. The cyclical everyday for the city repeats itself. Unlike the everyday for the city, which remains unchanging and almost mechanical, the everyday for the user is much more erratic. Day by day, one goes about their linear journey, letting the everyday aspects of different cities impose their distinct qualities on one’s life. The outsider remains a stranger to the everyday of unfamiliar cities.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Architecture, China, everyday, Urbanism, ,


Having stayed in Shanghai for almost two months now, it almost feels like I’ve been living here my whole life. A few days ago, I was at the subway station waiting for the next train to arrive when an elderly woman came up to me and inquired whether or not the train I was waiting for would bring her to her destination stop; In one of my proudest moments, I answered that question without hesitation and even suggested what exit to take to get to her destination, all in Chinese! It seems to be getting easier and easier to get into an everyday routine nowadays, especially at the subway station. One second you’re descending the elevators into the terminal and the next, you’re surrounded by a sea of black haired and brown-eyed men and women crowding to squeeze into the subway cars. Trying to hold your balance during jolts of the subway cars, the musty scent of body odor and sweat, the occasional beggar journeying from one end of the subway to the other shaking his coin jar, being inches away from the person next to you during rush hours; all that has become part of the everyday, at least for me. All this reminds me of what Michel de Certeau validates as being a “haunted” place,

Haunted places are the only places people can live in”.

Scary, right?

I think what Certeau is ultimately getting at is the core of all this phenomenology within a city: the notion of a place. If place is defined by the metaphysical (memory, time), than that place is no more defined than through what is seen. The existence of that significance is within the memory, which associates certain emotions/ideas embedded within a space. Memories, are in essence, the practice of spatial ordering because places are merely fragments of private histories accumulated from everyone who has passed through there. People are the make up of the city. Certeau even suggests that the city space is, in itself, the canvas on which the people (pedestrians) write the story through their movement through and within these spaces.

However, I would argue that unlike what Certeau argues as the inevitability of non-place as a direct result of mobility, the city itself is full of urban places solely because of pedestrian traffic. If walking is the “acting-out” of a place, the city is then the container of these acted spaces. The very act of naming spaces are the “impetus of movements, like vocations and calls that turn or divert an itinerary by giving it a meaning (or direction) that was previously unforeseen”. Names we are all too familiar with now like “The Bund”, “People’s Square”, and even our very own “Old Humin Road” all connote some sort of experience or memory that transcends just the physicality of the site or the label. These places have become more than names or streets but destinations, meeting points, symbols. It goes beyond just being a dot on a map, but only to be experienced fully from the viewpoint of the individual. And all this is part of the story that the city tells through the observer. These “Urban Texts”, if you will, are written through the mobile nature of the individual and the masses that each offers their own experiences. Spaces can only be defined as long as the person stays there, with the next person replacing the narrative with a fresh perspective. The city can never maintain one image since the mass population can never remain static nor impose one unifying image on a space in which they move through. It’s amazing and simultaneously wonderfully exciting to think that what I offered as my own experience of the subway ride may be the total opposite image of the next person riding the same train, five cars down. So perhaps while I silently let the subway rock me back and forth on my next Line 1 ride, I’ll be reminded that what I see, feel, and hear is just an excerpt from my Shanghai narrative that has yet to be fully written.



Filed under: Architecture, China, haunted, Michel de Certeau, Shanghai, Subway, Urbanism, Walking in the City

Highway to Development

Urbanism; the focal point of our entire semester abroad.  Twelve cities, nine hotels, seven flights, six high speed trains, subways, taxi rides, countless miles covered on foot, and most recently an eight kilometer bicycle tour.  From infrastructure to infratecture, urban sprawl to hyper-density, developing to developed, the city has been our life.  With the feeling of total immersion beginning to set in as we approach the four-month marker, our weekend trip to Xian could not have come at a better time.  A rare opportunity to experience the rural country towns provided a much-needed release from our daily routine in Shanghai.  As our bus edged further and further from our hotel in downtown Xian, the density of the city center began to fade away, along with every other sense of the urban.  City blocks were replaced by farming plots, dense fabric with crumbling residences, highways with dirt roads.  Our final destination was the Jade Valley winery, at which a private tour and wine tasting awaited us.  As we stepped out of the bus, and began ascending the hillside towards the vineyards, thoughts of endless fields filled my mind, entirely devoid of structure, of concrete, of man.  I was expecting nature, I was expecting vastness, I was expecting tranquility.  I was not expecting what actually was.

There, staring me in the face just beyond the vineyard, was the beginnings of an enormous piece of urban infrastructure; a multi-lane superhighway that will eventually link Shanghai with Xian, providing an express land route.  This was the last thing I expected to see.  What was equally impressive was the development beginning to sprout up atop and beneath the vineyard hillside, and more so that it is largely the result of a single man… our Dean Qingyun Ma.  With plans for a sixty-room hotel, expansion of the winery facilities, and soon a major expressway passing through, Ma is slowly building the small town of Yushan into a potential destination.  Granted the town has a long, long way to go, it is still intriguing to speculate about the beginnings of an urban agenda.

This situation reminded me of a previous instance along our journey; the highway linking Hong Kong and Shenzhen.  As this infrastructural route is firm in place, new developments have already arisen along the way.  Like Yushan, these destinations were relatively rural, and fall within Hong Kong’s under-developed expanse between the two larger city centers.  As an urban model, this example speaks to the power of infrastructure, and its ability to spur growth in otherwise undeveloped areas.  Whether or not Yushan and other peripheral towns of Xian develop similarly after the superhighway link to Shanghai is completed is hard to say.  The dedication to development is there, and the infrastructure is fast approaching.  Time is the only remaining factor.



Filed under: About, China, Uncategorized, 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