USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Life Beneath the Asphalt

Too often times do we associate the act of designing to simply an object and overlook the fact that it is the spaces between the individual objects that begin to shape our experiences. The city essentially is not object oriented in the scale of architecture, but functions as a collective whole with emphasis on the relationships between the various components within it, creating an urban narrative that gives meaning to its people. The existence of public open spaces therefore becomes an important component in stitching the city together and helping it function as a collective whole. One aspect of public open space can be found through the use of landscaped pedestrian walkways within the dense urban context.

Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, discussed in his essay Politics, Power, Cities, the importance of public spaces as an urban equalizer, “In public spaces people meet as equals, stripped bare of their social hierarchies”.  Public pedestrian spaces such as, parks, waterfronts, and promenades are all means to a more inclusive and in turn more collective society. These spaces show respect for human dignity regardless of the level of economic development of a society, and begin to compensate for inequality in other realms. The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul is a successful case demonstrating how public green spaces have helped change the quality of life of its inhabitants.  Contrary to its current state, during the early fifties, the Cheonggyecheon stream was a terribly filthy, trash-filled waterway when Korea was just beginning to run the course of industrialization.  The stream became so deteriorated that the Korean government had the Cheonggyecheon covered up with concrete in 1958, and ten years later an elevated highway was built over the concrete in order to relieve traffic congestion in the city. For half a century, a dark tunnel of crumbling concrete encased more than three miles of a placid stream that bisects the bustling city, until former Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak decided to liberate the Cheonggyecheon from its dark sheath and revert it back into a stream with green pedestrian corridors surrounding the exposed waters. Today, it has become one of the few places in downtown Seoul where all the citizens of the city can congregate together, you will find children playing with their parents, young couples strolling hand-in-hand, the elderly sitting on the park benches, and even the rich business elite eating lunch in the shade underneath one of the bridges. The stream has not only become a pedestrian space, but also a recreational space, a place for all the citizens of Seoul to enjoy.

However, that is not to say the urban restoration of Cheonggyecheon came easily and without criticisms. The approximate cost for the restoration project was a whopping 384 million USD. It was a major undertaking as not only did they have to remove the highway, but also after years of neglect and development the original stream was nearly dried out – 120,000 tons of water had to be pumped in annually from the Han River, its tributaries, and the groundwater from subways in order to maintain its current state. In addition, there were also tremendous efforts made to compromise with the existing conditions, which involved hundreds of meetings with businesses and residents over a period of two years. The main criticism the project received early on was that it was expensive and an “inefficient” form of urban renewal, because open spaces are essentially not programmed in the architectural sense, cost money to maintain, and have no direct revenue – all values that are deemed inefficient. However, is urbanism only about efficiency? And though it is important, does it have to be defined by completely optimizing efficiency? Quoting Yi, our professor in Seoul, “a city is not only about the performance, but also about the narrative. Performance is only functional, while narrative gives the city meaning”. As an urban equalizer, the Cheonggyecheon does bring about diversity and a greater sense of community for the people of Seoul to work towards a more collective society. One cannot argue the fact that after the Cheonggyecheon restoration project it has not increased the quality of life of its citizens as well as marketed the city of Seoul to the world, as it has become one of the signature landmarks of Seoul that is enjoyed by people of all ages as well as races.

Cheongyecheon stream: a place for people of all ages – a grandfather playing in the stream with his granddaughter

Cheongyecheon: Before and After Comparison

Jeanette C.

Filed under: Collectivism, Landscape, narrative, ,

The Dark Knight of Guangzhou

A hero, a villain, a facilitator, a complexity, a connector; Guangzhou’s Bus Rapid Transit system is all these things. It is the bane of the rich and the automobile enthusiast, eradicating almost half of the formerly 16-lane Zhong Shan Road. Yet it is the savior of those who have no means of transportation, provides a sigh of relief to the sustainable thinkers, and induces wide-eyed wonder for the young aspiring architect. Inspired by one of the world’s most robust public transportation systems located in Bogotá, Columbia, the behemoth spans 29 kilometers with 26 bus stations along its length, as well as bicycle stations, to make even the narrow-alleyed urban villages accessible. This feat was accomplished in just over 5 years.

As I was riding the B2A line of the BRT back in the direction of our hotel located on the outskirts of the city, I was fully expecting to have to hop onto a taxi for the last leg of the trip. My jaw dropped as the bus pulled onto our street and stopped not a hundred yards from the hotel. That’s what 2 Yuan got me. It’s a pity I only just learned about this phenomenal system the night before we left Guangzhou for Zhuhai. Until next time old friend…

When I first think of strategizing the layout of an urban infrastructure, I would probably only think to connect major city nodes that have the most foot traffic in order for the system to be sustainable and operate at maximum efficiency. Although The BRT may have laid its foundations upon that strategy, its reach has spread beyond simply connecting major nodes. By connecting even the currently obscure outreaches of the city, it creates accessibility to those areas. This encourages the business workers of the city center to live in these cheaper areas by eliminating the problem of commute, which in turn attracts parasitic businesses to line these routes, increasing real estate value, and all in all, stimulating economic growth. The infrastructure has evolved from being the parasite to the predator.

The system reminded me of California and its proposal to construct a high-speed railway from Bakersfield to Fremont. Both systems are, or plan to be, running through a lot of “no-man’s lands,” both hoping that this infrastructure will create jobs. California’s mistake however is that it does not establish a connection between two critical masses, being Los Angeles and San Francisco, to get the foot traffic necessary for the economy to develop along the railway. Guangzhou, as is the case with many Chinese cities, already has that critical mass of people in the sheer size of its population.

So how can such an effective, albeit radical, public transportation system come into being in such a short span of time? A strong central government and a loose set of policies definitely expedite the process. In the United States, our lobbyists hold an iron grip on the speed of any form of infrastructural development. It’s ironic really, that our government, by the people and for the people, is coupled with an individualistic mindset that ultimately does not benefit the majority of its population as far as urbanism is concerned. The everyday in the lives of us citizens really boils down to a product, as Henri Lefebvre states in The Everyday and Everydayness, that is not in our control, but in the control of the “managers of the means of production (intellectual, instrumental, scientific).”

So is a strong central government flawless? Of course not. From the outsider’s perspective, I obviously do not experience the pains and struggles that such a system places on its enormous lower class. But in the end, it is more of a matter of a collectivist versus an individualist mentality. The BRT, as I mentioned, was made primarily for the benefit of the poor, and was in fact supported by many automobile industries in China. In LA, the poor silently cry for an equivalent BRT system as the automobile industry continues to lobby for money to be spent on additional lanes to the 405. The BRT is the system of infrastructure that Los Angeles needs, but not the one it deserves right now. Until our lobbyists learn to sacrifice a little for the greater good, our infrastructure can’t be our hero. It’ll remain a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.

– Muhi

Filed under: Automobile, Collectivism, Infrastructural Growth, Infrastructure

Road to Individualism?

Collectivism emphasizes the interdependence of people in some collective group and the priority of group goals over individual goals. In the Chinese tradition, collectivism has long meant that an individual does not work to accumulate wealth for himself but rather for his family and for the community. However, as China begins to advance in its developments, it has also seemingly taken a more individualistic road towards its future. The government has slowly begun to reduce its grip on social and collectivist processes and new policies aid in creating a society in which capitalism serves as a leading social value such that personal wealth is becoming increasingly more important than other social values.

As Simmel notes in his essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and the society. For him, the greatest dilemma of modern society is that it frees individuals from historic and traditional bonds for greater individual freedom, yet at the same time, individuals are also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. In big cities such as Hong Kong, we are constantly bombarded with an inflation of external and internal sensory stimulus: from the sweaty arm of a stranger that brushes against you as you cross the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, to the overwhelming visual stimulation of signage that covers the view of the sky in Causeway Bay. The metropolis creates rapid crowding of changing images and sharp discontinuity in a single glance that fosters a situation where one must buffer him/herself from a constantly changing environment. This phenomenon can easily be illustrated with the subway scenes of Hong Kong, even though there seems to be little to no sense of personal space, no one seems to be bothered by the fact that there will always be someone brushing against them as they pass by. People simply sit quietly and stay to themselves on the subway, listening to music or playing with their smart phones. Everyone seems to be immersed in their own world: disengaged and isolated, tuned out to their bustling external environment.  And in turn, this protection manifests itself in the rise of logic and intellect where social interactions become rational and instrumental, with little considerations to emotional and personal concerns. Everything in the city becomes measurable and calculated; qualitative value is reduced to quantitative. Things therefore have no intrinsic value and are instead measured by the external objective value of money, time and power, yielding what Simmel calls “blasé”, a superficial and indifferent mentality to the people living within it.

HK subway: immersed in their own world

This mentality is also manifested in the built environment around these cities. Like the urban village, Huang Gang, in Shenzhen, we learnt that the villagers decided to tear down all the old village houses to construct new 5 to 6 storey buildings with commercial spaces located at the bottom, so that they can rent them out to different tenants for greater revenue. Little of the old fabric was maintained, and instead is replaced with generic looking low-rise village buildings, commercialized to maximize profit. Another example of this mentality is visible through the restoration efforts of the BaoMo Garden in Panyu. Described as “one of the new top eight sights in Panyu” on its information pamphlet, this “National class AAAA scenic spot” has been restored to the point where nothing seemed authentic anymore. In fact, it almost felt very theme park-like – with traditional Chinese music playing through the speakers located everywhere in the garden, the out-of-place European street lamps, the flashing light bulb eyes for the stone dragons that spurt water out of their mouths, and the vendors that tried to sell you souvenirs and fans at every turn of the corner – everything about the place was so marketed and commercialized that it seems to have somewhat lost its sense of cultural heritage.

However, in spite of all these consequences of individualism, there are still efforts, such as the Urban-Tulou by Urbanus and the “Di Wu Yuan” housing development by Vanke, made to reinstate the sense of collectiveness within our society. These projects are designed to help preserve community spirit among low-income families by inducing greater opportunities for social interaction through the attention paid to the design of their public spaces. According to Urbanus themselves, the Urban-Tulou project also explored ways to “stitch the tulou within the existing fabric of the city”.  This idea can be illustrated in the way the project comes in contact with the ground plane – by lifting the housing units on the first floor to free the ground floor for through-access commercial uses, it allows the spaces to be accessible to both the residents of the project as well as the community around it; expanding the sense of collectiveness to the greater community. It is always nice to see projects such as these that are made to induce collectivism within a seemingly individualistic modern society where everyone is preoccupied with work and with the accumulation of personal wealth. One can only hope that the idea of collectivism in China will not be left behind at the expense of the accumulation of wealth, and that more projects with an agenda on community spirit will be developed in the future to counter-balance the forces of individualism.

Grandparents and children playing in the parks of Di Wu Yuan

– Jeanette

Filed under: Collectivism, community, development, individuality, Materiality

collective attributes

“Do your attributes really belong to you?”

This is a question posed by Masahiko Sato’s “The Definition of Self” exhibit at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo.  The aim of the exhibit is to demonstrate that one’s physical attributes, such as fingerprint, iris, height, and weight make one easily identifiable within a society.  Without these characteristics, one would not exist.  Sato states that one will realize “your existence is not even worth paying attention to” through the exhibit.

This makes one question whether or not true individuality is a tangible objective.  Can an object truly be  a unique entity when the exact same components make up each “unique” object?  Are objects which are made up different combinations of the same matter identical or incongruous?  Attributes are aesthetically different, yet are intrinsically alike.  Each individual has a fingerprint.  The only difference between these fingerprints is the way in which the grooves appear.  Although an iris scan can identify an individual, the differences between one’s iris from another is miniscule.  Features which make one an individual are identifying characteristics, but do not necessarily set one apart from others because these attributes are universal.

Physical and social attributes are not one of the same.  John Clammer discusses  how individuals strive for a self-identity which is socially visible.  This sense of social individuality is displayed through material items such as clothing and accessories.    One has the ability to appear as an individual socially.  However, in Japan, most do not stray far from how it is socially acceptable to appear.  The streets of Tokyo are constantly littered with businessmen wearing identical dark suit pants and white collared shirts.  Taxi drivers effortlessly line themselves up into neatly organized grids while awaiting passengers.  These individuals appear to be part of a cult—moving through the city as one giant mass.

In Tokyo not only do individuals present themselves socially in similar manners, but they also move through spaces as if they are one collective whole.  The movement patterns are similar to a current, which follows a trajectory with no visible markers.  From above, people appear as ants, marching through set paths in their white button-downs.

These paths never cross, nor do the individuals following them ever run into one another.  There is some sort of order which is inherently part of each individual, allowing one to move with a group as fluidly and smoothly as possible.  Amidst the chaos of a Tokyo metro station, the overflowing amount of people know exactly where they are going, as well as the most efficient way to get there, without ever straying from this route.  People appear as cars on marked streets, walking in their lane and adhering to all traffic laws.

Without individuality and the ability to think for oneself, movement as a whole would not be possible.  Individuals must contemplate their movement.  However, do they deliberate over each move or are they just following the pack?  Is this a taught ability or an instinct?  Either way, Masahiko Sato’s argument prevails.  Although attributes differ slightly on a micro level, each individual is ultimately composed of the same attributes, just with a slightly different coding.  One’s existence becomes very small when all social elements are removed.

Individuals are essentially the same, the ability to think sets one apart from others.  While physical attributes are primarily the same for each individual, Tokyo exhibits the extreme where in addition to these physical attributes, social attributes are also very uniform.  Homogenous dress and collective movement display how a culture thinks and behaves.  Both molecularly and superficially, little is left to identify an individual.  The ability to change is all that is left to establish one as an individual.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: AAU, Architecture, attributes, Collectivism, Identity, individuality, japan, self, Tokyo, Uncategorized, ,


The room is filled with a stench of sweat mixed with smoke. The flashing lights, ringing bells and whistles are enough to deafen anyone passing a mile away. Rows upon rows of foreign-looking machines are lined up with men and women starting intently, as if lost within a world of their own. One hand grasps a handle, while the other lifts a handful of silver beads into the machine. Their eyes gaze, following the silver marble down its path. No one dares says a word, they just keep looking forward, waiting for time to pass them by. These are the Pachinko Slots.

Collectivism. Most Americans can’t agree on a single cultural ideology, let alone interact with each other without offending the other person. Thus, it seemed foreign for me to see such a collective effort on behalf of the Japanese people these past few days within the urban fabric of Tokyo. For the Japanese, it isn’t about self, but about the whole. Society is a living and breathing organism that can only survive and thrive with the collective efforts; everyone plays their part, down to the last detail. As a direct consequence, the value of order and formality runs deep within the mindset of the people. Their lives are dictated by conventions and cultural traditions, nothing is left to chance. For example the transportation system, specifically the metro/rail lines. All lines run like clockwork; on the dot, all day, every day. All of this is the direct consequence of a collective social, political, and even economic order that is ultimately governed by the Japanese notion of a collective.

So you’re probably wondering where does Pachinko play into this? The concept of the game itself is rooted in gambling, chance, disorder. Fact is, the Pachinko slots is the probably the closest a middle class working business man in Tokyo has in escaping the arduous pressures of business, cultural, and political collectivism. From a personal standpoint, it’s tough to envision a life in the day, only to end up alone in front of a slot machine watching silver marbles dictate my fortune. As sad as it may sound, I believe it provides a sort of excitement and mystery to the lives of these people who are so engrained in living out their lives under some kind of presumed notion or convention from which they adhere to. But even to some extent, this escape from reality is not really part of an individual experience, but still part of a collective. It has become a necessity for so many people who it has become a recognized national past-time, subjected under the same rules and etiquette as any other institution. So then, what is real and what is fantasy? The fact is, Pachinko has become part of their reality, a piece of their collective identity. Individuality within this society will always be an extension of, never separated from. But for now, the best thing to do is to play like Pachinko and watch as chance and misfortune provide a little bit of change of pace from the strictness of everyday life.


Filed under: Collectivism, Culture, Japan, Pachinko, Tokyo, Urbanism

Collectivism and Assimilation in…..Baseball?

The thought of Japan brings to mind a homogeneous culture that has long valued the collectivist community as a core to the identity of being Japanese. No further does one have to look for an example of this mindset than the game of baseball. A few of us decided to attend a pro baseball game in Tokyo – the Hanshin Tigers versus the Tokyo Yakult Swallows – and the experience was unlike any Major League game I have attended in the States.  The second we stepped into the seats of Jingu Stadium, we were bombarded with masses of Japanese fans all wearing the same jerseys, chanting the same chants in unison, motioning the same directions, responding to the same cues. It was fascinating how perfectly harmonized the fans were in tune with each other; it was as if the collective crowd had a singular mind. If I didn’t know better I would almost say it looked militaristic. But what it really was, was a perfect reflection of the collectivist cultural value has long been integral to Japanese identity. George Simmel’s definition of The Metropolis as “the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and…. precisely schematized form of life” has no better example than that of these Japanese baseball fans behaving in such a homogeneous way.

This pervading collectivism is represented not just in this cultural realm of baseball, but manifests itself in the built environment around us. As I sit and write at night in my 30-story high hotel room, the view of Tokyo is a dense collection of white lights that define building forms and outlines. Each mid/high rise building has on its roof a series of identical red blinking lights. No doubt this serves a functional purpose – my guess would be that they exist to warn incoming helicopters or planes at night of relative building heights – but what is more evocative is how as a single collective mass, the red lights on each building at night evoke an image of this metropolis as a gigantic living organism. Red lights that turn on and off together and define the Tokyo skyline also represent the organic collective mindset so core to the Japanese identity and to the idea of the Metropolis. Just as the crowd of fans at the baseball game behaved as a homogeneous collective whole, so does the Metropolis consisting of buildings – the man made objects that stem from this society – behave in the very same way.

Switching back to the topic of baseball, I took an image of an especially ardent fan at the stadium waving, of all things, an American flag. This reminded me that baseball was originally an American sport brought to Japan, and led me to consider the topic of assimilation in Japanese culture. If I can recall from history class, the Japanese culture contains a very real capacity for rapid, pragmatic adaptation. Historically, the transformation of Japan into a modern political and social metropolis during the Meiji Restoration ended the reign of the Shogunate, and ushered in a complete assimilation of Western political, social, and industrial hierarchies. The same thing happened with baseball, albeit with no bloodshed or rebellion. Baseball, originally a Western construct, has been completely assimilated by Japanese culture. From a Western point of view, it was almost amusing to see this pseudo imitation of Americana, much like Tokyo Disneyland or Elvis being blasted and danced to on the streets. But as a student of architecture and urbanism, I now begin to question the very idea of assimilation and whether what is ‘assimilated’ and spit back out even resembles the original. Here we are witnessing: a Japanese baseball fan, waving an American flag, in a Japanese crowd, watching an ‘American’ sport, being played and experienced in a distinctively Japanese way. The Japanese songs, chants, sportswear and collective behavior of the crowd as one homogeneous mind can nowhere be found in baseball games in the States. Baseball in Japan has become uniquely Japanese. By the bottom of the 7th inning, the score was 8-3 Tigers, the Swallows would probably lose. We were seated in the losing teams section and I expected fans to start leaving early, cheers to die down and chants to be recited with less and less fervor. But the opposite happened, fans stayed put and sung and chanted just as loud as the opening pitch. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t about the score anymore, it wasn’t about winning or losing. In America, the idea of victory and defeat is so engrained in our minds, but what I was witnessing here was a collective group of people and their respective culture that was more concerned with the passing of time (like those Pacinco parlors) and with losing themselves in the sport (like those high-rise golf ranges).  I would argue that this is the essence of Japanese baseball at its most pure, and in a larger sense, the essence of The Metropolis at its most blase’.

~ Evan Shieh

Filed under: America, Assimilation, Baseball, Collectivism, George Simmel, Homogenous, Japan, Metropolis, Red Blinking Lights, Tokyo, 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