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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

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

Too much of a good thing

The context of urbanism and city planning includes a social aspect related to that of utopian ideals. Often times, cities are conceived, at the genesis, partly under societal ideals that may or may not be successful. Our recent trip to Paju was an exciting glimpse into the beginning workings of an urban community being formed. Literally everything in that city is designed, planned, and executed.  Its architectural endeavors make it a remarkable and innovative urban scheme evolving into a new industrial asset to Korea. But how are we to judge how successfully Paju is? If its sole goal was to create a community of great architecture, it might have indeed accomplished the task. However, Paju presents an eerie, almost surreal look into a modern utopia that seems artificially discomforting and rigid. From an architectural point of view, is all that design desirable? How much before it is too much?

Paju Book City arose out an idea to create a community centered on the art of publication and literature. The recent and high-paced urban redevelopment of Seoul since after the Korean War adopted a culture of consumerism and urban density. As Seoul continued to grow larger, the traditional and vernacular culture of Korea began disappearing. The largeness of the urban fabric slowly deteriorates the role and importance of the human being, only offering a negative environment for an individual. Thus, the self-named “City to Recover Lost Humanity” is a modern response to this fast-paced urbanism. The city is about the people coming together under one common goal in art and architecture. By creating an exclusive city dedicated to the cultural values behind literature, Paju hopes to not only become a city of arts, but a cultural complex built upon solid artistic infrastructure.

Ironically, however, the architectural manifestations of this proposal almost seem to negate the very principle idea of the city itself. As a concept, the city was conceived out of “controlling personal, selfish desires in favor of considering common interests first” (PajuBookCity.org). However, if we look at the design features of the buildings, each architectural element of the city is one singular object in a whole field of objects. What lacked was a unifying theme that linked these buildings together. There’s a sense of disjunction between the structures that exhibit a loss-of-place feeling. Alvaro Siza states that in designing his Mimesis Museum in Paju, he found it difficult to design when you had no context to design with:

“I didn’t have as much context as I would like with which I could create a dialogue, I only had a site plan, so I had to concentrate on creating an atmosphere for the building” (Iconeye). As a result, many of these “jewel” boxes are constantly fighting for the attention of the viewer, primarily on the level of façade treatments being applied to almost every single side of the building, whether it be concrete, glass, wood slats, etc. It was interesting to see the overall de-sensitized reaction we had after walking for a few hours through the city; we were bored and nothing really spoke to us anymore. In that sense, Paju perhaps negatively represents the outcome of design; instead of stimulating the senses, it overwhelms them to the point of a numb sensation. Though Paju certainly has a far ways to go before becoming the artistic node it was meant to be, it will be interesting to see how this city and many of these dedicated communities will react to the changing fabric of Seoul.

_Jonathan

Reference:

Book City Culture Foundation, http://www.pajubookcity.org/english/sub_03_01.asp

Murphy, Douglas. “Mimesis Museum.” Untitled Document. Web. 19 Sept. 2010. <http://www.iconeye.com/index.php?view=article&catid=1:latest-news&layout=news&id=4509:mimesis-museum-south-korea-by-alvaro-siza&option=com_content&Itemid=18&gt;.

Filed under: Architecture, community, Culture, Korea, objects, Paju, Urbanism, Utopia

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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