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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.

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

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.

_Joyce

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

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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.

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PHOTOS FROM THE TRIP

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