USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Footprints and Fingerprints

Every person is born with an individual identity…a unique fingerprint that no other person replicates.  In many respects, cities are like this as well.  Cities are born (and often reborn) with a specific agenda, and although many cities carry the same agenda, each is still maintaining its own identity – something that makes the city that city – a footprint on the planet.  After being in Shenzhen for 6 days, I found myself still struggling to grasp what gives this city its own identity.  There are the evident characteristics: a sprawling city, the strong urge for development and rebirth, the need to create an image for itself, and the artificiality of the city.  However, these are all qualities of plenty of other cities as well.  But what really makes the city?  Gives it an identity of who it really is?

If a city is generically urban, generically developing, and generically establishing its city, does that necessarily mean that it lacks any sort of culture or identity?  From my first impression, Shenzhen seemed to lack the cultural aspect of the formation of an identity in the way that I am familiar with.  This morning, we had a discussion about this identity (or lack thereof) of Shenzhen, and a point was brought up that generic urbanism can almost equate to an urban form of culture.  In a sense, every aspect of a city promotes culture.  It may not be the culture we are accustomed to, but it is some manner of fabricating a type of culture.  I think that coming to China (and every country for that matter), we all assumed that there was going to be this beam of culture that we are not quite acquainted with beaming in our eyes, but that was not so much the case in Shenzhen.

It was not until we went to a couple of urban villages in the city that we got a sense of the culture we expected to see all along.  It was unreal to see these villages muddled up in between all the development and sense of freshness that was experienced just one footstep outside of each urban village.  Each housing building was nearly butted up against the next one – so much so, that it seemed to be endless.  Nevertheless, within one step, we were on the complete exterior of the village, peering in on the urban village from the future.  One of the most remarkable moments that this occurred was standing literally on top of rocks from the demolition of one of the urban villages, looking out into the “identity-less” city.  Besides the initial culture we saw from the villages’ buildings, we also stumbled upon residents participating in outdoor cultural activities such as dancing and tai chi.

Experiencing these urban villages is what really illustrated a portion of a clear identity of Shenzhen through culture.  It was through the encounter of these villages that gave me an understanding and insight into the innate and somewhat hidden fingerprint that Shenzen bestows.


Filed under: Architecture, China, Culture

What is Shenzhen?

“What is Shenzhen?”  This was the question asked of us this morning before heading out for the day.  While many of us recognized various urban conditions and critiqued the city from an economic and political stance, we struggled to address a critical aspect that helps define any and all cities; its cultural identity.  After nearly a week in Shenzhen, it is fair to say that we have not experienced a fair amount of the city’s “culture”, which left us asking questions of our own.  In particular, what issues are influencing this apparent lack of cultural identity, and how has the development of Shenzhen fostered this condition?

The rate of development is one major factor to consider.  It takes as little as a couple years for new developments to move from the design phase to completion in Shenzhen, a rate nearly ten times faster than that of the United States in some cases.  Because of this rapid pace, existing developments are quickly becoming obsolete.   As we have seen, the political and economic powers at play waste no time in demolishing these older developments, some less than a decade mature, to make way for new financial high-rises, government institutions and residential towers.  Unfortunately, many of these developments that are being destroyed are rooted in the initial culture of the city, which is now only found in the small-pocket “urban villages” of Shenzhen.  These were born from farmers who converted their land into housing developments to profit from the influx of migrant workers once Shenzhen began to grow.  Unsurprisingly, the fabric of these urban villages is much more culturally vibrant than the Americanized city grid in which our design project and hotel is centered.  Consequently, it is becoming increasingly harder for Shenzhen to retain this original culture, and furthermore hold on to an identity, if it is continually being replaced by new development.

It is also important to consider the physical growth of the city and its affect on Shenzhen’s identity crisis.  In particular, we can examine the prevalence of land reclamation.  Each year, several miles of infill is added to Shenzhen’s coast, and developed at the rapid pace mentioned above.   However, if we consider the standard supply-and-demand model for rationalizing the need for new development, Shenzhen exemplifies the opposite.  Here, there is an excess of supply before there is demand.  Developments are green-lighted with the economic assumption that they will be occupied.  Because of this, the so-called “threshold of development” is ever pushing outwards onto newer and newer reclaimed land.  In its wake are left the fledgling developments that are only a year or two behind, most of which haven’t had the time to establish a cultural foundation, or strengthen a citywide identity.  Time then becomes a critical dimension from which to analyze this condition.  As Walter Benjamin states in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to the history which it has experienced.  Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter.”  Without time to establish the history of such a development in the face of reproducing new multiples, cultural authenticity cannot take hold, and therefore the fabric cannot retain a cultural identity.

Ultimately, our original question of, “What is Shenzhen?” still remains unanswered.  Perhaps the cultural identity of this city is not as accessible as we have witnessed elsewhere.  Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong’s cultures were more easily identifiable, and physically prevalent within the fabric that we explored.  Maybe our observations of a city devoid of cultural identity are correct, and merely strengthen the argument that Shenzhen is too young to possess one, or too development driven to allow for one.  Or maybe we just aren’t looking hard enough.  Hopefully, we can shed more light on this answer with more investigation in the coming days.


Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. New York, NY: Classic America, 2009. Print.

Filed under: About, China, Culture, Identity, Reclamation, Shenzhen, Urban Village

Shenzhen: A Print of a Cultural Negative

Authenticity is not reproducible.  “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” is the main hypothesis of the article “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  A work of art is a unique entity which cannot be reproduced under different circumstances from the original and still be considered an identical copy.  An identical copy of a piece of art can never exist.  For instance, there cannot be an authentic print of a photograph because the original conditions in which the photograph was initially taken can never be reproduced.  Does the same apply to a society’s culture?  How might an instant city go about attaining a culture which is truly their own?

Due to its rapid development within the last thirty years, the city of Shenzhen is essentially without a strong tie to any historic sense of a culture.  Shenzhen is struggling to not only define its culture, but to also create its culture from scratch.  Shenzhen’s current culture is just a print of an initial negative.  If Shenzhen is attempting to adopt China’s culture as a whole as their own, this will not be fully realized.  As “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” states, “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced…the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.”  China’s historic and traditional culture will never be a part of Shenzhen’s identity.

The sense of humanity which is typically found in a city is missing in Shenzhen.  Streets appear to be barren.  A multitude of preemptive skyscrapers remain empty, waiting to be programmed and populated, and yet land is being cleared for more developments next to these desolate structures.  It is possible that Shenzhen does not require a culture in the traditional and historic sense.  Culture does not come inherently with a  newborn society, it must be developed over a period of time.  Without a culture is a society’s existence denied?  With the lack of a true human aspect, a culture is even harder to recognize.

Just like the goods being sold in the tiny, hidden market stalls of Shenzhen, the city’s culture is attempting to become a copy of a combination of China’s cultures.  Whether or not this copy is a “real copy” or a “fake copy” is yet to be determined.  If a culture is so unique that it cannot be reproduced, can a culture of reproduction become a culture in its own sense?  If the goal of a society is to fabricate a culture based on others, this culture then becomes a real culture in the sense that the society’s goal was to create  this fake culture.  Shenzhen has succeeded in attaining a culture of its own, albeit a real “fake copy” of a culture.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Architecture, Authenticity, China, Culture, Shenzhen, Uncategorized, ,

Shenzhen: “Instant City”

The concept of what is real and what is not is a constantly reoccurring topic of discussion amongst our group here in Shenzhen, China. Everyone has their own conception of what they consider to be real and what they consider to be not real. One argument is whether or not Shenzhen is the Chinese Las Vegas? Is Shenzhen an area in and of itself that does not depend on the nuances between it and other cities but creates an identity of its own, as Las Vegas exists? If it is, then you have to take into consideration that key word: identity. Every city has its own identity, its own fingerprint, its own DNA, its own unique makeup that makes it distinguishable from the other cities not only in its region and country, but also the rest of the world. At present, Shenzhen has no identity. Shenzhen is a city, and yes, it is a city in China. But by no means does that make it a Chinese city. The population is somewhere around 15 million, with 3 million of those people being unregistered workers, labeled as “ghosts” by the Chinese government, as though they do not exist. Of the 12 million citizens, a fair majority comes from other parts of China. One can walk the streets and rarely catch a glimpse of someone over the age of 55. This is an exceptionally young city (almost 30 years old) when you compare it to other Chinese cities steeped in history such as Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Additionally, the urban fabric of Shenzhen does not respond to local geographic conditions. In the early 1980’s, when Shenzhen was a small fishing village, the Chinese government ordered the Peoples Liberation Army to dynamite and clear the mountains where Shenzhen is currently located. Dynamiting natural landscape: the initial move demonstrating the idea that this city would begin at zero, with no ties to its geography or its past. The problem that has surfaced as a result of that approach is the creation of an artificial city. It is artificial in the sense that most elements of this city do not possess Chinese characteristics; not naturally Chinese, anyways. How can it not be naturally Chinese when it was built by Chinese workers and financed by Beijing? All one has to do is look at the work of architecture being erected as of late throughout the city to see the counterargument:

Stock Exchange & Crystal Island by Office of Metropolitan Architecture [Dutch firm] (Collaborated with Chinese firm Urbanus)

Headquarters of China Insurance Group by Coop Himmelb(l)au [Austrian firm]

Kingkey Finance Tower by Farrells [British firm]

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport- Massimiliano Fuksas [Italian firm]

Seeing a pattern here?

This city is becoming an eclectic city, but an artificial one at that. Even the plant life here is artificial; the majority of the plants are imported from Hawaii. Could this be the genesis of a new breed of cities, cities that are not concerned with its context or previous history? Can this new kind of city be transported and transplanted as though it was a universal component in the metropolitan circuit board. Within the urban makeup you always have your ‘7-11’s’ or McDonalds, which represent programmatic pieces that are universal and can operate successfully wherever they go. They can be inserted into any urban makeup because they do not respond to the urban or social context in which they are placed; they are not context specific. What if we are able to have entire cities that are universal in that nature?

I am reminded of Peter Cook and Archigram’s piece, Instant City, which was written in the early 1970’s. The Instant City discussed the creation of not buildings, but “events” that are the result of high technology being infused into areas of low technology. This is comparable to the injection of economic investment and star-architect architecture that Shenzhen is currently experiencing. The writing describes how high tech airships would act as carriers for mass culture and would seemingly create a city instantaneously, as if there is a magic formula. In comparison to the cultural emanation of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong, there seems to lack a cultural originality here in Shenzhen. Instead of ‘mom n’ pop’ shops there are ‘Kung-fu’ Chinese fast food enterprises. The city lacks any historical district that is suppose to give city a sense of belonging and history, which in turn resonates emotional warmth and nostalgia. Everything in this city is manufactured and so now the next problem to solve is how to manufacture a culture in a city that lacks one? Is that culture created artificially, like the limitless amount of knock-off Gucci bags? Or is it something created by the people and not dropped from an Instant City airship?

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: Archigram, artificial, China, context-specific, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Culture, Farrells, Identity, Instant City, investment, Las Vegas, manufacture, mass culture, Massimiliano Fuksas, OMA, real, Shenzhen, Uncategorized,

Identity Crises

7 million people live and work within Hong Kong. These 7 million people are squeezed into an area of 31 sq miles, which makes Hong Kong one of the world’s densest cities. In contrary to many other urban plans, Hong Kong has resisted urban sprawl. When cities have typically grown in the past, they tend to increase in size and area. The natural elements in Hong Kong including the mountains and the bay have been physical boundaries of the city, which have contained the city’s footprint. Therefore the only way Hong Kong can handle its population demands is by growing vertically.

In order to handle the large population, many systems and networks are in play for transportation, infrastructure, employment, and leisure. Since Hong Kong is operating on such an extreme scale, the focus is on quantity and not necessarily the individual. This is where the question of the individual’s importance to the metropolis becomes a crucial component towards the metropolis as a whole.

Cities run on numbers. Numbers are what drive industry, and industry drives growth. “The Culture Identity” states, “Industry is interested in human beings only as its customers and employees and has in fact reduced humanity as a whole, like each of its elements, to this exhaustive formula”. This drive for constantly posting numbers is truly what defines a city, which is enforced by the power of corporations in the urban environment. Each company plastering their name on top of every tower within the city demonstrates this hierarchy. This in return leaves little to no significance for the individual, moral rights, or culture.

This formula is exemplified even further during periods of intense growth. For example the industrial revolution in America, lead to economic booms to existent metropolises, and gave birth to new cities at exponential rates. Development was at an all time high, and everything in America became a business opportunity. We are seeing this same behavior in China currently. With industry reporting record numbers, and population at a staggering high, China has been exponentially growing numerically, and in return sacrificing individuality and culture.

It is in these times though that we see the human element stripped out of the urban environment. For the same reason that the economic growth of a city is strictly about numbers and not about the individual. Day in and day out, people follow the workweek system, and blend into the collective workforce, in which the urban organism is programmed to respond to these patterns.

Hong Kong has urbanistically responded to this system, through its building typologies. As The radical, vertical growth in Hong Kong has littered the urban plan with a series of pencil towers. These slender vertical towers are packed with residents and offices literally stacked one on top of the other. Every window representing a single cell of program designated to the individual. At the base of these towers are series of connections to relocate the individual to its next location either being their residence or office. This linear travel of point A to point B has isolated the individual from its urban context.

On the other hand though, there is a more complicated understanding of how the individual is tied into the city. In many cases the predominant driving force of the metropolis is money, but there are also many other elements within the city that belong to the individual. Simmel questions the role of the individual within the larger metropolis for, “It is the function of the metropolis to provide the arena for this struggle and its reconciliation. For the metropolis presents the peculiar conditions which are revealed to us as the opportunities and the stimuli for the development of both these ways of allocating roles to men”. For man to believe he is a completely free being within a city, is in my opinion a mistake, but I would have to argue that there are freedoms within a city in which man can rightfully claim. The individual comes out in the culture of the city, the charm that gives the city its character and personality. If every city ran strictly on numbers then every city would have the same aura, which I would argue is not the current case.

On the other hand if Industrialization keeps pushing forward, and we discredit the individual throughout the process, cities may become more uniform with one another and the corporate counterpart may strip the individuality from the city. Using Hong Kong as an example, the city’s street life is an important element that represents Hong Kong’s culture. We typically see groupings of street food, vendors, and traditional gift shops parasitically controlling the street territory. This element still exists throughout Hong Kong, but the A to B mentality has started to have serious affects on Street life in the area. Subways taking people off of the street has started to choke these smaller shops, which will deprive Hong Kong of its cultural identity.

Personally I think this struggle is represented in Hong Kong’s urban fabric. There is a series of perspectives in which you can view Hong Kong. By starting on top and looking down over the sea of buildings the reading is very uniform and one collective being. Buildings start meshing into one another creating this over whelming collage of windows and structure. As you start to focus though, the details of the city start to reveal themselves. In some instances each unit of the building is carefully articulated, or the street life is vibrant in contrast to what towers above it. This overlaying of individuality on top of the urban fabric starts to demonstrate the role of the individual within the collective whole. From afar we look at Hong Kong as a single entity, but as we take a closer look identity of the city becomes more apparent. It is through these glimpses of individuality that I can argue that the individual is still very prevalent in the urban fabric, and although his role may be small, it still impacts the way people experience and stand out in the urban environment.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: Architecture, China, Culture, Density, Hong, Identity, Individual, Industry, kong, Life, Renjilian, Ross, Street, Urbanism, Urbansim, ,

A City Without Tension

After visiting Japan, I was jolted into a completely different society again.  We made our way to Korea where the streets plentiful trash cans and beggars.  Instead of feeling guilty for bumping into someone on the subway, it was perfectly normal to do so and not even have to say sorry.  People were chattering with each other even though they were strangers and also wanted to interact with us foreigners. Just walking around in the hotel in South Korea, it felt like Los Angeles, but replaced with an Asian population.  The loss of security found in Japan was immediately lost when I stepped foot into South Korea.   The South Korean culture has much compassion for each other, which gave them a sense of community that the Japanese people find only when shopping.  However, after visiting Paju Book City, the vibrancy of these people and prolonged excitement of the city disappeared.

Paju was established by publishing companies and other support services of the bookmaking process.  Because literature holds the power of intellectual development, Paju started to have an elitist take.  It became this utopia where every building was perfect in its own individual manner.  Upon arrival, I stared in awe trying to comprehend where I was.  Growing up in Los Angeles, I was accustomed to seeing “ugly” buildings.  Everywhere I looked, each building was designed and executed using a simple diagram.

Panning out from the individual buildings, I started to look at the area as a whole.  There was too much uniformity of being unique, which made it all the more ordinary.  On paper, it seemed that having a wholly designed area would be great!  But actually walking and experiencing the reality of Paju completely changed my perception.  If there were only a few well designed buildings, I would be able to appreciate each one as I came across it.  Obviously each building had its own individual expression, but as a collective, the imperfection disappeared.  Now that each building has its own individual identity, does a cluster of unique buildings still give each building the same individuality?

Why did Paju leave me desensitized while Tokyo and Seoul always kept me engaged?  First of all, the city was inaccessible by the subway other than transferring part of the way there from one.  Also, I had to take a bus to reach it.  Lacking infrastructure diminishes a great amount of people flow to the city, which is why it felt so empty.  However, if it was the intention of the publishers to keep Paju isolated from Seoul, they seemed to have gotten the right effect, but as a consequence eliminated the humanistic qualities found in a REAL city.  It is the sense of a city’s humanistic qualities that can be critiqued and improved on the most.  Yet, because of the lack of this and buildings are well designed, there is barely any dialogue or narrative between human and “city”.

Urbanistically, the only ties within each neighboring building was a weak and unsubstantial patch of garden or landscape. The buildings did not respond to each other and if they did, the city would have had an additional level of cohesiveness that could be appreciated.  However, if the city eliminated the garden to construct a new building, the already weak link would be gone and completely sever the dialogue between buildings.  In Tokyo, I was always actively engaged because the Shiodome buildings had a unifying dialogue through multiple levels.  On the third floor, there was the sky bridge that placed me above the cars and had appropriate access points back to the ground level.  At the same time, there was also the ground and subterranean levels that did the same.  This high level of engagement is what always kept me on my toes and why walking through Paju was so desensitizing.  Paju was missing the multiple layers of human engagement and only used the ground plane to “connect” all its buildings.  Paju’s greatest asset of being a designed city became its greatest flaw by not being fully designed.

Cities like Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong all have infrastructure as their main system to bring people into different parts of the city.  Having a fully designed development like Paju is not the only ingredient to have a “utopian” city.  Paju only has only superficial elements to call itself a “city.”  They have avenues, streets, offices, factories, shopping, and other needs that a REAL city has, but lacks the REAL designed aspects of a city.  A REAL city has systems, efficiency, and programs to help facilitate the urban construct of people occupying a city.  The introductory segment of Made in Tokyo the following chart:

The chart shows a series of possibilities with off and on switches.  There are 3 main criteria that compose the “Environmental Unit”: category, use, and structure.  When describing architecture, morality becomes a fourth option.  The Environmental Unit describes an instance of strange coherency between programs that are seemingly unrelated.  Paju would be described with all switches on, making it a “Magnificent Building.”  However, cities like Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong all have at least one off switch in the “Environmental Unit” criteria.  They can be what Made In Tokyo described as “Da-me architecture (no-good architecture)…they seem to be better than anything designed by architects.”  The buildings in developed cities have a clash of unrelated programs within the same confinement, but it is this tension that describes the actual city than the city itself.  The multiple layers of subway, retail, hotel, and restaurant within a buildings corresponds with a variety of social purposes.  The building becomes this mixing pot of activity that captivates an foreigner’s attention like myself.  However, Paju lacks the tensions and layering of buildings, making as boring and as similar to single-family suburban homes.

Could Paju then be considered a real city?  Based on the evaluation that it lacks the substantial components of a city, it is at most a “real-fake” city that prides itself on having only unique architecture and the superficial elements that comprise of a city.  Paju can eventually transform from a “real-fake” city into a REAL city only if it sheds its singular building monument-like attitude and adopt a more urbanistic approach where these buildings still have their own image, but when all of them are added as a whole, makes Paju something more.


Filed under: Collective, Culture, Desensitize, dialogue, Fake-Real, Japan, Korea, narrative, Paju, Psyche, tension, Utopia

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.



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

Culture and the Machine

Launching off this program in a city like Tokyo was an incredibly overwhelming experience.  However, I say this with no negative connotation.  I’m not sure there could have been a more superior place to begin our attempt in understanding the notion of “the city.”  Every day I find myself amongst the hustle and bustle of the Japanese daily routine, encountering new understandings of what it is like to live in such a city as Tokyo.

After being submerged in Tokyo for a week, the people and the city have given off the impression of being a machine: an assemblage of parts that transmit forces, motion, and energy one to another in a predetermined manner.  From the businessmen walking to the subway in almost identical outfits and briefcases, to the loss of self while perfunctorily playing the game of pachinko, the city revolves around this metaphor of a machine.  It was also even seen when going to a Japanese baseball game.  Every cheer was choreographed so that the entire stadium was in sync throughout the whole game.  This machine-like mentality could arguably come from the rapid advancements of Tokyo itself.  It is a city that seems to be constantly regenerating at an insanely fast momentum.  With this morphological shift occurring in Tokyo, it seems that it would be somewhat detrimental to one’s cultural heritage.  With a city constantly transforming in ways that could hinder the memory a culture (mostly in the ways of technological advances), it is remarkable that the Japanese never seem to lose their sense of culture and tradition – their roots.

In places like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, getting completely back in gear with one’s roots seems almost nonexistent, due to the continuous growth and advancement of the city.  Sure, there are the people in these cities in the states that seem to maintain their identity, no matter what the city does, but as the city becomes increasingly innovative, it seems to become almost natural for one to lose touch with his or her heritage for most people in the aforementioned cities.  Culture is often something that disintegrates over time, whether it happens due to technology, getting lost among younger generations, or simply abandoned altogether. However in Tokyo, this is not at all the case.

In Tokyo, the citizens seem to have an intriguing disconnect from the city culturally, but not necessarily socially.  The city seems to have an opposing force that is acting upon the cultural aspect of Tokyo.  On the one hand, most citizens are devoted to their culture, but on the other hand, there is this mechanical metropolis hovering over them…something that was never there when all the customs were established.  This brings up the question: do a city’s people adapt to the city they have settled in, or does a city adapt to the people that venture in?  In the case of Tokyo, I would argue that the people have adapted to the mechanics of the city, but the latter seems to be the most common in the large cities mentioned above such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.  This just continues to show how strong of a relationship the Japanese population has with their heritage and customs.  The residents of Tokyo are living in a city that is literally building up around them, becoming mechanical and progressive. However, the Japanese are still out rebuilding Ise Shrine every 20 years to continue a tradition and culture that will never be forgotten, no matter it be 2010 or 3010.


Filed under: Architecture, city as machine, Culture, Japan


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


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