URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Pregnant Woman or Road Obstruction?

The injection of anabolic steroids artificially creates an internal bodily environment that dangerously over-exhausts resources to the point where the physical body starts to deteriorate. In the confines of the human body where resources are finite in both quantity and capacity to perform, the major organs such as the kidney take on fatal damage. When the Chinese government injected its designated cities with its own performance-enhancing drugs, vast stretches of vertical architecture popped up like bulging muscles on a human body at inhuman speeds, interconnected by veins that made up a complex network of urban transportation.  But unlike the human body, China seems to be flourishing, economically speaking, without deteriorating. It thrives not only at larger scales of big businesses but at the microscopic level of the man who runs an obscure one-hundred-square-foot snack shop in an obscure alley several blocks away from a major street (something that would never work in less dense, horizontal cities like Los Angeles). The sheer density and quantity of its resources argues that China was actually in dire need of this artificial injection of economic juice.

In cities like Shenzhen, however, significant damage occurs at the social level where the individual seemingly tolerates collective co-existence but in his fundamental actions and mindset displays what at first seems to be a lack of “respect” for other individuals. But is it really a lack of respect or am I just seeing it that way as a westerner accustomed to my pedestrian right of way. I witnessed a pregnant women trying to cross a small street at a green light, having to stop and retreat backwards several times because the oncoming cars would obnoxiously honk their horns and refuse to stop. In order to maintain such a high level of economic efficiency and intensity, a few seconds of pedestrian priority become a luxury that that collective cannot afford. The density of both the people and the built environment does not necessarily equate to an increased awareness and respect for the quality of other’s lives but rather, as Simmel argues, leads to a desensitization of the people brushing and driving past you.

What surprises me most about the pregnant woman is her reaction to the cars honking and driving past her. She is perfectly tolerant. In fact, she doesn’t even “react at all… An incapacity emerges to react to sensations with the appropriate energy.” Simmel notes that the “metropolitan child” develops a “blasé attitude” by which they are not merely tolerant of these situations, but they just simply have no reaction of any kind. It is an accepted way of life. Just as Americans don’t respond to the presence of clean, drinkable tap water at restaurants. The pregnant woman doesn’t raise her hand in fury and confidently demand her right of way as would happen in the States. But rather, she tries to weave through the incoming cars and dangerously make her way through them, while holding up her belly. In the States, such a sight would be so ridiculous that it would be comedic to watch. At the same time, when pedestrians try to cross at a red light, the oncoming drivers are not honking in anger, demanding their right of way, and rolling down their windows to curse and flip off the pedestrians. Rather, they honk and weave through traffic with the same face of reaction-less tolerance.

Is the significance of human life diminished to a dispensable commodity that requires this kind of fast-paced, machine-like social mindset in order to survive? It seems from the actions and expressions of the people that it is not so much that the importance and quality of human life is diminished but more that the importance of economic efficiency is amplified to the point that certain social sacrifices must be made. At the end of the day, the pregnant woman makes her way across the street and carries out the rest of her day, probably running through dozens more cars on her way back home.

 

– DK


 

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Filed under: Density, Desensitize, everydayness, pedestrians, Transportation,

Peace and Quiet

Finally some peace and quiet! As I sit in my house in suburbia writing this essay, there are no horns blaring out the window, no maids yelling/ strangling each other in the hallway, and no listening to 17 other classmates bickering what to do for lunch. Like I said earlier, its nice to have some peace and quiet. I can make my own choices, without having to justify my every move to my peers. Instead of hiking to the train station, passing hawkers interrogating me “bagus, watch, hello?”, I can now get into my car, isolate myself from the world, and freely sing at the top of my lungs. After one crazy semester this is just what I needed, to literally clear my head of all the surrounding stimuli, and allow my mind to settle and digest everything that I have just encountered.

The truth is though; this shock of jumping into an environment that is desolate of exterior stimuli is kind of eerie. After being submerged and becoming a part of the urban fabric, I truly think this submersion will be one of the greatest experiences I had on my study abroad expedition. It’s easy to justify locations as being the highlights of your experience for example The Great Wall, or The World Expo, but in my opinion they are just blips on the larger picture of what we experienced over in Asia. For the first time in my life, I saw a sprawled density, a density that even when we were out in the boonies at our hotel, there was still a very active street life, with bystanders waiting at intersections, locals buying produce from the back of a truck, and shops lining streets that are not necessarily major thoroughfares. It is this lack of urban that creates isolation in suburbia, and I am starting to see how this is in many ways has been detrimental towards my development along with how our country has developed.

By creating nodes that become objects in the field, as opposed to a fabric, it creates an inward focus. Every time I leave my house I have to justify to myself where I am going and what I am looking to accomplish, whether this is going to drop off my laundry, catch up with a friend, or pick up dinner, every time I venture outside of my home it becomes a task. By always having an objective, it limits the spontaneous encounters that happen by chance, and hinders curiosity of what will be in the next alleyway or what new products will be in the windows as one passes by.

One element of the urban environment that is really interesting is its ability to create obscure conditions of program overlaps. For example having a grocery store, next to a grade school, backed by a subway station that the kids take home, enjoying their recently purchased snacks after school. By allowing these conditions to overlap onto one another different narratives and experiences start to play out, and become elements of the everyday. On the contrary creating nodes that are islands surrounded by a sea of pavement, strips the fabric of any potential of layering, restricting the diversity of the narratives that can take place.

Is there still hope? I think this is a question that everyone in our group is starting to ponder. Has America become so desensitized and lost in our ways that we have left behind the potential to create curiosity, ambition and tension with the built environment? Even Urban environments like Los Angeles, have become numb of experience, and have been characterized as a city for the automobile. We have stripped the layers out of the fabric and have replaced the fabric with isolated objects. In my opinion it’s easy to throw up our hands, and say America is done for, with our addiction to oil and economic depression. I don’t want to be that person that gives up hope, and walk away from the situation. Having the ability to take from my experiences abroad, and start finding ways to apply them back in our homeland, will hopefully start to create a better urban understanding. Taking on projects that push its impact on the urban environment, and understand no matter how large or small a project is, it has the ability to become something greater. Just like throwing rocks in a pond, no matter how small or how large the rock is it has the ability to have a greater rippling affect, than just the size of itself. This is not the end; rather it is just the beginning of a long journey ahead.

 

Ross Renjilian

 

Filed under: Architecture, Asia, Car, Density, High, Nodes, Renjilian, Ross, stimuli, Suburbia, Urbanism,

Parallel Cities

After returning to Hong Kong from Shenzhen, it occurred to me that the urban villages of Shenzhen and the Mong Kok area of Hong Kong were similar in its mix-use, low-rise housing developments. Also, Shenzhen’s Central Business District (CBD) was eerily familiar to Hong Kong’s financial district. Both instances in each city are distinctive enough to justify their differences, but because Shenzhen lacks the critical mass present in Hong Kong, this results in these two varying city development and experiential conditions.

Critical mass can be observed in the macro scale of a city especially if it has undergone either densification or sprawl. Sprawl allows for individuals a relief from population congestion, but increases the reliance on vehicular transportation. Therefore, it increases congestion on transit routes. On the other hand, individuals living in dense cities do not have this relief, but in exchange have increased efficiency in both pedestrian and vehicular movement.

In Hong Kong, there is an apparent density, especially with the clusters of pencil towers soaring 60 floors with pipes relocated to the exterior of the building. Every square meter is valuable and cannot be wasted on unusable space. Hong Kong has a condition of vertical density as a result for horizontal sprawl limitations. However, in Shenzhen, there are housing towers clusters and office buildings, but the proximity of each is quite generously spread apart. Shenzhen was established 30 years ago as an economic experiment, and has since established multiple city centers. Shenzhen has a condition of a continuously sprawling city that has not yet achieved a critical mass of people to occupy its expansive development.

As a result of densification, Mong Kok’s Market Street is bustling with life that extends beyond the sidewalk. An additional layer of temporary structures eats away at the street that was intended for vehicular traffic while the pedestrians take over the residual space. It is the presence of this critical mass that has allowed both the ground floor retail and temporary shops to thrive. Without this critical mass, it would possibly look like the urban villages of Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, each housing development also has ground floor retail and housing above, but lacks the additional layer of temporary market that Mong Kok has. The restaurants and shops are mostly empty and shop owners oftentimes sit outside killing time by playing cards or socializing with their neighbors.

Hong Kong’s financial district is lined with overhead walkways to separate pedestrian from vehicular traffic. This allows people and cars to move more efficiently rather than have both occurring on the same level at the same time. However, in Shenzhen, the boulevards are fairly wide and oftentimes littered with jaywalkers impatiently beating the pedestrian light. Sometimes streets have overhead walkways. It is not to make the pedestrian and traffic conditions more efficient, but rather to allow pedestrians to safely cross over the wide avenues if cars are driving at higher speeds.

It is difficult to say that density is bad, sprawl is good, and vice versa. Both yield different effects that offer various types of analyses. The lack of people in Shenzhen illustrates the importance of having a plethora of individuals occupying the city. Having people in a city is a commodity, and without it, conditions like Mong Kok and the Hong Kong Financial district’s overhead walkways would not have been conceived. Because of people, cities must accommodate for and create ingenious ways to deal with pedestrian, vehicular, and subterranean traffic to make them more efficient and less problematic for all parties. Critical mass allows for these new activities to take off, reinforce itself, and cluster, making a city more layered.

The presence of a critical mass contributes to the layering of a city, instigating the interactions between activities that would otherwise be segregated. This level of hybridization is what ultimately defines and dictates the quality of the experience.

_Joyce

Filed under: critical mass, densification, Density, experiential, layering, sprawl, 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, ,

ABOUT THE AAU PROGRAM

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