URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

How Free is Your City? or My Inability to Define Freedom within the Urban Realm

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I must admit that coming to China I had formed some preconceptions, though unfounded, they still made their way into my mind. The most prominent and most embarrassingly stereotypical was luckily the first to be challenged, almost immediately, through my Shanghai experiences. The notion centered on the idea of control. China due to its communist past, and the still centralized government’s  reputation, I imagined the population to appear slightly repressed upon arrival. My first journey into the city dismantled this view and replaced it with the opposite impression. The lack of control is most striking; the urban citizen is allowed to operate with a high level of autonomy, using the street as a truly public realm. From street vendors clustering around subway exits to temporal wet markets, the Chinese street has led me to question what constitutes freedom within the urban realm.

The level of public access that the Chinese urbanites have in the utilization of their streetscape is amplified by the juxtaposition of my past experiences. The United States, of course, is the counter pole of this activity but even the Japanese street wanes in comparison to the activity of China. The key difference between China and the other two nations seems intrinsically tied to levels of development. As a nation develops the occurrences that have made China so immensely interesting on this trip tend to disappear, the street becomes regulated, excluding uncontrolled activities. This trajectory of development seems to allude to a contradictory process: that as the city modernizes, moves toward a service economy, it becomes less free. Its inhabitants become more restricted, choice is diminished, regulation is imposed and enforced. Yet if one continues to compare and contrast say a city like Shanghai and Tokyo, it becomes apparent that freedom does not have a singular definition within the city but is something much more complex.

In Tokyo the population has given up a large amount of individual freedom and expression for the freedom of the larger whole. The immense conformity of the population, has allowed for an amazingly efficient, economically driven society to develop. But with the sacrifice in self-expression comes many benefits; most people can afford the consumerist lifestyle that drives society. Additionally the city is made democratic by the clockwork efficiency of its transportation system, creating a physically accessible city.

China’s current urban freedom, amplifies the opportunities of the individual. As a result of rapid urbanization the population must be given a large level of autonomy else the city would cease to function. The wealth distribution is too unequal to force the entire population to attain their goods and services from large, commercialized, global brands. The question now is how will freedom be defined as the Chinese city continues to develop. Given the statements of Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee concerning “human-centered-urbanization” and a “rebalancing of the economy,” the future is somewhat uncertain. Though human-centered-urbanization sounds as though it should support the microeconomic activity of the individual the rebalancing of the economy focuses on the need for the population to become more consumerist centric; therefore it could be argued that the Chinese government’s definition of freedom is that to consume. Yet it is more than just general consumption, for that occurs already , microeconomic activities are of course tied to consumptive needs, yet I believe consumptive centric development focuses of the creation of consumptive desires rather than only needs.

Filed under: Desensitize, development, Freedom, individuality, pedestrians, public space, Street

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


 

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

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

Sex, Love, & Money

My previous blog touched upon relationship of Henri Lefebvre’s writing on the everydayness and the Hong Kong Kar Wai Wong film, Fallen Angels. While Fallen Angels subtly mocked the everyday drudgery by following the life of a contract killer, director Kar Wai Wong challenged the notion and interpretation of Lefebvre’s everydayness, but in a typically subtle way. The French film, Weekend, on the other hand, challenges Lefebvre’s everydayness to the extreme, and perhaps the only way, in order to critique the point that previously noneveryday activities must be taken to the extreme in order to maintain their noneveryday status. No longer does violence, sex, and money stir the mental activities of the general public. The public views these acts on the evening news on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, resulting in a level of desensitization. The film seeks to overcome this desensitized notion by showing the pseudo-noneveryday activities that Lefebvre labeled as counteracting the everydayness, such as violence, sex, and money. Not only are these activities carried out to the extreme by the films characters, but are shown over and over again, often in different forms and in great detail.

Sex.

The film follows the lives of a couple, and in an early scene, the woman sits upon a desk in her underwear, chronicling and detailing to her lover a sexual encounter she had with a woman and her husband. Without ever showing a visual manifestation of her story, the woman describes, in detail how and when the man and woman touched her and how it made her feel. However, not once during her telling did she give the slightest hint that there was any emotional connection involved. She told the tale in such a lifeless, matter-of-fact manner that the viewer could interpret it as something that might happen all the time for the character.

Money.

The main plot throughout the entire film is how the couple is attempting to lay claim to the large inheritance of her parents. They are eagerly awaiting their death, even going to the length of poisoning her father’s food every Saturday in order to speed up his demise. The couple displays a cutthroat attitude in their quest to get their hands on this fortune, eventually leading to the brutal stabbing of the mother when the couple discovers that they aren’t going to get an equal share after the father dies. Even this is treated in a nonchalant way. Which leads to the largest purveyor of the noneverydayness in the film.

Violence.

There is one telling sequence in the film that takes place on a country road, where the constant sounds of yelling and car-horns can be heard while the couple attempts to navigate through a traffic jam of overturned cars and angry people mobbing their convertible as they pass by. The striking aspect of this long, continual camera shot is that none of the people who are bearing witness to the overturned cars and dead bodies strewn alongside of the road take notice, or seem to care. There are children throwing toy balls around and adults playing board games on the road. This critical depiction of the way that the majority of society views violence today is fairly accurate. They see it all around them whenever they surf the Internet, watch television and films, or read the newspaper. Perhaps the singular factor that makes all of the violence in the sequence outlandish is the fact that it is in the countryside, not the city. Urban areas are notorious havens for crime and homicide, which begs the question, why show all of this violence in a non-urban setting? Maybe it is to shed light on the fact that murder does not have to be in the city for it to be overlooked. Or perhaps it is because the countryside is not tainted like the countryside. If the rural-scape is tainted, what is left?

After viewing this film, there begins to be a blurring of what we consider the everydayness and the same applies to the noneverydayness. It is also something that can largely be applicable to urban life, which is the focus of the writing Aesthetic + Urbanism. Robert A.M. Stern declares in his piece “urbanism is about human life.” I agree completely with Mr. Stern’s statement, that urbanism should focus on “what the good city is” and “what is the good life that we as architects should advocate.” I think this type of attitude should be brought to the forefront in a society where violence occurs an unimaginable scale everyday and yet the public is still numb to it. Perhaps this is where architects can lend a helping hand and provide a vision to help create a reality where acts like those in the Weekend are truly considered acts of the noneverydayness, which is definitely not what they are now.

-Christopher Glenn

 

Filed under: aesthetics + urbanism, Desensitize, everydayness, fallen angels, Henri Lefebvre, Hong Kong, Kar Wai Wong, sex love and money, Uncategorized, violence, weekend

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.

_Joyce

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

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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