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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Tourist Wonders or Architecture Blunders?

The Summer Palace replica in the Pearl River Delta getting a fresh coat of paint

From knock-off purses, to fake Apple stores, to replicas of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and the Summer Palace, China has it all.  Although tourists like myself may hunt for a good fake designer purse or pair of sunglasses, when it comes to experiencing the sights and history of a place, there is no acceptable substitute for the authentic.  Many tourists will tolerate or even seek out a few must-see gimmicks, yet these showy displays occupy a secondary status to experiencing the truly cultural experiences present in a particular locale.  Indeed, it is the placement of these showy displays and other mass appeal spectacles within the cultural and historical context of a locale that provides greater meaning to them.  For example, while I enjoyed the gaudiness of the Hong Kong light show, the value that I pulled from this experience did not come from my shallow enjoyment of strobe lights moving in sync to an annoyingly catchy tune, but rather from my understanding of this experience as a part of the larger historically and culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong.  At the heart of the rich culture that I experienced during my exploration of Hong Kong is the everyday lives of the people who work and reside here, rather than from extravagant tourist attractions that make a spectacle of history.  Yet, during my first foray into the Pearl River Delta region of China, I found that, unlike Hong Kong, the commoditization of culture as spectacle often obscured any connection with the authentic history I was in search of.  From my experience, I concluded that, in many ways, China is similar to the fake designed bags that permeate the country.  From a distance, one is impressed by its apparent authenticity, but on closer inspection, the mediocre detailing gives it away as a real-fake.

The speed at which China is advancing, razing old structures, and constructing new infrastructure is astounding.  This rapid proliferation of new infrastructure within the expanding Chinese metropolises is motivated by the desire to manufacture spectacle.  China appears intent on creating the illusion of wealth and prominence because it is confident that this image will spur further investment in and growth of their economy.

For the most part the display of designer buildings is impressive as long as you maintain a sensible viewing distance from the structure or remove your glasses so as to remain ignorant of the clumsy construction details.  However, my real complaint regarding the value that the Chinese place on the spectacle of the new is how this value assessment has negatively impacted the preservation, understanding, and appreciation of the role of history in their society.  This dilemma is particularly evident in the response to the mass devastation that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.  With many of China’s historic landmarks either damaged or destroyed, the Chinese were faced with the challenge of how to repair the rift in its history left by what was lost.  Unfortunately, the same technique and value judgment that is placed on the new infrastructure is applied to the restoration of the old.  Therefore, the same poor detailing that is evident in the seam of a curved glass railing of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House is also visible in the questionable mitered brick corner of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Childhood home.

Detailing Blunder in Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

Mitered brick corner in replica of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's childhood home

Apart from the prevalence of painfully amateur architectural details, the critical problem in the restoration of these historic sights is that these efforts appear to be more focused on redesigning or improving these landmarks so that they are more in line with the value that the Chinese place on the new rather than reconstructing them in a way appropriate to the design and age of the original.  For example, while visiting the former site of the historic Panyu Pao Mo garden in the suburb of Guangzhou, I was unpleasantly surprised by the flashing LED light eyes of the life-sized dragon that confronted me.

Needless to say, after two straight weeks full of this kind of spectacle I began to become frustrated and mildly disgusted by what I regarded as a flagrant mockery of China’s rich cultural history.  It was at this point that a comment made by another caused me to question whether my skeptical view was fair.  I realized that I was judging the Chinese’s representation of their history without regard to the impact that the damage to and destruction of many important relics and landmarks of their history during the cultural revolution had on their current attempts to design and construct new buildings and repair damaged landmarks.  As Guy Debord discusses in his work, “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere,” the function of the spectacle is “to bury history in culture.”  So for the Chinese, the spectacle of culture is used to conceal a lack of  physical relics of their history following the Cultural Revolution.  So, while their efforts at restoration may seem pitiful to the critical eye of a western architecture student, one must look at their efforts with a certain degree of leniency and compassion since their actions are merely attempts to repair the unfathomable loss of history that they experienced and to try to recreate something for which little or no records exist.  Therefore, what right do I have to judge their efforts?

– DEM

Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, Authenticity, China, Culture, everyday, Fabric, history, Hong Kong

The Future of China

I am departing Shanghai once again.  This is my second time visiting this great city, but this time with 3 months of travelling in between analyzing Asian cities.  I will be leaving with a different knowledge of Shanghai than with my first departure–  my first exeperience in Shanghai gave me a familiarity, while this one allowed me to appreciate the “real” Shanghai beyond the cliche and realize the beauty of the everyday.

Making an impromptu decision to visit Hangzhou, I decided to take the high speed CRH Chinese High Speed Rail.  Just recently, CRH set the world record speed of high speed rail trains and I wanted to compare this experience to the Shinaksen in Japan.  Once I arrived at the platform looking at the aerodynamic nose of the CRH train, I was overcome with the same excitement that I had months ago in Japan riding the Shinkansen.  Though my emotions were the same, the reasons why I had this amazement was completely different.  I was in the People’s Republic of China, a country that has just come out of the Cultural Revolution only 30 years ago.  After a decade of isolation, China has the technology that matches and even exceeds that of Japan, which has developed with constant progress.

Perhaps in Japan, my amazement came from this first sight of the great and majestic Shinkansen.  Japan was the first country to effecitvely utilize high speed rail by alleviating the congested and overloaded roads and rail lines between Osaka and Tokyo.  Now, the Shinkansen connects cities like Osaka, Tokyo, Sendai, Yokohama, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka.  As the bullet train arrived in Tokyo station for a few short minutes, I saw its long, aerodynamically shaped nose that reminded me of a duck or platypus.  When the train reached this as its termius, I wanted to ride the train right away as the passengers got off.  However, I had to wait because the workers were preparing the train to head the other way.  I was easily amused by the automatic turning of the chairs as the train prepared itself for the new wave of passengers heading towards another destination.  I loved watching window washers meticulously cleaning to keep the prisitine apperance of the train.  When I was finally allowed in, I waited for the food cart lady to come by, not because of the snacks on it, but to see her bow before she exited each car.  Everyone had their belongings neatly stacked on the overhead storage area or in the back of the cabin.  A man would eventually walk by to check our tickets recording it in his book, and sometimes stamping it with a purple insignia that was handed back to me with two hands and a quick bow.

That was in Japan, and now I am in China.  I arrive in a large atrium space after purchasing my ticket to ride the bullet train to Hangzhou.  I blinked my eyes like I was in a dream because I was in disbelief that that China is capable of having this major transportation hub and have high speed rail connceting major cities right underneath after a period of global isolation.  However, I was upset because I couldn’t see the arrival and preparation ritual of the train for its next journey like in Japan.  I didn’t even know if there was one given the fact that China neglects the maintenence of things.  As I reached the platform, everyone quickly rushed to their cars, while I deliberately walked to the end of the train to see the nose of the bullet train.  Not quite as cool looking as Japan, but it can still hold its own in speed.  The workers looked at me funny because my peers and I were the only ones who were taking pictures in the chill, while everyone was already comfy and cozy in the train.  Once inside, there were many migrant workers who stuffed many of their belongings unorganized on top of the bars.  People were eating and constantly talking especially if they had companions sitting next to them.  There were also sliding doors that people never closed because it became and inconvenience for both the stewardness and the people walking to the bathroom.  I was anticipating a cart lady to come by, but instead I was sent the food zone that all passengers could visit.  There was no man to check my ticket because the turnstile had registered it.  The service aspect was completely removed and everyone was in their own self contained bubble within the confines of their seats.

I dare not to say that I did not have a journey to Hangzhou, but rather it made me reflect on my rides on the Shinkansen.  Within the contained vessel of the bullet train cabin, I was able to get two different experiences.  It was the Japanese perfection of the job at hand versus the loud talking, spitting [not on the floor thankfully], and space hogging people.

Even looking at the city morphology pass by when travelling from the city center to the outskirts back to the city center, I noticed the differences with Shanghai and Japan’s urban condition.  Because of the limited amount of land in Japan, most of the density is centered within the city and as you move toward the outsikts, there are few dispersed patches of civilization.  Shanghai’s sprawl was apparent from the cabin as I saw a continuous fabric of clustered developments that eventually transitioned into fields of farmland.

Riding in the high speed rail in two different countries made this trip come full circle in multiple scales.  Zoomed in, I can make observations of the collective.  By zooming out just a little bit, I can see the urban strategies of sprawl and densification.  Zooming out and looking at Japan and China, I can conclude that each country is at different levels of development.  While Japan is connecting the already extablished and propogating cities, China is using high speed rail to link cities that are still growing.  This fascination and excitement for both China and Japan have variations sets of factors giving each other the tension and an opportunity for me to spot these differences.

Joyce

Filed under: China, everyday, Hangzhou, high speed rail, Japan, News, Shinkansen, Tokyo, 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

Becoming the Everyday

One views and interacts a city differently through a camera lens than without the guise of the lens. Through the lens, one can never truly experience the city. Preoccupied with taking photographs of what appears to be exciting and new does not let the photographer become aware of the small nuances of a city. The attempt to become part of a city occurs as these subtleties begin to be noticed.

“The concept of the everyday illuminates the past. Everyday life has always existed, even if in ways vastly different from our own. The character of the everyday has always been repetitive…In the study of the everyday we discover the great problem of repetition… The everyday is situated at the intersection of two modes of repetition: the cyclical, which dominates in nature, and the linear, which dominates in processes known as ‘rational’… In modern life, the repetitive gestures tend to mask and crush the cycles. The everyday imposes its monotony. It is the invariable constant of the variations it envelopes. The days follow one after another and resemble one another, and yet—here lies the contradiction at the heart of everydayness—everything changes. But the change is programmed: obsolescence is planned. Production anticipates reproduction; production produces change in such a way as to superimpose the impression of speed onto that of monotony.” This is Henri Lefebvre’s interpretation of the everyday as stated in The Everyday and Everydayness.

Is it possible for an outsider to become a part of the everyday? Can they become an element of the monotony?

For example, after being in Shanghai for a few weeks, when walking from the subway station to MADA s.p.a.m., one is no longer bombarded by street peddlers, trying to sell their “bags-watch,” because they recognize the walker, who constantly tells them “no.” Once the peddler begins to recognize certain cycles and constant variations to their day, they begin to anticipate certain aspects. One has effectively become part of the peddler’s everyday. Because one is part of the peddler’s everyday, does that make one part of the city’s everyday?

There is a difference between the city becoming one’s everyday and one becoming an everyday aspect of the city. The city becomes part of one’s everyday once one becomes a passive member of society. When getting pushed out of the way by locals, one begins to mindlessly push back. One is no longer phased by everyday occurrences which may not be routine. Although one may have become a passive member of society, this does not mean that one is part of the society’s everyday. A temporal aspect of the everyday, maybe. The city becomes a monotonous part of one’s life, but the same does not hold for one’s impact on the city.

The repetitive cycle of outsiders coming and going becomes a part of the everyday. The linear aspect of the everyday is how the city’s everyday impacts one’s life. The cyclical everyday for the city repeats itself. Unlike the everyday for the city, which remains unchanging and almost mechanical, the everyday for the user is much more erratic. Day by day, one goes about their linear journey, letting the everyday aspects of different cities impose their distinct qualities on one’s life. The outsider remains a stranger to the everyday of unfamiliar cities.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Architecture, China, everyday, Urbanism, ,

Wash-Rinse-Repeat

“Wash-Rinse-Repeat.”  The all too familiar instructions we follow every morning while washing our hair in the shower.  A cycle that has become so monotonous, so ingrained in our everyday routine, that we accept it as such without question.   We have all felt this repetitiveness of the everyday, and struggled to find reason and purpose behind it…  I can think of no better example than high school.  Each day programmed exactly to the same schedule, down to the minute, so cut and dry as to package this sameness into red and blue blocks.  What a relief it was to graduate from that structure, to transition into the freedom of university, where we choose our own agenda.  But even now, even far way from home and from USC, from where every sense of our everyday is derived, the days are beginning to echo the same “repetitive gestures of work and consumption”.

I would have thought that a semester abroad would have facilitated entirely unique experiences every day.  This was the case for the first two months of touring.  Each day a new building to visit, each night a new restaurant to taste, each week a new hotel and a new city to explore.  Now that we have established our “base” in Shanghai however, this excitement is somewhat fading.  Yet we have only scratched the surface of what Shanghai has to offer, and there is still freshness to the city, still so much to discover.  So why then do we find ourselves falling into the familiar grooves of the everyday, eating at the same restaurants, watching the same shows on our computers, and even going to the same studio and class to work on the same project.  Partly because it is all interesting and beneficial, and it is only natural to repeat enjoyable and useful experiences.  But as Henri Lefebvre points out in his article The Everyday and Everydayness, “the everyday is repetitive and veiled by obsession and fear.”  Obsession to complete our assignments, to get a good grade, to compete with our classmates.  Fear of trying a strange new restaurant, of falling behind with work, of having a bad review.  Perhaps these emotions influence our propensity towards the everyday, if only subconsciously.

What I find interesting is that Lefebvre’s assertion also applies to the design process.  Particularly as students, we are constantly browsing through precedents of famous projects, and borrowing elements to inform our own designs.  What has worked and what has not.  “The concept of the everyday illuminates the past.”  We are sometimes obsessed with replication, designing something that will function like that which came before it, for fear that it will not operate successfully.  Does this produce an everyday architecture, an everyday urbanism, a designer’s “wash-rinse-repeat” cycle?  I would argue yes.  Perhaps this is one angle from which to measure the success of a project.  When it is unfamiliar in space and experience, form and function, and it jolts you from your normal conceptions of what it should be, you are amidst great architecture.  “The spectacle of the distinctly noneveryday” is what sets it above and beyond the rest.

Alex

Filed under: About, Architecture, everyday, everydayness, Henri Lefebvre, Urbanism

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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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