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,

My China

As a class we have talked often about experiential phenomena in the city.  Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai…they all have high rise buildings, elevated expressways, subway systems, bustling boulevards, bright lights, and throngs of people.  We have seen this together as a group but experience, the interpretation and comparison of small differences, occurs on an individual basis.  Experience is the stuff of memories, the ideas we take away from a place and the ones that resonate with us even if nobody else pauses to notice.

With only a couple weeks left in China, two thoughts chase me around everywhere I go.  The first is my excitement to return home to California, where life will regain a sense of normalcy.  The second is fear that this normalcy will handicap me, that my jolting experience abroad will by comparison render anything back home inadequate – or worse, boring.  So what is my experience? What has China been to me?  Here are a few of my favorite parts of the day – the things I look forward to when I wake up and the things I will miss most.  This is my China.

-At the beginning of the fifteen minute walk to the subway station, we cross a large boulevard shortly after leaving the hotel.  A concrete pedestrian island separates lanes of car traffic passing in front and bike traffic passing behind.  When I huddle on this island with ten other people, the city whizzing by on all sides, I imagine a boulder sitting still in a fast moving river.  This is the most peaceful part of the day.

-Whenever I get change at a market, it’s always a mystery whether the cash register attendant will give back One Yuen notes or coins.  I try to guess which one it will be, and secretly hope to get coins because the notes feel small and insubstantial.  Occasionally the coins will be counterfeit, but nobody seems to pay too much attention.

-Most subway stations have a pair of soldiers standing silently at the entrance and exit.  For some reason one of them stands on a one-foot tall pedestal, and the other on the ground.  The shorter soldier always stands on the pedestal.  This makes me happy.  I have not sought out any further explanation, and don’t plan on doing so.

-When ordering drinks, ‘lemon iced tea’ is almost always written as ‘ice lemon tea’.  If you say the former, servers will correct the order of your words.  To order Coca-Cola do not ask for ‘Coke’ or you will get a confused look.  Ask for ‘Cola’.  Drinks invariably come with knotted straws that force your beverage to make a loop-the-loop as you sip it.  The jury is still out on whether this adds anything to the experience.

-The undersides of elevated expressways are all brightly lighted.  A nighttime cab ride passes underneath, on top of, and above floating ribbons of color twisting their way through high-rise canyons.  I think about how this looks futuristic, and also a little bit silly.

-Elevators usually have no button for number four, because the Chinese word for it resembles the word for death.  This always reminds me of how many American buildings omit a thirteenth floor.  Superstition both amuses and annoys me but I’m not even sure why thirteen is superstitious to begin with, so I find the Chinese version more legitimate.  Checking for this is always the first thing I do in an elevator.

-Inside the subway station there is a long corridor you must walk down between the entrance and turnstiles.  At rush hour the corridor is filled with people, some walking briskly, some walking four abreast, some on their cell phones, some listening to music, some holding briefcases, and some completely unremarkable.  All these people moving at different paces make it impossible to walk the length of the corridor in a straight line.  You have to judge speeds, make passes, navigate groups, twist and turn your body, rub shoulders, and keep alert.  I love this.

Matt Luery

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, everydayness, experience, phenomena, Urbanism

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

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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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