URBAN GORILLA

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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

New and Old

Urbanism looks at new possibilities for the built environment, by adding different ingredients to the community that allow the area to become richer, and better suited for its occupants. This approachis typically looked at from a blank slate, but as we continueto build, at one point there will be nowhere else to go. This will force us to go in and reevaluate what has already been built, and re-imagine the possibilities of what once was.

China’s balance of new and old has really given China a very eclectic built environment. In the bund area skyscrapers of modern steel and glass, tower over the historic fabric of the different concessions that line the Huangpu River. This contrast of what has been preserved, compared to what has been newly imagined and conceived creates this beautiful tension that China is facing today. China is a country with immense amount of culture and tradition, especially Shanghai. Time has been one of the most beautiful artists, and Shanghai’s multitude of layers has been its creation. In many ways Shanghai’s built environment is a visual timeline of Shanghais history and architectural influences.

This is the current situation, but as China continues to push forward on their economic binge, the past may no longer be as significant. History may not be able to produce the $$$ that is in developers eyes. The government in China is still the owner of the land, but has started a new leasing strategy that allows selected developers to lease the land for about 70 years. The government requires the piece of land to perform within three years of the lease, which pressures developers to build, and build quickly. Performance typically comes in the form of $$$, and the easiest way to make $$$ is by leasing out as many spaces feasibly possible. With this approach older fabric has been “carpet bombed”, and redeveloped as monotonous housing towers, shopping malls, and commercial centers. This new trend has already started to create an over saturation in the market, and as the government leases out more land, the fabric starts to become a homogenous high-density jungle.

The interesting part of this over saturation is that it has diminished the supply of the older low-density fabric. This constant balancing act between the old and the new, has created a higher demand for older fabric, which has interestingly allowed the older fabric to be “preserved”. This fabric though is not necessarily preserved in the traditional European sense, many times it has been left alone, for the owners of the lease have realized the value of its history, and have inflated the value too high for developers to see any benefit. The over inflated price has created a stagnant condition for the fabric, which has allowed it to deteriorate over time. This old courtyard typology has also been segmented up into many different spaces, to lease out low-income units. The irony of the situation, really creates this very beautiful, but conflicting condition of preservation.

This event starts to question the importance of preservation within a city. Looking at historic European cities, we see the extreme side of preservation. This mentality of keeping the old has allowed the cities to become figuratively frozen in place, as time continues onward. This condition has stunted cities growth, and ability to modernize and reinterpret urbanization.  Aldo Rossi questions what is the real benefit and understanding of the existing tangible. In Architecture and the City he comments, “In an urban artifact, certain original values and functions remain, others are totally altered; about some stylistic aspects of the form we are certain, others are less obvious. We contemplate the values that remain— I am also referring to spiritual values—and try to ascertain whether they have some connection with the building’s materiality, and whether they constitute the only empirical facts that pertain to the problem. At this point, we might discuss what our idea of the building is, our most general memory of it as a product of the collective, and what relationship it affords us with this collective.”  Shanghai is a perfect precedent for this confliction. On one side of the argument, Chinese mentality questions what is the true value of the building as an object itself? There is more importance in the location, rather than in the object. The various European influences, demonstrates the importance of the building’s materiality and face, which gives a certain character to the various concessions.

In my opinion there is value in both, and a balancing act has to be played. To preserve the city in its current state, is denying its opportunity to become something even greater. On the other hand history provides a sense of identity and culture. Shanghai’s current balance has allowed the city to become an eclectic combination of old and new, giving it a truly unique diversity that is stripped from many cities. Its ability to be modern, and still posses traits of its past, is a unique balance that cannot come from instant cities. While Shanghai continues to push forward, it would be a real shame for Shanghai to loose its older fabric and redevelop more of the same, for the beauty is in the layers.

Ross Renjilian

 

Filed under: Aldo, Architecture, bombing, carpet, character, China, development, Fabric, Identity, new, old, preservation, Renjilian, Ross, Rossi, Shanghai, Urbanism, , ,

Micro City in a Macro Metropolis

Tokyo is a city of extreme density, which forces architects to not only consider the x and y plane for circulation, rather they are forced to realize the complexity of the circulation layers found within the city. This has led to atypical design moves that form a more adaptive building typology. The understanding of the base of the building, and I will use the term base for it is not as simple as the ground floor/ bottom, is predominantly given to the public to interact with the urban. By doing so the typological lobby of buildings have been replaced with multi-layered pedestrian streets and mini plazas that have successful businesses and life weaved throughout the spaces. These bases actively engage the many layers of Tokyo’s infrastructure including subways, street fronts, and above ground rail lines.

By stepping back and looking at the larger urban plan, one can start to understand this complex network of bases plugging into the city grid. Each of these bases creating connections in the x, y, and z plane. Series of connections are what allow Tokyo to successfully delaminate their ground plane, which requires the architecture to adapt to its surrounding context.

With all of the above-considered one can start to analyze the urban conditions as a woven fabric. The entire city is connected by built environment. This uniformity typically consists of many small objects being brought together by the series of connections. In most cities circulation is dictated by automobile circulation and these connections typically represent an organizational grid. The voids created with the street grid are divided into separate properties allowing for many smaller objects to occupy the single void. Another way of looking at urban manipulation is creating larger objects that embody smaller programs. This method in some ways looks at creating a micro city coexisting within the larger metropolis.

One example of this methodology is the midtown development in Tokyo. By acquiring multiple properties, SOM (Skidmore Owings & Merrill) was able to demo a larger area of land to replace with a micro city. This urban strategy looks at a hybrid program solution, which incorporates retail, business, residential, hospitality, food, art, and transportation in one complex. The diversity of the program required specific attention to adjacencies and circulation to public and private spaces. Midtown’s solution was to create a complex base plug-in that addresses the complex public domain, and allowing three individual towers to rise out of the base to better support private spaces.

The base system for Tokyo Midtown is focused around a public plaza, which is the predominant driving force for the organization of the different programs. The outdoor plaza provides easy pedestrian access to the major program components from the street level, while providing a core to organize the many pieces. Although the plaza is pulled away from the main street the diversity of programs feeding off of it provide enough foot traffic to keep the space lively throughout the day. Off of the plaza are several lobbies that feed to the towers. These lobbies create thresholds that restrict circulation into the more private spaces. In the Ritz Carlton the ground lobby is predominantly used for vertical circulation, which opens to grand lobby on the 45th floor. Other means of linking the different programs together is a series of underground halls that have been scaled to act as pedestrian streets below street level. These streets are primarily driven by subway transportation, and are lined with street vendor style food and general shops.

On one end of the project the galleria anchors two of the towers, and allows the public to engage with the complex in the z-axis. This sectional manipulation provides more hierarchy and exclusivity to the shops that occupy the space above, giving visitors a more intimate relationship by simply pulling the shops off of the “street level”.

Car transportation for the complex is underplayed, and more geared for the wealthier clientele. Side streets provide access to the complex and are predominantly used by the Ritz-Carlton and private residences. This environment follows through to the garage where it is broken up into several small lobbies for valet service for each program component.

The green space is wrapped around the other side of the complex creating public walkways. Setting it off to the side and creating few circulation connections from the main complex, allows the space to maintain a semi private feel creating an oasis in the larger urban context. Towards the back of the complex is an expansive green space that allows for larger events and crowds to enjoy the open sky.

Delaminating the circulation paths in combination with clustering different programmatic elements together helps create a series of diverse sectional environments. The complex has many qualities of a larger ecosystem, which mocks the urban lifestyle. Most of these conditions are represented in the base of the project, which acts as a larger base that plugs into Tokyo’s urban fabric. This different urban strategy so far has proven to be successful, and has been a model for other urban developments including LA Live in Los Angels and The City Center in Las Vegas. With the lack of transportation networks in The United States it will be interesting to see if the complexes maintain their popularity and vitality. In contrast, Midtown has the advantage of plugging into a larger system that has been prevalent in Tokyo for quite some time. The different developments share similar programmatic overlaps, but I would argue that Midtown’s success is largely in part of it’s well thought out arrangement of public spaces and it’s connections to it’s surrounding contexts. When a development successfully connects urban infrastructure and its surrounding context the single project becomes a piece of the collective metropolis.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: AAU, Architecture, City, Fabric, Metropois, Micro, Midtown, Renjilian, Ross, SOM, Tokyo, Uncategorized, Urban, ,

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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