URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Shifting Surveillance and the Home

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Driving from the airport, located on the periphery, to Xian’s walled center I was once again struck by the immensity and monotony of construction creating urban China. The huge array of tombstone, residential towers was mind numbing. We have witnessed such developments throughout China, but the construction bursting the edge of Xian reached a new level. Maybe it was the pollution and its proximity, towers being constructed adjacent to coal fired power plants, at distances which I would have before thought inconceivable. Also it could have been the juxtaposition; the construction of such towers is emphasized by the building height limitations imposed on the walled center. When standing on the wall, the verticality and force behind market driven development pushes as closes as it can to the center creating a new wall, dwarfing the original. Such development stresses the physical cost that urbanizing requires but it also alludes to a transformation of people, of their goals, needs and sociability. Urbanization’s most visible effect is seen in its physical manifestation, but urbanization , driven by the dominant influences of market forces and globalization, is just as much about the sociological and psychological changes necessary to transform a diverse rural population into urbanites, integrating them into the global consumer pool. Architecture or at least building types play a pivotal role in the transformation, both physical and psychological, occurring in China.

The transformation, psychologically, is closely tied to issues of surveillance and systems of control within architecture. Juxtaposition has been a topic of discussion throughout our travels and it is pertinent in this case as well. There seems to be a strong shift/change in regards to surveillance when comparing pre-open door typologies to post-open door. More specifically, typologies before the opening, such as the Hutong and Shikumen as well as agrarian villages, seem to be driven more by social surveillance, as a result of bottom-up, need-based development. Typologies post open door, seem to approach qualities of surveillance and social control from a top-down organization, guided by the market. This results in a shifting and complex relationship between the desires for anonymity and the need for communality within the Chinese population. Walking through developments that may be considered bottom-up, one is struck by the density and overlapping lifestyles that occur. There is a beauty to it but also detractors. The shikumen neighborhoods of Shanghai become self-sufficient microcosms within the greater city, incubators of small-businesses and informal-economies. Yet at the same time I have come into contact with the reoccurring critique, that qualities of social surveillance are too strong. The inability to escape the watchful eye of one’s neighbor is reminiscent of communist China, when everything was supposedly shared.

In contrast the tower apartments completely demolish the notion of bottom-up surveillance and self-sufficient development. Surveillance is not a quality that develops over time but is now imposed from the onset. From guarded gates to cctv cameras, the building’s future is sealed. The ability for change overtime is done away with, housing complexes become islands. In these complexes privacy is attained, but at the loss of community, as in high-rise complexes across the globe, it is very common to not even know the people living on the same floor. Though from an architecture standpoint this typology is so easy to critique it cannot be denied that is desired, attaining a tower apartment is viewed as practically the most important investment a Chinese citizen can make. After discussing this topic with various professors and students I have begun to realize that the definition of home ownership here is far different then my own. Under the consumerist wave that the economic reforms brought, the home has become a complete financial product, a source of wealth generation.

Filed under: change, China, community, conditioning, Freedom, Globalization

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

The Shackles of Freedom

In the middle of Shenzhen’s central business district, one can find children riding their tricycles, neighbors enjoying a game of badminton and villagers of all ages socializing in a public plaza. Though busy boulevards and skyscrapers surround the Huang Gang village, this community can still exist as an urban village because the landowners are resisting financial pressure from the government. As a result, rows of generic high-towers become the backdrop for a working class community. Of the new developments just outside the village, four prominent towers now stand on land that was once a portion of Huang Gang village because several villagers took the liberty to sell their land to the government. There is not a trace of 7-story apartments to signify the neighborhood that used to reside there or the public sphere that allowed people to gather. Instead these new buildings are engulfed in the larger mechanism around it.

The built environment is a reflection of people’s personal agendas. Their freedom of individuality often times translates to the pursuit of wealth. So whether it is to maintain the urban village in order to receive constant rent payment or to sell land to the government, landowners have the freedom to determine the destiny of their land. In turn, they are also unconsciously constructing the social conditions that people dwell in.

Along the dried river front in Xiao Zhou village of Guangzhou, students set up their outdoor painting studios and senior villagers congregate to play cards. These everyday activities are remnants of the peaceful artist community, but traditional vernacular that once encouraged these cultural activities has gradually been reconstructed in succession by landowners who wish to profit from rent collection. Singular decisions to redevelop personal property have amounted to the destruction of old town fabric.

Aside from the pursuit of wealth, freedom of individuality can also mean the pursuit of uniqueness and irreplaceability in order for one to distinguish him/herself from one another.  Some artists who were initially attracted to the quiet atmosphere of Xiao Zhou village slowly took flight in search of inspiration elsewhere, while other artists made efforts to sustain original buildings. Tucked away in narrow alleys are shops and cafes that preserved architectural heritage and uniqueness within authenticity.

Wooden Door Cafe (Xiao Zhou Village, Guangzhou)

Similarly, villagers of Nan She village in Dongguan protected their cultural inheritance from the Song, Ming and Qing Dynasties. Senior citizens’ emotional and cultural attachment to architectural productions from the past led to preservation of five hundred year old residences and ancestral homes. Though villagers had the liberty to refurbish their homes, almost everyone chose to leave their homes in original conditions or simply moved away from the village, leaving ancient ruins behind. As a collective, their traditions have remained unique and irreplaceable for centuries, so much so that the government placed the village under strict preservation in 2005.

Nan She Village, Dongguan

Recently, Vice President Biden mentioned in an article in the New York Times that China’s people aspire towards fundamental rights. But these examples of social and architectural constructions within the villages of Huang Gang, Xiao Zhou and Nan She are evident of a kind of liberty that goes beyond fundamental rights. Individuals are able to exercise the freedom to pursue wealth and the freedom to be irreplaceable. It has been said that when Chinese people look forward, they are looking toward money. (Coincidently, the word forward and money have the same pronunciation in Mandarin.) As people in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Dongguan transform the destiny of their land, there is always more to be done to keep up with China’s rapid developments. This cycle of building and rebuilding puts pressure on individuals who utilize their freedom to strive for money. Perhaps those who move beyond the sole desire to amass wealth are closer to breaking free from the shackles of freedom.

angie

Filed under: Freedom, individuality, Shenzhen, Urban Village, ,

Freedom vs. Freedom

As a result of the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration, contemporary governance in Hong Kong has much in common with Western nations.  A market driven economy and personal liberties are key components of the ‘one country, two systems’ resolution, which is to last until at least 2046, fifty years past transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China.  What happens after this is anyone’s guess, but for the time being freedom of press guarantees uncensored media, a highly effective guard against government corruption and abuse of power.  Ditto for free speech and assembly, which empower residents to organize and voice concerns in a democratic manner.  With the exception of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, who is appointed by Beijing, all political positions are subject to popular vote and the people’s universal suffrage mandated by law.

Yet despite Hong Kong’s freedoms and high quality of life, Chinese increasingly view the territory and its politics as passé at a time when freedom and opportunity of the economic variety exist to a far greater degree in dozens of booming mainland cities.  Shenzhen is directly adjacent to Hong Kong on the mainland and has grown from a farming village to a city of 15 million over the last three decades while its neighbor has remained practically stagnant.  The question this begs is why would any profit-seeking developer consider working in a city that protects 75% of its limited land supply and subjects every project to environmental scrutiny when he could simply negotiate with politicians to build the same thing faster and cheaper on the mainland?

China’s rapid industrialization, abundant land supply, lack of bureaucracy, and ballooning middle class create an unparalleled opportunity for profitable development and constitute a new kind of freedom unmatched in the Western world.  From Steven Holl’s Vanke Company Headquarters in Shenzhen, to OMA’s CCTV in Beijing, and a host of other Chinese projects commissioned to European and American architects, the pull of this new freedom is something Westerners must now reconcile.

A black and white reading trumpeting the benefits of liberal democracy and the downfalls of communism (or quasi-communism, as in the case of China) leaves out a grey area in the middle from which we have much to learn.  A heavy-handed centralized government has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China, and we as Americans would be obstinate to avoid considering the merits of such an approach, or at the very least using it as a springboard for a bit of national reflection.  Exactly what constitutes freedom or a high quality of life could be argued in much the same subjective manner as the architectural merits of a building or the urban merits of a city, and there’s nothing quite like a challenge to the status quo in spurring progress. To simply remain complacent and ignore this challenge altogether though is one mistake the United States cannot afford to make.

Matt Luery

Filed under: America, China, development, Economics, Freedom, Politics

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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