USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Reality Crisis

What is real?  What is fake?  What is a copy?  What is a real copy?  What is a fake copy? What does this all mean in terms of the space, nature, architecture, and the city?  So what?

The Material Object

Two days ago in Shenzhen, I purchased a Dunxilu International clutch at Huaqiangbei marketplace for the equivalent of $3.73 US dollars.  It was clearly a knock-off, or ‘fake copy’, of the real Dunxilu brand, but after bargaining with the vendor for so long, I could not resist the deal.  In this example, the question of real vs. fake is very straightforward.  The mediocre quality and cheap price are obvious signs that the item is a fake copy.  It was designed to appear and function like an expensive designer brand, but for all I know could fall apart or dye my hand pink in the rain tomorrow.

The electronic district of the market was swamped with iphone 4G vendors.  Enticed by the thought of a new phone, I had to find out if they were real or fake copies.  I discovered that they were in fact ‘real copies’, or iphones that were made in legitimate factories and sold on the black market.  In essence, they were real iphones sold illegally.

When it comes to material objects, the definition of real, real copy, and fake copy is an easy concept to understand.

Fake Copy: My Dunxilu clutch that is an imitation of a high quality brand

Real Copy: The iphone 4G that is sold under the table

Real: The iphone 4G that is sold at an Apple store

The Architecture

After the Golden Pavilion burnt down in 1950, it was restored and is said to be an exact replica.  However, while the original was built with pure gold leaf, the restored pavilion is coated with gold paint.  In 1987 it was recoated, and then in 2003 the roof was restored.  Is this not equivalent to the Dunxilu clutch that I purchased?  Like the purse, the pavilion was created to look like the original and was built with cheaper materials.  Is the Golden Pavilion a fake copy?

The Ise Shrine is a respected and honored Japanese monument that is reconstructed every twenty years.  This ensures that the method of construction and materiality is passed on from generation to generation, upholding the culture and wisdom of ancient times.  While this preserves the process, doesn’t this also mean that it is a copy?  The shrine that hundreds of tourists visit everyday is the 61st iteration of the original.  It is not real.  Is it?  Is it fake?  Like the real copy of the iphone, the Ise Shrine was built like the original.  When you see it, you are aware that you are not seeing the original shrine, just like you know that you are not buying a real iphone.

Fake Copy: The Golden Pavilion

Real Copy: The Ise Shrine

Real: The original Ise Shrine

The City

When it comes to analyzing cities in terms of real and fake, it is not as simple as looking for a knock-off brand imprint or judging the quality of building materials used.  This is because cities are not singular objects, like one could argue buildings or iphones are.  Cities not only consist of iphones, purses, and architecture, but are composed of layers and layers and layers of infrastructure, culture, politics, economics, and mental experiences.  As if this isn’t complicated enough, the city is also changing, growing, and morphing everyday.

I began this post with the intention to categorize cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen as I did above.  At first glance, one might say that Shenzhen is fake.  While cities typically evolve and densify naturally over time, Shenzhen went through a forced evolution that literally transformed it from a fishing village to southern China’s financial center in thirty years.  It would be difficult to argue that this Special Economic Zone is not a success.  Does it matter that the city did not develop under natural evolutionary terms?  Does this make the city any less real?

Because I am used to the pace and city dynamic of Los Angeles, Shenzhen seemed so foreign to me that it was challenging to get my bearings for the first few days.  I had trouble attributing an identity to the city.  Perhaps this was why I was eager to label it ‘fake’.  After further investigation and immersion into Futian, Shenzhen, I began discovering little moments that gave the city character.  A free kickboxing match, haggling with the market vendors, watching hundreds of locals practicing tai chi next to an urban village.  These short glimpses formed my impression of Shenzhen, and is what I will carry with me after this program and long after I graduate.  It doesn’t matter how quickly or how naturally a city is created.  Experiences are what make cites real.

Real City: Las Vegas

Real City: Los Angeles

Real City: Shenzhen


Filed under: Architecture, China, Fake, Fake Copy, Futian, Ise Shrine, Japan, real, Real Copy, Shenzhen, The Golden Pavilion, Uncategorized, Urbanism

Where’d all the good people go?

Shenzhen, the new economic prodigy China has been waiting and tirelessly working towards achieving. It’s a city filled with capitalist dreams with an unbelievably fast-pace economy that’s leading the country into a first-world state. Dreams of breaking ground in financial success has led to an entrepreneurial sprawl of corporate powerhouses touching base here with towering skyscraper offices lining the entire cityscape. The push for urbanization has set the stone rolling for land developers and contractors to go on a field day, building like there’s no tomorrow. With a hotel here, and an apartment complex there, the turn-around of Shenzhen’s urban landscape is overnight. But within all the excitement building this city, there’s one most particular and de-valued element absent that is perhaps most essential in making Shenzhen, or any city for that matter, vibrant: the people.

Our ventures through Shenzhen these past few days have made evident a phenomenon that is uniquely it’s own here, unseen in all the previous cities we have visited so far. Shenzhen is quite literally a “ghost” city; there’s a complete lack of social interface on the urban-streetscape level. This, in turn, heavily undermines and distorts any notion of urban centers throughout the city. Shenzhen seems to have employed the “build it, and they will come” urban strategy of densification as a catalyst, rather than densification as a necessity (i.e. Tokyo, Seoul). Plazas, shopping centers, parks, etc. end up as empty, superficial edifices that bring nothing to the community. A prime example is the city center, located at the heart of the Futian district. It’s comprised of both private and public programs; private being the city/central government complex (aka “the Hat) and public being the people’s square coupled with a localized park/garden. First, the plaza remains useless as a gathering/activity space when no one utilizes it. It’s only heavily utilized when performances are held there. Second, the garden is inherently flawed in that it is nearly inaccessible and difficult to navigate through, consequently the space remains unused most of the day. It took us a few wrong turns before we actually figured out where exactly we were oriented within the park, only to find ourselves lost within an unending maze. And the fact that no one was actually in the park to ask for directions made the process ever more confusing.

In “The Mass Ornament”, Kracauer mentions the impetus behind capitalism as an economic system that “does not encompass human beings”. In fact, the operative function of producing is more important that the human being. The mass ornament, as a functional collective, has no play in the formation of the socio-economic state. The rapid proliferation of Shenzhen building developments could only have been possible through a massive labor force, a force supplied through immigrant workers that migrated to Shenzhen out of desperation. Like any other resource, labor is nurtured to produce the maximum gain with the least amount of cost. With a constant influx of poor immigrants, it’s an endless resource construction companies have exploited towards the benefit of urban development. As a result, the city grows in economic power and price of living continues to rise, pushing out the poor migrants from staying, only to be replaced by many others just like them; a cyclical pattern. The key point is to remember is that these workers are constantly filtering in and out of the city, never permanent. Thus, this large constituency of workers is often non-participants in the everyday urban scene. With rising costs in housing and the economy, it’s no wonder that these poor migrants cannot afford to stay long in Shenzhen, only to leave their legacy behind manifested in the cold concrete, steel, and glass towers built by their hands.


Filed under: Architecture, Capitalism, China, Futian, labor force, mass ornament, Migrant, people, Shenzhen, socio-economics, Urbanism


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.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
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
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