USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Blinding Nostalgia

In Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin understands that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” In terms of a city, tradition can be defined by changes in the elements that describe a city [physical, mental, social, economic, political, and cultural]. Shenzhen was originally a fishing and farming area until Deng Xiaoping declared it a Special Economic Zone [SEZ]. It started as Deng Xiaoping’s capitalism experiment 30 years ago while the rest of China was under a communist regime and is now flourishing with activity and excitement.

Shenzen’s unique city growth conditions resulted as fast paced developments with density and sprawl moving starting from the east and now moving west and even more westward with the onset of the new express line between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Shenzhen’s untraditional city has transformed from farmland and fishing into to urban villages, and finally high-rise developments for housing, offices, hotels, shopping malls around the Central Business Districts [CBD].

During my initial days in Shenzhen, I was heavily disinterested in the glass-clad buildings. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get a bearing on Shenzhen’s new epoch of generic buildings. It seemed like the previous era had disappeared when the government decided to knock down the urban villages. After finally visiting a modernized urban village, I found a grounding that modern day Shenzhen was lacking. However, is it fair for me to use nostalgia and say that the developed area of Shenzhen lacked tradition that was obvious in these urban villages? If Shenzhen is a work of art as a city, where is the essence of tradition in its current development phase of high-rises? Are there certain aspects that still have not changed?

Shenzhen’s traditions as a city have obviously changed, but not all the elements that make a city have followed suit. Obviously, the mental grounding offered by that of the urban villages has transformed into my mental disorientation and discomfort with modern Shenzhen. The physical aspects have drastically changed from the days of rice paddies into high-rise towers. Economically, the farmers traded in the farms that made little profit and became developers that collected rent. Their land value increased after developers started to build housing and office towers to satisfy the demand of the new CBDs and as a SEZ. The social aspect of Shenzhen changed as China established Shenzhen as a SEZ and promoted urbanization. The government has also changed its policies on traveling to Shenzhen by lifting the Visa requirement to access this evil child of capitalism. Culturally, Shenzhen’s demographics have been morphing since its establishment as a SEZ. Migrant workers and people from all over China have been relocating there resulting in a cultural mixing pot similar to that of Los Angeles, with the exception that most of Shenzhen’s migrants are predominately Asian. But ironically, it is the culture that has changed only on the surface and not in its ideals.

When comparing Western Monuments, the Pantheon, Acropolis, and Coliseum all served the public as a public space. When one looks and lists China’s monuments, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and The Great Wall, they completely disregard the public and demanded containment. This idea of public space was never embedded into China’s social culture. It is still true today with the urban villages and high-rise developments, but for economic reasons. A tenant does not feel inclined to purchase an apartment with public space because they do not personally own it.

Because of my Western thinking, I was blind sighted by the inherent culture that was beneath the form and glass cladding of the buildings. It was my nostalgia and desire for historic preservation that made me uncomfortable with the government destroying their “real” culture. However, it is not the formal manifestation that defines its significance, but rather the place and conditions in which it is manifested.


Filed under: change, China, Culture, Government, nostalgia, Psyche, public space, tradition, western ideology

When Space Transcends the Urban Condition

Observation deck at the DMZ

Over 20 million people live and work in the metropolitan area of Seoul, South Korea.  The city’s dense network of subways, highways, and tall buildings extends as far as the horizon on either side of the Han River and in almost all directions.  Current growth patterns see Seoul’s original urban fabric of low-rise buildings being replaced en masse by Tokyo-style mega developments built over subway stations and shopping malls.  All of this vertical development is justified, made necessary even, by increasing land values in the central city where transit coverage and cultural amenities are most heavily concentrated.  Needless to say, excess space is in short supply.

China's flag rises above that of Hong Kong

A comparable situation exists in Hong Kong, one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions, and is even more pronounced due to severe limitation of buildable land.  This limitation is a consequence of both geography (the territory is comprised of mountainous islands) and policy (previous British colonial rule demarcated 75% of land as nature preserves).  The lack of available land is so extreme that it has now become economical for developers to artificially extend the boundaries of Hong Kong Island in order to build just a handful of buildings on reclaimed land.  Sometimes, as in the case of the convention center, the harbor is dredged for years to construct a single building.

Yet while these two cities deal with approximate economics of land use, they are linked in a more significant fashion by their complete reliance on empty land holding no development potential whatsoever: political buffer zones.  Whatever the magnitude of growth and increase in real estate values that has occurred in these cities over the last half century, no land holds more value to Seoul than Korea’s DMZ and to Hong Kong than its undeveloped border with mainland China.  Without these buffer zones, it is almost certain that neither city would exist in its present form.  This is because these two zones separate capitalistic, market driven societies that host international business from communist, state-run economies to the north.  To be sure, North Korea and mainland China hold widely different viewpoints on global politics and economics.  While Pyongyang remains highly isolated and stagnant, Shenzhen is growing explosively and increasingly fostering closer ties to its more famous neighbor to the south.  But the fact remains that native Hong Kongers seldom identify with the mainland and many young people are leery of 2046, when China’s ‘one country, two systems’ approach to governing Hong Kong comes to an end.

In visiting Seoul and Hong Kong then, I have witnessed for the first time politicization of space.  These are spaces shaped and defined not by designers or planners but by national security interests and economic preservation.  Like architecture however, their usefulness and purpose lies in the void, not the walls that shape it.

Matt Luery

Filed under: Capitalism, China, DMZ, Government, Hong Kong, Korea


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