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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

Tradition or Innovation?

Planners and politicians in both the United States and China face a single decision again and again when determining the course of urban development:  should historical fabric replete with identity and tradition take precedence over new development, even if that means slowing or halting growth, or does the economic value of this growth and potential for innovation outweigh any cultural relevance.  The decision is especially pressing in older, established Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai where growth transcends economics and enters the realm of politics…where each new skyscraper, rail station, housing development, or stadium is intended as a statement to the outside world that China aims to be the dominant power on the Asian continent.  This is a tough argument to compete against in the name of preserving old neighborhoods or temples.

In his philosophical text The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord explores this conflict abstractly, proposing that culture is aligned to negate itself.  In the chapter Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere, he asserts that the “struggle between tradition and innovation, which is the basic principle of the internal development of the culture of historical societies, is predicated entirely on the permanent victory of innovation”.  But by which standards is innovation permanently victorious?

It would seem innovation is in fact handily defeated by tradition when it comes to urban spaces.  The 400 meter skyscrapers of Pudong may be testaments to Chinese prowess in engineering and construction but the spaces people flock to on weekend nights are the narrow streets of Shanghai’s historic French Concession, not the vacuous boulevards across the river.  The spaces people go to shop, to dine, to drink, or simply to take a walk through the city are almost exclusively within Shanghai’s historic center.  By this metric then, declaring the new city, innovation and all, victorious over tradition seems inaccurate.

The same can be said for Beijing, where the lifeblood of the nighttime city runs through its inner ring and not in the disparate central business districts home to innovative architecture like the CCTV tower or Olympic Village.  Debord goes on to say that “culture is the meaning of an insufficiently meaningful world”.  Given this paradigm then, the actions of Chinese speak for themselves. People find meaning wherever there is culture, and this means in historical urban fabric.  I would classify this as a victory of tradition over innovation, and not the other way around.

Matt Luery

Filed under: China, Culture, history, Shanghai, tradition

Duality of the City

The phenomenon of city growth illustrates much more than the physical manifestation of the physical urban environment. It is both the physical and the metaphysical that encompass the complexity of urban architecture and the individual experience of the everyday life. In essence, we can say that the city, as a metropolis, exists and functions with dualistic tendencies; it is material and immaterial, public and private, past and present. Most Chinese cities, especially, Beijing, have had a long cultural history leading up to the end of the 20th century. However, the recent jump from the city in response to global modernization has created an uneven displacement of old city versus new city fabric. As a consequence of this vast expansion of new cultural production, the modern Chinese city is continuously operating within a zone intersecting the real, surreal, and the extinct city. In Xiaoshuai Wang’s film Beijing Bicycle, the characteristic urban qualities of the city and urban everyday are portrayed and focused through the discourse of old versus new. Wang’s visualization through thematic means conveys the disparage between the quintessential image of Beijing against the backdrop of the city’s transformation into a contemporary metropolis.

The film is mainly focused on the built form, the manifestation of the development and change of Beijing’s fabric from old, panoramic hutongs, to tall, vertical skyscraper cities. I am reminded of a telling scene, where Wang depicts the modernization of Beijing through a series of sequences showing the congestion of car traffic. Yet within this gridlock, we see the seamless flow of bicycles, old and young alike, weave through traffic in-sync creating a wonderful image of order amidst chaos. Wang’s fast-paced thematic vision encompasses the physical spaces in an intimate fashion, revealing the microcosm of the crowded, dirty, and narrow alleys of the hutong districts. These images are all portrayals of Wang’s image of the urban everyday life; crisscrossing alleyways, compactness are in fact the reality of the everyday to most rural immigrants. Wang’s focus is not on the modernization of Beijing, although he does pay respect to it, but rather a depiction into the disappearing fabric of old Beijing; the result of urbanization and metropolitan living. The cinematic experience of Beijing Bicycle presents a focus on a city that has been shaped by many different portrayals that have often hidden or eradicated the true urban. The thematic context presents a rather disjunctive view of Beijing as polemical, sprawled, and diverse; it is an illustration of the Beijing’s change from historical to modernity/commercial. And yet within the chaos and confusion, the city is the setting and container in which people’s lives take place. The story of a country boy who tries to make it in the big city is intertwined with a schoolboy struggling to gain the attention and recognition he desperately desires. The result is a wonderful narrative of two lives meeting and changing each other. All in all, the image of the city is never repetitive nor homogenous, never merely a single portrayal, but a combination of many images and experiences. Through Beijing Bicycle, Wang hopes to convey the sentiment that perhaps the city transcends just the material, but becomes more representative about the experiential and metaphysical.

_Jonathan

Filed under: Architecture, Beijing, beijing bicycle, China, cinema, Duality, film, history, hutong, Modernization, physical, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Xiaoshuai Wang

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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