USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Growing Pains

In the early 1980’s. China’s economic policy went through a major change, combining both a centralized, socialist government structure with a market-based strategy in order to raise the standard of living. Consequently, China has been on a incredible growth-run for the past decade, and even more so recently, surpassing Japan as the second largest economy in the world. China’s game of “catch-up” with the rest of the world powers has no doubt resulted in a growing effort to revitalize and create a new image of China as an emerging world power both in terms of economics and politics. As the so-called “sleeping giant” emerges in the next decades, the eyes of the world rest upon China as the next big experiment/spectacle. With such international acclaim and pressure, the Chinese government has really made hard efforts to propel the new national and modern image to the rest of the world.

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing marked one of the greatest events in China over the past half-century. It was one of the first real efforts of China to embrace the notion of globalization by hosting an international phenomenon within their country. For a country that had for a long time retained much pride in its separation from the West, this was a major step toward a new China that had a global perspective in mind. International corporations, businesses, industries, and of course architects like Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron made a stake in cities like Beijing, rich in traditional culture. But the problem became apparent that a culture clash was evident. The rapid pace of development in such places like Beijing threatened the existing culture that had been there for centuries. Old fabric of traditional hutongs was being wiped and replaced by mega-block office towers or hotels/apartment complexes. And yet, with all this growth and modernizing developments, the congestion and environmental repercussions are enormously daunting, from the LA-like haze that fills the skies to the gridlocked intersections that plague the ring roads around the city. The image of modernization, clichéd with glass office towers and high-rise residential blocks lining the sky was what China was aiming for, but the consequences, as a result, has not really increased the standard of living at all.

Shanghai’s World Expo 2010 provides yet another instance of “country branding” China has instigated. The blocks upon blocks of the world’s finest architecture, all congregating in Shanghai speaks enormously about China’s global reach and political power to host such an event. However, behind the pretty pieces of architecture that line the waterfront still lies a third-world, poverty stricken class of people who make a large part of the social structure within China. Even though China has branded it’s own successful kind of market-driven economics to compete globally, it has precipitated a greater schism between the elite and lower classes. It’s amazing to see such beautiful pavilions, but even more amazing and mind-boggling to see people spitting in one! The point is, China may have propagated this image of clean and modern, but the people are a different story. The constant pushing and pulling in line, the spitting, the trash throwing, etc. are all cultural conditions of behavior that have been long accepted. You cannot possibly instill a new ideology within a cultural generation that has been nurtured upon long-standing socialist policies. Keeping in mind that China is still in its growing pains, perhaps the only hope is to look onto the new generation of Chinese consumers who are becoming more and more globally aware/functional and mindful of their role in a world totally beyond their own.


Filed under: Architecture, Beijing, China, economy, Image, modern, shanghai expo, sleeping giant, third-world, Urbanism

Face Value

For the past 5 days we have been walking the streets of Tokyo, which has provided an experience of the city that is truly unique. By the end of the day my feet are sore, even though I wore my bulky, cushioned walking shoes. My shoulders are aching from the “fashionable” backpack suspended below. My shirt is drenched in perspiration, and for the past couple days the temperature has been well over 90. Let’s just say by the end of our long, exhausting, hot day it was not a pretty sight to be seen.

Feeling disgusted with how I feel and look, I glance around at the people who do this every day in Tokyo. I laugh to myself at how out of place I look amongst them, questioning what I decided to wear out today. The men are in suites with pristine, pressed white shirts. The women are walking around in a pair of heels that makes me ponder why my feet are sore. Everyone looks like they walked out of a page in a magazine in which, I am not a part of (leaving me with the “Where’s Waldo” phenomenon).

Through this quick glance, as I am hunched over gasping for air, I realized that Japan is a culture that cares very much about their public image. Looking presentable is not even a question.

This is very apparent when seeing the streets of Tokyo, for one thing Tokyo does not lack is shopping. Each window display lit up and glistening with the newest, trendy merchandise. Every building with it’s own name brand, and it’s own shiny façade. The store in Tokyo is much more than just a place that sells merchandise; rather it’s an identity that looks at face value to convey their message. Tokyo is well known for its slew of designer stores such as Prada, Dior, and Tod’s to just name a few. These stores don’t only look toward fashion, but rather architecture to help set them apart. Innovation and appearance are everything to these brands, and in such a competitive market this mentality leads to some pretty spectacular compositions. The stores mentioned above all have pretty intricate and structural skins, most notable being the Prada building (Herzog & De Meuron) for its diamond shape exoskeleton. The exoskeleton is used as an all in one building envelope that uses the diamond openings for interesting display windows and view ports.

As we walked through these stores in our drenched clothing, cluttered gear, and shoes that don’t quite speak Prada, we were stalked around the sales floor, and very surprisingly not asked to leave, but clearly not welcomed with open arms either. I guess we were not helping with their image, and I would agree.

Personally I really enjoy the competition of image for it’s contributions to the design world. I feel some times the idea of image is lost, by only focusing on numbers (numbers being profits, items sold, & other quantifiable data). George Simmel argues that numbers are what control people, and it is through these numbers that quantitative decisions are typically chosen over qualitative ones. The concept of money is what has made society the collective organism that it is today, which leaves no place for the individual amongst the collective. I am not going to discredit Simmel for his claims, but I am going to offer a counter argument. Numbers may govern business, and every economy is controlled by business, but at the end of the day it is still only numbers. numbers are not as innovative as image, and image although seems shallow at the surface, it’s effects go much deeper than what meets the eye. In Tokyo it is this image that governs the way people present themselves, and drives the design industry to push farther. Individuality is found in the details, although Japan operates as a collective, the pride that the Japanese take in their design and craftsmanship, create the image of individuality that drives innovation, imagination, and a little perspiration.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: AAU, Architecture, De Meuron, Dior, Facade, Face, Fashion, Herzog, Identity, Image, Japan, Prada, Renjilian, Ross, Tod's, Tokyo, Urbanism, Value, , ,


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