URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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

Road or River?

I suffered my first few near death experiences in a taxicab on the roads of Shenzhen. The white, yellow, solid, and dotted lines seemed like some nice artwork someone had painted on the road. I lost count of the times a car almost turned directly into my passenger door. And as our cab driver swerved in and out of lanes as though weaving a rather elaborate rug, I clenched my hands, bit my lip, and wondered how on earth we were still alive.

As I continued to watch in between gasps of breath and my life flashing before my eyes, I began to notice that the traffic was acting like a fluid river. Like a river, the traffic had no breaks or gaps in the stream. As holes would open, cars would come fill the spots. If someone were turning, cars would simply go around. If the traffic began to be congestion, the cars would start doubling up in lanes or start driving on the shoulder much like a river getting blocked up.

I derived that the reason the cars didn’t hit each other through all their random bold movements was because all of the drivers on the road were extremely aware of each other. For every action a car had, all the cars around it would have a reaction.

The reason there is a heightened sense in all of the drivers is because of the city’s fast growth. The people of Shenzhen have not yet acquired what Simmel in The Metropolis and Modern Life refers to as the quantitative mind of the metropolitan. Their mindsets have not had time yet to evolve from the qualitative emotional village mentality to the calculative metropolitan mentality. The people don’t yet see other people as numbers.

In western metropolitans, the traffic is very orderly so that people have to think less about what other people are doing, in order to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed by their environment, and can focus more on their own every day. However, the people in Shenzhen have a sense of others individuality and are very conscious of other peoples movements and paths.

This difference in mentality can also be seen in the simple way people use their vehicle horns. In a western metropolis, people use their car horns when someone cuts them off or does something out of the order of the road causing their conscious to break from the order and recognize someone else’s individuality. In Shenzhen, people use their horns as an informative tool to let other cars, buses, and bikes know of their position in the flow and causing the other vehicles to recognize their individuality. For example, when merging into a highway, a person from Shenzhen might honk letting the bike in the lane over know that they are now next to them. While in Los Angeles, the bike would honk at the merging car for coming in to close to them.

Though Shenzhen’s new fast growing economy has shown “dominance it has not truly shown a “inconsiderate hardness” that typically couples economic success. Though Shenzhen still holds its qualitative mindset, the upcoming generations may gain the quantitative metropolitan mindset.

 

-Alexis Dirvin

Filed under: AAU, Asia, Car, character, China, Circulation, development, Emotion, individuality, Psyche, Public Transportation, Shenzhen, streets, traffic, Transporation

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, ,

Road to Individualism?

Collectivism emphasizes the interdependence of people in some collective group and the priority of group goals over individual goals. In the Chinese tradition, collectivism has long meant that an individual does not work to accumulate wealth for himself but rather for his family and for the community. However, as China begins to advance in its developments, it has also seemingly taken a more individualistic road towards its future. The government has slowly begun to reduce its grip on social and collectivist processes and new policies aid in creating a society in which capitalism serves as a leading social value such that personal wealth is becoming increasingly more important than other social values.

As Simmel notes in his essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and the society. For him, the greatest dilemma of modern society is that it frees individuals from historic and traditional bonds for greater individual freedom, yet at the same time, individuals are also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. In big cities such as Hong Kong, we are constantly bombarded with an inflation of external and internal sensory stimulus: from the sweaty arm of a stranger that brushes against you as you cross the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, to the overwhelming visual stimulation of signage that covers the view of the sky in Causeway Bay. The metropolis creates rapid crowding of changing images and sharp discontinuity in a single glance that fosters a situation where one must buffer him/herself from a constantly changing environment. This phenomenon can easily be illustrated with the subway scenes of Hong Kong, even though there seems to be little to no sense of personal space, no one seems to be bothered by the fact that there will always be someone brushing against them as they pass by. People simply sit quietly and stay to themselves on the subway, listening to music or playing with their smart phones. Everyone seems to be immersed in their own world: disengaged and isolated, tuned out to their bustling external environment.  And in turn, this protection manifests itself in the rise of logic and intellect where social interactions become rational and instrumental, with little considerations to emotional and personal concerns. Everything in the city becomes measurable and calculated; qualitative value is reduced to quantitative. Things therefore have no intrinsic value and are instead measured by the external objective value of money, time and power, yielding what Simmel calls “blasé”, a superficial and indifferent mentality to the people living within it.

HK subway: immersed in their own world

This mentality is also manifested in the built environment around these cities. Like the urban village, Huang Gang, in Shenzhen, we learnt that the villagers decided to tear down all the old village houses to construct new 5 to 6 storey buildings with commercial spaces located at the bottom, so that they can rent them out to different tenants for greater revenue. Little of the old fabric was maintained, and instead is replaced with generic looking low-rise village buildings, commercialized to maximize profit. Another example of this mentality is visible through the restoration efforts of the BaoMo Garden in Panyu. Described as “one of the new top eight sights in Panyu” on its information pamphlet, this “National class AAAA scenic spot” has been restored to the point where nothing seemed authentic anymore. In fact, it almost felt very theme park-like – with traditional Chinese music playing through the speakers located everywhere in the garden, the out-of-place European street lamps, the flashing light bulb eyes for the stone dragons that spurt water out of their mouths, and the vendors that tried to sell you souvenirs and fans at every turn of the corner – everything about the place was so marketed and commercialized that it seems to have somewhat lost its sense of cultural heritage.

However, in spite of all these consequences of individualism, there are still efforts, such as the Urban-Tulou by Urbanus and the “Di Wu Yuan” housing development by Vanke, made to reinstate the sense of collectiveness within our society. These projects are designed to help preserve community spirit among low-income families by inducing greater opportunities for social interaction through the attention paid to the design of their public spaces. According to Urbanus themselves, the Urban-Tulou project also explored ways to “stitch the tulou within the existing fabric of the city”.  This idea can be illustrated in the way the project comes in contact with the ground plane – by lifting the housing units on the first floor to free the ground floor for through-access commercial uses, it allows the spaces to be accessible to both the residents of the project as well as the community around it; expanding the sense of collectiveness to the greater community. It is always nice to see projects such as these that are made to induce collectivism within a seemingly individualistic modern society where everyone is preoccupied with work and with the accumulation of personal wealth. One can only hope that the idea of collectivism in China will not be left behind at the expense of the accumulation of wealth, and that more projects with an agenda on community spirit will be developed in the future to counter-balance the forces of individualism.

Grandparents and children playing in the parks of Di Wu Yuan

– Jeanette

Filed under: Collectivism, community, development, individuality, Materiality

collective attributes

“Do your attributes really belong to you?”

This is a question posed by Masahiko Sato’s “The Definition of Self” exhibit at 21_21 Design Sight in Tokyo.  The aim of the exhibit is to demonstrate that one’s physical attributes, such as fingerprint, iris, height, and weight make one easily identifiable within a society.  Without these characteristics, one would not exist.  Sato states that one will realize “your existence is not even worth paying attention to” through the exhibit.

This makes one question whether or not true individuality is a tangible objective.  Can an object truly be  a unique entity when the exact same components make up each “unique” object?  Are objects which are made up different combinations of the same matter identical or incongruous?  Attributes are aesthetically different, yet are intrinsically alike.  Each individual has a fingerprint.  The only difference between these fingerprints is the way in which the grooves appear.  Although an iris scan can identify an individual, the differences between one’s iris from another is miniscule.  Features which make one an individual are identifying characteristics, but do not necessarily set one apart from others because these attributes are universal.

Physical and social attributes are not one of the same.  John Clammer discusses  how individuals strive for a self-identity which is socially visible.  This sense of social individuality is displayed through material items such as clothing and accessories.    One has the ability to appear as an individual socially.  However, in Japan, most do not stray far from how it is socially acceptable to appear.  The streets of Tokyo are constantly littered with businessmen wearing identical dark suit pants and white collared shirts.  Taxi drivers effortlessly line themselves up into neatly organized grids while awaiting passengers.  These individuals appear to be part of a cult—moving through the city as one giant mass.

In Tokyo not only do individuals present themselves socially in similar manners, but they also move through spaces as if they are one collective whole.  The movement patterns are similar to a current, which follows a trajectory with no visible markers.  From above, people appear as ants, marching through set paths in their white button-downs.

These paths never cross, nor do the individuals following them ever run into one another.  There is some sort of order which is inherently part of each individual, allowing one to move with a group as fluidly and smoothly as possible.  Amidst the chaos of a Tokyo metro station, the overflowing amount of people know exactly where they are going, as well as the most efficient way to get there, without ever straying from this route.  People appear as cars on marked streets, walking in their lane and adhering to all traffic laws.

Without individuality and the ability to think for oneself, movement as a whole would not be possible.  Individuals must contemplate their movement.  However, do they deliberate over each move or are they just following the pack?  Is this a taught ability or an instinct?  Either way, Masahiko Sato’s argument prevails.  Although attributes differ slightly on a micro level, each individual is ultimately composed of the same attributes, just with a slightly different coding.  One’s existence becomes very small when all social elements are removed.

Individuals are essentially the same, the ability to think sets one apart from others.  While physical attributes are primarily the same for each individual, Tokyo exhibits the extreme where in addition to these physical attributes, social attributes are also very uniform.  Homogenous dress and collective movement display how a culture thinks and behaves.  Both molecularly and superficially, little is left to identify an individual.  The ability to change is all that is left to establish one as an individual.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: AAU, Architecture, attributes, Collectivism, Identity, individuality, japan, self, Tokyo, Uncategorized, ,

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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