URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

“Made in China”

“Made in China”

Urban Hive & Guangzhou Opera House

The juxtaposition of the images of the Urban Hive commercial tower by In-Cheurl Kim and the Guangzhou Opera House by Zaha Hadid would most likely draw untrained eyes initially toward the latter. The playful form of the opera house is a radical accomplishment of structure and space that is framed to compositional perfection. But what is impossible to notice from the beautifully lit and digitally enhanced images online is the quality of its detail and construction. Blatantly smeared paint on the glass rail panels and large unsmoothed spots of plaster left over by the hands of rushed and unskilled labor show clearly how China has been constructing its architecture. Meanwhile, the Urban Hive tower, can be read as repetitive or even “boring” at the superficial level with its uniformly porous exterior; however, this seemingly less interesting form is actually an extroverted structural skin constructed in a way that the Chinese would not be able accomplish at the speed at which it is developing. It is a 230 foot tall concrete skin that is almost entirely cast in place. Kim is highly respected among Korean architects for taking this route instead of using pre-cast modules which would have obviously been the more economical, time-efficient, easily adjustable method for such a repetitive skin pattern.

Cast-in-place concrete

And yet it is possible for the building to be constructed with such a high level of quality because the nation has matured over time enough in its development to come to the conclusion that quality has some kind of desired significance. Regardless of its benefits in the long-term strategy of growth and development, the nation seems to have recognized the significance of producing quality at the cost of reducing quantity in building construction.

This kind of quality in building construction in Korean cities is apparent throughout the city at the urban level. Regardless of the kind and degree of vibrancy at the pedestrian level compared to Chinese cities, streets in Korean cities are significantly cleaner and greener even though some are much older than those of many Chinese cities. It is not simply a difference in the amount and density of shoes that have stepped on a given square meter of land, but rather everything from the quality of the layout of pavers to the absence of trash and drops of saliva. These clean streets are decorated with sufficient and well-maintained greenery that make all its wide boulevards psychologically wider by giving it visual breathing room.

Ultimately, this pursuit of quality seems to come from the country’s age. Korea is at an age that is still young enough to be expanding and developing at a rapid pace like many Chinese cities, but has, at the same time, enough years of experience and trials under its belt to pursue and understand the importance of a quality life and society. This maturity culminates beautifully in the recently renewed and revitalized Cheonggyecheon River at the heart of Downtown Seoul.

Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, Korea

It is a stream decorated with stones and gentle green that flows through a contrasting sectional frame of skyscraping steel and concrete. Its specific direction of “Design” and decoration can be argued but it is unquestionably a widely used public space for the community that is even used during business hours because of its strategic location in between a long stretch of commercial high-rises. A city that is willing to spend a hefty 386 billion Korean dollars to implement such urban spaces simply for free and unmitigated public enjoyment (and not commercial gain), is a city that has matured enough to afford the money, time and political will to do so.

But after three years of careful constructing the Urban Hive, the equivalent Chinese counterparts would have designed and constructed dozens more. Is the quality of smooth plaster and even paint worth the sacrifice of building dozens more projects generating money, advancing infrastructure and widening the availability of demanded program? Spending just two months in China has lead me to a kind of calculated tolerance towards this idea of quantity over quality in growth. While the westerner might see “quality” in a single program within the boundaries of a single building, perhaps the Chinese find “quality” in the sheer density and availability of an incredibly wide plethora of programs all spread out, but accessible by intelligent infrastructure.

Intersection with seven multi-story indoor malls, restaurants, and three subway lines

While we look down at the singular quality of products that are “Made in China,” we fail to realize the sheer quantity and widespread availability of goods they produce and provide worldwide. In fact, China has managed to accomplish this feat in a mere few decades of rapid development. We can only begin to imagine where the country will be in the decades to come.

– Daniel

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Filed under: building, China, construction, Facade, Infrastructure, Korea, Program, Uncategorized

The accessibility brings me to tiers…

Zhongshan Avenue

While Los Angeles was spending over one billion U.S. dollars this summer to add a lane to the already impossibly congested 405 freeway, the people of Guangzhou were enjoying their brand new Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT).  The system, which includes 22.5 kilometers of segregated bus lanes, 26 stations, and 40 bus routes which enter and leave the BRT corridor (which runs along Zhongshan Avenue, see section through street), has only been open since 2010 and already services over eighty thousand riders at each station per day.  In just one year, people have embraced the BRT wholeheartedly, and by choosing it over cars or taxis they are thus helping to improve overall traffic speed and flow.  Moreover, what is merely the icing on the cake is that the system has helped eliminate fifty thousand tons of CO2 emissions in its first year due to fewer bus kilometers driven.

As it was only possible to build the BRT by dedicating five lanes of Zhongshan Avenue—a major east-west thoroughfare of Guangzhou—to the project, the system made use of the ‘old’ and turned it into the ‘new,’ requiring that barely any new infrastructure be built.  The entire project only cost about ¥1.3 billion (just under $190 million), just one tenth of the initial cost that was required to build the metro.  Planning was begun in 2005, and the system was already in full swing by 2010.  Conversely construction on the Los Angeles County Metro Rail, which is a comparatively inefficient system, was not begun until 1985 despite having been conceived a whole nine years prior.  Today, the eight year to twenty-one year old LA system has an average weekday ridership of fewer than four hundred thousand, while the BRT enjoys a daily rate of 2.08 million users.  And yet, with only three on-grade crosses, the BRT affects the flow of traffic very little.  (In fact, it is essentially an aboveground subway system.)

Successful transportation systems move their users through tiers, and the new orange busses of the Guangzhou BRT are level two of a five-tier configuration.  To compare, Los Angeles is primarily a one-tier arrangement—the car—with even the pedestrian level being obliterated.  If tier one of Guangzhou’s approach to public transit is the city’s metro (three BRT stations have direct transfers to the metro), and three is the existing city bus, then

BRT bike station

four, which is perhaps the most innovative component of the BRT, is the bike share component.  Every BRT bus stop neighbors a bike station filled with recognizable orange bicycles (to match the busses, of course) where riders holding a transit pass can check out a bike which is free for the first hour, then only ¥2 ($.31) for each additional hour.  The idea behind this is that the system can branch into areas of the city (i.e. the urban villages) that public transit could not previously access.  In the future, these electronically-monitored ‘satellite’ stations will be installed deep within the villages, so that migrant workers can get off the bus, ride a bike home, and then ride one back to the bus the following day.

In one example after another, it is proven that not only is the BRT beautifully engineered for expediency and efficiency, but that it also provides mobility for the populace, not the rich.  By collecting and incorporating the existing city lines into the BRT, the existing system had to change very little, which was both civically cost effective and socially sensitive in that it did not upset the routines of the regular users.  And, although car users are said to dislike it, the traffic congestion in the car lanes does not seem to have changed much since the segregated bus lanes were introduced.  Moreover, at a cost of only ¥3 ($.47) per journey no matter how far one is travelling, these lower class migrant workers who reside within the aforementioned villages truly can afford to utilize the BRT.

The new combined arrangement covers over ninety kilometers. One can travel about 29 kilometers in one hour, and at any point along the BRT segment of Zhongshan Avenue one can get off the bus to enjoy a meal at a number of fast food restaurants that have opened up since the BRT stations were established, then get back on quite soon if so inclined, since there are busses every ten minutes. It seamlessly connects to the urban fabric in spite of its young age.  In fact, my exploration of the BRT and its surrounding parasitic program was the first time I understood Guangzhou urbanistically, despite having already been there for a week.  And the whole activity only cost me ¥6…

Section through street

R.

Filed under: Automobile, Car, comparison to Los Angeles, Infrastructure, innovation, Los Angeles, Parasitic, pedestrians, Public Transportation, traffic, Urban Village

The Dark Knight of Guangzhou

A hero, a villain, a facilitator, a complexity, a connector; Guangzhou’s Bus Rapid Transit system is all these things. It is the bane of the rich and the automobile enthusiast, eradicating almost half of the formerly 16-lane Zhong Shan Road. Yet it is the savior of those who have no means of transportation, provides a sigh of relief to the sustainable thinkers, and induces wide-eyed wonder for the young aspiring architect. Inspired by one of the world’s most robust public transportation systems located in Bogotá, Columbia, the behemoth spans 29 kilometers with 26 bus stations along its length, as well as bicycle stations, to make even the narrow-alleyed urban villages accessible. This feat was accomplished in just over 5 years.

As I was riding the B2A line of the BRT back in the direction of our hotel located on the outskirts of the city, I was fully expecting to have to hop onto a taxi for the last leg of the trip. My jaw dropped as the bus pulled onto our street and stopped not a hundred yards from the hotel. That’s what 2 Yuan got me. It’s a pity I only just learned about this phenomenal system the night before we left Guangzhou for Zhuhai. Until next time old friend…

When I first think of strategizing the layout of an urban infrastructure, I would probably only think to connect major city nodes that have the most foot traffic in order for the system to be sustainable and operate at maximum efficiency. Although The BRT may have laid its foundations upon that strategy, its reach has spread beyond simply connecting major nodes. By connecting even the currently obscure outreaches of the city, it creates accessibility to those areas. This encourages the business workers of the city center to live in these cheaper areas by eliminating the problem of commute, which in turn attracts parasitic businesses to line these routes, increasing real estate value, and all in all, stimulating economic growth. The infrastructure has evolved from being the parasite to the predator.

The system reminded me of California and its proposal to construct a high-speed railway from Bakersfield to Fremont. Both systems are, or plan to be, running through a lot of “no-man’s lands,” both hoping that this infrastructure will create jobs. California’s mistake however is that it does not establish a connection between two critical masses, being Los Angeles and San Francisco, to get the foot traffic necessary for the economy to develop along the railway. Guangzhou, as is the case with many Chinese cities, already has that critical mass of people in the sheer size of its population.

So how can such an effective, albeit radical, public transportation system come into being in such a short span of time? A strong central government and a loose set of policies definitely expedite the process. In the United States, our lobbyists hold an iron grip on the speed of any form of infrastructural development. It’s ironic really, that our government, by the people and for the people, is coupled with an individualistic mindset that ultimately does not benefit the majority of its population as far as urbanism is concerned. The everyday in the lives of us citizens really boils down to a product, as Henri Lefebvre states in The Everyday and Everydayness, that is not in our control, but in the control of the “managers of the means of production (intellectual, instrumental, scientific).”

So is a strong central government flawless? Of course not. From the outsider’s perspective, I obviously do not experience the pains and struggles that such a system places on its enormous lower class. But in the end, it is more of a matter of a collectivist versus an individualist mentality. The BRT, as I mentioned, was made primarily for the benefit of the poor, and was in fact supported by many automobile industries in China. In LA, the poor silently cry for an equivalent BRT system as the automobile industry continues to lobby for money to be spent on additional lanes to the 405. The BRT is the system of infrastructure that Los Angeles needs, but not the one it deserves right now. Until our lobbyists learn to sacrifice a little for the greater good, our infrastructure can’t be our hero. It’ll remain a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A dark knight.

– Muhi

Filed under: Automobile, Collectivism, Infrastructural Growth, Infrastructure

Thinking Outside the Small Box

If one word can be identified with America, I think it would be individualism.  Individualism is our greatest strength.  But we’ve gotten high on ourselves, its become too much of a good thing.  Our individualism seems to now be misguided.  We need to re-evaluate and think about the huge improvements on our lives if we stopped to think a little bit more about the big picture instead of our single city microcosm.  I’m primarily identifying this problem with city planning.  We’re all worried about our little piece of the city block instead of how we could improve that little block by thinking statewide.  This strategy lacks a greater intelligence.  Reformed thinking could not only improve our economy but strengthen what is essentially American: individualism.

America thinks in a singular nature instead of thinking in a complete set.  Los Angeles as compared to Shanghai for example- yes, Los Angeles has its own little districts that each have a huge sense of regionalism.  But lets go from small to large.  First of all there seems to be a love of the object building.   A singular destination instead of the overall area I could affect- hence making a singular attraction instead of set of destinations.  For instance, Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall- the ultimate object building.  There is almost no supporting program surrounding it.  The closests one could call supporting program is the Dorthey Chandler.  It’s actually surrounded by parking lots.  Why isn’t there a 5-Star restaurant next door?  For that matter, why not several restaurants?  Boutiques? Coffee Houses? Not applicable in America.

On a larger scale, how about the smaller cities that are outliers of Los Angeles?  Those could easily be connected to Los Angeles proper created a satellite situation as Shanghai has with Qing Pu.  If there were easy, efficient, and reliable transportation to Cabazon, Palm Springs or Santa Barbara Los Angeles would be a very different place.  Especially with Los Angeles’ traffic, the idea of a day trip would have a very different characterization.  This could create ‘big box destinations’, as in whole districts for furniture or shoes.  Cabazon would probably be the most synonymous with this idea as it is entirely devoted to one specific type of shopping: outlets.  However the only time anyone ever goes to Cabazon is if they are already on their way to Palm Springs or Arizona- it is not a destination by itself.  It needs better transportation services to its location (one that doesn’t evolve strategic planning around traffic hours) and a bigger draw than stores whose merchandise is years old because so few people make it out that far away from the city center.  If Cabazon existed as a nodal destination, the space in between itself and the city center would fill in appropriately.

In essence I am asking LA, and America on a larger scale, for some urban intelligence.  If LA were designed, not necessarily master planned, with the notion of what could improve a given area by making points of interest, these areas would expand into the surroundings.  These areas would bring massive foot traffic and could better support a retailers economy.  This ultimately aligns with the American perception of itself because it promotes competition, encourages new business models and spurs economic growth.  Business that are in that ‘big box destination’ would have to identify what makes them different instead of relying on a name brand or being the only retailer to sell ‘x-type’ product in the local area.   What is more American than pronouncing individualism?

//Lexie

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Infrastructure, Los Angeles, Urbanism

Welcome to the Good Life?

“One city, nine towns.”  This is the initiative passed by the Shanghai Planning Commission in 2001, calling for the creation of nine new urban developments outside of the Shanghai city center to provide an alternative living condition.  Thames town in the Songjiang district, and Zhujiajao in the Qingpu district were two towns we toured a week ago, Thames town a new development, and Zhujiajao an ancient river town around which a new development is being planned.  Visits to their respective urban planning exhibition halls preceded our arrival, as we learned of the district’s new plans for urban growth in the area.  What was most interesting about these new developments was their seemingly “reverse” urban strategy.

As we have studied over and over, the development of great cities is wedded to the infrastructural networks that sustain them.  Following this notion, airports, train lines, subway systems and highways often develop simultaneously with the city itself, if not before.  Thames Town and Zhujiajiao’s development strategy has proposed the opposite; Build first, infrastructure later.  Neither town has it’s own metro station in place or any semblance of a major transportation hub.  Our group arrived by bus to both locations, after more than an hour travel time from Shanghai’s center.  So what of their success and vibrancy, without a critical infrastructure in place?  In Thames Town’s case, it is quite dead.  Empty streets, vacant shops and restaurants, a strange ghost-town feel pervades the atmosphere.  The only sign of life comes in the form of young Chinese newly-weds, who flock here for a photo shoot against the picturesque English market town backdrop, after which the architecture is modeled.

Zhujiajao is much more promising.  Woven through the context is a small river, from which the life of the historical village thrives.  It is along this waterway where the most vibrant street life can be found… hundreds of small shops, cafes, restaurants and residences line the riverbanks, and crowds of people wander through the narrow streets and over the bridges of this old fabric.  A Far East Venice, if you will.  Interestingly enough, this small river which now only serves tourist boat rides was once a major infrastructural artery, providing transport and goods into and out of the village.  Even though it cannot be considered a major piece of infrastructure in the contemporary sense of an urban node, it was still essential to the sustainment of the area, and eventually the decision to develop around it.  The new development under Shanghai’s initiative seems to be working as well, and feeding off of the inner-vibrancy of the waterway.  Quite literally, this historical pocket is being left alone, as new development is building up around it.

Another question to ask of these new development models concerns their legitimacy within a larger urban agenda.  As mentioned before, the goal of the “one city, nine towns” initiative is to provide a different living condition from the “suffocating” city center.  In doing so, many of these towns are appropriating new, undeveloped land around the periphery of central Shanghai.  This could have a negative affect however, and result in vast urban sprawl and inactivated developments, especially due to the missing infrastructure.  As Robert A.M. Stern argues in his piece Urbanism is About Human Life, “We don’t need new cities; we need to reuse and make better use of our existing urban areas.  We don’t need to take new land; we need to reclaim wasted, abandoned land.”  I am not arguing that Shanghai should not be expanding, but only to consider solving some of its urban issues from more of a “compact urbanism” standpoint, from which more broad scope urban tactics can be reasoned.   If “urbanism is about human life”, than our urban interventions should respond to it, and enhance it.  Developments like Thames Town seems to be completely re-defining what life is for Shanghai; Cobblestone streets, red brick buildings, and Victorian churches couldn’t be further away from city life, and as of now are proving unsuccessful.  New life doesn’t necessarily mean better life.  Ultimately, we should continually remind ourselves of the questions Stern asks… “What is a good city?  What is the good life that we as architects should advocate?”

Alex

Filed under: About, China, Infrastructure, Robert A.M. Stern, Shanghai, Thames Town, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Urbanism Is About Human Life, Zhujiajiao

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

 

My experience in Shanghai has been a humbling experience of sorts. I’ll be the first to admit that before the trip, I had negative pre-conceptions of China as still being largely third world, despite the endless news reports of its quick economic development. If you asked me what my expectations of China were prior to leaving on this trip exactly three and a half months ago, I’d quite simply say:

“Well, it’s probably going to be smelly, dirty, and gloomy”.

Now, while I would say most of that is generally still true, I cannot doubt the fact that I am genuinely appalled and afraid of where China is and fast becoming in the global community. A plethora of high-speed rail developments, no shortage of planned economic zones, heavily invested by leading international businesses, epicenter of global events, and did I mention the growing population of 1.4 billion?

If that’s not enough to strike fear in your adversaries, then I don’t know what will.

But it’s not just China. Our initial drive through Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong provided a small (personally, I wish we spent MUCH more time there) glimpse into true “urbanism” as we call it. Layered densities both horizontal and vertical, hybridity of programmatic elements, successfully integration of infrastructural systems; all these are characteristics of what we saw, felt, experienced. In short, we experienced an everydayness that was foreign to us, and yet at the same time intriguing and exciting because, quite simply, it worked.

But what does that all mean for us now, especially post-trip while we’re safely back within the completely different world of America? If anything, this trip has opened my eyes to the deficiencies that plague a stagnant America that is utterly stuck in its tracks. Of course, we do enjoy many freedoms unparalleled in most countries, but America is far from its glory days. If the 20th century was about America, then the 21st century is increasingly becoming about China.  Friedman’s “From WikiChina” article, albeit humorous, provides an insightful look into perhaps how the world is continuing to view us. Friedman states, “ The Americans have replaced working to exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself ‘exceptional’, only others can bestow that adjective upon you”. Ouch, but so true. I mean, what’s so exceptional about American infrastructure? We have 10 lane freeway expansion projects in LA that stretches for miles, but the only exceptional thing about that is perhaps the iconic smog generated from all the car traffic. We can’t even agree to pass a bill to install a network of high speed rail transit systems that will even go over 90 miles per hour. The realization of such an infrastructural revolution within America is a lesson that can be taken from Asia, where high speed is a necessity of most people’s transportation. Like cities such as Los Angeles, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to move from point A to point B without taking hours in traffic congestion. Also, the mobility of the individual becomes increased tremendously, allowing a greater opportunity for distributed intra-national economic growth. But no, industries that include airlines have lobbied hard against it in an effort to erase the competition; this along with many other political/economic factors have ubiquitously hindered any real change in our infrastructure.

Friedman is right when he says, “…the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things”. We are often so entrenched in our ideological beliefs that we live in a black and white world. This is that, this is not and cannot be that. Lefebvre touches upon this “situation” as he calls it: “ A modern object clearly states what it is, its role and its place.” Americans often view society and place in the same manner: a mall is just a mall; a train station is where people get on and off a train, etc. But there’s so much more to that, the possibilities of experience and juxtaposition of program and space are endless and intriguing if only we operated in the grey area. Tokyo Midtown was not just an office building complex, it was a subway station, mall, hotel, private residences, outdoor park all interweaved and layered to create a different kind of urban environment that was continuously engaging the public at different levels. We saw, in Hong Kong, the IFC mall turned into an airport terminus with an express rail line that directly linked the airport to the subterranean level. The airport then became more than itself, it was a transportation hub and also a lifestyle center, complete with cultural amenities, retail shops, restaurants, cafes, etc; the phenomenon of “infratecture”.

Lefebvre states: “Today we see a worldwide tendency to uniformity”. But beyond that, the tendency is also towards a sense of complacency. Complacency for how things are, how comfortable things can get. If given the same opportunity to see/experience the things I have in these last 15 weeks, there are people I know who would be unwilling, simply because their life back home is all too comfortable. Therein lies the greatest danger, and unfortunately America has become lost in its own complacency. If we do not stimulate ourselves with curiosity and intrigue, what good is replicating what has already been done before? How can we affect the world around us if all we know how to do and think is through mimicry? Asia, specifically China, is the new frontier, pioneering the world into the 21st century through technology, infrastructure, and most importantly urbanism. It’s about time America woke up from its dreams of what once was and realize we are losing the race in a world has long since moved on.

So when I return, upon being bombarded with “What did you see?” or “How was Asia?”, I’ll simply reply:

Wow, you wouldn’t even believe me if I told you…

_Jonathan

Friedman, Thomas, “From WikiChina” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/opinion/01friedman.html?src=twrhp

Filed under: America, China, Infrastructure, Japan, Korea, Lefebvre, Psyche, Urbanism

Detours & Stagnancy

Currently, the infrastructure of Los Angeles does not compare to that of Asian cities.  Public transportation is hardly utilized in Los Angeles, while it is the main form of transportation in virtually all Asian cities.  While Shanghai’s entire metro system was constructed in five years, Los Angeles’s Expo Line is taking years to complete the single line.  The debate over the high speed rail from San Francisco to Los Angeles has gone on longer than it took to build Shanghai’s entire metro system.  Why does America refuse to take the steps to match other country’s infrastructural systems?  The social debate may be what is causing the lack of progress.  With the lack of the social aspect, Shanghai is able to push ahead.

Michel de Certeau’s Walking in the City explains that “the walking of passers-by offers a series of turns…and detours that can be compared to ‘turns of phrase’ or ‘stylistic figures.’  There is a rhetoric of walking.  The art of ‘turning’ phrases finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path… Like ordinary language, this art implies and combines styles and uses.  Style specifies ‘a linguistic structure that manifests on the symbolic level…an individual’s fundamental way of being in the world’; it connotes a singular.  Use defines the social phenomenon through which a system of communication manifests itself in actual fact; it refers to a norm.  Style and use both have to do with a ‘way of operating’ (of speaking, walking, etc.), but style involves a peculiar processing of the symbolic, while use refers to elements of a code.  They intersect to form a style of use, a way of being and a way of operating.”

de Certeau’s walking rhetorics are formed by the creation of a pathway defined by certain turns and detours.  In terms of infrastructure, it could be said that Los Angeles is moving forward in a straight line, without turning.  This creates a stagnant sense movement.  Where Los Angeles is stagnantly moving, cities like Shanghai are taking detours in order to progress.

Socially, on the other hand, the relationships of city to pathway is reversed.  Shanghai has little forward movement socially, while Los Angeles is detouring from a straight path.  Shanghai’s social stagnancy may be helping at the time being.  With a strong social draw, much of the current and rapid progress apparent in Shanghai may have not been attainable, much like Los Angeles today.

In each city, these two pathways merge in order to create the city’s essence.  Infrastructure and social.  The city’s infrastructure could be considered the “style,” while the social aspect is how the style is “used.”  One cannot exist without the other.  At the time being, for both Shanghai and Los Angeles the two pathways merge to create almost identical pathways because of the strong detours for one pathway and the stagnancy of the other for each city.  What will happen when one of the stagnant pathways dramatically takes a turn?

Thanks to Mao’s Cultural De-Revolution, China is struggling to catch up to other cities socially and societally.  What will happen when Shanghai’s social aspects match their infrastructure?  Cities like Los Angeles will slowly become forgotten and overlooked, unless they change the way that they are currently operating.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: China, Infrastructure, Los Angeles, Shanghai, social

Flexible Urbanism

The alarm rings, I start my day with a shower, followed by a walk to the metro station. Afterwards I pick up my latte from the local Starbucks, a sandwich from the shop down the street, and I sit down and start my work for the day. After settling down in Shanghai, I have started to come into a more structured lifestyle. After exploring the city for a couple of weeks, I have found things I like and don’t like, and places where I feel at ease. What is interesting is that even in a foreign country I have been able to find comfort with a schedule.  By following my schedule, I have found my own unique locations, and nodes within a city.

Finding these nodes provide great comfort and belonging especially in Shanghai, one of the largest cities in the world. Nodes are what allow the mega metropolis to become smaller, not necessarily talking in a physical sense, but rather in a mental sense. These nodes provide reoccurrences that start to become habitual. Reoccurrences like pushing my way into the subway train, recognizing menu items, and coffee house baristas memorizing my drink order (even in Shanghai, I know I have a problem). Similar characters start to show up in my daily narrative, like the girl who always sits in the corner, or the guy with the brief case who passes me on the street. By starting to create my own routine, my narrative starts to be played out within the city, I have started to realize other’s habitual patterns as well.

Habitual patterns start to become constant inputs. By tracking the quantitative data such as the number of people on the subway, and comparing this information with a timeline, the complexity of the urban fabric can really start to be picked apart layer by layer. As technology gets stronger, our ability to analyze habitual patterns becomes more sophisticated. With better understanding of movement and patterns, a city that can react and respond to our various inputs, doesn’t sound to ridiculous. For example, looking at street traffic, typically there is the same number of lanes on both sides of the highway, but many times both sides are not fully utilized at the same time. Rush Hour typically creates heavier traffic congestion going into the city in the morning hours, and leaving the city in the evening hours. A response to this could be flexible highway lanes that allow change in traffic flow direction at different hours.

This understanding of synchronized movement becomes an essential factor for understanding a cities urban fabric. The city is not only the physical built environment and occupation of people, but it also consists of moving through the spatial construct and moving through time itself. Currently urban design and the built environment has become a very rigid understanding of solid and void. This relationship has given character to many different cities, and has been the initial stages of defining our metropolises in order to deal with stasis and mobility. This idea is further analyzed in walking in the city, where the article starts to analyze how the built interacts with these patterns of human interaction, “Your path in a city is controlled by the cities order. Whether be through streets that are layered in an organizational grid, or even the negative spaces created by this grid pattern, in some way or another the urbanism organizes people”. With populations on the rise, in most major cities, and China in specific, we have to start to analyze how cities can be better organized, or more efficiently planned for people’s interaction with the built fabric.

Through past analysis of major urban morphology, one way that cities dealt with population increases was by building upward. New York and Chicago were the first cities to really start to explore the potentials of verticality with the skyscraper. These giant towers of stasis started to contain the expanding population, and found a way to combat sprawl with density. This has started to become one of the major problems with moving around the city, because we have vertically stacked the nodes within the city, but have constrained the means of moving from node to node. As these towers empty out at the end of the day, people flood the streets in a hurry to get to their next location, and as mentioned earlier everyone is always seeking location. Since the location has the ability to be rented, there is more emphasis on how the location is built rather than investing in the means of getting to that location.

In order for density to become a viable and sustainable model, the numbers have to be put into consideration, and the city has to become more flexible. The traditional model of the ground plane being the sole provider for transportation is simply just not going to be enough infrastructure to support the vertical density being sought out by rapidly developing countries. Cities need to advance their spatial understanding, and analyze how layering could really start to promote better fluid circulation. By habitual patterns analyzing and parametrically designing the built environment, the city will be able to respond and react to its occupants various inputs. With effort, the urban environment can start to not only become the container of people; rather it could take a more active role with the ever-increasing demands of its occupants. When the city starts to respond to its people the idea of a living city starts to come into play, and in my opinion will become the future of urbanism. We are not just talking about flying cars anymore, what we are talking about is a city that can morph and respond as a flexible solution to its users.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: Architecture, City, Flexible, Growth, Habitual, Infrastructure, patterns, population, Renjilian, Ross, Urbanism,

The John Galt Line

While being in Asia I have come to truly grasp the importance of public transportation, but more specifically a high speed rail line.  A high speed rail allows cities to densify in a healthy way.  Such a rail could allow major cities to connect quick and efficiently.  People could potentially live in San Jose, work in Los Angeles, and go out for the night in San Diego.  This would distribute the economy, promote specialization and essentially be America’s next evolutionary step.

A high speed rail line has certainly been the hot topic in US politics.  Upon reading an article articulating the US’s challenges with a high speed rail, I can’t help but think Atlas Shrugged has truly foretold the American existence.  In Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Dagny Taggart (the true head of a Taggart Transcontinental) fights to construct the most efficient train line to transfer people and promote industries.  The world seems to be against her, claiming the speeds she purposed for the line are too dangerous, the loads too are large, and the costs are not worthy of its goals.  Against all odds she gets some semblance of her original design made, by doing it on her own despite others approval.  She fights against a majority who fear new ideas, progress, decisive thought, and essentially individual achievement.  The success of this built line is incredible but short lived, as socialist policies are passed- capping the speed of the rail and the length of the freights, requiring equal production from all steel companies regardless of capacity, and restricting passage to certain states to equal those of its neighboring states regardless of local industries.

To parallel this work of fiction, is truth.  The above mentioned article quotes Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promising to build a high speed rail in 25 years.  At this, one can’t help but scoff.  Twenty-five years of railway in Shanghai will produce 22 lines and about 877 km of track (the first line opened in 1995, and there are currently 12 lines and the Maglev).  The Shanghai Maglev goes more than twice as fast as the proposed American line.  In the US, there is actually a federal speed limit for trains on a Class 5 rail topping out at 90 mph. In fact these speeds are characteristic of trains in the 1940’s.  There is also the issue of not wanting to fund replacement tracks to allow for more efficient uses.  By dramatically underfunding all rail initiatives, the government is dooming any rail line to fail.  If we, as Americans, create policies that limit innovation and forward movement we will be destined to live in archaic conditions.  The US government is quite scarily becoming like the one in Atlas Shrugged.  Which raises some very hard hitting questions about our society: have we become a nation of non-producers like the fictional America of Atlas Shrugged?  Why are we afraid of the future, change, and innovation?  America needs to rise up to the challenge and become the ‘can-do’ country it’s known as.

This is not to say that what works for China, or even Western Europe, will work for the US.  However what we are currently operating as does not work- case in point being the California debt or even national debt.  For a more precise example, see Southern California.  People moved inland to affordable housing, simultaneously driving up to 3 hours to get to their jobs closer to cities.  Once the price of gas went up, this became improbable, and people lost their homes.  A high speed rail would change all this, it could have prevented it.

The irony is China, a communist country, is surpassing a ‘capitalist’ one in innovative infrastructure.  This seems to debunk Rand’s philosophies and strong anti-socialist position.  Or have our roles simply changed?  Has America become un-American?  America seems to be aligning itself with the Dr. Stadler mindset of Rand’s creation.  Dr. Stadler, was once considered the leading scientific mind of the age, then denies innovation to ensure further funding of his institute.  We have gone from greatness at even greater sacrifice to mediocrity that is comfortable.  Has America sold out to simply keep things how they are?

Who is John Galt?

 

//Lexie

 

Filed under: America, Ayn Rand, China, high speed rail, Infrastructure, Psyche, Urbanism

The Sleeping Giant

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

-General Isoroku Yamamoto after the bombing of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

The Harvard-educated Yamamoto, quoted above, accurately predicted the insurmountable awakening of the United States industrial machine as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II and forever altered the international power structure of the 20th century. For the rest of the century, the United States would be the benchmark by which the rest of the world measured itself, in regards to economics, politics, infrastructure, and industrial might. That was then. This is now. At the dawn of the 21st century, the sleeping giant that was awakened by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor is asleep once again, sedated by complacency on the world stage. While the rising stars of China and India work steadfastly day and night to reach the plateau currently occupied by the red, white, and blue, the Lone Superpower nation squabbles within its ranks, letting the partisan politics of its Republic keep its eye within itself, not on the world around it.

The encapsulation of the nations current predicament can be seen in the topic of high-speed rail development. At present, China, amongst other top economies in the Asia, have, are developing various high-speed rail systems in order to lay a solid infrastructural foundation that is needed for their growing countries. This is not an Asian phenomenon though. Western Europe famously has one of the most thorough and efficient rail-networks in the world. Once one is in a European country, they have unlimited access to the rest of the continent by train, instead of by plane. It is cheaper and more efficient to move by train.

The U.S., however, has seen little logic or appeal for this infrastructure layer of high-speed rail. Why take a high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco when one of the many airlines can offer a relatively low price?

O, let me count the ways.

For examples-sake, let’s imagine that you are flying out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for a business meeting in San Francisco. There’s no problem, the flight is only about an hour long, much faster than using any high-speed rail that would take about two hours and forty minutes (according to California High-Speed Rail Authority Development). But wait, there is that transit time just to get to LAX and then security, and knowing that there is guaranteed to be traffic in route, so you have to give yourself at least two hours just to get to the airport. So, in all, we are talking about three hours just to get to San Francisco International Airport, where you will then have to arrange for another travel means of getting to your business meeting inside the city, and not twenty minutes south of the city where the airport is. Then again, if you took the high-speed rail, not only could you have gotten to the Bay Area more quickly, but also then transferred to the efficient Bay Area Rapid Transit train system that would have brought you even closer to your destination. Not only is the high-speed rail connecting the major urban nodes of San Francisco to Los Angeles, but it is also connecting the two cities micro-transit systems.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

O.K., American Public, you are still not impressed with the fact that you would save more time and possibly money by taking the high-speed rail. A high-speed rail development would also boost the economic growth along the entire rail network. We are in a recession are we not? Imagine being able two live in central California and be able to work in either the San Francisco or Los Angeles area, without paying the often-outrageous living and property costs. It might take you an hour to get to work, but what’s the difference between spending an hour on the train and an hour stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway. We have already seen the economic impact of Japan’s bullet train. According to the Shanghai Daily, the Shinkansen, connecting Tokyo and Osaka (two of Japan’s largest cities) has “rejuvenated rural towns that would otherwise be too distant from major cities.” Not only are “living costs lower [in the in-between areas], but residents can commute to either city while the city’s own business will be developed.” This practice has also been put into use in China, where a high-speed rail planned between Shanghai and Hangzhou will, according to article in the Shanghai Daily, “eventually integrate the cities and force Hangzhou businesses to become more competitive.”

This is known as the Dumbell Effect. You’ve seen it already, America, every time you go to your local malls. Have you not noticed how your Nordstrom’s, and your Macys chains anchor the ends of the mall, with smaller retailers in between? The larger retailers act as the points that draw you, the shopper, through the mall from one end to the other, with the in-between smaller retailers benefiting from this movement. Imagine that on more macro-scale, such as California.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

Are we starting to get the picture?

“No,” replies the airline industry, “the high-speed rail would kill our already fragile industry. We couldn’t take that competition.” Competition. Capitalism. Is that not what this country thrived on for so many decades? Competition not only with the rest of the world, but within ourselves, has made our country better as a whole. We live in an era of globalization, where not only are the world’s economies connecting with one another through trade and technology, but everything is shared, most of all information. We are living in an era of supermodernism, where our cities are growing similarly and facing the same problems as well. The sprawl of Los Angeles and the issues it is facing are some of the same ones that Beijing and Madrid are facing as well. There is bumper-to-bumper traffic on the streets alongside Tiananmen Square just as there is gridlock on the streets alongside Pershing Square.

::Punching the sleeping giant::

“O, China is a developing country. Of course they are going to have those types of problems.”

Then what is our excuse for having those problems? We are the Long Superpower! Even worse, what is our reason for doing little or nothing about it? Partisan, partisan, partisan. Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green Party, Tea Party: everyone wants to do it their way, or no way at all.

Randai O’Toole writes in his USA TODAY article “We can’t afford the luxury of high-speed rail,” about how the enormous cost of implementing a high-speed rail system is too high and not worth the cost. He writes how the $500 billion cost of President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail proposal is comparable to the $450 billion paid to the Interstate Highway System, “which provides more than 4,000 miles of passenger travel for every American, miles that Americans were not traveling before the system was built. Mr. O’Toole, when was the Interstate Highway system put in place? If my memory serves me correctly, it was after World War II. You’re going to sit there and write that an infrastructural system over half a century old is still serving our country adequately, even in a new century? Please tell that to millions of Los Angeles citizens who spend hundreds of hour in gridlock every year. And no, adding another lane to the 605 freeway is not going to alleviate traffic congestion enough so there is not traffic grid-lock seven days a week.

::Kicking the giant::

Mr. O’Toole goes on to make the claim the high-speed rail would only serve the urban elite.

“Since most high-speed rail stations will be in downtowns, the main users will be downtown workers such as lawyers, bankers, and government officials. Yet less than 8% of American jobs are in central city downtowns, meaning all Americans will subsidize trains used by only a small urban elite.”

So, Mr. O’Tool, are you saying that only the urban elite of New York utilizes the cities subway and commuter rail transit systems? Or how about how the upper class is the main user group on the Los Angeles metro lines everyday during rush hour? Recheck the demographics of public transportation user groups and you will find that fair majority of its users are of the lower and middle class.

“High-speed trains in Europe and Asia may be a boon to American tourists, but they haven’t proved transformational in those regions either. France and Japan have the world’s most extensive high-speed rail networks, yet their average residents ride the high-speed trains less than 400 miles a year.”

“Haven’t transformed those regions either.” Is Japan, along with the United States, one of the top economies in the world? Have you been to Tokyo, Mr. O’Toole? Perhaps one of the reasons that the average resident rides the high-speed train less than 400 miles a year is because the geographic area of Japan is only 145, 925 square miles with a population of 127 million people (that’s 873 people per square mile), compared that to the United States, with an area of 9.8 million square miles with a population of 310 million (83 people per square mile). It is also perhaps that more often than not, the average Japanese person’s home and work is often in close vicinity because of the country’s small area. And if they do not live in close proximity to their work, Japan’s metro and commuter transit system is one of the most widely used and efficient means by which to travel. In the United States, where the average American might work in the city but live in the suburbs, the conceptual framework for the argument changes.

As for high-speed rail not transforming regions, look at the high-speed rail being put into place between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, two Chinese cities with populations of fifteen and seven million respectively. An hour drive separates the two cities, but will soon be connected by a high-speed rail that will move users from one city to the other in 14 minutes. 14 minutes. It is estimated that the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Metropolis will be amongst the largest metropolises in the world, containing a population of over 20 million people. America’s largest city is New York City, a mere eight million. How’s that for transforming a region, Mr. O’Toole?

::Dropped piano on the sleeping giant::

Come on, America, you can’t afford not to wake up.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: American mall, BART, Bay Area, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Beijing, California, Dumbell Effect, economic growth, Economics, Globalization, high speed rail, Hong Kong, Infrastructure, Interstate Highway System, japan, Los Angeles, lower class, middle class, Osaka, partisan, Pearl Harbor, Politics, President Barrack Obama, randai o'toole, rural, san francisco, Shenzhen, Shinkansen, sleeping giant, supermodernism, Tokyo, traffic, Uncategorized, upper class, urban areas, usa today, World War II, Yamamoto,

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
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Asia Architecture and Urbanism
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Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
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