USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

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,

Walking Patterns & Mental Carvings

Ants move across the ground one after another, using scent to follow each other’s exact footsteps. When multiple ant trails are present and begin to intersect, the negative space between these pathways becomes defined. From an overhead view, these intersecting trails begin to appear as the streets in a figure field view of a city plan.

Spaces carved out by a mental process can in fact be tangible. Michel de Certeau’s Walking in the City states that, “The ordinary practitioners of the city…are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen… The paths that correspond in this intertwining…elude legibility… The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces.”

These walkers carve out space as they circulate through the city, similar to the movement pattern of ants. The tracks created by people’s walking patterns form barriers around mental objects. These mental pathways do in fact produce physical space. The void between the barriers becomes an object being contained by people. This metaphysical object becomes an obstacle not to be touched. Walkers produce a mental space rather than a physical one. Yet, this space is at the same time a tangible, visible space, which inherently becomes physical.

Japan’s model of creating contained voids through walking patterns is almost an exact replica of an ant’s trail. People follow one another in a set line. Virtually nobody steps out of line, or causes any sort of disturbance to this route. How are these routes determined? And by whom? It is almost as if the people of Japan are robots, following somebody’s master plan.

While the pathways of walking in Japan may be similar to the scrupulous organization of an ant trail, China lacks this control. In China, there are no apparent nor visible routes which walkers automatically fall into. The voids carved out by an ant’s trail become polluted. People, either moving or stagnant begin to dot these previous desolate spaces. These pedestrians move in an unorganized manner, sometimes against the flow of traffic, and sometimes come to a complete stop for no apparent reason. Even when there is an organized line, with barriers, where people are meant to queue, in China people attempt to push ahead. Instead of a single-file line, three or four people are standing side by side trying to get ahead. These attempts at pushing forward simply put pedestrians a whole behind due to a lack of efficiency.

Can the pedestrians of China be considered walkers? Or merely just people who are moving?

Although the well-defined void spaces created by Japan’s walking patterns may appear to be wasted space, Japan’s pedestrian traffic flow is much more efficient than that of China. China’s polluted void space and undefined pathways create almost a completely chaotic atmosphere. This polluted disorganization creates an atmosphere where true walkers cannot exist.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: China, japan, patterns, pedestrians, Uncategorized, walkers,

“The Ants Go Marching”

Prior to arriving in Tokyo, I have this preconceived image of what Japan will be. Clips from Blade Runner and The Fifth Element feed the growing sense of intimidation with which I expect to soon be faced. Zooming around skyscrapers in flying vehicles with her bright orange hair and strappy outfit, Milla Jovovich somehow comes to represent what I will find here.

The ride on the limousine bus from Narita Airport to Park Hotel is reassuring. Aside from the foreign vegetation growing on the side of the road and the fact that we are driving on the left lane of the highway, things aren’t looking too extraordinary. We arrive, check in, and head out for dinner. Nothing crazy.

It isn’t until we enter the subway system that it hits me. This city is alive.

The network of subterranean stations seems too good to be true. Layers upon layers of trains and tracks worm their way beneath the bustling city. Crowds of daily commuters board and exit as if following their own invisible network of tracks with tunnel vision. As densely packed as these stations are, everyone knows where they are going and how to arrive at their destinations. Efficiency is key, and nothing is an afterthought. It also helps that when a train is scheduled to arrive at 11:23am, it actually arrives at 11:23am.

Beyond the station checkpoints, seemingly endless networks of stairs and escalators carve away at the ground and ceiling, giving a glimpse of light above and routes that lead even deeper into the earth. Shops and skylights enticingly line the path from one platform to another, suppressing the instinctive urge to break the surface for a gulp of air.

Even when one does emerge from below, the connection to this underground network remains very much intact. Rising through the levels of a building, there is a constant reference to stations found beneath the horizon of skyscrapers. It feels as if the city protrudes directly from the ground with a thin skin draped over its back, manifested in what we perceive as simply architecture.

Peering down from the uppermost levels reveals the grander scheme being carried out. Lights and shadows delineate meticulously choreographed paths. As I choose a pair of headlights to follow, I am reminded of the times when I observed ants crawling along the edge of a sidewalk, easily dodging pebbles and puddles. Of course at that time I also held a magnifying glass in my hand, waiting to catch the right angles of light so I could burn holes into leaves and fry the little critters. For those that escaped my childish curiosity there likely awaited a series of tunnels and chambers at their destination.

Suddenly Tokyo is no longer just a city.

It is a collection of void-filled mounds occupied by a group of organisms living and working for the greater good. Specific roles are delegated and carried out in a manner that allows the collective to function as a single entity. There is a sense of reluctance to step out of line and express individuality, in much the same way that ants avoid straying from the group. The one who wanders likely finds itself under a hot spotlight.

– alfredo

Filed under: Anthill, japan, Tokyo, Uncategorized,

Grasping Zen

During our two weeks in Japan we were able to make many correlations between the highly disciplined nature of Japanese culture and the refined complexity of their urban planning and architecture.   It was obvious that the social ideology of the Japanese people manifested itself in the streets they walk down, the metros they ride and the buildings they inhabit.  Every element of the city works harmoniously to uphold this social system that has been embodied in its people for generations, long before the city itself existed.  However, in our quest to critically observe, analyze and draw conclusions from the urban conditions we experienced in Japan, there was one crucial element that was never comprehensively discussed – the concept of Zen.

Zen, as a metaphysical construct of Buddhism, is in fact the antithesis of Japan’s contemporary social condition.  The Japanese people are ritualistically self-conscious and live in a perpetual state of anxiety concerning self-image and objective status.  John Clammer in Aesthetics of the Self, reiterates this point when he states, “…it is in Tokyo that the consumer culture of modern Japan has reached its apotheosis, it has done so in the context of a society in which both conformity and aestheticism have reached high levels.”  Such high levels in cultural cohesiveness were achieved through a social system reliant on the individual consumer’s ability to maintain self-control.  From the mundane day-to-day tasks to the distinctive tea ceremony ritual, every act must be performed with the utmost discipline and self-awareness, resulting in a culture characterized by anxiety.  This can only be relieved by leveraging Zen as an outlet for this pressure to perform appropriately.

Architecture is then what allows Zen to transcend its metaphysical nature and offer a morphological answer to the Japanese consumer culture.  It enables one to release the egocentricity tied to their societal role and be comfortable in that moment in place and time. As observed in the temples of Kyoto and the traditional gardens of Ryaonji, Zen is the basis for which sequential layering of spaces can be determined in order to place the viewer in a “removed” state-of-mind.  Specific room adjacencies, connection of interior to exterior, and material palettes can all be physical instances of Zen. Most notable are instances of pure, uncluttered spaces.  By doing away with the emblems and symbolisms associated with a consumer-based culture, the viewer can focus simply on the self.  In this respect, Zen can be credited with many of the functionalist and minimalist undertones of the Japanese design aesthetic.

Being a somewhat close-minded westerner myself, I often turn to the teachings of Alan Watts, a philosopher who breaks down Eastern philosophy for western audiences.  Above is a video clip of his brief introduction to Buddhism in Japanese Culture along with scenes from our experiences of Tokyo and Kyoto. Scenes in black and white reflect the self-conscious exterior appearance of the city and it’s inhabitants.  When the scenes become saturated with color there are conditions of Zen influence, where symbolisms relating to self-image are removed.

Note: Japan has the 5th largest percentage of Buddhists, with 96% of the population practicing the religion.

Bryn Garrett

Video: Alan Watts – Buddhism as Dialogue #2

Filed under: Buddhism, Japan, japan, kyoto, Tokyo,

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, ,


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