USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Life Beneath the Asphalt

Too often times do we associate the act of designing to simply an object and overlook the fact that it is the spaces between the individual objects that begin to shape our experiences. The city essentially is not object oriented in the scale of architecture, but functions as a collective whole with emphasis on the relationships between the various components within it, creating an urban narrative that gives meaning to its people. The existence of public open spaces therefore becomes an important component in stitching the city together and helping it function as a collective whole. One aspect of public open space can be found through the use of landscaped pedestrian walkways within the dense urban context.

Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, discussed in his essay Politics, Power, Cities, the importance of public spaces as an urban equalizer, “In public spaces people meet as equals, stripped bare of their social hierarchies”.  Public pedestrian spaces such as, parks, waterfronts, and promenades are all means to a more inclusive and in turn more collective society. These spaces show respect for human dignity regardless of the level of economic development of a society, and begin to compensate for inequality in other realms. The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul is a successful case demonstrating how public green spaces have helped change the quality of life of its inhabitants.  Contrary to its current state, during the early fifties, the Cheonggyecheon stream was a terribly filthy, trash-filled waterway when Korea was just beginning to run the course of industrialization.  The stream became so deteriorated that the Korean government had the Cheonggyecheon covered up with concrete in 1958, and ten years later an elevated highway was built over the concrete in order to relieve traffic congestion in the city. For half a century, a dark tunnel of crumbling concrete encased more than three miles of a placid stream that bisects the bustling city, until former Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak decided to liberate the Cheonggyecheon from its dark sheath and revert it back into a stream with green pedestrian corridors surrounding the exposed waters. Today, it has become one of the few places in downtown Seoul where all the citizens of the city can congregate together, you will find children playing with their parents, young couples strolling hand-in-hand, the elderly sitting on the park benches, and even the rich business elite eating lunch in the shade underneath one of the bridges. The stream has not only become a pedestrian space, but also a recreational space, a place for all the citizens of Seoul to enjoy.

However, that is not to say the urban restoration of Cheonggyecheon came easily and without criticisms. The approximate cost for the restoration project was a whopping 384 million USD. It was a major undertaking as not only did they have to remove the highway, but also after years of neglect and development the original stream was nearly dried out – 120,000 tons of water had to be pumped in annually from the Han River, its tributaries, and the groundwater from subways in order to maintain its current state. In addition, there were also tremendous efforts made to compromise with the existing conditions, which involved hundreds of meetings with businesses and residents over a period of two years. The main criticism the project received early on was that it was expensive and an “inefficient” form of urban renewal, because open spaces are essentially not programmed in the architectural sense, cost money to maintain, and have no direct revenue – all values that are deemed inefficient. However, is urbanism only about efficiency? And though it is important, does it have to be defined by completely optimizing efficiency? Quoting Yi, our professor in Seoul, “a city is not only about the performance, but also about the narrative. Performance is only functional, while narrative gives the city meaning”. As an urban equalizer, the Cheonggyecheon does bring about diversity and a greater sense of community for the people of Seoul to work towards a more collective society. One cannot argue the fact that after the Cheonggyecheon restoration project it has not increased the quality of life of its citizens as well as marketed the city of Seoul to the world, as it has become one of the signature landmarks of Seoul that is enjoyed by people of all ages as well as races.

Cheongyecheon stream: a place for people of all ages – a grandfather playing in the stream with his granddaughter

Cheongyecheon: Before and After Comparison

Jeanette C.

Filed under: Collectivism, Landscape, narrative, ,

Complexities of Landscape and Architecture

After recently vising three Suzhou Gardens [Master of the Nets, Humble Administrator Garden, and the Lingering Garden], I noticed that they all follow the same concept of multiple points of view focused towards a particular item of interest. Although their sizes varied, all three created a wonderful narrative using nature that is supplemented by architecture. The Japanese and Korean gardens did have built forms that were in the gardens, but spatially served different purposes. I would argue that the surrounding clusters of rooms and courtyards in the Chinese scholar gardens have a similar level of spatial complexity as the gardens themselves. Consequently, the built form and landscape can be appreciated either together or separately.

The Chinese gardens are manicured, but not to the extent of the Japanese gardens where everything is trained to be in a perfect position. Also,the scholar gardens have an item of focus, typically a lake, or a pavilion that can be seen from multiple angles. In contrast, Japanese gardens dictate particular paths and has one panoramic moment of reflection as the end of the garden blurs seamlessly into the natural backdrop behind it. Korean gardens are expansive forests of specific plantings and grow naturally, giving it an aura of unknown adventure. In contrast to both, Chinese gardens sequence these various frames and moments around the same object using winding paths, giving the garden a larger feel than it actually is.

I spent most of my visit in the landscape portion of the compound, and coneqeuently, needed more time to look at the courtyard spaces surrounding the gardens. Each cluster of rooms is connected through a labrynth of pathways that surround the perimeter of the garden. The courtyards have a smaller planting or rock sculpture so the inhabitants inside can focus the views outdoors. After a few minutes of wandering, I forgot that the garden was right beyond the wall, and appreciated these smaller and more isolated spaces. In comparison to the Suzhou gardens, the Japanese ones utilized the built form as a mediation between interior and exterior [together], while the Korean gardens used the physical architecture as a place to enjoy the garden [separate] to the point where the landscape engulfed the actual garden.

When proceeding from room to room in the scholar gardens, there is a constant compression and expansion of space. By reducing the ceiling height of the walkway that leads into the next courtyard, the release into the open space is accentuated. The same effect could not have been achieved if the spaces were all uniformly scaled. This contraction and expansion also contributes to a garden’s ingenious use and complex layering of space. Rather than using architecture to achieve the same effect, the Japanese and Korean gardens thickened the landscape around paths.

The Chinese, Korean, and Japanese gardens evoke various of emotions with the use of space, architecture and nature. Regardless of these different reactions, all Asian gardens effectively mediate the tensions of the city with their introverted nature. They remove and transplant you into a completely new world of fantasy, adventure, and reflection. In Japan, the sequencing of the garden started right from the street scape, gradually removing me from the business of the city surrounding it. Rather than use physical walls, the Japanese used the landscape and vegetation to mediate this built density surrounding it. In Korea and China, there were physical manifestations of separation from the city. The entrance gates are grand enough to offset the city’s proximity to the garden. I was immediately transported away from the city with one step past these gates, which is a different than the Japanese method, yet just as effective in mediating the city. These small instances of relief from the largeness and stress of the city, make their relaxing and reflective qualities even grander.


Filed under: Architecture, China, compression, expansion, Humble Administrator Garden, Japan, Korea, Landscape, Lingering Garden, Master of the Nets, separation, spatial complexity, together

Sensibility and Chinese Gardens

Two centuries ago a 19 year-old English author wrote a novel exploring romance through two related but contrasting lenses.  The first was purely practical, the perception and recognition of external happenings, and the second more abstract and esoteric, appreciation and response to complex emotions and aesthetics.  The novel was called Sense and Sensibility and its author, Jane Austen, praised for her evaluation of these two lenses through which we experience our lives.  The duality remains today in nearly every facet of life.  Four years ago we decided whether to pursue a professional degree (sense) or liberal arts education (sensibility) during our time at USC.  Today we are learning about Chinese world influence stemming from both its recent growth (sense) and its historical leadership in art, philosophy, and spirituality (sensibility).

Touring the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, which are collectively included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, proved instructive in exploring the sense/sensibility duality.   Each garden is rich in composition and symbolism, created by Chinese literates both as places of introspection and as spiritual monuments striking a delicate balance of influence between the heavens and earth.  Koi ponds, elaborate Bonsai tree arrangements, landscaped courtyards, complex layering, spatial hierarchies, and framed views are just some of the features contained within Suzhou’s gardens.  By even the most superficial and uninterested estimation, the landscapes are remarkable.

I find it fascinating in-and-of-itself then, to observe the various ways people interact with these gardens.  Some rushed through in a compulsory manner, attempting only to keep up with their megaphone-equipped tour guide and take as many photos as possible.  They were no doubt impressed by the beauty and serenity of the gardens, but did not observe either implicit signs invoking contemplation (attention to detail in the composition) or the more literal ones (deliberately meandering paths and bridges).  It would seem these tourists chose to explore their senses but delve no further into the type of sensibility so highly regarded by their ancestors.

Meanwhile it was the choice our group, though admittedly at the behest of our professors, to spend far more time exploring the gardens than others.  Without directly speaking about it beforehand, we slowly and naturally drifted apart from each other and began to experience the garden on our own.  Some of us put on music for this, others pulled out their sketchbooks, and still others their cameras, but in truly making an attempt to pause and contemplate the nature of our surroundings I believe we began to toe the line between sense and sensibility.

In my favorite Lingering Garden, which we entered with early morning light and thinner crowds, I was able to take ten or fifteen minutes in multiple locations to consider what I judged to be the intention of the garden’s creators.  While sitting in a courtyard no bigger than a small car, with indirect light leaving a muted shine on white walls surrounding me, a single young tree in the center, and nobody else in sight, it occurred to me that I must have looked as though I were doing nothing at all.  But as I continued to stare at the tree in front of me I also realized that for time being I was unequivocally content, and that perhaps taking a few minutes of each day to do nothing is something few of us do often enough.

Matt Luery

Filed under: China, Contemplation, Gardens, Landscape


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