USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

Of all the cities we’ve analyzed over the past three months, few have made us as susceptible to ‘the everyday’ like the metropolis of Shanghai.  I suppose it’s something that comes with living in any new environment for a prolonged period of time, once the undesirable status of ‘tourist’ has been outlived.  It is the point at which a foreigner becomes attuned to the defining characteristics and nuances of a place and culture. Whether it’s the daily routine of walking to a metro station or the man selling roasted sweet potatoes on the street corner, the day-to-day occurrences that often go unnoticed are what constitute ‘the everyday.’  In Henry Lefebvre’s The Everyday and Everydayness, he attempts to decode the modern world through this most common denominator that exists within every culture’s forms, functions and structures.  Our ability to identify the differences between the ‘everydayness’ of one region and another is what will reveal the diversity in a world of increasing uniformity.

Before modern times, people lived their lives according to their region, country, class, available resources, season, climate, profession, age, and sex.  The specific response to each of these contextual elements contributed to the diversity of culture and in turn the unique sense of place we enjoy experiencing as foreigners.  However, as we strive to programmatically rationalize and define the world around us, we are promoting the process of mass production, which inherently undermines this diversity.  As Lefebvre’s explains, all of the forms, functions and structures that are connected through ‘the everyday’ experience promote mass consumption on a global scale.  Although, similar forms, functions and structures existed in ancient times they were left unnamed within an ‘undifferentiated whole.’  In other words, their nature (meaning) was not clearly outlined, and therefore could not be associated with a universal category or style.  Without such associations, the distinctiveness of these elements could remain intact and exclusive to their respective origins.  Today he explains, “The relationship of form to function to structure has not disappeared.  On the contrary, it has become a declared relationship, produced as such, more and more visible and readable, announced and displayed in a transparency of the three terms.  A modern object clearly states what it is, its role and its place.”

It becomes apparent within Lefebvre’s logic that language as a tool is incremental in the modern rationalization phenomenon. According to Richard Rorty, a famous American Philosopher, there are many different beliefs about the world because “Anything can be made to look good or bad, important or unimportant, useful or useless, by being re-described” through the tool of language.  What accounts for the differences in cultures are the ways in which they describe events in the world.  If we acknowledge the fact that we think with language, then new ways of thinking will enable new ways of describing.  As descriptions change, so do the way people think and act in the world.  Similarly, the truth of Lefebvre’s “everydayness” is that it is not concerned with discovering some universal condition or system, it is about creating diversity (change) through the imaginative metaphorical re-descriptions of ‘the everyday’ human experience.  A common denominator that seeks to create rather than discover or find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Metaphors that emerge from the human poet lead to new ways of thinking and living in the present environment.

Structure is one component of ‘the everyday’ experience which is most applicable to the study of architecture and urbanism.  Existing in both natural and constructed form, structure is the backdrop of ‘the everyday’ where forms and functions are enacted.  Lefebvre says, “…in the domain of architecture, a variety of local, regional, and national architectural styles has given way to “architectural urbanism,” a universalizing system of structures and functions in supposedly rational geometric forms.”  In the same way that language dictates the symbolic value of the forms and functions in our lives, so to does the predefined formal language found in ‘architectural urbanism.’  What influence does the architect have in ‘designing’ a structure that is simply defined by the inscribed functions?  Diversity within architectural and urban design becomes ‘apparent’ as the overriding rational geometric form is the principal means of consumption.  Work by Rem Koolhaas and OMA is successful because of its unique ability to broaden this formal vocabulary through metaphorical re-descriptions.  Seattle Public Library re-defined the typical organizational strategy of that type of institution and had a larger impact on ‘the everyday’ as a result.  As Louis Kahn said, “I just want to make my last demand in reverence to the work of what has been done by architects of the past. what was, has always been. what is, has always been. and what will be, has always been. such is the nature of beginning.”

Lefebvre’s analysis of ‘the everyday’ is an insightful look into the often undesirable banality of the human experience.  In a world dominated by instantaneously available mass consumption, it is refreshing to observe the minuteness of the present moment.




Filed under: Henry Lefebvre, Language, Shanghai, the everyday, 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