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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Around the world in 80…minutes?

A few days ago, a few of us visited Windows of the World, a Shenzhen amusement park that contains 130 scaled reproductions of some of the most famous tourist attractions in the world. Walking around the park was one of the most bizarre and ironic experiences I’ve had. In one view-frame would be superimposed in layers: New York Manhattan Island, the Easter Egg Islands, the Volcano’s of Hawaii, an Aztec Temple, the statue O Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, and the backdrop of Shenzhen high-rises. Five minutes’ walk later I would be greeted with the Egyptian pyramids at one-third scale next to the Eiffel Tower and the park monorail. The more and more I was bombarded with these peculiar and completely laughable scenes, the more the issue of authenticity versus falsity begged to be considered. In Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin states that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” By this argument, these scaled replicas – reproductions of the original ‘art’ or the historic relics themselves –  are not ‘real’ because they lack the very context and history that conditioned the original building artifact.

Windows of the World brings to mind a similar urban phenomenon more familiar to Westerners: Las Vegas. Albeit at a larger scale, Las Vegas also contains a small scale Eiffel Tower (The Venetian), roman palaces (Caesar’s Palace), the New York skyline (New York-New York), and the Egyptian pyramids (Luxor).Like Windows of the World, It contains physical imitations of the original, but unlike Windows of the World, I would argue it is entirely more ‘real’ because it doesn’t profess to replicate but rather references the original. One visits Las Vegas as a form of escapism, whereas one visits Windows of the World to see replicas. This is also an issue of identity.  Vegas exists as its own entity, contains its own unique character. Does  Windows of the World have a similar persona even though the objects that make it up lack a “presence in time and space”?

Perhaps it is the very absence of contextual presence that in itself gives ‘identity’ to Windows of the World. As our group entered the park, the main sign outside the amusement park stated in bright letters “Welcome to our World”. At first I found the sign to be completely comical and ironic: how is a representation of the artifacts of all the other countries of the earth in any way unique to ‘their’ world. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that the very fact that this replicated collection of other worlds coexist in these few physical acres becomes in fact a new ‘world’. In Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin further points out that “an ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.” Benjamin is stating that the same physical object when situated in different contexts take on different significances based on the environment that imposes those meanings on the object. The same can be said for Windows of the World. These historical artifacts no longer carry any of their original spatial or temporal contexts but rather have taken on completely new ones, meanings that have been imposed on them by their current environment, that of Shenzhen. Windows of the World and the replicas within have embraced a completely new identity, uniquely as a representation of Shenzhen – just as the Luxor, Caesar’s, and The Venetian have come to be known collectively as Las Vegas.

~ Evan Shieh

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Filed under: America, Architecture, Authenticity, China, Identity, Imposed Meaning, Las Vegas, Reality, Replication, Shenzhen, Walter Benjamin, Windows of the World

Shenzhen: “Instant City”

The concept of what is real and what is not is a constantly reoccurring topic of discussion amongst our group here in Shenzhen, China. Everyone has their own conception of what they consider to be real and what they consider to be not real. One argument is whether or not Shenzhen is the Chinese Las Vegas? Is Shenzhen an area in and of itself that does not depend on the nuances between it and other cities but creates an identity of its own, as Las Vegas exists? If it is, then you have to take into consideration that key word: identity. Every city has its own identity, its own fingerprint, its own DNA, its own unique makeup that makes it distinguishable from the other cities not only in its region and country, but also the rest of the world. At present, Shenzhen has no identity. Shenzhen is a city, and yes, it is a city in China. But by no means does that make it a Chinese city. The population is somewhere around 15 million, with 3 million of those people being unregistered workers, labeled as “ghosts” by the Chinese government, as though they do not exist. Of the 12 million citizens, a fair majority comes from other parts of China. One can walk the streets and rarely catch a glimpse of someone over the age of 55. This is an exceptionally young city (almost 30 years old) when you compare it to other Chinese cities steeped in history such as Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Additionally, the urban fabric of Shenzhen does not respond to local geographic conditions. In the early 1980’s, when Shenzhen was a small fishing village, the Chinese government ordered the Peoples Liberation Army to dynamite and clear the mountains where Shenzhen is currently located. Dynamiting natural landscape: the initial move demonstrating the idea that this city would begin at zero, with no ties to its geography or its past. The problem that has surfaced as a result of that approach is the creation of an artificial city. It is artificial in the sense that most elements of this city do not possess Chinese characteristics; not naturally Chinese, anyways. How can it not be naturally Chinese when it was built by Chinese workers and financed by Beijing? All one has to do is look at the work of architecture being erected as of late throughout the city to see the counterargument:

Stock Exchange & Crystal Island by Office of Metropolitan Architecture [Dutch firm] (Collaborated with Chinese firm Urbanus)

Headquarters of China Insurance Group by Coop Himmelb(l)au [Austrian firm]

Kingkey Finance Tower by Farrells [British firm]

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport- Massimiliano Fuksas [Italian firm]

Seeing a pattern here?

This city is becoming an eclectic city, but an artificial one at that. Even the plant life here is artificial; the majority of the plants are imported from Hawaii. Could this be the genesis of a new breed of cities, cities that are not concerned with its context or previous history? Can this new kind of city be transported and transplanted as though it was a universal component in the metropolitan circuit board. Within the urban makeup you always have your ‘7-11’s’ or McDonalds, which represent programmatic pieces that are universal and can operate successfully wherever they go. They can be inserted into any urban makeup because they do not respond to the urban or social context in which they are placed; they are not context specific. What if we are able to have entire cities that are universal in that nature?

I am reminded of Peter Cook and Archigram’s piece, Instant City, which was written in the early 1970’s. The Instant City discussed the creation of not buildings, but “events” that are the result of high technology being infused into areas of low technology. This is comparable to the injection of economic investment and star-architect architecture that Shenzhen is currently experiencing. The writing describes how high tech airships would act as carriers for mass culture and would seemingly create a city instantaneously, as if there is a magic formula. In comparison to the cultural emanation of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong, there seems to lack a cultural originality here in Shenzhen. Instead of ‘mom n’ pop’ shops there are ‘Kung-fu’ Chinese fast food enterprises. The city lacks any historical district that is suppose to give city a sense of belonging and history, which in turn resonates emotional warmth and nostalgia. Everything in this city is manufactured and so now the next problem to solve is how to manufacture a culture in a city that lacks one? Is that culture created artificially, like the limitless amount of knock-off Gucci bags? Or is it something created by the people and not dropped from an Instant City airship?

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: Archigram, artificial, China, context-specific, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Culture, Farrells, Identity, Instant City, investment, Las Vegas, manufacture, mass culture, Massimiliano Fuksas, OMA, real, Shenzhen, Uncategorized,

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu