USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Homes Away From Home

What is “home?” When one thinks about the qualities that such a concept embodies, phrases exuding feelings of comfort, safety, and routine tend to arise. However, the idea of a home extends much further than the traditional adaptation of a walled fortress where one carries out his/her common routines. In Henri Lefebvre’s excerpt titled The Everyday and the Everydayness, Lefebvre poses a statement arguing towards the constant repetition of practices exhibited on a daily basis. He asserts that there are two types of repetition, a cyclical cycle and a linear cycle. The cyclical represents the commonplace natural activities that we as human beings experience every day. Functional opposites such as activity and rest as well as hunger and satisfaction both apply. The latter of the two cycles described by Lefebvre is represented by the linearity of the former cycle over a certain period of time. The constant repetition of the everyday cycles essentially comes to define the so called “rational” process of the linear. These two phenomena are tangential to the idea of home.

According to Lefebvre’s definition of cycles, it’s clear that every human being has individually experienced this notion. Personally, since I had left the confines of my northern California home in Saratoga, my own definition of “home” had already been blurred. Having stayed in Los Angeles for such an extended period of time, I had gradually begun to adapt to the southern California lifestyle and carried out my daily routines according to its stereotypes of glistening beaches, year-round sunshine, and, of course, traffic congestion.

While it is the banality of the everyday cycles that I had experienced during my time spent in Saratoga or USC which has allowed me to actually call either one “home,” the irony of the repetitiveness of the everyday is that everything changes. Put simply, one undeniably eats, sleeps, and breathes; but one can choose to eat a different meal, sleep in a different bed, and breathe a different quality of air. In Lefebvre’s excerpt, he makes a reference to this type of fluctuation by assigning it as programmed change. The variable characteristics of a common day is its grand quality which allows us as humans to realize the repetitive cycle of daily rituals we tend to inadvertently fall into. And in my case, it was the decision to implement the variation of studying abroad which had allowed me to realize how hackneyed my everyday life in California had become.

Hong Kong City Line

Contrary to the type of programmed change that Lefebvre has posed, other factors can also influence one’s mindset of what home could be. For instance, when first touching down in Hong Kong, the immediate surrounding environment seemed, without a doubt, very foreign. The food was different, the dominant ethnicity was different, the language was different, and most of all, the city fabric and density were absolutely mind-blowing. I thought things couldn’t get any more unfamiliar, until the Pearl River Delta portion of the trip had come along. From the ancient remote villages to the bizarre culinary options to the imitation of fashion items, southeastern China had truly given me my most outlandish experience yet. Returning back to Hong Kong after nearly three weeks in the Pearl River Delta, a large sigh of relief had somewhat fallen over me. I had realized that there was actually a good amount of people that spoke English, the cultural make up of the city was actually quite diverse, and most of all, the food was surprisingly more international than I had previously thought. In essence, for a surrounding environment to allow one to feel a sense of comfort and belonging, all it takes, in my case, is a more unusual one.

Kaiping Village: Guang Dong, China

Following Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan were the least bit alien to me. South Korea was exceedingly modernized and everything that I had fancied could be found. Taiwan, moreover, was my parents’ birthplace, and I had visited the country probably a dozen or so times. Furthermore, during these stays, a charette was also imposed at each, which allowed the USC students to work in conjunction with the local universities. By collaborating with the students whom were native to the place of study, we, as foreigners, were exposed to the area with their knowledgeable guidance. In turn, the process of settling into the two countries was quite immediate.

This constant settling in and moving out lifestyle has now led me to Shanghai, China, where the stay is approximately seven weeks. Undoubtedly, a near two month stay in one place will allow anyone to begin to blindly fall into his/her commonplace routines. From studio, to the gym, to the coffee shop down the street, everything is within such a comfortable reach that it’s almost impossible not to just become part of the everyday. Yet, it will be the subtle decisions of change that will allow me to slip out the cycles of the mundane.


Filed under: everyday and everydayness, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Reality

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


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

Rubbing Shoulders with an LA Princess

As a thorough bred Angeleno, I have been conditioned to believe that making unintentional physical contact with a stranger is a serious offense if apologies are not exchanged. If I am walking along the luxuriously wide streets of Los Angeles, it is relatively easy to visually determine a path of travel that lets me avoid rubbing shoulders with passerby. Maintaining one’s distance is an unspoken but unanimously accepted code of conduct. Any occasional intrusion of a stranger’s path or brief touch may be forgiven by a “pardon me,” but on the whole, one can usually walk several city blocks and remain sterile in LA. I took these rules as commonplace, but I quickly learned in Hong Kong that maintaining one’s personal space is far from a universal practice. For the first days during my stay in Hong Kong, I muttered “sorry” and “excuse me” whenever I brushed arms or shoulders with fellow pedestrians (which, incidentally, happened quite frequently), but I was usually met with confused or blank expressions. I considered a language barrier to be part of the issue, but the sheer lack of effort made by the locals to return any apology made me think differently.

Within a population-dense city, physical contact is naturally bound to occur frequently. In that sense, the elimination of apology in the case of contact seems logical and highly convenient in a place especially like Hong Kong. If avoiding contact is the etiquette for walking the sidewalks of LA, than a mutual understanding that space is limited seems to be the established attitude for Hong Kong natives. Touch is inevitable and an ephemeral aspect of the city, and resultantly, it is an acceptable social condition.

The loose mentality that Hong Kong people hold toward keeping personal space can also be felt within the architecture of the city. The streets that present opportunities for contact between strangers visually reveal this attitude. The entrances of the small shops of the older Hong Kong fabric meet and readily blend into sidewalks. The demarcation between neighboring vendors is informal and often vague. Passerby can feel the cold air of AC units blowing into the street, and merchandise is displayed within an arm’s length away. The stacking of brightly lit shop signs and advertisements looks just as chaotic as people moving in the street. It is a spectacle to behold.

Being such a visually inclined person, feeling the difference between LA and Hong Kong was bizarre. The physical disconnect that I grew up with in LA undoubtedly estranged me, and Hong Kong felt a world’s away. Having someone always next to you was an unshakably haunting thought, but I also realized how equally problematic the LA alternative was. These two conditions are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but their effects on man are surprisingly the same. Desensitization takes place. In The Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel describes the phenomenon as follows: “the nerves find in the refusal to react to their stimulation the last possibility of accommodating to the contents and forms of metropolitan life” (415). Man tolerates his surroundings and environmental conditions to live another day. A few awkward touches here and there, but life goes on.

♥Julia K.

Filed under: Hong Kong, Interaction, Los Angeles, Sensory

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?


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

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,

Tale of Two Cities

In preparation for our semester abroad this fall, we were given a packet that outlined the inconveniences of traveling abroad.  Most notably, there was a section on culture shock with a humorous description of five different personalities one may exemplify when faced with unfamiliar cultures and environments.  Despite sounding quite absurd, I knew from experience the severe impact culture shock could have on the personal psyche and perceptions of identity.  Just last summer I returned home after a five-week backpacking trip through Europe to be greeted by a city with an overwhelming sense of cultural deficiency.  The homogeneity of cultural attitudes and beliefs that I witnessed in Copenhagen, Munich, and Prague were clearly absent from the cultural eclecticism of Los Angeles.  Beyond the spectacles of Hollywood’s entertainment industry, and Disney’s theme parks, where was the underlying sense of a collective identity? What specific cultural manifestation could the majority of Angelinos point to and claim as their own?  Without such instances of comparison – afforded only to those who gain global perspective from traveling abroad – a comprehensive understanding of identity of place can rarely be achieved.

This fall, as we travel through four Asian countries and engage with a multitude of new environments, the familiar symptoms of culture shock will inevitably return.  In conjunction with the AAU program these places will challenge us on an urbanistic level just as they have on a cultural one.  Evaluating Los Angeles through the lens of these foreign environments will certainly lead to my increasingly apathetic attitude towards the city’s physicality.  LA’s characteristic smog, traffic and urban sprawl have all been accentuated by the cleanliness, efficiency and density observed in metropolises like Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong.  Similarly, their method of layering infrastructure puts LA’s vision of a utopian automobile driven city to shame.   These and many other revelations brought to light over the past few weeks all allude to Asia’s rapid departure from industrial age models of urban development.  The one-dimensional nature of western cities can no longer compete with the multi-dimensional efficiency of eastern metropolises.  However, my intent here is not to take a cynical approach to LA’s urban strategies or perceived cultural insufficiencies, rather it is to identify the strengths, which will keep it globally relevant.

After a weeklong emersion in Shenzhen, China’s experimental economic zone, it was clear that similarities exist between China’s present approach to urban development and those found in Los Angeles.  Shenzhen provided the ideal point of reference to which Los Angeles could be re-evaluated urbanistically.  For example, streets in both cities are laid out in a grid network of mega blocks – regardless of topographic interferences – thus eliminating any chance for close-knit urban activity to take affect.  Similarly, Shenzhen has no established downtown center as planners made the conscious decision to segregate density into discrete business districts, also known as CBD’s.  Considering each CBD takes up a sizable amount of urban fabric, all twelve of the districts that comprise Shenzhen essentially qualify as autonomous cities individually.  Compare this scenario to Los Angeles and one can easily draw connections to cities like Santa Monica, Culver City, Pasadena, and Burbank – all of which exist at such a large scale that they function independently of one another, diluting any notion of a single metropolitan identity.

So why is China negligently going out of its way to import western models of urbanism that have proven to be inefficient in cases like Los Angeles?  In Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s essay entitled The Culture Industry: Enlightenment of Mass Deception, there is reasoning behind China’s pursuit of universally accepted western styles.  Adorno and Horkeimer go on to state, “In every work of art, style is a promise.  In being absorbed through style into the dominant form of universality, into the current musical, pictorial, or verbal idiom, what is expressed seeks to be reconciled with the idea of the true universal…By claiming to anticipate fulfillment through their aesthetic derivatives, it posits the real forms of the existing order as absolute.”  Following this line of reasoning, it can be inferred that Shenzhen exists as a work of art, reflecting many styles in anticipation of suggesting fulfillment.  As it develops into a modern metropolis, it aims to embrace numerous “urban idioms”, which represent tried-and-true universal styles.  Styles predominantly defined in the 20th century western cities.  The mindset of China’s cultural industry is such that the mere perception of one of these stylistic elements, such as the mega-block in Shenzhen’s Futian District, or the suburban single-family communities, automatically implies affluence and authority.  Los Angeles thus becomes a branding model for cities like Shenzhen that hope to align themselves with universally accepted existing forms.

This year’s 2010 Expo in Shanghai could not have come at a more crucial time, as it focuses on this theme of “nation branding” in an increasingly interconnected world.  Pavilions give countries the opportunity to open their doors to various cultural industries and present themselves as a product for global consumption.  Those that present themselves in the most appealing wrapper will subsequently receive the most foot traffic.   Therefore, by transplanting elements from Los Angeles – a globally branded city – Shenzhen hopes to attain a similar level of global consumption. Even with the numerous shortcomings implicit in Los Angeles’ urban model, it is impossible to ignore the pervasiveness of it’s manufactured image.  Hollywood, after all, does a good job of selling itself to the world as a sun-drenched paradise.  In this sense, while Los Angeles will undoubtedly fall behind Shenzhen in terms of infrastructure, development, and overall efficiency it will remain the source for ideas.  The uniqueness of its cultural eclecticism will keep it globally relevant.

Bryn Garrett

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Los Angeles, Shenzhen


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