USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The bitter mote…of a soul?

Ever since the first computers, there have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. Why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote… of a soul?

As an architect, you have the power to control everything. As an architect, you lack the power to control anything. That is the lesson I am discovering on this leg of our journey through Hong Kong and Shenzhen. We have visited countless architecture works by architects from Ando to Ito to Koolhaas to Foster and yet, no matter how star-studded and acclaimed these architects may be, I argue that not a single one can design a building where they control every surface and every interaction that occurs within its realm. We encountered an unexpected programmatic use on the ground floor of Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on a Sunday (if you visit, it has to be a Sunday!). There, blanketing the ground floor that powerful bank executives cross everyday during the week, are hundreds of Filipino women and children, sitting down, playing cards, and taking in the Sunday relaxation. You could look around the grounds for a sign designating the area Sunday Picnic Space but you would never find it. I am reminded of the old architect mantra “build it and they will come.” No offense to Lord Foster, I do not believe he anticipated the use of his ground floor for leisure rather than business. Instead, we witness a fascinating parasitic weekly occurrence. The building acts as a “host” to the people, who utilize the space for short periods of during the week and then leave. What makes this phenomenon more prodigious is that something of this nature is seldom seen back in the States. The main operating principle of a parasite is that it feeds off of its hosts but never harms it. The ground floor is never left with trash or waste when Sunday ends. How many times has a parking lot outside of a stadium been left spotless after a day of tailgating?

These types of conditions are more closely detailed in Junzo Kuroda’s Made in Tokyo: Guide Book. Kuroda’s guidebook chronicles various urban spatial situations throughout the city of Tokyo that are unique because of odd programmatic groupings. Kuroda labels these situations as Da-me architecture, or not the “architecture of architects.” He observes instances such as a highway department store, roller coaster building, and a graveyard tunnel that are a result of an organic city that breathes, consumes, and produces. As architects, we cannot ignore the fact that often times the city creates where architects or civil engineers do not. We must accept that the city evolves and morphs on its own.

The film quote above is by a scientist discussing the artificial intelligence of robots and the possibility of a machine having a soul. Why is it that when [programs] are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? I witnessed one instance of this along one stretch of street in Hong Kong. As we traveled on the tram, we passed dry-fruit stand after dry-fruit stand, all lined up next to each other. Then it would change to light store after light store. Groupings of similar program change as the fabric did. Is this by coincidence or the act of architect or engineer? Did the entire dry-fruit stand owner population get together and decide to post up their shops next to each other?

Rather, there is anintelligence at work. An intelligence that seeks to counter the “void phobia,” as Kuroda describes it, that the city of Tokyo combats by filling every available space, even the smallest amount of space that can be filled by a vending machine. This void phobia exists over streets in Hong Kong, with signs stretching over and past one another, fighting to gain leverage over the other. This intelligence is everywhere. You only have to look.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: code, cross programming, da-me architecture, ghosts in the machine, Hong Kong, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, intelligence, Junzo Kuroda, koolhaas, Made in Tokyo, mote of a soul, signage, sunday picnic, Tokyo, Uncategorized, unexpected protocol, Urban, void phobia,

Jump off a Building

In a recently assigned reading, “Made in Tokyo” the author connects the values of contemporary urban sports to the environments in which they are born, namely skateboarding.  I found particular resonance with this section of the article.  As a skateboarder, I continually find myself weighing the pros and cons of each city we visit in terms of the sport.  I am always pointing out “good skate spots”, and thinking about how architectural and urban elements can be utilized via the board.  “By finding residual spaces inside the closely packed urban field, and using human action to turn those surfaces into sports fields, the elements of the city gain a whole new appearance.”  Stairs become something to jump down, ledges become something to jump on, ramps become something to jump off.  Every piece of architecture is broken down into a set of elements, which are then re-visualized as urban skate parks.  How can you link one trick to the next to create a “line”?  This begins to mix architectural language with skateboarding language.  Circulation, solid/void, sequence, materiality, and even urbanism take on a whole new meaning when perceived through the lens of the sport.

One question that remains is why more designers don’t use this link between sport and architecture to their advantage.  Two days ago we visited Norman Foster’s Hong Kong Shanghai Bank.  At the ground floor, inside the voided open-air lobby, we witnessed a truly amazing spectacle.  Every Sunday, hundreds of people gather in this space to spend time with family members, eat meals and socialize.  They are so densely packed you can barely see the ground.  Obviously, this was not Foster’s intention at all.  Who would have thought a bank would become a hot spot for family time?  I see this same situation happening all the time with respect to skateboarding; interesting and physically unique pieces of architecture that become the best and most popular places to practice the sport.  Yet it is never the designer’s intent to have people skating all over their work.  If architects are able to understand this phenomenon, then they could use it as a design tool to stimulate urbanism and create a functional, programmatic and social relationship between their work and the people.

That being said, the architect must also consider the social ecology of the environment they are designing, as well as that of the larger city.  For a design to function harmoniously between the public culture and the skateboarding culture, and to ensure a duality of usage, programmatic planning and spatial designations must be carefully considered.  Since skateboarders utilize many different public amenities (stairs, seating, access ramps), it is necessary to allow the sport to function without disengaging the environment’s intended public use.  Furthermore, I find the sport’s nature particularly conducive to the social ecology of Hong Kong.  Unlike the respectful, collective and civil culture of Japan, Hong Kong’s culture is a bit more brazen and independent.  People will bump into you on the subways and streets, cars always have the right of way, and forget about any form of courteous bow or thank you.  It is not unlike major urban capitals in the West in this regard, such as New York and Los Angeles where skateboarding is most prevalent.  People don’t seem to mind the proximity of crowds and muliple activities, as evidenced in the Foster building.  Therefore, a successful balance between activity, public culture and host environment can be established.

Lastly, the economic concerns that hamper skateboarding in the West can be solved during the design process.  Property damage can be minimized with the use of proper materials and construction methods, both of which have already been perfected in skate park and skate plaza design.  Combining these material strategies with the proper programming moves, and factoring in the established social ecology of metropolitan cities, skateboarding can certainly be utilized as an urban design incentive.  If it is used accordingly, and whether or not it is successful… only time will tell.

Kaijima, Momoyo, Junzo Kuroda, and Yoshiharu Tsukamoto. Made in Tokyo. Tokyo: Kajima Inst. Publ., 2001. Print.

Filed under: America, Architecture, Made in Tokyo, Skateboarding, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Video


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