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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Authenticity is Overrated


A back alley in Shenzhen replete with knockoff merchandise.

Academics have long been accused of living in a state of separation from society at large.  The accusation even has its own recurrent idiom, the so-called ivory tower.  But given the strict admissions standards, high costs, and politics involved in simply being admitted to a leading university, this accusation of elitism is not altogether unfounded.  Thinkers like Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer write from their privileged positions treatises on the relationship between art and authenticity with titles such as Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, or the stunningly haughty The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.

It’s not that Adorno and Horkheimer are wrong when they assert that “the culture industry confines itself to standardization and mass production and sacrifices what once distinguished the logic of the work from that of society”, but rather that they overstate the graveness of this sacrifice.  Further, they neglect to mention that standardization and mass production bring high art into the living rooms of ordinary Americans who would otherwise never be exposed to such profound work.  Might the artwork be diluted, removed from “its presence in time and space, its unique existence” as Benjamin insists?  Sure, but the inherent nature of masterworks is such that they are valued even in this state, even if seen behind a broken picture frame hanging from a wood veneer wall in a cheap motel.  If they weren’t, and if people weren’t still affected by their power and made the better for it, then surely no motel would spend the money to import a Chinese copy of Renaissance artwork to begin with.

With this in mind, I find it perplexing that Shenzhen has been second-guessed in its decision to create an art museum dedicated to the village of Dafen, the world’s epicenter of mass-produced and commoditized artwork.  Or that Urbanus, the stellar architecture firm behind the city’s most important public space in the Futian district, may be questioned in stepping up to design such a project as a tribute to the Shenzhen artists who preceded it.  The artwork coming out of Dafen may be fake in the corporeal sense, but demand for it across the world is very real in an economic sense.  Since economics teaches us that consumers are rational, we can infer that people derive at least some fulfillment from copied artwork.  If this is true, fretting about ‘mass deception’ would seem to be merely an exercise for those academics who have, well, a classic ivory tower disconnect from the more pressing problems of everyday life.

My question then: why did nobody propose the Dafen Art Museum sooner?

Matt Luery

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Filed under: Authenticity, China, Fake-Real, mass culture, Shenzhen

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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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.

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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