USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Road to Individualism?

Collectivism emphasizes the interdependence of people in some collective group and the priority of group goals over individual goals. In the Chinese tradition, collectivism has long meant that an individual does not work to accumulate wealth for himself but rather for his family and for the community. However, as China begins to advance in its developments, it has also seemingly taken a more individualistic road towards its future. The government has slowly begun to reduce its grip on social and collectivist processes and new policies aid in creating a society in which capitalism serves as a leading social value such that personal wealth is becoming increasingly more important than other social values.

As Simmel notes in his essay, The Metropolis and Mental Life, there is a dynamic or dialectical tension between the individual and the society. For him, the greatest dilemma of modern society is that it frees individuals from historic and traditional bonds for greater individual freedom, yet at the same time, individuals are also experiencing a great sense of alienation within the culture of urban life. In big cities such as Hong Kong, we are constantly bombarded with an inflation of external and internal sensory stimulus: from the sweaty arm of a stranger that brushes against you as you cross the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, to the overwhelming visual stimulation of signage that covers the view of the sky in Causeway Bay. The metropolis creates rapid crowding of changing images and sharp discontinuity in a single glance that fosters a situation where one must buffer him/herself from a constantly changing environment. This phenomenon can easily be illustrated with the subway scenes of Hong Kong, even though there seems to be little to no sense of personal space, no one seems to be bothered by the fact that there will always be someone brushing against them as they pass by. People simply sit quietly and stay to themselves on the subway, listening to music or playing with their smart phones. Everyone seems to be immersed in their own world: disengaged and isolated, tuned out to their bustling external environment.  And in turn, this protection manifests itself in the rise of logic and intellect where social interactions become rational and instrumental, with little considerations to emotional and personal concerns. Everything in the city becomes measurable and calculated; qualitative value is reduced to quantitative. Things therefore have no intrinsic value and are instead measured by the external objective value of money, time and power, yielding what Simmel calls “blasé”, a superficial and indifferent mentality to the people living within it.

HK subway: immersed in their own world

This mentality is also manifested in the built environment around these cities. Like the urban village, Huang Gang, in Shenzhen, we learnt that the villagers decided to tear down all the old village houses to construct new 5 to 6 storey buildings with commercial spaces located at the bottom, so that they can rent them out to different tenants for greater revenue. Little of the old fabric was maintained, and instead is replaced with generic looking low-rise village buildings, commercialized to maximize profit. Another example of this mentality is visible through the restoration efforts of the BaoMo Garden in Panyu. Described as “one of the new top eight sights in Panyu” on its information pamphlet, this “National class AAAA scenic spot” has been restored to the point where nothing seemed authentic anymore. In fact, it almost felt very theme park-like – with traditional Chinese music playing through the speakers located everywhere in the garden, the out-of-place European street lamps, the flashing light bulb eyes for the stone dragons that spurt water out of their mouths, and the vendors that tried to sell you souvenirs and fans at every turn of the corner – everything about the place was so marketed and commercialized that it seems to have somewhat lost its sense of cultural heritage.

However, in spite of all these consequences of individualism, there are still efforts, such as the Urban-Tulou by Urbanus and the “Di Wu Yuan” housing development by Vanke, made to reinstate the sense of collectiveness within our society. These projects are designed to help preserve community spirit among low-income families by inducing greater opportunities for social interaction through the attention paid to the design of their public spaces. According to Urbanus themselves, the Urban-Tulou project also explored ways to “stitch the tulou within the existing fabric of the city”.  This idea can be illustrated in the way the project comes in contact with the ground plane – by lifting the housing units on the first floor to free the ground floor for through-access commercial uses, it allows the spaces to be accessible to both the residents of the project as well as the community around it; expanding the sense of collectiveness to the greater community. It is always nice to see projects such as these that are made to induce collectivism within a seemingly individualistic modern society where everyone is preoccupied with work and with the accumulation of personal wealth. One can only hope that the idea of collectivism in China will not be left behind at the expense of the accumulation of wealth, and that more projects with an agenda on community spirit will be developed in the future to counter-balance the forces of individualism.

Grandparents and children playing in the parks of Di Wu Yuan

– Jeanette

Filed under: Collectivism, community, development, individuality, Materiality

Modernism, Minimalism, Materiality

I sometimes hear people who have not studied architecture characterize modernist buildings as cold and sterile.  Some even go so far as to accuse them of soullessness.  As first and second year students we are taught in our history of architecture courses about how postmodernists and theorists fault modernist designers for their failure to communicate anything beyond enthusiasm for steel and glass as construction materials or the open floor plan as a spatial device.  These issues can seem esoteric in the lecture hall but they take on a new relevance in a place like Kyoto, home to dozens of examples of the historical Japanese architecture that is believed to have strongly influenced so many modernists in 20th century Europe and America.

Walking through Nijo Castle or the Ryoanji Temple, the minimal aesthetic so central to modernist architecture is immediately evident: planes meet at right angles with clean joints, rooms flow into each other and are sparsely furnished save simple tatami mats, great attention is paid to craft and small design details seen only up close, and cantilevered roofs cover verandas creating spatial ambiguity between inside and outside.  This is a minimalism, however, that is neither sterile nor soulless.  It does not seem too perfect for human occupation as some would contend of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, or too cold and uninviting as has been said of the concrete of Le Corbusier.  On the contrary the architecture of Japanese shrines is comforting in its asceticism of design, an experience of welcome tranquility that transcends emotion whether you are a student of architecture or simply a visiting tourist.

The difference lies, I believe, in materiality.  A historical Japanese reverence for nature means wood is central to nearly all aspects of Kyoto’s shrines.  Sliding rice paper shoji screens mediate inside and outside, thatched roofs such as that of the Ise Shrine provide cover, and straw tatami mats cover the floor in grid fashion.  Historical buildings are also likely to rise above a groomed rock bed and be surrounded by local trees and vegetation.  All of this coalesces in a controlled manner so as to make emptiness fulfilling, where a building facilitates connection between man and nature.

Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and others created immensely powerful works of architecture inspired in part by the Japanese approach to design, but  their passion for incorporating modern materials like glass, steel, and concrete into the minimal aesthetic at the expense of traditional local materials limited the ability of their work to truly connect with many people beyond an intellectual level.   Kyoto’s shrines and temples instruct us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that an ethereal architecture may be the most powerful architecture of all.

Matt Luery

Filed under: Japan, kyoto, Materiality


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