URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Cost of Culture

While the procession of luxury brands Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Dior had me dreaming of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, or New York City’s Fifth Avenue, it was the man who spat on the sidewalk beside me that roused me back to reality in Shenzhen, China.  As I soon discovered, this experience constituted my first glimpse of the juxtaposition of the raw with the refined that would come to characterize my foray into the Pearl River Delta (PRD).

The contrasting social and economic condition that pervades the PRD is a direct byproduct of the speed at which this region has morphed from farmland into an economic powerhouse.  This rapid pace of development is a double-edged sword, however, that fosters the dramatic growth of metropolises like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, bringing jobs, financial resources, and improved infrastructure to these locales while simultaneously posing a dangerous threat to the cultural legacy of the region.

Traveling through the Pearl River Delta, it became quickly apparent that the Chinese government’s implementation of Central Business Districts (CBDs) within cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou has been instrumental in spurring this transformational momentum.  The premise of the CBD was to manufacture the appearance of wealth and stability in order to attract more wealth to the region in the form of foreign investments.  To achieve this appearance, the Chinese government channeled the necessary funds into constructing and branding a concentrated region in a way that inspired the respect and trust of western investors.   As intended, foreign investors responded to this marketing tactic by becoming interested in the region and investing money in it.  This influx of foreign capital stimulated growth that in turn generated more wealth in the region.

As the success of Shenzhen and Guangzhou illustrates, however, appearances can be dangerously deceiving.  While the allure of big names like Prada, Ferrari, and Koolhaas captivated Western investors, many remained blissfully unaware of the real life struggles of the working-class farmers who dominated the Pearl River Delta a mere thirty years ago.  For the most part, this rural past remains hidden behind this ostentatious façade of wealth.  As the financial capital continued to flow into the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, these cities began to expand beyond the boundaries of the CBDs.  As this occurred, the citizens quickly abandoned their farming and industrial roots for the embrace of the wealth associated with the growing metropolises.  These metropolises then mutated as rapidly as the Central Business Districts that spurred them had been manufactured.  The obsession with money that drives these metropolises was intensified in Shenzhen and Guangzhou by the incredible speed in which wealth was acquired and exchanged, drastically altering a generation of citizens’ ways of life almost overnight.  As Georg Simmel articulates in his work, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,”

“Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominators of all values; irreparably it hallows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, their incomparability.”

While the designer stores which plaster the streets of Shenzhen portray an aura of wealth and sophistication that the metropolis is marketing, the Chanel boutique here could just as easily be the Chanel store in Paris, New York or Beverly Hills.  These high-end chains only reference their own brand and not their position within a specific urban fabric.  Beyond the façade of wealth in Shenzhen and Guangzhou lies the painfully sterile reality that the almost overnight accumulation of wealth has blinded the citizens to the many aspects of their culture and history that are valuable and that make them unique.   The rush to achieve wealth and development has obscured the value and necessity of balancing progress with preserving and, at times, assimilating the cultural attributes of a society which gives it a unique identity.  What is left in the wake of this rapid transformation are periodic reminders of the culture, such as the raw rural mannerisms that are alien to the new face of the mutating metropolis.

View atop a Kaiping Diaolou

It was not until I experienced the no man’s land that still exists between Shenzhen and Guangzhou that I began to comprehend the self-sustaining lifestyle that these mutating metropolises continue to encroach upon.  Here, the undisturbed landscape camouflages the World Heritage protected villages of Kaiping.  The tops of the towering Diaolou houses are the sole indicator of the intricate, western influenced villages that lie beyond.  The Daiolous were built by the villagers as a means of defense against bandits.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the villages were populated by newly wealthy Chinese who returned from working in Europe and the Americas to build homes for their families inspired by Western Architecture.  Walking through these tranquil villages I was captivated by the villagers simple, self-sufficient lifestyle.  This way of life has become foreign to those who populate the metropolis, each contributing a single skill within the highly specialized market economy.  The crude mannerisms have become the sole unfortunate link between the people’s raw past and refined future.  Looking out from atop one of the Daiolou houses the beauty that exists in the simplicity of the village lifestyle made me to question whether the rapid mutation of metropolises in the PRD has caused the urban population to disengage from the value of their former way of life.

– DEM

Filed under: China, Culture, George Simmel, Metropolis, Shenzhen

Urban Schizophrenia

The condition of schizophrenia is a state of delusions that can be challenging to understand. It is a terrifying battle that takes you through an existence that is “deranged, empty, and devoid of all anchors to reality”. In several cases, schizophrenics often have separate personas or ‘controllers’ whom entice them to abandon their realities and enter a place that causes severe emotion and a loss to what we perceive to be real. It would then become hard to decipher thoughts and eventually the everyday consciousness would be lost and taken over. In a similar way we as inhabitants act as schizophrenics in how we perceive reality within the realm of the metropolis where we are no longer aware but desensitized by the very factors that make up the city.

In Simmel’s Metropolis and the Mental Life, he clearly defines two key components that act as the basic construct of the city: the man and the external forces. As man it is essential to understand that we adapt to environments in forms of habits, convictions, and impulses that clearly “take a regular and habitual course and show regular and habitual contrast” (Simmel 410) From this Simmel suggests that the metropolis manipulates man’s formulated nature and conditions it with the “sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions”. This in turn slowly alters our psyches and distorts what we perceive to be real and uninterrupted in order to fuel a successful city growth. “With each crossing of the street, with the temporary and multiplicity of the economic, occupational, and social life, the city sets up the sensory foundations of a psychic life.” (Simmel 410) The forces in our daily routines are so constant and matter-of-fact that we have lost our sense of judgment in distinguishing what is real and untouched. Thereby numbing our actuality to make the metropolis’ reality our own reality and the metropolis’ struggle our own struggle. These external forces in the city play the parallel role to controllers in the schizophrenic world. The external forces or ‘urban controllers’ if you will, condition and entice man to constantly struggle in defining and achieving his individual role. And like the schizophrenics and their alternative personas, the urban controller and the man eventually become one.

About two weeks ago as I flew into Hong Kong, I felt that I understood the city very well. I knew every bar, every subway line, and every good restaurant because beginning a few years ago I worked in the city for a few summers. Every morning I would go from my apartment to the office and every night I would leave the office for my apartment. Moving from place to place within Hong Kong became a daily routine and eventually I molded my habits and routines to the point to where I could travel swiftly across the streets, up the escalators, and through the foot bridges. Then as weeks pass I eventually discovered places to eat, things to eat, places to meet people, and places to shop. It is not until now do I realize that as I came to Hong Kong all those years ago that my mind was actively adapting to its environment by absorbing the streets, the advertisements, the people, the culture, etc. My daily choices and impulses came from the many external forces that is Hong Kong. I, in this case, was the schizophrenic and the urban controller was very much apparent. For instance if I picked up a particular brand of water bottle it would be because of the simple glance of a poster somewhere on my way to work through an air conditioned mall that I wanted to pass go through because the weather was so hot. Just by this simple, quick, yet unconscious decision I actively participated in the economic life of Hong Kong by fueling that particular business which fuels that particular habitant’s life. My needs, just as it is in the United States are the same as it is here in Asia. And the city, knowing well my internal nature has implemented forces into the city to subconsciously convince me to participate in city life. All these forces take over and eventually the urban controller and I became one.

In a recent public online diary entry, Janet Jordan, a 27 year old schizophrenic, has had severe hallucinations through the last 25 years of her life. She states in her entry that the controller in her head has taken over for so long that she does not remember the point when the controller wasn’t there. Fortunately her hallucinations would fall in and out thereby giving her a reality to anchor to. It was not until she acknowledged this reality could she feel she had a problem and begin to take hold of it. In the same way if we begin to take hold of these two components and understand the relationship between the man and urban controller, as Simmel calls us to, we can begin to experiment and begin an entirely new phenomenon much like the experimental city of Shenzhen. However in my observation I consider Shenzhen to be a fake reality because of its reaction to the extreme rate of urban control. At the ‘untouched reality’ Shenzhen is still a lower class village while the ‘controlled reality’ sees Shenzhen as a rapidly growing city, dense of glass skyscrapers, and with the highest GDP in China. In this case Shenzhen plays both the man and the controller because Shenzhen is trying to condition itself to catch up to their wild and experimental standards. I believe that the natural slow altering of the man’s psyche has not quite caught up with the pace that the urban controller is trying to condition the city to be. The city is expanding at such a rapid speed that there is a very big gap between habits and actuality and thus course the urban controller and the man are not one.

In the comparison between Hong Kong and Shenzhen in the case of urban schizophrenia, the relationships are so different and interesting that it calls into question which one will work better. Will the urban controller that has a steady pace or a rapid pace work out better? Will the rabbit or the turtle win? We can only allow the disease to play out in order to fully study and understand the condition of the mental vs. the metropolis.

//Anita//

Filed under: Architecture, Hong Kong, mental disease, Metropolis, schizophrenia, Social Development, Urban Village, Urbanism, Urbanism Is About Human Life

The Urban Generation

At the beginning of the 1990’s, a new wave of Chinese filmmakers emerged out of industry taking the world by storm, calling themselves “The Sixth Generation”. It was coined as “the return of the amateur filmmaker” because of the trademark use of producing edgier underground films that relied on long takes, hand-held cameras, etc. However, through all the usage of techniques like nonlinear narratives, fast-motion camera, jump cuts, and a lighting style similar to film-noir, the essence of these films always revolved around the urban. This new generation of filmmakers, including Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle) portrayed a less romantic view of the urban, but focused on the disorientation and loss of place associated with the metropolis. It was the intention of these filmmakers to highlight the negative repercussions of China’s emergence on the global-economics front through the often unpleasant and mundane activities/spaces. These films are intentionally set within the metropolis as a way to narrate and deal with the urban physiology in hand with the psychological; what becomes of the public/private space in the rapidly urbanizing Chinese city? The following are various clips from two sixth generation filmmakers: Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, Jia Zhangke’s The World.

Lou Ye’s major motif of the river serves as the backdrop from which the story and, to a certain extent, the city of Shanghai is perceived. The Suzhou River has historically been a major waterway that has supplied trade and commerce to the development of Shanghai. But the former glory is sharply contrasted with what Lou depicts: dark and muddied and filled with trash. The city in the background is starkly imposed upon images of decrepit steel factories decaying at the river’s edge, the crumbling ruins of an industrial China. In essence, the Suzhou River once supplied the lifeblood to the city, but now merely acts as a relic of time, receiving the waste of Shanghai’s shift into urbanization. What is the real Shanghai, is it the romanticized picture of glamour, or is it really comprised of the gritty reality engrained within the urban fabric?

The World is a film about the unfulfilled lives of a few characters that work at a World theme park. Zhangke celebrates the glamour of this make-believe world, but undermines the superficial through exposing the deception of what the park really means. The despair of the characters is epitomized by the soul-less architectural manifestations that surround them; it is representative of their desire to escape, yet inability to actually do so. Their search for the cosmopolitan associated with the urban leads them to the false realization of “traveling the world”. If the metropolis has evolved to point of quantifying and servicing the macro, global scale as a commodity, what then becomes real? For some, a theme park may be the closest chance they have to exploring the world/culture. It is the realization (and the capacity) of China’s global emerging perspective, but presenting it in a mundane and almost repetitive way that makes The World a telling narrative of an empty, urbanized, city.

_Jonathan

Filed under: Architecture, China, film, Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Metropolis, Psyche, Suzhou River, The World, Urbanism, Video,

Collectivism and Assimilation in…..Baseball?

The thought of Japan brings to mind a homogeneous culture that has long valued the collectivist community as a core to the identity of being Japanese. No further does one have to look for an example of this mindset than the game of baseball. A few of us decided to attend a pro baseball game in Tokyo – the Hanshin Tigers versus the Tokyo Yakult Swallows – and the experience was unlike any Major League game I have attended in the States.  The second we stepped into the seats of Jingu Stadium, we were bombarded with masses of Japanese fans all wearing the same jerseys, chanting the same chants in unison, motioning the same directions, responding to the same cues. It was fascinating how perfectly harmonized the fans were in tune with each other; it was as if the collective crowd had a singular mind. If I didn’t know better I would almost say it looked militaristic. But what it really was, was a perfect reflection of the collectivist cultural value has long been integral to Japanese identity. George Simmel’s definition of The Metropolis as “the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and…. precisely schematized form of life” has no better example than that of these Japanese baseball fans behaving in such a homogeneous way.

This pervading collectivism is represented not just in this cultural realm of baseball, but manifests itself in the built environment around us. As I sit and write at night in my 30-story high hotel room, the view of Tokyo is a dense collection of white lights that define building forms and outlines. Each mid/high rise building has on its roof a series of identical red blinking lights. No doubt this serves a functional purpose – my guess would be that they exist to warn incoming helicopters or planes at night of relative building heights – but what is more evocative is how as a single collective mass, the red lights on each building at night evoke an image of this metropolis as a gigantic living organism. Red lights that turn on and off together and define the Tokyo skyline also represent the organic collective mindset so core to the Japanese identity and to the idea of the Metropolis. Just as the crowd of fans at the baseball game behaved as a homogeneous collective whole, so does the Metropolis consisting of buildings – the man made objects that stem from this society – behave in the very same way.

Switching back to the topic of baseball, I took an image of an especially ardent fan at the stadium waving, of all things, an American flag. This reminded me that baseball was originally an American sport brought to Japan, and led me to consider the topic of assimilation in Japanese culture. If I can recall from history class, the Japanese culture contains a very real capacity for rapid, pragmatic adaptation. Historically, the transformation of Japan into a modern political and social metropolis during the Meiji Restoration ended the reign of the Shogunate, and ushered in a complete assimilation of Western political, social, and industrial hierarchies. The same thing happened with baseball, albeit with no bloodshed or rebellion. Baseball, originally a Western construct, has been completely assimilated by Japanese culture. From a Western point of view, it was almost amusing to see this pseudo imitation of Americana, much like Tokyo Disneyland or Elvis being blasted and danced to on the streets. But as a student of architecture and urbanism, I now begin to question the very idea of assimilation and whether what is ‘assimilated’ and spit back out even resembles the original. Here we are witnessing: a Japanese baseball fan, waving an American flag, in a Japanese crowd, watching an ‘American’ sport, being played and experienced in a distinctively Japanese way. The Japanese songs, chants, sportswear and collective behavior of the crowd as one homogeneous mind can nowhere be found in baseball games in the States. Baseball in Japan has become uniquely Japanese. By the bottom of the 7th inning, the score was 8-3 Tigers, the Swallows would probably lose. We were seated in the losing teams section and I expected fans to start leaving early, cheers to die down and chants to be recited with less and less fervor. But the opposite happened, fans stayed put and sung and chanted just as loud as the opening pitch. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t about the score anymore, it wasn’t about winning or losing. In America, the idea of victory and defeat is so engrained in our minds, but what I was witnessing here was a collective group of people and their respective culture that was more concerned with the passing of time (like those Pacinco parlors) and with losing themselves in the sport (like those high-rise golf ranges).  I would argue that this is the essence of Japanese baseball at its most pure, and in a larger sense, the essence of The Metropolis at its most blase’.

~ Evan Shieh

Filed under: America, Assimilation, Baseball, Collectivism, George Simmel, Homogenous, Japan, Metropolis, Red Blinking Lights, Tokyo, Urbanism

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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