USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Life Beneath the Asphalt

Too often times do we associate the act of designing to simply an object and overlook the fact that it is the spaces between the individual objects that begin to shape our experiences. The city essentially is not object oriented in the scale of architecture, but functions as a collective whole with emphasis on the relationships between the various components within it, creating an urban narrative that gives meaning to its people. The existence of public open spaces therefore becomes an important component in stitching the city together and helping it function as a collective whole. One aspect of public open space can be found through the use of landscaped pedestrian walkways within the dense urban context.

Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, discussed in his essay Politics, Power, Cities, the importance of public spaces as an urban equalizer, “In public spaces people meet as equals, stripped bare of their social hierarchies”.  Public pedestrian spaces such as, parks, waterfronts, and promenades are all means to a more inclusive and in turn more collective society. These spaces show respect for human dignity regardless of the level of economic development of a society, and begin to compensate for inequality in other realms. The restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul is a successful case demonstrating how public green spaces have helped change the quality of life of its inhabitants.  Contrary to its current state, during the early fifties, the Cheonggyecheon stream was a terribly filthy, trash-filled waterway when Korea was just beginning to run the course of industrialization.  The stream became so deteriorated that the Korean government had the Cheonggyecheon covered up with concrete in 1958, and ten years later an elevated highway was built over the concrete in order to relieve traffic congestion in the city. For half a century, a dark tunnel of crumbling concrete encased more than three miles of a placid stream that bisects the bustling city, until former Seoul Mayor, Lee Myung-bak decided to liberate the Cheonggyecheon from its dark sheath and revert it back into a stream with green pedestrian corridors surrounding the exposed waters. Today, it has become one of the few places in downtown Seoul where all the citizens of the city can congregate together, you will find children playing with their parents, young couples strolling hand-in-hand, the elderly sitting on the park benches, and even the rich business elite eating lunch in the shade underneath one of the bridges. The stream has not only become a pedestrian space, but also a recreational space, a place for all the citizens of Seoul to enjoy.

However, that is not to say the urban restoration of Cheonggyecheon came easily and without criticisms. The approximate cost for the restoration project was a whopping 384 million USD. It was a major undertaking as not only did they have to remove the highway, but also after years of neglect and development the original stream was nearly dried out – 120,000 tons of water had to be pumped in annually from the Han River, its tributaries, and the groundwater from subways in order to maintain its current state. In addition, there were also tremendous efforts made to compromise with the existing conditions, which involved hundreds of meetings with businesses and residents over a period of two years. The main criticism the project received early on was that it was expensive and an “inefficient” form of urban renewal, because open spaces are essentially not programmed in the architectural sense, cost money to maintain, and have no direct revenue – all values that are deemed inefficient. However, is urbanism only about efficiency? And though it is important, does it have to be defined by completely optimizing efficiency? Quoting Yi, our professor in Seoul, “a city is not only about the performance, but also about the narrative. Performance is only functional, while narrative gives the city meaning”. As an urban equalizer, the Cheonggyecheon does bring about diversity and a greater sense of community for the people of Seoul to work towards a more collective society. One cannot argue the fact that after the Cheonggyecheon restoration project it has not increased the quality of life of its citizens as well as marketed the city of Seoul to the world, as it has become one of the signature landmarks of Seoul that is enjoyed by people of all ages as well as races.

Cheongyecheon stream: a place for people of all ages – a grandfather playing in the stream with his granddaughter

Cheongyecheon: Before and After Comparison

Jeanette C.

Filed under: Collectivism, Landscape, narrative, ,

Worlds Apart

The past three days spent in and around Xi’an gave us, for the first time this trip, a true look at agrarian lifestyle in a developing nation.  The stark contrast in living conditions between city dwellers and their poorer rural countrymen means while the former enjoy paved roads, sewage systems, ample electricity, and public transportation, the latter may use an outhouse at home and walk or bike to town on dirt roads.  The disparity is more alarming still when considering the lavish hotels, luxury automobiles, and world-class shopping all prevalent only an hour’s bus ride away in central Xi’an.

Because China’s development is relatively recent and still ongoing, this urban/rural divide is a uniquely temporal experience, where moving from urban center to countryside equates to a kind of developmental time lapse in reverse.  By the same token, traveling from farmland outside the urban fringe into the center of Xi’an may as well have been fast motion playback of a 35 year urbanization process beginning in the mid 1970s with discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors.

The developmental narrative goes something like this: begin on a narrow, crumbling road in the Jade Valley an hour outside of Xi’an surrounded by farmland, aging brick houses, and little activity other than an occasional scooter passing by; proceed into town, now on a two-way road lined by a street market…vendors selling food on wooden carts attached to bicycles or small vehicles…people in town seem surprised to see a bus and the scale of the vehicle is overbearing in the context; outside of town two lane road turns into four lane highway still surrounded by farmland, but after ten minutes the bus passes beneath an under-construction elevated expressway bound for Shanghai; twenty more minutes and four lane highway becomes six lane highway as fields disappear and 30 meter housing complexes take their place on the horizon…you are entering the urban fringe; traffic increases on the highway as housing complexes grow to 60 meters and double in number, meanwhile a sweeping highway interchange fast approaches; ten more minutes and the six lane highway becomes an eight lane highway as housing again increases in size and traffic becomes more intense…the surrounding grid of streets is buzzing with commercial activity, pedestrians, and people on scooters; ten more minutes of driving through what is now an urban canyon and the highway empties out onto a tree lined central boulevard in the city center surrounded by office buildings, hotels, apartment towers, restaurants, and shopping malls topped by glowing neon signs and video displays…a 6 lane roundabout appears ahead, busses are everywhere, people cover the sidewalks, and constant honking of horns is the only predictable outcome of all the traffic…you have entered central Xi’an.

Matt Luery


Filed under: China, narrative, rural, Urbanism, Xi'an

Narrative Needs

The concept of narrative has been brought up in our intellectual discussions almost daily so far this semester.  The ideas of story, experience and sequence that play such integral roles in writing are just as relevant to the design process at both the architectural and urban level.  Given the brevity of our workshops in the past eight weeks, we have not had the time to conceptualize and produce actual buildings, but rather we have focused on telling a story, and creating a moment, both at the urban scale.  With our arrival to Shanghai, we can now experience physical manifestations of narrative frameworks at the architectural scale, via the 2010 World Expo.  A collection of pavilions, each showcasing the cultural and developmental growth of a single nation over the past decade, provides dozens of narratives through which we can experience the different countries.  But how do we begin to understand the intent of these different pavilions, and furthermore measure the success of the narrative that they are striving to create?

First, I think it is necessary to understand that narratives are born from a specific view of the creator.  We as architects can never design with the belief that any and all will experience our work as we intend them too.  Inevitably we are forced to implement our own attitude when forming the narrative of a building or scheme, which often is most appealing when done successfully.  Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels is a respectable filmic example of this, and shows how the director was able to package the entire city of Hong Kong into a specific identity.  Shot almost entirely in mega close-up view, the backgrounds of most shots are blurred beyond distinction, and coupled with the extensive use of indoor settings, the film creates a suffocating and confined atmosphere, elucidating the mental strain that we identify Hong Kong with.  This vision of Wong Kar-Wai’s is merely one aspect of how the city could be experienced, but it is thought out and executed with precision.

Paradoxically, the notion of narrative as a particular attitude is somewhat distorted in some of the pavilions I’ve visited thus far at the expo.  The ingredients are there (big name architects, multiple programs, spatial sequencing) and the stage is ripe to wow the mass audiences in attendance, yet something was still missing. Perhaps the fact that the pavilions are trying to present a holistic view of their nation, and highlight multiple facets of culture and industry prevents a focused narrative from occurring.  An attitude about what story they are trying to tell is absent, and an unconnected collection of information remains.  Ones that have chosen an aspect unique to their nation and used it to drive the narrative have been more successful.  Portugal for example, the largest producer of cork, used this characteristic as a catalyst.  Starting with a cork exhibit, moving to a film which details cork production among other information, and ending with cork products for sale, there is cohesiveness to the experience.  The exterior paneling was also made of cork to top it all off.

Ultimately, the key to creating an interesting narrative lies in the calibration of a spectrum, from which a specific aspect can be conveyed.  If Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels had been shot from multiple camera lengths, and in a mixture of settings, it would not have achieved such a powerful affect, and the narrative would end up a more general representation of the entire Hong Kong spectrum.  Granted it is a challenge to “package” an entire nation into a small exhibit, I think it is worth the effort to narrow the story that the pavilion is trying tell, even if this means sacrificing some of the larger picture that many seem to focus on.  I hope I will find examples of this in the final days of the expo.


Filed under: China, Expo 2010, narrative, Shanghai, Wong Kar-Wai

A City Without Tension

After visiting Japan, I was jolted into a completely different society again.  We made our way to Korea where the streets plentiful trash cans and beggars.  Instead of feeling guilty for bumping into someone on the subway, it was perfectly normal to do so and not even have to say sorry.  People were chattering with each other even though they were strangers and also wanted to interact with us foreigners. Just walking around in the hotel in South Korea, it felt like Los Angeles, but replaced with an Asian population.  The loss of security found in Japan was immediately lost when I stepped foot into South Korea.   The South Korean culture has much compassion for each other, which gave them a sense of community that the Japanese people find only when shopping.  However, after visiting Paju Book City, the vibrancy of these people and prolonged excitement of the city disappeared.

Paju was established by publishing companies and other support services of the bookmaking process.  Because literature holds the power of intellectual development, Paju started to have an elitist take.  It became this utopia where every building was perfect in its own individual manner.  Upon arrival, I stared in awe trying to comprehend where I was.  Growing up in Los Angeles, I was accustomed to seeing “ugly” buildings.  Everywhere I looked, each building was designed and executed using a simple diagram.

Panning out from the individual buildings, I started to look at the area as a whole.  There was too much uniformity of being unique, which made it all the more ordinary.  On paper, it seemed that having a wholly designed area would be great!  But actually walking and experiencing the reality of Paju completely changed my perception.  If there were only a few well designed buildings, I would be able to appreciate each one as I came across it.  Obviously each building had its own individual expression, but as a collective, the imperfection disappeared.  Now that each building has its own individual identity, does a cluster of unique buildings still give each building the same individuality?

Why did Paju leave me desensitized while Tokyo and Seoul always kept me engaged?  First of all, the city was inaccessible by the subway other than transferring part of the way there from one.  Also, I had to take a bus to reach it.  Lacking infrastructure diminishes a great amount of people flow to the city, which is why it felt so empty.  However, if it was the intention of the publishers to keep Paju isolated from Seoul, they seemed to have gotten the right effect, but as a consequence eliminated the humanistic qualities found in a REAL city.  It is the sense of a city’s humanistic qualities that can be critiqued and improved on the most.  Yet, because of the lack of this and buildings are well designed, there is barely any dialogue or narrative between human and “city”.

Urbanistically, the only ties within each neighboring building was a weak and unsubstantial patch of garden or landscape. The buildings did not respond to each other and if they did, the city would have had an additional level of cohesiveness that could be appreciated.  However, if the city eliminated the garden to construct a new building, the already weak link would be gone and completely sever the dialogue between buildings.  In Tokyo, I was always actively engaged because the Shiodome buildings had a unifying dialogue through multiple levels.  On the third floor, there was the sky bridge that placed me above the cars and had appropriate access points back to the ground level.  At the same time, there was also the ground and subterranean levels that did the same.  This high level of engagement is what always kept me on my toes and why walking through Paju was so desensitizing.  Paju was missing the multiple layers of human engagement and only used the ground plane to “connect” all its buildings.  Paju’s greatest asset of being a designed city became its greatest flaw by not being fully designed.

Cities like Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong all have infrastructure as their main system to bring people into different parts of the city.  Having a fully designed development like Paju is not the only ingredient to have a “utopian” city.  Paju only has only superficial elements to call itself a “city.”  They have avenues, streets, offices, factories, shopping, and other needs that a REAL city has, but lacks the REAL designed aspects of a city.  A REAL city has systems, efficiency, and programs to help facilitate the urban construct of people occupying a city.  The introductory segment of Made in Tokyo the following chart:

The chart shows a series of possibilities with off and on switches.  There are 3 main criteria that compose the “Environmental Unit”: category, use, and structure.  When describing architecture, morality becomes a fourth option.  The Environmental Unit describes an instance of strange coherency between programs that are seemingly unrelated.  Paju would be described with all switches on, making it a “Magnificent Building.”  However, cities like Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong all have at least one off switch in the “Environmental Unit” criteria.  They can be what Made In Tokyo described as “Da-me architecture (no-good architecture)…they seem to be better than anything designed by architects.”  The buildings in developed cities have a clash of unrelated programs within the same confinement, but it is this tension that describes the actual city than the city itself.  The multiple layers of subway, retail, hotel, and restaurant within a buildings corresponds with a variety of social purposes.  The building becomes this mixing pot of activity that captivates an foreigner’s attention like myself.  However, Paju lacks the tensions and layering of buildings, making as boring and as similar to single-family suburban homes.

Could Paju then be considered a real city?  Based on the evaluation that it lacks the substantial components of a city, it is at most a “real-fake” city that prides itself on having only unique architecture and the superficial elements that comprise of a city.  Paju can eventually transform from a “real-fake” city into a REAL city only if it sheds its singular building monument-like attitude and adopt a more urbanistic approach where these buildings still have their own image, but when all of them are added as a whole, makes Paju something more.


Filed under: Collective, Culture, Desensitize, dialogue, Fake-Real, Japan, Korea, narrative, Paju, Psyche, tension, Utopia


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