USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

“Terrain Vague”

While in Beijing, our group visited district 798, one of China’s contemporary art and cultural industries. While most of us, including me, went into the many galleries to observe the various art exhibitions that were put up, I spent the majority of the time walking the back alleys, hidden corners, and deserted streets that make up district 798, looking for something else. Just as much as the art contained in the designated galleries intrigued me, so did the ‘art’ that many of us take for granted, art that exists not in designated sheltered spaces but that which exists in these alleyways: graffiti.

During a workshop in Seoul, the term ‘terrain vague’ was employed to describe socially and functionally undefined urban space. The lexical meaning of ‘terrain vague’ also includes ‘vacancy’, ’emptiness’, and ‘absence’ while at the same time holding a possibility for meaning or function to be applied to these non-confirmed spaces. In contemporary modern architecture, many buildings are designed today as ‘objects’ – focal points of form and the space they contain, yet many times completely insecure of their relationship to the urban space that the building exists in. These object buildings tend to exist in an absent state, autonomously broadcasting the obsessive authorship of the architect and their arrogance in form-making. Buildings like these tend to homogenize the space displaced around them that is just as much a part of the existing urban texture as designed urban space.

At the time, I hadn’t truly grasped the meaning of this term, but walking through district 798 it became more and more clear to me what Professor Koo was referring to. ‘Terrain vague’ is urban space with no meaning, and it is artists like these that define this ‘leftover’ space. Often times, the ‘negative’ space or space ‘poche’ that is created by object buildings on a site become unaddressed and left homogenized. Spaces like back alleys, corridors, ‘butt’ ends of buildings are now becoming inhabited by graffiti artists not necessarily concerned with the money, fame, or the credit their ‘high-end’ art counterparts produce and display in galleries. Rather, they are much more concerned with a sub-cultural movement of rebellion, often expressing social or political commentary. It is activities like these now give these neglected ‘negative’ building spaces meaning, giving a social and cultural intention to spaces in the urban fabric unaddressed by the buildings that make them.

Walking through the alleyways of district 798, I was reminded very much of a famous grafitti artist based in the UK who goes by the code-name of Banksy. Banksy’s works have dealt with an array of political and social themes including anti-capitalism, anarchism, and existentialism, with commentary on the human conditions of greed, hypocrisy or despair. Banksy claims that graffiti art is much more ‘true’ to the art form because it is uninhibited and uncensored by the limitations placed on ‘high-end’ art: like the cost of entering and viewing it in a gallery, or the spatial and dimensional constraints demanded by galleries or patrons. Unlike traditional applications where type, layout, and design serve the needs of buyers and sellers, artists like Banksy through irony and sarcasm create with no social pressure and labels such as ‘success’ or ‘failure’, carry no allegiance to anyone.

While shunned by some as vandalism and deemed by many city officials as illegal, Graffiti writing is growing to become an integral part of global fashion, music, graphic design, and illustration. In trying to understand how counter intuitive shifts are eventually accepted by society, architect Bernard Tschumi wrote in his treatise, Violence in Architecture , “If the Sistine Chapel were used for pole-vaulting events, architecture would then cease to yield to its customary good intensions. For a while the transgression would be real and all-powerful. Yet the transgression of cultural expectations soon becomes accepted. Just as violent Surrealist collages inspire advertising rhetoric, the broken rule is integrated into everyday life.” Recognize that graffiti, just like architecture and other modes of meaning or concept that is given a graphic or formal interpretation by said artist or architect, becomes as Tschumi describes it: just a pause in which our current violation that can be absorbed and one day become accepted in society. Architectural space doesnt exist as a framework of function unless imbued with meaning or intention. The activities performed in spaces like the Sistine Chapel whether that be something as absurd as pole vaulting, or graffiti artists in spaces like the alleyways of 798s, give definition to that space; over time these transgressions of new activities become integrated into society and everyday life.

~ Evan Shieh

Below is a dark and politically charged opening sequence that Banksy did for the Simpsons, aired just a month ago on Oct. 10/2010. Anybody else reminded of the ‘real copy’ art production in China discussion we had and rethinking what it really means to be ‘Made in China’.

Filed under: Architecture, Banksy, Beijing, Bernard Tschumi, China, District 798, Graffiti, Graffiti Artists, negative space, Terrain Vague, 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