USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Road or River?

I suffered my first few near death experiences in a taxicab on the roads of Shenzhen. The white, yellow, solid, and dotted lines seemed like some nice artwork someone had painted on the road. I lost count of the times a car almost turned directly into my passenger door. And as our cab driver swerved in and out of lanes as though weaving a rather elaborate rug, I clenched my hands, bit my lip, and wondered how on earth we were still alive.

As I continued to watch in between gasps of breath and my life flashing before my eyes, I began to notice that the traffic was acting like a fluid river. Like a river, the traffic had no breaks or gaps in the stream. As holes would open, cars would come fill the spots. If someone were turning, cars would simply go around. If the traffic began to be congestion, the cars would start doubling up in lanes or start driving on the shoulder much like a river getting blocked up.

I derived that the reason the cars didn’t hit each other through all their random bold movements was because all of the drivers on the road were extremely aware of each other. For every action a car had, all the cars around it would have a reaction.

The reason there is a heightened sense in all of the drivers is because of the city’s fast growth. The people of Shenzhen have not yet acquired what Simmel in The Metropolis and Modern Life refers to as the quantitative mind of the metropolitan. Their mindsets have not had time yet to evolve from the qualitative emotional village mentality to the calculative metropolitan mentality. The people don’t yet see other people as numbers.

In western metropolitans, the traffic is very orderly so that people have to think less about what other people are doing, in order to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed by their environment, and can focus more on their own every day. However, the people in Shenzhen have a sense of others individuality and are very conscious of other peoples movements and paths.

This difference in mentality can also be seen in the simple way people use their vehicle horns. In a western metropolis, people use their car horns when someone cuts them off or does something out of the order of the road causing their conscious to break from the order and recognize someone else’s individuality. In Shenzhen, people use their horns as an informative tool to let other cars, buses, and bikes know of their position in the flow and causing the other vehicles to recognize their individuality. For example, when merging into a highway, a person from Shenzhen might honk letting the bike in the lane over know that they are now next to them. While in Los Angeles, the bike would honk at the merging car for coming in to close to them.

Though Shenzhen’s new fast growing economy has shown “dominance it has not truly shown a “inconsiderate hardness” that typically couples economic success. Though Shenzhen still holds its qualitative mindset, the upcoming generations may gain the quantitative metropolitan mindset.


-Alexis Dirvin

Filed under: AAU, Asia, Car, character, China, Circulation, development, Emotion, individuality, Psyche, Public Transportation, Shenzhen, streets, traffic, Transporation

Absurdity, Sex, and Architecture

Our judgment of what is good or what is acceptable is widely based on what we see in the day to day as well as our own boundaries of what is exciting or simply ridiculous.  There is a degree of absurdity that makes something really interesting and exciting- that little rub of inconsistency and obscurity.   It is that little inconsistency of mystery or absurdity that sparks our interest as critics of the everyday.  In this sense, architecture is like sex.  Both seek to push boundaries in able to reach new heights of understanding.  This is portrayed and evaluated in parallel formats as we’ve seen by Rem Koolhaas, Sophia Coppola, Paulo Coelho and Godard’s own analysis.

Rem Koolhaas writes of this relationship in SMLXL.  He sites Japanese porn as this instance where it is more exciting to have the most essentials parts hidden from view.  In many Japanese pornographies the essentials are blurred out and left a mystery, revealing nothing but pixilation.  Rem relates his pixilation to miniature Mondrian paintings of flesh colored squares and dark lines.   These vague lines and color blocks reveal nothing and everything  because the excitement of what could be there is so much more promising than see the actual genitalia.  In this case it is the relationship of the unseen and the seen that relates to good architecture.  It is not the absurdity of the new and different but the allure of what could be there.  An architectural example of this is Mario Botta’s part of the Leeum Museum.   The exterior begs of mystery, giving no hint of what is inside.  The brick is pixilated unto itself, departing from what we expect it to be.  Upon entering you are shuttled to the top and forced to circulate in a downward spiral.    The cylindrical stairs are punctuated with framed views to reveal what lies ahead of you, but only as a glimpse.  When traversing each floor the circular plan furthers this selectivity.  One is never allowed to see the museum exhibit as a whole, there is no grand hallway lined with celadon blue ceramics.   Instead each piece is revealed to you in its own time, each turn you walk around allowing a new experience.   There is a constant sense of being teased by unknowing of what is around the up coming turn and never being allowed to see the whole.

In this way good architecture can vastly be related to Sophia Coppolla’s Lost in Translation.  The sexual relationship (or truly lack there of) between the film’s main characters is reflected in how the city is framed.    The sexual and visual tension between these characters is overtly apparent.  There is obvious attraction between these characters, shared feelings, but nothing is ever done about it.  They lie in bed next to each other, speaking so very intimately, but nothing physical ever happens between them.  This is reflected in how Tokyo is filmed.  In a sense, Tokyo becomes a visual embodiment of their sexual relationship.  When they positively interact we see the Tokyo Skyline from some high up floor- out of reach, beautiful and alluring in all the glory the Tokyo skyline can possess.  It is only when their relationship becomes tumultuous that we are allowed to see the city in any other way.  When there is no longer a tease or allure in those character’s relationship the city is no longer distant and alluring- it’s sonorous and crowded.  When they go out to lunch in the prime of their disgruntled state the bowels of Tokyo are shown- the street life, cars, taxis, honking, ect.

Finally, there is the attraction of the absurd.  This is an attraction we can’t help but simultaneous dislike and enjoy.  The absurd identifies with the book by Paulo Coelho Eleven Minutes.   The main character briefly gets drawn into the world of sadomasochist sex because of the clarity is brings her.  Physical pain helped to take her to the limits of what is her conceived reality.  However the absurdity involved is that each experience creates a new outlying boundary, therefore each following experience forces further exploration to get that previous high.  Each experience then becomes more absurd and desensitizing, creating greater distance from the original meaning.  A further example of this is in Godard’s Week End, a film so absurd it is literally a car crash in which you can’t help but stare.   Despite the obvious spectacle of absurdity throughout the film, the film opens by talking about a woman’s fetishized threesome.  She describes each act in her sexual encounter involving improbable positions, cracking an egg with her buttocks and cumming in a dish of milk.  Essentially these types of absurd sexual experience relates back to the absurdity of architecture.   They are removed from the everyday life, and have one far beyond that rub interesting inconsistency, so very far from its origin, that it is a bad thing.  Such architectural sites include Paju in South Korea or The Ring in Shenzhen.  Paju falls into absurdity due to the excessiveness of design.  Each building holds true in singular form but together, a town where everything is individually designed without consideration of its surroundings, becomes absurd.  It is too much and too far from its origin.   This is also true for The Ring but in a different way.  It’s the scale and perfect symmetry that makes it so absurd.  Its simply too large for anyone to walk casually, programmed or not.  Yet for some reason there is something rather enticing about both of these pieces of architecture.  For Paju, there is an allure that can’t really be explained except to say it is visually stunning.  That these publishers and stores care to define themselves by using architecture on this type of design scale is impressive.  Each building creates an identity and draw for itself.  The Ring stands to be even more impressive to me.  In a country like China, where the Great Wall can be seen from outer space, how does something as large and cumbersome as this massive ring as a centralization tool seem out of place?  It is by all means fantastical, yet still has a function that could only be fulfilled in a country such as China; in city like Shenzhen where everything is so new everyone is always looking for that next boundary to top.  But what could possibly be that next fix?

So is it better to seek that perfect mysterious moment or break out of the everyday?  Each architecture we’ve looked at through Asia and in truly in our lifetime seeks to accomplish at least one of these.  And so it is when we see these moments of inconsistency, mystery, or absurdity that makes that moment come to life and be more than simply the mundane.


Filed under: Architectural Absurdity, Architectural Spectacle, Architecture, China, Godard, Korea, Psyche, Rem Koolhaas, Uncategorized

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!


My experience in Shanghai has been a humbling experience of sorts. I’ll be the first to admit that before the trip, I had negative pre-conceptions of China as still being largely third world, despite the endless news reports of its quick economic development. If you asked me what my expectations of China were prior to leaving on this trip exactly three and a half months ago, I’d quite simply say:

“Well, it’s probably going to be smelly, dirty, and gloomy”.

Now, while I would say most of that is generally still true, I cannot doubt the fact that I am genuinely appalled and afraid of where China is and fast becoming in the global community. A plethora of high-speed rail developments, no shortage of planned economic zones, heavily invested by leading international businesses, epicenter of global events, and did I mention the growing population of 1.4 billion?

If that’s not enough to strike fear in your adversaries, then I don’t know what will.

But it’s not just China. Our initial drive through Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong provided a small (personally, I wish we spent MUCH more time there) glimpse into true “urbanism” as we call it. Layered densities both horizontal and vertical, hybridity of programmatic elements, successfully integration of infrastructural systems; all these are characteristics of what we saw, felt, experienced. In short, we experienced an everydayness that was foreign to us, and yet at the same time intriguing and exciting because, quite simply, it worked.

But what does that all mean for us now, especially post-trip while we’re safely back within the completely different world of America? If anything, this trip has opened my eyes to the deficiencies that plague a stagnant America that is utterly stuck in its tracks. Of course, we do enjoy many freedoms unparalleled in most countries, but America is far from its glory days. If the 20th century was about America, then the 21st century is increasingly becoming about China.  Friedman’s “From WikiChina” article, albeit humorous, provides an insightful look into perhaps how the world is continuing to view us. Friedman states, “ The Americans have replaced working to exceptional with talking about how exceptional they still are. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t declare yourself ‘exceptional’, only others can bestow that adjective upon you”. Ouch, but so true. I mean, what’s so exceptional about American infrastructure? We have 10 lane freeway expansion projects in LA that stretches for miles, but the only exceptional thing about that is perhaps the iconic smog generated from all the car traffic. We can’t even agree to pass a bill to install a network of high speed rail transit systems that will even go over 90 miles per hour. The realization of such an infrastructural revolution within America is a lesson that can be taken from Asia, where high speed is a necessity of most people’s transportation. Like cities such as Los Angeles, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to move from point A to point B without taking hours in traffic congestion. Also, the mobility of the individual becomes increased tremendously, allowing a greater opportunity for distributed intra-national economic growth. But no, industries that include airlines have lobbied hard against it in an effort to erase the competition; this along with many other political/economic factors have ubiquitously hindered any real change in our infrastructure.

Friedman is right when he says, “…the Americans are polarized over all the wrong things”. We are often so entrenched in our ideological beliefs that we live in a black and white world. This is that, this is not and cannot be that. Lefebvre touches upon this “situation” as he calls it: “ A modern object clearly states what it is, its role and its place.” Americans often view society and place in the same manner: a mall is just a mall; a train station is where people get on and off a train, etc. But there’s so much more to that, the possibilities of experience and juxtaposition of program and space are endless and intriguing if only we operated in the grey area. Tokyo Midtown was not just an office building complex, it was a subway station, mall, hotel, private residences, outdoor park all interweaved and layered to create a different kind of urban environment that was continuously engaging the public at different levels. We saw, in Hong Kong, the IFC mall turned into an airport terminus with an express rail line that directly linked the airport to the subterranean level. The airport then became more than itself, it was a transportation hub and also a lifestyle center, complete with cultural amenities, retail shops, restaurants, cafes, etc; the phenomenon of “infratecture”.

Lefebvre states: “Today we see a worldwide tendency to uniformity”. But beyond that, the tendency is also towards a sense of complacency. Complacency for how things are, how comfortable things can get. If given the same opportunity to see/experience the things I have in these last 15 weeks, there are people I know who would be unwilling, simply because their life back home is all too comfortable. Therein lies the greatest danger, and unfortunately America has become lost in its own complacency. If we do not stimulate ourselves with curiosity and intrigue, what good is replicating what has already been done before? How can we affect the world around us if all we know how to do and think is through mimicry? Asia, specifically China, is the new frontier, pioneering the world into the 21st century through technology, infrastructure, and most importantly urbanism. It’s about time America woke up from its dreams of what once was and realize we are losing the race in a world has long since moved on.

So when I return, upon being bombarded with “What did you see?” or “How was Asia?”, I’ll simply reply:

Wow, you wouldn’t even believe me if I told you…


Friedman, Thomas, “From WikiChina” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/opinion/01friedman.html?src=twrhp

Filed under: America, China, Infrastructure, Japan, Korea, Lefebvre, Psyche, Urbanism

Tea is Tea

Walking back from lunch one afternoon I decided to stop by a local convenience store to pick up drink. Standing there, in front of the glass refrigerator door, I am overwhelmed with my selections…. of tea.

Black teas, milk teas, oolong teas, green teas, herbal teas, lemon teas, “wang lao ji”….. WHICH ONE??!

I close my eyes and blindly grab the closest bottle; I mean, does it really matter? Tea is tea.

In my time spent in various Chinese cities, my observations of capitalism and free-market economic policies within the confines of modern China suggest that the modern Chinese society is all about the “spectacle”, an idea Guy Debord predicates in his text “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere”. Debord defines culture first and foremost as “the general sphere of knowledge”. How fitting that in this last decade, the influx of information and information technology has advanced the world tremendously. Global communications and transferring of information has allowed platforms for cross-cultural exchange, from which China has now emerged as a major powerhouse in the new century. However, with the advancement of culture (or knowledge), the idea of the image presupposes all aspects within a society; knowledge becomes a commodity of a society of the spectacle. Surveillance is a large component of this as cities and government are now more and more prone to monitor their citizens. China, still a Communist government, still employs close watch and censorship over information outlets such as the Internet, television, printed media etc. We’re all reminded of this everytime we turn our VPN on to access social networking sites like Facebook, or staring up at CCTV surveillance cameras that seem to be everywhere.

Now we go back to the tea, how? Culture naturally is issued from a historical point of view and often struggles between tradition and innovation, which seems to plague many modern societies/cities. Debord states that. “Cultural innovation is impelled solely, however, by that total historical movement….tends toward the transcendence of its own cultural presuppositions-and hence toward the suppression of all separations”. Tea, both a widely celebrated beverage and long-standing ceremonial ritual in China, has met this drastic fate in a modern, consuming Chinese society. The fact that this once highly relegated ceremonial drink that was, at times, reserved for aristocrats is now being cheaply sold in mass quantities means the inevitability of that cultural item’s loss of significance. The uniqueness of the quality, or scarcity of the type of flavor becomes meaningless in a free-market system that encourages industrialized mass production and multiple competitors. The individual/consumer becomes desensitized with quantity, and this is what Debord calls the disappearance of separations.

This past weekend we made a trip to Xi’an where I was fortunate enough to visit an actual teahouse. Upon arriving at the front door of the courtyard house, I was stopped by the hostess. She pointed to a sign that said “20 RMB Tea Ceremony”. It didn’t occur to me in that instance, but now reflecting on that moment, I am conscious now of what Debord was getting at. Similarly to Benajmin’s argument in Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the society of the spectacle within the cultural sphere reduces what was once considered true art in the sense of enrichment, to the spectacle within a purely consumer-centric society. In essence, this devolution, if you will, of culture to a merely another product completely negates any real, intrinsic value it previously had. I recently read an article published earlier this year about Starbuck’s discovering that Chinese people actually like drinking tea….what a shocker. Needless to say, this was a market study that led to the recent introduction of  “ nine new tea drinks in China including three original-leaf Chinese-style tea drinks, four original-leaf foreign tea drinks, and two handmade special tea drinks”. I found an interesting quote from the article about the current move from Starbuck’s to “get in touch” with the Chinese:

“This is not the first time that Starbucks is trying to (slowly) localize in China. China Daily points out that there is already a tea-themed Starbucks location in Shenzhen and over the past few years, Starbucks has taken to selling their own mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival and zongzi during the Dragon Boat Festival”.

It seems in an age of globalization, the purity and significance of culture becomes one of the first to take a hit from the ever-changing society of the spectacle. What happens to our perceptions of culture? What is real vs. fake culture? The everydayness of walking the city presents itself with various images and advertisements of “culture”, fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, etc. Consumption and negation within the modern era leads us ever closer to the blurring between reality and the surreal, which toggles the understanding of our own culture.



“Starbucks discovers that Chinese people like tea”,


Filed under: China, Culture, Debord, knowledge, Psyche, spectacle, Starbucks, Tea, Walter Benjamin

Us and Them.

The days of European imperialism in Shanghai are technically long over, technically.  Thousands of expats reside throughout Shanghai today.  They tend to group together, creating foreign specializing communities.  As a foreigner myself, I tend to gravitate toward these foreigner oriented areas.  However specialized these areas are, one cannot but recognize how this specialization exists throughout the city and within the mindset of the locals as well.

I have seen a definitive difference between what is meant for locals and what is meant for expats.  There seem to be two sets of everything.  I first noticed this some time ago while eating out.  Looking for affordable places for lunch there are two types, ones that are local oriented and one that is expat oriented.  The local oriented food consists of really excellent street food and small vendors which cost less than 10rmb per person.  The other class of restaurants is generally upwards of 60rmb for lunch.  Decent, sit down restaurants for dinner are also polarized.  The Chinese version can be as little as 30rmb, while its western counterpart can be about 120rmb for dinner.  Although you will find a really high end Chinese restaurant for 120rmb dinner, or more even, you will not find western food the prices of Chinese food.  Furthermore, upon going into any of these Western restaurants there are not Chinese families here.  There are very westernized Chinese people, mixed couples, Asian business professionals- not families, not people who wouldn’t already be capable of travelling out of country.

Conversely, while in the Electronic district with my Chinese speaking friend I became subject to different kind of separation.  While haggling, my friend was told she could get a better price because they are of the same, both ‘native’ Chinese, not some foreigner.  Until the seller realized I was with her, and she was probably also a foreigner, then the deal was off.

When reading a local equivalent of LA Weekly expat edition, I realized how extensive this divide truly is.  I found an article about where to buy jeans, it specifies if you are proportioned like locals then you can go to this place, but if you want more western sizes then go to this place.  Or if you don’t mind being inundated in street culture and haggling then go here, but if you want to be waited on by an English speaker go here.  I continued reading to find an article about some European women who couldn’t find quality leather purses they wanted here, so they just started their own purse manufacturing company here.  This is more than just entrepreneurial.  This is identifying a level of quality that can only be identified with those who are NOT local.   This is about class divide, not a racial divide.  However unlike most immigrant situations, it is the immigrants who are the well-to-do and elite.

Beyond a sense of elitism, there is more.  As comparing immigrant communities in the US to those here there is a large defining difference.  Most immigrants come to the US and assimilate into ‘American’ life.  Most try to hold onto their own culture while still meeting American expectations.  Here there doesn’t appear to be any effort to assimilate.  In Shanghai, the effort is shown by making whatever place they settle into more like their own culture.  Instead of integrating their own culture into that of the local one, their culture dominates and the local culture starts to absorb their changes.  This difference once again becomes the most prevalent to me in food, but not in the prices, in the authenticity.  Almost every cuisine in the US has dishes that are not native to the cuisine, but American takes.  They are dishes developed by immigrants with an understanding of their own cultural food and an understanding of American goods and tastes.  An example of this is cioppino. Cioppino is rich seafood stew associated with Italian cuisine; it was developed by Italian American fisherman in San Francisco based on their local catches.  The same is true numerous types on makizushi.  These ‘Japanese’ sushi rolls are made inside out (rice outside of the nori, instead of inside) with cooked food like tempura soft shell crab inside.  These are purely American interpretations that have become so widely popular they have moved beyond the US borders and right back into the cultures they started from.  This doesn’t happen for Chinese interpretations of food.  Food doesn’t really ‘fusion’ here, it’s either/or but never both.  I can actually live in Shanghai without ever eating Chinese food or any semblance thereof if I so choose.  Does this exist because of the earlier mentioned elitism?  One cuisine is too pure for fusion with another? Or is there no demand for fusion?

Shanghai is an atmosphere of separates- separate food, separate prices, and separate clothing sizes creating two overall vastly different experiences.  Are both foreigners and locals choosing to stay separate? Is it possible that it is not the foreigners at all but the locals who refuse this integration?  Could Chinese people be so accustomed to China’s previous cultural isolation that fusion is just not even a question yet?




Filed under: America, China, Fusion, Psyche, Shopping

Art, Architecture, and The Sign-Vehicle

Still frame from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Though seemingly disparate media, film and architecture share many similarities. Both deal with the concepts of narrative, sequence, mood, space, experience, time, place. Directors have long since employed these techniques in forwarding the concepts of their film – for example, Kubrick’s meticulous employment of perspective, sequence, and spatial implications in 2001: A Space Odyssey – yet some directors appear unsatisfied with the gaps left between architecture and film as a means of artistic expression. Peter Greenaway, director of The Belly Of An Architect and several other award-winning films, is one such artist who attempts to bridge the gap between film and architecture. Though The Belly Of An Architect is obvious in its reference to architecture as a thematic and narrative linchpin, its obsession with architecture and incorporation of architectural theory in the telling of its plot runs much deeper than the subject matter of its narrative.

Still frame from Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect

Indeed, one may consider The Belly Of An Architect a critique of film’s lacking desire to incorporate contradiction and complexity as a means of visual communication, to paraphrase a well-known publication by architect Robert Venturi. As Greenaway writes at the outset of Stairs 1 Geneva, released in 1994,

For me it is a frustration that cinema has no substance in the way that, for example, architecture and sculpture – even painting – have substance. And, as a consequence, I doubt whether cinema has any real history in the world. The passage of history effects inevitable material changes in an artefact. In that sense, cinema, or film, cannot profitably age, and it can have no intimacy with history. Even a very short history permits an object to attain provenance, heritage and cultural power. Even attain cultural magic, certainly cultural currency and usage. The physical touch of history, which is not necessarily inimical to the well-being of a cultural artefact, can ‘improve’ its substance and enhance its significance. … It could be argued that film fails to satisfy the very particular demands of the five human senses, which should be ignored at peril, because a lack of unique presence leads to the dissatisfactions of banal cloning, and a lack of material presence leads to the sort of disappointments and dismissiveness experienced by the thirsty in the presence of an oasis mirage. (Being Naked – Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway, 93-94)

In an effort to prevail over these supposed shortcomings of film as a medium, Greenaway infuses The Belly Of An Architect with a myriad of architectural and artistic signifiers to heighten the symbolic meaning of his film. As Michael Kokonis writes in his essay entitled “Peter Greenaway’s The Belly Of An Architect: A Bagful of Signs And Designs,[Greenaway tends] to put more emphasis on the significative power of his images, which, as sign-vehicles, communicate extra meaning through their inedical and symbolic properties.” The opening scene, for example, pins the the pivotal characters in the film between a myriad of architectural artifacts – the Pantheon in the background, an obelisk illuminated in the center of the frame, a representation of Boulee’s Cenotaph for Issac Newton in the foreground. These artifacts do indeed carry the historical weight which Greenaway discusses at the opening of Stairs 1 Geneva, each monument giving a sense of place to the film’s narrative (the Pantheon – Rome), an indication as to the film’s subject matter (the Cenotaph for Issac Newton – an exhibition on the work of Boulee himself), or an indication as to the character’s relationship to these architectural icons (situated amidst such artifacts, architects and artists).

Etienne-Louis Boulee, Cenotaph for Isaac Newton

More specifically, however, other patterns can be seen which compliment the postmodern architectural theory prevalent during the film’s conception. During the opening scene in front of the Pantheon, and indeed many others as found throughout the film, the camera frame is composed so as to lend a sense of monumentality to place. Whether watching from inside the protagonist’s apartment, or from outside the ruins of an ancient temple, Greenaway composes each frame – often in a symmetrical organization – almost as if the characters of the film are of secondary importance to the space they inhabit. This compositional technique is again a sign-vehicle, reminiscent of many of Boulee’s sketches for his work – gargantuan structures, astoundingly monumental in scale, all-consuming in their volume, employing symmetrical organization.

Still frame from Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect

Indeed, The Belly Of An Architect employs a seemingly endless series of visual references, motifs, allusions; at moments the viewer is reminded of sculptures or paintings which carry enormous weight as signifiers, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, and Auguste Rodin’s sculpture The Thinker, among others. At times, these images clash with the film’s narrative, and at others seem to reinforce prominent themes found throughout its length. Greenaway seeks to give Architect a conceptual underpinning which goes far beyond a surface-level understanding of his work, and in so doing creates a film unexpectedly filled with the typically non-filmic qualities he describes above – history, complexity, contradiction.

Still frame from Peter Greenaway’s Belly Of An Architect

In turn, the film reveals rich parallel between postmodern architectural philosophy and its technique of visual communication, a methodology which transcends any surface-level allusions to architecture the film may otherwise appear to possess. Such attention to detail seems unconventional in a world of contemporary cinema heavily influenced by television and ruled by the hollywood blockbuster, yet it is clear that Greenaway’s work aims to propel filmmaking to new level of conceptual framework – one which speaks volumes of the close ties between architecture and film.


Filed under: Architecture, Psyche

The John Galt Line

While being in Asia I have come to truly grasp the importance of public transportation, but more specifically a high speed rail line.  A high speed rail allows cities to densify in a healthy way.  Such a rail could allow major cities to connect quick and efficiently.  People could potentially live in San Jose, work in Los Angeles, and go out for the night in San Diego.  This would distribute the economy, promote specialization and essentially be America’s next evolutionary step.

A high speed rail line has certainly been the hot topic in US politics.  Upon reading an article articulating the US’s challenges with a high speed rail, I can’t help but think Atlas Shrugged has truly foretold the American existence.  In Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, Dagny Taggart (the true head of a Taggart Transcontinental) fights to construct the most efficient train line to transfer people and promote industries.  The world seems to be against her, claiming the speeds she purposed for the line are too dangerous, the loads too are large, and the costs are not worthy of its goals.  Against all odds she gets some semblance of her original design made, by doing it on her own despite others approval.  She fights against a majority who fear new ideas, progress, decisive thought, and essentially individual achievement.  The success of this built line is incredible but short lived, as socialist policies are passed- capping the speed of the rail and the length of the freights, requiring equal production from all steel companies regardless of capacity, and restricting passage to certain states to equal those of its neighboring states regardless of local industries.

To parallel this work of fiction, is truth.  The above mentioned article quotes Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promising to build a high speed rail in 25 years.  At this, one can’t help but scoff.  Twenty-five years of railway in Shanghai will produce 22 lines and about 877 km of track (the first line opened in 1995, and there are currently 12 lines and the Maglev).  The Shanghai Maglev goes more than twice as fast as the proposed American line.  In the US, there is actually a federal speed limit for trains on a Class 5 rail topping out at 90 mph. In fact these speeds are characteristic of trains in the 1940’s.  There is also the issue of not wanting to fund replacement tracks to allow for more efficient uses.  By dramatically underfunding all rail initiatives, the government is dooming any rail line to fail.  If we, as Americans, create policies that limit innovation and forward movement we will be destined to live in archaic conditions.  The US government is quite scarily becoming like the one in Atlas Shrugged.  Which raises some very hard hitting questions about our society: have we become a nation of non-producers like the fictional America of Atlas Shrugged?  Why are we afraid of the future, change, and innovation?  America needs to rise up to the challenge and become the ‘can-do’ country it’s known as.

This is not to say that what works for China, or even Western Europe, will work for the US.  However what we are currently operating as does not work- case in point being the California debt or even national debt.  For a more precise example, see Southern California.  People moved inland to affordable housing, simultaneously driving up to 3 hours to get to their jobs closer to cities.  Once the price of gas went up, this became improbable, and people lost their homes.  A high speed rail would change all this, it could have prevented it.

The irony is China, a communist country, is surpassing a ‘capitalist’ one in innovative infrastructure.  This seems to debunk Rand’s philosophies and strong anti-socialist position.  Or have our roles simply changed?  Has America become un-American?  America seems to be aligning itself with the Dr. Stadler mindset of Rand’s creation.  Dr. Stadler, was once considered the leading scientific mind of the age, then denies innovation to ensure further funding of his institute.  We have gone from greatness at even greater sacrifice to mediocrity that is comfortable.  Has America sold out to simply keep things how they are?

Who is John Galt?




Filed under: America, Ayn Rand, China, high speed rail, Infrastructure, Psyche, Urbanism

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.


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

Better City, Better Life. For whom?

While “preparing for arrival” in Shanghai, My eye was drawn to rows and rows of massive housing blocks. These mega forms give the first glimpse of the rapid urban growth being experienced in China. As the plane landed, an amazing transit system was right there to get you from point A to point B, and even more impressive is the system has only been in place for five years. This rapid growth to modernize China has created this new Chinese mentality of perspective. Most of this large-scale development is put into play to demonstrate China’s quantitative power, and to show the western world that it will soon be a new power. With this modernization for power, I question will the people be remembered.

In Japan, the level of development has nearly reached the state of perfection, if perfection could be achieved, and Korea is not too far behind. Japan’s success has to do with its culture. There was no trash in the streets and a degree of personal space is amazingly achievable in a dense metropolis. Somehow the Japanese have developed a sense of collectivism that is wired within their way of thinking. This is not saying that the Japanese model is correct, but it begs the question of what type of cultural and urban development is brewing in China.

My first reaction to China was even with though it is developing physically there seems to a lack of social development. For instance, standing in the gardens of the Forbidden City, the last stop in what been an extraordinary procession of architecture I felt a sudden grip on my arm. A Chinese woman was pulling me out of our group. My automatic reaction was to step away yet she reached for me again. As I shook my head, saying no to the picture-taking I was becoming accustomed to I could not help but wonder how this breach of personal space was a norm in China. Fast forward a couple of weeks later and we are at the Shanghai World Expo. Here within the pavilions that are boasting modern advancement people are spitting, throwing trash, pushing people, and cutting in line. Something we were taught not to do from the age of three.

The difficult part here is to not get into what’s proper and improper, rather stepping back and understanding their culture. As a person who has grown up in the West, I assume my social standards to be the same for the rest of the world. On the contrary being in Japan, and feeling rude and out-of-place, I started to realize how robotic and unnaturally human Japan has become. China has the grit and grime that makes the city feel more real and humanizing.

The world Expo was a great example of this real human factor. Although the event is meant to celebrate the development of different countries, the main emphasis on the Expo was the new power of China. Many different countries designed beautiful pavilions and exhibitions, but there is another beauty beyond the architecture. I saw a society that has been closed off for the past 40+ years experiencing something new and exciting. Seeing and experiencing what every country has to offer. As much as that woman pulling me away irked me in retrospect I am beginning to understand the fascination.

The theme for the world expo is, “Better City, Better Life” yet one cannot forget a City is not just the built environment but a make up of people, economics, and politics that drive it. I think the challenge for China will be finding a balance between social concerns and economical and political dominance. As they continue to push for a modernization will social issues such as the huge gap between the affluent and the lower class, begin to stunt its growth? I think China will begin to create its own identity, whether it is towards the hyper-density and collectivism of Japan or the sprawled, individuality of the west.

– Precious

Filed under: Architecture, China, Growth, Japan, Psyche, Social Development, Urbanism, World Expo

Blinding Nostalgia

In Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin understands that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” In terms of a city, tradition can be defined by changes in the elements that describe a city [physical, mental, social, economic, political, and cultural]. Shenzhen was originally a fishing and farming area until Deng Xiaoping declared it a Special Economic Zone [SEZ]. It started as Deng Xiaoping’s capitalism experiment 30 years ago while the rest of China was under a communist regime and is now flourishing with activity and excitement.

Shenzen’s unique city growth conditions resulted as fast paced developments with density and sprawl moving starting from the east and now moving west and even more westward with the onset of the new express line between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Shenzhen’s untraditional city has transformed from farmland and fishing into to urban villages, and finally high-rise developments for housing, offices, hotels, shopping malls around the Central Business Districts [CBD].

During my initial days in Shenzhen, I was heavily disinterested in the glass-clad buildings. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get a bearing on Shenzhen’s new epoch of generic buildings. It seemed like the previous era had disappeared when the government decided to knock down the urban villages. After finally visiting a modernized urban village, I found a grounding that modern day Shenzhen was lacking. However, is it fair for me to use nostalgia and say that the developed area of Shenzhen lacked tradition that was obvious in these urban villages? If Shenzhen is a work of art as a city, where is the essence of tradition in its current development phase of high-rises? Are there certain aspects that still have not changed?

Shenzhen’s traditions as a city have obviously changed, but not all the elements that make a city have followed suit. Obviously, the mental grounding offered by that of the urban villages has transformed into my mental disorientation and discomfort with modern Shenzhen. The physical aspects have drastically changed from the days of rice paddies into high-rise towers. Economically, the farmers traded in the farms that made little profit and became developers that collected rent. Their land value increased after developers started to build housing and office towers to satisfy the demand of the new CBDs and as a SEZ. The social aspect of Shenzhen changed as China established Shenzhen as a SEZ and promoted urbanization. The government has also changed its policies on traveling to Shenzhen by lifting the Visa requirement to access this evil child of capitalism. Culturally, Shenzhen’s demographics have been morphing since its establishment as a SEZ. Migrant workers and people from all over China have been relocating there resulting in a cultural mixing pot similar to that of Los Angeles, with the exception that most of Shenzhen’s migrants are predominately Asian. But ironically, it is the culture that has changed only on the surface and not in its ideals.

When comparing Western Monuments, the Pantheon, Acropolis, and Coliseum all served the public as a public space. When one looks and lists China’s monuments, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and The Great Wall, they completely disregard the public and demanded containment. This idea of public space was never embedded into China’s social culture. It is still true today with the urban villages and high-rise developments, but for economic reasons. A tenant does not feel inclined to purchase an apartment with public space because they do not personally own it.

Because of my Western thinking, I was blind sighted by the inherent culture that was beneath the form and glass cladding of the buildings. It was my nostalgia and desire for historic preservation that made me uncomfortable with the government destroying their “real” culture. However, it is not the formal manifestation that defines its significance, but rather the place and conditions in which it is manifested.


Filed under: change, China, Culture, Government, nostalgia, Psyche, public space, tradition, western ideology


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