USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Reality Crisis

What is real?  What is fake?  What is a copy?  What is a real copy?  What is a fake copy? What does this all mean in terms of the space, nature, architecture, and the city?  So what?

The Material Object

Two days ago in Shenzhen, I purchased a Dunxilu International clutch at Huaqiangbei marketplace for the equivalent of $3.73 US dollars.  It was clearly a knock-off, or ‘fake copy’, of the real Dunxilu brand, but after bargaining with the vendor for so long, I could not resist the deal.  In this example, the question of real vs. fake is very straightforward.  The mediocre quality and cheap price are obvious signs that the item is a fake copy.  It was designed to appear and function like an expensive designer brand, but for all I know could fall apart or dye my hand pink in the rain tomorrow.

The electronic district of the market was swamped with iphone 4G vendors.  Enticed by the thought of a new phone, I had to find out if they were real or fake copies.  I discovered that they were in fact ‘real copies’, or iphones that were made in legitimate factories and sold on the black market.  In essence, they were real iphones sold illegally.

When it comes to material objects, the definition of real, real copy, and fake copy is an easy concept to understand.

Fake Copy: My Dunxilu clutch that is an imitation of a high quality brand

Real Copy: The iphone 4G that is sold under the table

Real: The iphone 4G that is sold at an Apple store

The Architecture

After the Golden Pavilion burnt down in 1950, it was restored and is said to be an exact replica.  However, while the original was built with pure gold leaf, the restored pavilion is coated with gold paint.  In 1987 it was recoated, and then in 2003 the roof was restored.  Is this not equivalent to the Dunxilu clutch that I purchased?  Like the purse, the pavilion was created to look like the original and was built with cheaper materials.  Is the Golden Pavilion a fake copy?

The Ise Shrine is a respected and honored Japanese monument that is reconstructed every twenty years.  This ensures that the method of construction and materiality is passed on from generation to generation, upholding the culture and wisdom of ancient times.  While this preserves the process, doesn’t this also mean that it is a copy?  The shrine that hundreds of tourists visit everyday is the 61st iteration of the original.  It is not real.  Is it?  Is it fake?  Like the real copy of the iphone, the Ise Shrine was built like the original.  When you see it, you are aware that you are not seeing the original shrine, just like you know that you are not buying a real iphone.

Fake Copy: The Golden Pavilion

Real Copy: The Ise Shrine

Real: The original Ise Shrine

The City

When it comes to analyzing cities in terms of real and fake, it is not as simple as looking for a knock-off brand imprint or judging the quality of building materials used.  This is because cities are not singular objects, like one could argue buildings or iphones are.  Cities not only consist of iphones, purses, and architecture, but are composed of layers and layers and layers of infrastructure, culture, politics, economics, and mental experiences.  As if this isn’t complicated enough, the city is also changing, growing, and morphing everyday.

I began this post with the intention to categorize cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Shenzhen as I did above.  At first glance, one might say that Shenzhen is fake.  While cities typically evolve and densify naturally over time, Shenzhen went through a forced evolution that literally transformed it from a fishing village to southern China’s financial center in thirty years.  It would be difficult to argue that this Special Economic Zone is not a success.  Does it matter that the city did not develop under natural evolutionary terms?  Does this make the city any less real?

Because I am used to the pace and city dynamic of Los Angeles, Shenzhen seemed so foreign to me that it was challenging to get my bearings for the first few days.  I had trouble attributing an identity to the city.  Perhaps this was why I was eager to label it ‘fake’.  After further investigation and immersion into Futian, Shenzhen, I began discovering little moments that gave the city character.  A free kickboxing match, haggling with the market vendors, watching hundreds of locals practicing tai chi next to an urban village.  These short glimpses formed my impression of Shenzhen, and is what I will carry with me after this program and long after I graduate.  It doesn’t matter how quickly or how naturally a city is created.  Experiences are what make cites real.

Real City: Las Vegas

Real City: Los Angeles

Real City: Shenzhen


Filed under: Architecture, China, Fake, Fake Copy, Futian, Ise Shrine, Japan, real, Real Copy, Shenzhen, The Golden Pavilion, Uncategorized, Urbanism

Shenzhen: “Instant City”

The concept of what is real and what is not is a constantly reoccurring topic of discussion amongst our group here in Shenzhen, China. Everyone has their own conception of what they consider to be real and what they consider to be not real. One argument is whether or not Shenzhen is the Chinese Las Vegas? Is Shenzhen an area in and of itself that does not depend on the nuances between it and other cities but creates an identity of its own, as Las Vegas exists? If it is, then you have to take into consideration that key word: identity. Every city has its own identity, its own fingerprint, its own DNA, its own unique makeup that makes it distinguishable from the other cities not only in its region and country, but also the rest of the world. At present, Shenzhen has no identity. Shenzhen is a city, and yes, it is a city in China. But by no means does that make it a Chinese city. The population is somewhere around 15 million, with 3 million of those people being unregistered workers, labeled as “ghosts” by the Chinese government, as though they do not exist. Of the 12 million citizens, a fair majority comes from other parts of China. One can walk the streets and rarely catch a glimpse of someone over the age of 55. This is an exceptionally young city (almost 30 years old) when you compare it to other Chinese cities steeped in history such as Shanghai or Hong Kong.

Additionally, the urban fabric of Shenzhen does not respond to local geographic conditions. In the early 1980’s, when Shenzhen was a small fishing village, the Chinese government ordered the Peoples Liberation Army to dynamite and clear the mountains where Shenzhen is currently located. Dynamiting natural landscape: the initial move demonstrating the idea that this city would begin at zero, with no ties to its geography or its past. The problem that has surfaced as a result of that approach is the creation of an artificial city. It is artificial in the sense that most elements of this city do not possess Chinese characteristics; not naturally Chinese, anyways. How can it not be naturally Chinese when it was built by Chinese workers and financed by Beijing? All one has to do is look at the work of architecture being erected as of late throughout the city to see the counterargument:

Stock Exchange & Crystal Island by Office of Metropolitan Architecture [Dutch firm] (Collaborated with Chinese firm Urbanus)

Headquarters of China Insurance Group by Coop Himmelb(l)au [Austrian firm]

Kingkey Finance Tower by Farrells [British firm]

Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport- Massimiliano Fuksas [Italian firm]

Seeing a pattern here?

This city is becoming an eclectic city, but an artificial one at that. Even the plant life here is artificial; the majority of the plants are imported from Hawaii. Could this be the genesis of a new breed of cities, cities that are not concerned with its context or previous history? Can this new kind of city be transported and transplanted as though it was a universal component in the metropolitan circuit board. Within the urban makeup you always have your ‘7-11’s’ or McDonalds, which represent programmatic pieces that are universal and can operate successfully wherever they go. They can be inserted into any urban makeup because they do not respond to the urban or social context in which they are placed; they are not context specific. What if we are able to have entire cities that are universal in that nature?

I am reminded of Peter Cook and Archigram’s piece, Instant City, which was written in the early 1970’s. The Instant City discussed the creation of not buildings, but “events” that are the result of high technology being infused into areas of low technology. This is comparable to the injection of economic investment and star-architect architecture that Shenzhen is currently experiencing. The writing describes how high tech airships would act as carriers for mass culture and would seemingly create a city instantaneously, as if there is a magic formula. In comparison to the cultural emanation of Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong, there seems to lack a cultural originality here in Shenzhen. Instead of ‘mom n’ pop’ shops there are ‘Kung-fu’ Chinese fast food enterprises. The city lacks any historical district that is suppose to give city a sense of belonging and history, which in turn resonates emotional warmth and nostalgia. Everything in this city is manufactured and so now the next problem to solve is how to manufacture a culture in a city that lacks one? Is that culture created artificially, like the limitless amount of knock-off Gucci bags? Or is it something created by the people and not dropped from an Instant City airship?

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: Archigram, artificial, China, context-specific, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Culture, Farrells, Identity, Instant City, investment, Las Vegas, manufacture, mass culture, Massimiliano Fuksas, OMA, real, Shenzhen, Uncategorized,


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