USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Homes Away From Home

What is “home?” When one thinks about the qualities that such a concept embodies, phrases exuding feelings of comfort, safety, and routine tend to arise. However, the idea of a home extends much further than the traditional adaptation of a walled fortress where one carries out his/her common routines. In Henri Lefebvre’s excerpt titled The Everyday and the Everydayness, Lefebvre poses a statement arguing towards the constant repetition of practices exhibited on a daily basis. He asserts that there are two types of repetition, a cyclical cycle and a linear cycle. The cyclical represents the commonplace natural activities that we as human beings experience every day. Functional opposites such as activity and rest as well as hunger and satisfaction both apply. The latter of the two cycles described by Lefebvre is represented by the linearity of the former cycle over a certain period of time. The constant repetition of the everyday cycles essentially comes to define the so called “rational” process of the linear. These two phenomena are tangential to the idea of home.

According to Lefebvre’s definition of cycles, it’s clear that every human being has individually experienced this notion. Personally, since I had left the confines of my northern California home in Saratoga, my own definition of “home” had already been blurred. Having stayed in Los Angeles for such an extended period of time, I had gradually begun to adapt to the southern California lifestyle and carried out my daily routines according to its stereotypes of glistening beaches, year-round sunshine, and, of course, traffic congestion.

While it is the banality of the everyday cycles that I had experienced during my time spent in Saratoga or USC which has allowed me to actually call either one “home,” the irony of the repetitiveness of the everyday is that everything changes. Put simply, one undeniably eats, sleeps, and breathes; but one can choose to eat a different meal, sleep in a different bed, and breathe a different quality of air. In Lefebvre’s excerpt, he makes a reference to this type of fluctuation by assigning it as programmed change. The variable characteristics of a common day is its grand quality which allows us as humans to realize the repetitive cycle of daily rituals we tend to inadvertently fall into. And in my case, it was the decision to implement the variation of studying abroad which had allowed me to realize how hackneyed my everyday life in California had become.

Hong Kong City Line

Contrary to the type of programmed change that Lefebvre has posed, other factors can also influence one’s mindset of what home could be. For instance, when first touching down in Hong Kong, the immediate surrounding environment seemed, without a doubt, very foreign. The food was different, the dominant ethnicity was different, the language was different, and most of all, the city fabric and density were absolutely mind-blowing. I thought things couldn’t get any more unfamiliar, until the Pearl River Delta portion of the trip had come along. From the ancient remote villages to the bizarre culinary options to the imitation of fashion items, southeastern China had truly given me my most outlandish experience yet. Returning back to Hong Kong after nearly three weeks in the Pearl River Delta, a large sigh of relief had somewhat fallen over me. I had realized that there was actually a good amount of people that spoke English, the cultural make up of the city was actually quite diverse, and most of all, the food was surprisingly more international than I had previously thought. In essence, for a surrounding environment to allow one to feel a sense of comfort and belonging, all it takes, in my case, is a more unusual one.

Kaiping Village: Guang Dong, China

Following Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan were the least bit alien to me. South Korea was exceedingly modernized and everything that I had fancied could be found. Taiwan, moreover, was my parents’ birthplace, and I had visited the country probably a dozen or so times. Furthermore, during these stays, a charette was also imposed at each, which allowed the USC students to work in conjunction with the local universities. By collaborating with the students whom were native to the place of study, we, as foreigners, were exposed to the area with their knowledgeable guidance. In turn, the process of settling into the two countries was quite immediate.

This constant settling in and moving out lifestyle has now led me to Shanghai, China, where the stay is approximately seven weeks. Undoubtedly, a near two month stay in one place will allow anyone to begin to blindly fall into his/her commonplace routines. From studio, to the gym, to the coffee shop down the street, everything is within such a comfortable reach that it’s almost impossible not to just become part of the everyday. Yet, it will be the subtle decisions of change that will allow me to slip out the cycles of the mundane.


Filed under: everyday and everydayness, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Reality

Going Astray for…

Beijing’s 798 is one of China’s contemporary art districts supported by a broad range of art galleries, cafés, artist studios, bookstores, and shops. Before entering 798, I considered the irony of Beijing, being the capital of Communist China and control center of censorship, allowing social commentary charged art to be displayed. Upon entering the first gallery, every piece of art had commentary on Chinese culture, past and present. I continued through 798, and immediately stopping the Cuba Avant-Garde art show. After seeing waves of galleries displaying Chinese artists, why was it that Cuban art was able to make it to 798?

I wandered into the Xin Dong Cheng art space seeing a various display of Cuban art, understanding that most pieces had a social commentary on the Cuban socialist government. I was drawn to Rene Francisco Rodriguez pieces because of its simplicity, but its high attention to detail.

This first piece displays a monochrome composition of people forming the Cuba with a stray figure wandering off to the right corner. Upon looking closer at the drawing, everything was composed of Q-tip sized dots for each person’s head, body, and legs. Rather than painting the background gray and dotting the people in, the artist painstakingly dotted every square centimeter of the canvas, making it impossible to ignore his intention for doing so.

The dotted paint seemed to represent the idea of socialism and everyone being equal. From far away, the picture appeared as a nicely shaded island of Cuba, indicating the country as a whole unified piece. Looking closely, the human figures appear to illustrate that Cuba is composed of individuals for the same good of socialism. However, what about the Stray veering off to the right?

Socialism on paper seems like a viable political concept. But in reality, not everyone is content with its agenda and outcome. Equality is great, but how much do you have to give up in order for everyone to be at the same level? How much are people willing to sacrifice for the common good? The stray figure symbolized the individuals who weren’t able accept the socialist Cuba and left for another life, deeming themselves as outcasts of the whole picture of Cuba. Perhaps the author sees himself as this single person, using art as a way to display his feelings towards Cuba’s communist regime.

From this analysis, I started to draw connections to China. The most obvious similarity is their communist government. Both countries underwent a transformation that affected the overall lifestyle of their citizens and many fled to other countries to pursue a better life. However, since then, China has had a different interpretation of Socialism than Cuba and has yielded extreme development results. Cuba’s growth has not evolved to that of China’s and perhaps gives many individuals like the artist frustration that the whole country can’t seem to progress further. It may have also been the intention of the curator to show very subtly the uncertainty and perhaps negative aspects of communism through the Cuban lens.

Looking at China’s fast pace of development, there is a mix between Communism and Capitalism. Few would say that China is completely socialist, but many policies like the lack of land ownership still remind people of its overarching communist stance. In America, we pride ourselves for having freedom of speech and press, but when these rights are challenged, there is a notion that people don’t necessarily have the liberty to express their opinions. We also pride ourselves on democracy, which is seldom seen because few policies are decided to benefit the people. As a communist country that has extreme censorship and human rights issues, China has been able to benefit its people with infrastructure, while America the Free is busy with airline companies lobbying against high-speed rail. The rate of progress for China has increased exponentially while the United States’ has slowed to a snail pace if not halted in the past decade.

The Stray in the painting is leaving Cuba, but where is it going? At this point the communist/capitalist hybrid system of China produces results while the United States, which advertises freedom and democracy, is stuck in a development slumber. Will the stray turn back, go to a country that has a similar system, but yields results, or a country that “promises” liberty?


Filed under: America, Beijing 798, Capitalism, China, development, promises, Reality, Rene Fransico Rodriguez, social commentary, socialism

Around the world in 80…minutes?

A few days ago, a few of us visited Windows of the World, a Shenzhen amusement park that contains 130 scaled reproductions of some of the most famous tourist attractions in the world. Walking around the park was one of the most bizarre and ironic experiences I’ve had. In one view-frame would be superimposed in layers: New York Manhattan Island, the Easter Egg Islands, the Volcano’s of Hawaii, an Aztec Temple, the statue O Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, and the backdrop of Shenzhen high-rises. Five minutes’ walk later I would be greeted with the Egyptian pyramids at one-third scale next to the Eiffel Tower and the park monorail. The more and more I was bombarded with these peculiar and completely laughable scenes, the more the issue of authenticity versus falsity begged to be considered. In Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin states that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” By this argument, these scaled replicas – reproductions of the original ‘art’ or the historic relics themselves –  are not ‘real’ because they lack the very context and history that conditioned the original building artifact.

Windows of the World brings to mind a similar urban phenomenon more familiar to Westerners: Las Vegas. Albeit at a larger scale, Las Vegas also contains a small scale Eiffel Tower (The Venetian), roman palaces (Caesar’s Palace), the New York skyline (New York-New York), and the Egyptian pyramids (Luxor).Like Windows of the World, It contains physical imitations of the original, but unlike Windows of the World, I would argue it is entirely more ‘real’ because it doesn’t profess to replicate but rather references the original. One visits Las Vegas as a form of escapism, whereas one visits Windows of the World to see replicas. This is also an issue of identity.  Vegas exists as its own entity, contains its own unique character. Does  Windows of the World have a similar persona even though the objects that make it up lack a “presence in time and space”?

Perhaps it is the very absence of contextual presence that in itself gives ‘identity’ to Windows of the World. As our group entered the park, the main sign outside the amusement park stated in bright letters “Welcome to our World”. At first I found the sign to be completely comical and ironic: how is a representation of the artifacts of all the other countries of the earth in any way unique to ‘their’ world. But the more I thought of it, the more I realized that the very fact that this replicated collection of other worlds coexist in these few physical acres becomes in fact a new ‘world’. In Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin further points out that “an ancient statue of Venus, for example, stood in a different traditional context with the Greeks, who made it an object of veneration, than with the clerics of the Middle Ages, who viewed it as an ominous idol.” Benjamin is stating that the same physical object when situated in different contexts take on different significances based on the environment that imposes those meanings on the object. The same can be said for Windows of the World. These historical artifacts no longer carry any of their original spatial or temporal contexts but rather have taken on completely new ones, meanings that have been imposed on them by their current environment, that of Shenzhen. Windows of the World and the replicas within have embraced a completely new identity, uniquely as a representation of Shenzhen – just as the Luxor, Caesar’s, and The Venetian have come to be known collectively as Las Vegas.

~ Evan Shieh

Filed under: America, Architecture, Authenticity, China, Identity, Imposed Meaning, Las Vegas, Reality, Replication, Shenzhen, Walter Benjamin, Windows of the World

Tokyo: my gulf war

Seven days ago [Japan] did not exist. Seven days ago [Tokyo] did not exist. Seven days ago [Shibuya] did not exist. There was no Tokyo Midtown. There was no Meiji Shrine. There was no Tokyo National Museum. Seven days ago [it] was all born.

Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher and sociologist, controversially theorized that the “Gulf War did not place.” An angry public clamored at the preposterously ridiculous claim that a war that claimed thousands of lives never existed. Baudrillard digressed, stating that it was a “media image-driven” war, not a “genuine” war. People read about it and saw images of it everyday during the course of the war but war was not their reality, per se. The war only existed in their minds as a result of the images and stories they had heard. This is what Tokyo was to me.

I see this type of mental-detachment in Tokyo, particularly on the subways, where a majority of its riders are tuned in to their phones, listening to music or watching television. Could they have the same manufactured view of America that I had of Tokyo before coming here? Quite possibly, especially when you consider that media-driven technology in Tokyo is exponentially more influential than in the U.S. You are not experiencing the flooding in Pakistan being reported on by CNN. You don’t see the flood water around you or feel the grip of thirst that you feel if you were actually there.

What is “real” mean to you? Is it something that you have to touch? Or is it something that you have to see with your own eyes, in front of you? You see thousands of images sequentially whenever you watch television or surf the internet, but you are only engaging one, if only two of your senses (sight and sound). You may have read about Michelangelo or seen pictures of his paintings, but without visiting it, could you tell me what it smells like inside the Sistine Chapel? How it would feel to gently press your fingers against the Pieta? To me, if you are not engaging all of your senses, in addition to your intellect, how can anything become real and have legitimate qualities?

Tokyo did not exist seven days ago. Tokyo was born when I first stepped off the bus at our hotel, the humid air pelting my body, gazing at the countless lights of the city. Tokyo was born when I touched the concrete of a Tadao Ando building, in all its liquidity-looking perfection. Tokyo was born when I tasted and smelled my first bowl of Japanese ramen. Tokyo was born when I heard the hum of the Japan Rail train jetting out of the station. Seven days ago Tokyo was born and every time I discover something new here, I can feel the city breathing, it’s chest heaving.

This city represents a plethora of realities that are all intertwined and that constantly bustle and brush past one another but never stop. People sit quietly on the subway, staying to themselves. People are in their own world: disengaged and isolated. Isolated in a city of 13 million people?


The janitor who rides up and down the buildings elevators to clean the railings does not share the same reality of the businessman who rides the elevator to get to his office building high in the sky. As a tourist and foreigner, I have a completely different understanding of the Tokyo Midtown project than the resident of the service-apartments there who frequents it’s shopping areas every day. Do you have any perception of the reality of a coal miner or a biology professor? If no, why not?

There doesn’t seem to be any interaction en route, unless you’re with a friend or in a group. The journey does not hold the same value as the destination. However, these “destination nodes” are littered across the city, where people suddenly discover and experience with their senses, whether they taste a new alley food in Ginza or hear some new J-pop music in Harajuku. Each new finding adds to the reality of this city and is where individual realities stop being isolated and become shared. I observed this at a park outside of the Tokyo National Museum, when a group of Japanese guys, slicked back in ‘60’s American greaser attire, gathered around a boom box and danced. Just to dance. It was 95 degrees out and humid and these guys were in leather jackets dancing like there was no tomorrow.

Tokyo has become real to me because I have experienced it with all my senses. One can make the argument that much of what makes of Tokyo is manufactured, making it less real. One instance of this is the manufacturing of wax food in restaurant display windows. There is an entire industry devoted to the making of fake food. But that does not change the fact that people still inevitably eat the real food that the restaurant is selling.

If you are able to experience something using the full extent of senses, as well as tying in any previous experiences, then anyone can create their own reality.

There is still so much more to discover. So much more to be born.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: destination node, gulf war, isolation, jean baudrillard, Reality, senses, Tokyo, Uncategorized, Urbanism, ,

Is this real life?

Following Yo’s lecture this morning, I found myself questioning the meaning of “real”.  During the discussion, real was loosely defined in terms of the natural vs. man made.  Take a landscape for example, in a dense urban environment such as Tokyo.  You can almost always assume that it has been designed by man.  This tree was put here on purpose.  Seldom can you find a “natural” landscape within a dense concrete jungle that has been preserved in its original state.  But does this disqualify it from being real?  I would say no.  Later in the day, my friend and I were arguing over the same definition, and I came to the realization (no pun intended) that real can be defined in the sense of perception.  We recalled a professor’s lecture about imitation designer hand bags.  The “real” bags are produced in China, and then the Chanel/Coach/Louis Vuitton label is added afterwards before reaching the US for sale.  The “fake” bags are produced in the same factories, by the same workers, with the same materials.  They are then sold on the street without the designer label for a tenth of the cost.  The only reason we consider the bags in the designer stores to be real is because of our perception of the label.  So why can’t this apply to architectural constructs?  If we as designers can fashion a landscape so as to prompt a certain perceptual understanding from the user, we have essentially created something real.  If the user thinks and feels as if they are in a natural environment, than to them it is real.  “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”  In this sense, real can only be defined by the self, thus supporting the perceptual defenition of the word.

I have also observed how this “perceptual reality” has become an integral part of the Japanese culture, and how it applies to both the city and its architecture.  As we all have noticed and marveled over, a large part of Tokyo city life occurs beneath the ground, on multiple urban sub-levels. One particularly interesting aspect of this subterranean network, is that often times you hardly even notice that you are underground while occupying them.  They have been designed to imitate a real surface city, and include many of the same programs and circulatory patterns.  With the use of voided atrium spaces to bring in natural light and air, it becomes hard to tell the difference between above and below ground.  In essence, the view of this underground system as an integral part of the surface world, rather than a separate sub-level, creates a perceptual reality of a singular, unified city network.  Juxtaposed to American cities, this is quite unique.  In cities with underground systems such as New York and Washington D.C., there is a clear distinction between above and below.  Sub-level, there only exists the transit systems, with little program or other uses, and there is rarely a moment which blurs the line between the two distinct worlds.

Lastly, our screening of the film Tokyo-Ga also reinforced my understanding of a perceptual reality within Tokyo culture.  This was largely supported by the artificial food replicas that appeared throughout the film.  In nearly every restaurant, you can find a plastic food display in the window, or at least a photographic menu of plastic foods.  This example is about as purely perceptual as you can get.  You order food based on your perception of the fake as the real.  For six days now, I have not once ordered a meal based on the English description of the dish, but rather by how appealing the picture or plastic food appears.  Another perceptual reality found in the film is that of the golf world.  Since Tokyo does not have the luxury of space that America does, there is no room to construct an 18 hole golf course or 400 yard driving range.  The solution lies in perception.  If you can see, feel, imagine you are playing the game, than it becomes real.  This is best illustrated by a shot of a man in the film, who stands atop his apartment building, dozens of stories high surrounded by other structures on all sides.  The nearest park is probably miles away, let alone a golf course.  Yet he practices his swing, clutching a rolled newspaper as if it were a club, driving imaginary balls into the urban abyss.  For him, this is probably about as real as golf will be for quite some time.  In a city like Tokyo, it is almost necessary to accept this perceptual reality, for it allows one to live and experience things that are otherwise inconceivable within such a dense urban fabric.


Filed under: America, Architecture, Japan, Perception, Reality, Tokyo, Urbanism


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