USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Afterlife of Architectural Icons

The chance to host an Olympic Games or a World Exposition is not only an honor, but also an important face-saving opportunity for the host country and city.  The global media coverage of these international spectacles gives the host the perfect platform to market themselves to the world.  For China, hosting both an Olympic Games and a World Expo within a two-year period offered an unprecedented strategic opportunity for the Chinese Government to alter past negative conceptions of China and prove to the World that they were a major player in the world economic market.   Therefore, China was determined to make these events as spectacular as possible using the physical structures constructed to house these events as essential elements of this effort to impress.  Although I came to China a year too late to share in the excitement of the Shanghai World Exposition and almost four years too late to take in the spectacle of the Beijing Olympics, it is impossible to overlook the many remnants of these events in both cities. From the airport signs, that welcome foreign tourists in English and that still point towards the sites of the former Expo or Olympic Sites, to the emblems of the events tattooed upon the sides of buildings, to the bars who serve beer in mugs etched with the Olympic rings and the words “Beijing 2008,” it is impossible to escape the reminders of these impressive, yet temporal events.

In China, there exists an intense and uncanny sentimentalism over the hosting of the Olympics and the Expo that I have not often encountered within the constantly morphing Chinese urban environment.  One cannot fault the Chinese for their pride in hosting such global events, especially when you consider the initiative it took them to construct entire infrastructural systems almost from scratch in order to accommodate the millions of tourists that would flock to take in the festivities in both cities.  For example, while Shanghai added a new airport terminal and expanded several metro lines, Beijing constructed twelve of its fourteen metro lines within the past ten years among other things to prepare for the event.   However with just as much money invested in the creation of iconic buildings to brand the spectacles as on the necessary infrastructure to support them, I question whether the afterlife of the iconic structures will ever amount to more than empty monuments that serve as reminders of the brief and increasingly distant spectacle for which they were erected. Acknowledging that all eyes would be on the venues hosting the Olympics and the World Expo, the Chinese utilized eye-catching architecture to brand Beijing and Shanghai as innovative global cities.  Ironically the economic burden of constructing these super-sized arenas and display facilities coupled with the short-lived use of such structures rendered them ill suited to transition to be a useful component of the urban landscape once the event that spurred them has concluded.  Thus, although considerable effort was expended to construct structures that would awe its viewers, insignificant thought was given to how the structure would be used once the event for which it was constructed had ended.

Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium (The Bird's Nest)

As an architecture student it is easy to get excited about seeing the work of a starchitect firsthand, so when I had the opportunity to visit Herzog & De Meuron’s Beijing National Stadium – popularly referred to as “The Bird’s Nest” – my anticipation level was high.  As spectacular as it was to see this mega-structure illuminated at night, the few pictures I took were enough to cement my memory of the project’s physical splendor.  Other than marketing tours of the 80,000 vacant seats within the arena and housing an overpriced Olympic souvenir shop, the Bird’s Nest remains stagnant and without a purpose.  At one time, a plan existed to convert the top tiers of the stadium into a venue for shops and restaurants and to preserve the lower levels as a soccer stadium and an occasional concert venue.  Unfortunately, this plan never materialized, and the impossibility of filling 80,000 seats deterred any sports team from anchoring activity within the arena.  As a result, Beijing has been left with no choice but to capitalize on the minimal profit they can make by marketing this pricey white elephant as a tourist attraction.

Exposition Boulevard one year after the Shanghai World Expo

In Shanghai, most of the pavilions of the World Expo were razed after the conclusion of the Expo in accordance with the World Exposition regulations.  A few structures, however, remain. These structures, which are deserted and almost completely fenced off, serve as eerie reminders of what the site once was.  Boarded windows, closed fast food restaurants, and vacated transportation hubs that eased the movement of the participants through the Expo, are painful reminders that this area, which once had a purpose, no longer has one.  Even the multi-level Exposition Boulevard that once served as the park’s main thoroughfare has lost its purpose, it remains fenced off like the majority of the structures remaining on the site, forcing the few remaining tourists to walk alongside, rather than on it.   However, unlike Beijing, plans at least are underway to reuse the few structures that remain.  For example, the Chinese pavilion has re-opened as a museum to Chinese Heritage, and the Shanghai Cultural Arena has recently been renamed the Mercedes Benz Arena, hosting numerous concerts and shows since the close of the Expo.  There are also plans to build a new museum on the site that will pay tribute to past World Expositions.  Nevertheless, this fragmented but positive transition is overshadowed by the vast amounts of open land left in the Expo’s wake.  Apart from the weeds that have sprouted up behind the fences that demarcate the vacant lots, the area has not changed since the Pavilions were dismantled.

The failure to use these iconic structures in a meaningful way or to develop the empty lots left in the wake of these events has a trickle-down negative effect on the businesses, schools, and residents of the area.  When these icons sit stagnant, so too do all the spaces and businesses that parasitically depend on them to make a profit and thrive.   In Shanghai, the Shanghai Expo provided the Chinese government with the opportunity and impetus to displace the harmful industrial pollution of the Jiangnan Shipyard that formerly occupied the Expo site.  In so doing, however, it also displaced almost 18,000 residents, only to have the land that once housed them remain empty a year after the World Exposition festivities have ended and no concrete plan for the utilization of the area have been made public.  Regardless of the moral issues I may have about this forced government relocation, the displacement of these citizens came at an enormous economic cost to the city of Shanghai.   Shanghai must now depend on the sale of these vacated properties in order to recoup their loses. The fenced-off restaurants, vacated ticket booths lines, and partially dismantled elevated walkways that mar the barren site are the last faint hints of the once vibrant Exposition. The memory of what these grounds once were will continue to plague these sites until a new function or structure fills its place, invigorating the site and erasing the memory of these white elephant icons.

Partially dismantled elevated walkways one year after the Shanghai World Expo

The Iconic Buildings constructed for the Beijing Olympics and the Shanghai World Exposition impressed the image-focused global media. However, reflecting upon the effect that the Olympics had on Beijing and that the World Exposition had on Shanghai, it appears that after these festivities have come to a close, the sites that hosted these spectacles are the only area of the city that has trouble acclimating to everyday life.  The problem is that these structures and ceremonial spaces are far from the everyday, they represent a crowning moment of achievement in China’s face-saving history.  It is ironic that these spaces that successfully marketed China as a key player in the global economy now are one of the only places in the cities of Beijing and Shanghai that sit stagnant.  I guess that means that these White Elephants fulfilled their purpose, but at the same time I wonder if all the money put into them was worth it for a fleeting moment of fame.  I would argue that it is the least glamorous and rarely discussed infrastructural advancements that were made in preparation for these events that will ultimately prove to have the most profound and positive effect on the everyday life of the residents of these cities in the future.  The lasting, albeit less publicized, legacy of the robust transportation network – airports, roads, trains and subways — has the potential to stimulate the future progression of these cities so much more than the impact of the stationary icons that initially symbolized these events.


Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, China, olympic bird nest, Shanghai Expo 2010

America’s Wall of Shame

The World Expo in Shanghai is an international display of a country’s culture and initiative to be “greener.” Additionally, Expo serves as a window to the world for many of the Chinese citizens who have never had the opportunity to leave China. The Expo cleverly sold passports, and after visiting each pavilion, visitors would get a stamp. This became an abridged version of traveling to another country: waiting hours to get into the pavilion, going into the pavilion, shop the for the country’s goods, and finally receiving passport stamp before leaving. Many of the Chinese people held passports and booklets to signify their visit to the pavilion, and sometimes rushed to the next without enjoying the pavilion after their 2-3 hour wait. As a Westernized Chinese individual, I could not understand if these people see the Expo as an amusement park, a race to get all the stamps, or actually “visiting” a different country.

I started at the USA Pavilion because of the fast access my American citizenship granted me. I needed to see America’s effort (or lack thereof) in exhibiting “sustainable” practices and our diverse culture. Upon entry, there was a wall full of sponsor names that helped finance the pavilion. Next, there were three videos within the pavilion describing the American relationship to China, future of American green technology, and an “urban garden” vision bringing a community together. The conclusion of the pavilion was a sponsor interactive media room and gift shop.

After going through the pavilion, I pondered about its perception from both an American and Chinese point of view. As an American, walking into the first room and seeing a whole wall of sponsors, I dubbed it the Wall of Shame. If it was to test my skills of brand recognition, I passed with flying colors. It became justification that the United States didn’t see this as an opportunity to show the world, especially to China, how much it has advanced. Other pavilions had their sponsors very discretely displayed because the pavilion is the representation of the country, not the corporations. By placing the sponsor wall at the entrance and extremely large, we were embracing each company’s contribution to this wonderful. Is America’s intention to show an array of corporations making the world “greener?” I am skeptical that these companies have strived to find ways to make the cities of America better, nonetheless the citizens having a better life. Rather than watching the introductory video, I stared at this wall shaking my head in disappointment. To the Chinese, the wall seemed irrelevant, and just making it into the USA Pavilion after a 2-3 hour wait was enough to make them wide eye in awe. The Chinese speaking Caucasians were also an exhibition in itself.

The video in the second room seemed optimistic by having corporate leaders acknowledge the importance of childhood dreams, imagination, and creativity. It is true that children are important for their unhindered creativity and ideas, but my attention was drawn towards the speakers of their company logo blurred in the background, but still blatantly recognizable. Corporations like Pepsico and GE were telling me embrace childhood creativity, but why have I not even seen anything remotely close to advancing America’s overall sustainable practices?

The final video portrayed a girl dreaming of a community garden and attempting to rally her neighbors to participate. It was an optimistic message to the Chinese people who may not have seen or experienced an American neighborhood before. I was skeptical that a community garden was able to spark a whole new movement of making a gloomy city into one with roof gardens, greenhouses, and planter boxes.  USC does it’s civic duty in South Central Los Angeles by heavily advocating ONE community neighborhood help day. The video portrays an unlikely circumstance that superficially makes a better city and a better life.

In the last room before the gift shop, many sponsors were allocated a portion of space to display interactive tools to exhibit green initiatives such as solar collection and wind harvesting. I expected the last room to show something about our culture, cities, or states, but there wasn’t. America has 50 states, and I half expected that at least one state would make it into the pavilion. Is America then all about the corporations and how proud we are to have them represent our nation?

My disappointment with American Pavilion is only a small piece of a larger issue. Many countries see America as a land of great opportunity and our country flaunts that. However, its allure is starting to fade as China starts to develop. In order to gather the remaining funds to build the pavilion, China had to intervene and find corporations that had a stake in China. The United States has failed to use this as an opportunity to show and prove its mighty image. This pavilion did more harm that good to the image of the United States, especially when compared to our European counterparts. The pavilion’s lackluster appearance and interior content made me feel terribly guilty that these Chinese people waited hours in line to see something so unsubstantial and uninformative. In no way do I hate America, but rather, I am concerned of its global image especially in the eyes of developing China. If the United States does not change its blaze attitude about its global image and progress, it will most surely fall behind and lose its “prestigious” status.


Filed under: advertising, America, better city better life, China, corporation, global image, Perception, Shanghai Expo 2010, subliminal messaging

Sustainable Bubble.

The theme of Shanghai’s World Expo: “Better City, Better Life”.  The premise of this year’s Expo revolves around the idea of implementing sustainable actions in order to better the future of our planet and its resources.  Therefore, the pavilions designed for the Expo by the 192 countries and 50 organizations participating, all had to incorporate a strong sense of sustainable ideas within their designs.  Whether it was by use of materials, energy efficiencies, or simply by reduction of resources used, each pavilion had a unique way of promoting their country in a sustainable fashion.

However, the more often I visited the Expo, the more I began to think about the implications that an exhibition based on the idea of a “Better City, Better Life” was having on the city of Shanghai, outside of the Expo boundaries.  While inside the Expo, the use of electric buses, solar power, and water waste efficiencies are extremely apparent.   Although, while the inside of the Expo is taking a sustainable approach, how is Shanghai being affected as a whole, not just at the Expo grounds?

At a cost of about $45 billion, there has been more money spent on solely preparation alone for the Expo than that of the Beijing Olympics.  This money went to the opening of six new subway lines, a “highline-esque” boardwalk along the extents of the site, a revamping to almost every portion of the city, and a clean-up of the Expo site itself.  In addition to this, Shanghai had to prepare for the traffic of over 73 million visitors – many of whom will be traveling by airplane, automobile, and other forms of unsustainable transportation methods.  The city had to use resources that is otherwise would not have had to use in order to accommodate for the abundance of people.

As today is the final day, the decisions about what will happen to each pavilion following the close of the Expo will need to be broadcasted.  The general public does not know what will happen to almost all but four of these pavilions: China Pavilion, Expo Center, Theme Pavilion and Expo Performance Center.  I find it somewhat ironic that an event with such an emphasis on sustainability will be tearing down virtually all of the pavilions, except for the aforementioned structures.  With tons of steel, glass, and concrete being used in the pavilions, it becomes curious to see what will happen to all these materials following the close.  While some of the pavilions will be torn down and reconstructed, many have the possibility of simply turning to wasted materials.

In an article from NPR, “Critics Worry About Shanghai Expo’s Legacy,” by Louisa Lim, she discusses how an artist, Chen Hanfeng has a piece on exhibit in which he displays “a bubble machine hooked up to an IV tube, belching bubbles into a cage. He’s taking a sly poke at the Expo slogan ‘Better City, Better Life’ by titling his work ‘Bubble City, Bubble Life.’”   As Hanfeng discusses his exhibit, he states, “I think the concept of Expo starts from utopia, utopian-style architecture, and futuristic imagination. It’s kind of like a bubble.  After the Expo is gone, everything’s going to be gone, right?”  Although the final verdict on the Expo site is yet to be announced, this statement seems to be valid at this point.  It seems that once the bubble pops, the ramifications of the Expo will then start to ensue.  It is not until then that we can see how the demolition of the pavilions will endorse or contradict the overall idea of the Expo: “Better City, Better Life.”  Until then…


Filed under: Architecture, China, Shanghai Expo 2010, Sustainability, 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