USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The City: through the lens of transport








Filed under: airplane, Architecture, boat, China, ferry, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Public Transportation, streets, Subway, Tokyo, train, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Video, walking


Having stayed in Shanghai for almost two months now, it almost feels like I’ve been living here my whole life. A few days ago, I was at the subway station waiting for the next train to arrive when an elderly woman came up to me and inquired whether or not the train I was waiting for would bring her to her destination stop; In one of my proudest moments, I answered that question without hesitation and even suggested what exit to take to get to her destination, all in Chinese! It seems to be getting easier and easier to get into an everyday routine nowadays, especially at the subway station. One second you’re descending the elevators into the terminal and the next, you’re surrounded by a sea of black haired and brown-eyed men and women crowding to squeeze into the subway cars. Trying to hold your balance during jolts of the subway cars, the musty scent of body odor and sweat, the occasional beggar journeying from one end of the subway to the other shaking his coin jar, being inches away from the person next to you during rush hours; all that has become part of the everyday, at least for me. All this reminds me of what Michel de Certeau validates as being a “haunted” place,

Haunted places are the only places people can live in”.

Scary, right?

I think what Certeau is ultimately getting at is the core of all this phenomenology within a city: the notion of a place. If place is defined by the metaphysical (memory, time), than that place is no more defined than through what is seen. The existence of that significance is within the memory, which associates certain emotions/ideas embedded within a space. Memories, are in essence, the practice of spatial ordering because places are merely fragments of private histories accumulated from everyone who has passed through there. People are the make up of the city. Certeau even suggests that the city space is, in itself, the canvas on which the people (pedestrians) write the story through their movement through and within these spaces.

However, I would argue that unlike what Certeau argues as the inevitability of non-place as a direct result of mobility, the city itself is full of urban places solely because of pedestrian traffic. If walking is the “acting-out” of a place, the city is then the container of these acted spaces. The very act of naming spaces are the “impetus of movements, like vocations and calls that turn or divert an itinerary by giving it a meaning (or direction) that was previously unforeseen”. Names we are all too familiar with now like “The Bund”, “People’s Square”, and even our very own “Old Humin Road” all connote some sort of experience or memory that transcends just the physicality of the site or the label. These places have become more than names or streets but destinations, meeting points, symbols. It goes beyond just being a dot on a map, but only to be experienced fully from the viewpoint of the individual. And all this is part of the story that the city tells through the observer. These “Urban Texts”, if you will, are written through the mobile nature of the individual and the masses that each offers their own experiences. Spaces can only be defined as long as the person stays there, with the next person replacing the narrative with a fresh perspective. The city can never maintain one image since the mass population can never remain static nor impose one unifying image on a space in which they move through. It’s amazing and simultaneously wonderfully exciting to think that what I offered as my own experience of the subway ride may be the total opposite image of the next person riding the same train, five cars down. So perhaps while I silently let the subway rock me back and forth on my next Line 1 ride, I’ll be reminded that what I see, feel, and hear is just an excerpt from my Shanghai narrative that has yet to be fully written.



Filed under: Architecture, China, haunted, Michel de Certeau, Shanghai, Subway, Urbanism, Walking in the City

A City In Motion

Sitting amidst Beijing’s afternoon rush-hour congestion, I couldn’t help but be lulled to sleep by the melodic ebb and flow of traffic.  It had been two months since I relinquished my automotive lifestyle and Beijing’s daily commutes couldn’t have been more effective at remedying my symptoms of homesickness.  Our perception of the city was becoming ever more framed by the windows of our tour bus as it traversed the congested network of concentric ring roads.  This was a far cry from the bicycle-laden Beijing of two decades prior, when navigating the city by human power alone was a viable option.  Now, as the city wraps up construction of its 6th ring road, which will undoubtedly not be its last, the human experience is increasingly being consumed by automotive gridlock.  The prevalence of this phenomenon can be attributed to China’s recent jump in rates of car ownership, even surpassing that of the United States.  In an attempt to kick-start China’s automotive industry, personal automobiles are being targeted as the preferred form of transport.  Many residents are driving their cars as status symbols – bicycles are perceived as third world entities and subways are characteristically proletarian – rather than because the car gets them to their destination more quickly.

The Chinese are betting heavily on infrastructure as the foundation for long-term economic growth, but whether that infrastructure entails road networks or regional rapid transit is an important distinction to be made.  Looking at two of China’s fastest developing cities, Shenzhen and Shanghai, there is a clear dichotomy in the approach to urban infrastructure.  After the fall of the Maoist regime, Deng Xiaoping set up the “Guangdong model” which consisted of removing government interference and handing infrastructural development over to the private sector.  If the private sector didn’t deem public transport as an integral part of the city’s future growth it would simply not invest in it.  As a result, Shenzhen’s first subway line was not completed until a year ago, since the road network was assumed to be sufficient.  After Deng Xiaoping came Jiang Zemin hailing from Shanghai.  The “Shanghai model” he proposed was much more government influenced, much more planned and controlled.  It was grounded on the provision of a public infrastructure on which industry could thrive.  If Shanghai’s projected population growth of 20 million residents by 2020 were to rely on the automobile alone, the streets would be overburdened and mobility would come to an utter standstill.  Extensive regional public transit thus became the only logical response for China’s rapid urbanization and the “Shanghai model” has since become the dominant approach to infrastructural development.

Commuting via metro around Shanghai over the past few weeks has given me a first hand experience and appreciation for this “Shanghai model”.  Just fifteen years after establishing its first metro line, Shanghai now holds the title of having the world’s longest network of rapid transit with a total of 420km of line and 282 stations.  This feat is even more remarkable considering Shanghai has only completed half of its rapid transit expansion plans.  By 2020, “this city alone will have more rapid transit mileage than the entire country of Japan.”  So although the flow of rural immigrants into municipalities will likely increase over the next decade, cities like Shanghai will be aptly prepared for a sustainable growth in density.  Nate Stein in his article Sky’s the Limit in Well Planned City of Shanghai, outlines the significance of having rapid transit systems for the convenience of commuters to reach various nodal destinations across the city; “Besides geographic and political boundaries, a city may have an invisible boundary at the distance that is about 45 minutes from downtown.  Beyond this border, people will look for work outside of the downtown area to avoid the long commute.”  He goes on to say that Shanghai’s growth potential was greatly expanded when its ‘invisible border’ was pushed further outwards as a result of its extensive subway system.

Moving beyond the economic and political ramifications of infrastructural development, there is huge potential for Chinese cities to dictate the quality of the human experience.  So much of a city dwellers day-to-day life revolves around getting from one part of the city to another.  How people traverse urban fabric, whether it be horizontally or vertically, efficiently or inefficiently, collectively or individually, directly affects their quality of living.  In Xiaoshuai Wang’s Beijing Bicycle, the act of cycling through Beijing’s vibrant hutongs gives a romanticized view of the city – whilst my personal experience of the city was more characteristic of the never-ending traffic jam in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End.  While cycling allows the user to move at their own pace and dictate their own path, the automobile restricts one’s movement to the road and puts them at the mercy of existing road conditions.  Conversely, there is a sense of scale in Beijing Bicycle, which seems to foster human interactivity.  People cross paths spontaneously or ride in groups through a maze of narrow alleys and streets – it certainly leaves the motorist with something to be desired.

As our time in Asia winds down, I can’t help but be reminded of my own human experience back home in Los Angeles.  In light of the remarkable gains of the “Shanghai model”, Los Angeles doesn’t appear to have an optimistic outlook for it’s economic and infrastructural development.  What took Shanghai three years to complete will take Los Angeles a painstakingly long 30 years (2039 being the projected completion date of 3 new metro lines).    Until decisive action is taken to prepare for our increasingly urban futures, I can only hope that the extra lane on the I-405 will shorten my daily commute.

Bryn Garrett

Yonah Freemark.Shanghai’s Metro, Now World’s Longest, Continues to Grow Quickly as China Invests in Rapid Transit.”  The Transport Politic

Filed under: Beijing, Bicycle, China, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Subway, Urbanism


In Tokyo, the unfamiliarity of such extreme cultural organization and efficiency allowed me to observe the Japanese from a very removed perspective.  Because of the language barrier, my observations were limited to sights, sounds, and smells.  While this limitation made it difficult to communicate at times, it also provided a more focused lens with which to observe the efficiency of movement, space, and time that the Japanese seemed to have mastered.  The people moved with intention, the streets were immaculately clean despite the peculiar lack of trashcans, and the subway cars were never a second late.

Transitioning from Tokyo to Kyoto, I expected a slower pace, more rural scenery, and a sense of history within the architecture.  That is what I got.

Intrigued by temples I had only studied in school and by a culture so foreign to my Hawaii-born, LA educated eyes, I began to film everything that caught my attention, even if I wasn’t sure quite why.  The clouds billowing behind a stoic roofline, the cicadas relentlessly chirping their songs, a monk chanting words that have been pasted down for generations.  Our Kyoto visit concluded with the Heian Temple, which provided a perfect opportunity to let the mind synthesize, draw conclusions, and absorb the serene surroundings.  Unfortunately, my mind and body were too exhausted and decided to take a nap.

Dropped back into Tokyo for one night, I had the chance to upload all the video clips from Japan.  Flipping from clip to clip, I again expected to see a calm, historic Kyoto.  However, within this temple-filled city, I found hints of the organized and clockwork culture that I thought was native to Tokyo. Just as the red torii gates in Kyoto provided a set path of movement up the mountain, the bright yellow pathways in Tokyo outlined the most efficient line of circulation through the subway station.  Perhaps the repetitive and ritualized culture of ancient Kyoto has translated into the metropolis of Tokyo.  Zen gardens are replaced by pachinko parlors, while the act of beating a gong has become the ritual of swiping a subway pasmo card.  Tokyo is not simply an urban metropolis, just as Kyoto is not simply a historic city of Zen.  Rather, the organized nature Tokyo is a result of the ritual culture that originated in Kyoto.


Filed under: kyoto, Machine, Movement, Ritualization, Subway, Tokyo, Torii Gates, Video


The views and opinions contained in this blog are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the views and opinions of the University of Southern California or any of its officers or trustees.



AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Andrew Liang
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu