USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Sleeping Giant

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

-General Isoroku Yamamoto after the bombing of the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.

The Harvard-educated Yamamoto, quoted above, accurately predicted the insurmountable awakening of the United States industrial machine as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United States into World War II and forever altered the international power structure of the 20th century. For the rest of the century, the United States would be the benchmark by which the rest of the world measured itself, in regards to economics, politics, infrastructure, and industrial might. That was then. This is now. At the dawn of the 21st century, the sleeping giant that was awakened by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor is asleep once again, sedated by complacency on the world stage. While the rising stars of China and India work steadfastly day and night to reach the plateau currently occupied by the red, white, and blue, the Lone Superpower nation squabbles within its ranks, letting the partisan politics of its Republic keep its eye within itself, not on the world around it.

The encapsulation of the nations current predicament can be seen in the topic of high-speed rail development. At present, China, amongst other top economies in the Asia, have, are developing various high-speed rail systems in order to lay a solid infrastructural foundation that is needed for their growing countries. This is not an Asian phenomenon though. Western Europe famously has one of the most thorough and efficient rail-networks in the world. Once one is in a European country, they have unlimited access to the rest of the continent by train, instead of by plane. It is cheaper and more efficient to move by train.

The U.S., however, has seen little logic or appeal for this infrastructure layer of high-speed rail. Why take a high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco when one of the many airlines can offer a relatively low price?

O, let me count the ways.

For examples-sake, let’s imagine that you are flying out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for a business meeting in San Francisco. There’s no problem, the flight is only about an hour long, much faster than using any high-speed rail that would take about two hours and forty minutes (according to California High-Speed Rail Authority Development). But wait, there is that transit time just to get to LAX and then security, and knowing that there is guaranteed to be traffic in route, so you have to give yourself at least two hours just to get to the airport. So, in all, we are talking about three hours just to get to San Francisco International Airport, where you will then have to arrange for another travel means of getting to your business meeting inside the city, and not twenty minutes south of the city where the airport is. Then again, if you took the high-speed rail, not only could you have gotten to the Bay Area more quickly, but also then transferred to the efficient Bay Area Rapid Transit train system that would have brought you even closer to your destination. Not only is the high-speed rail connecting the major urban nodes of San Francisco to Los Angeles, but it is also connecting the two cities micro-transit systems.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

O.K., American Public, you are still not impressed with the fact that you would save more time and possibly money by taking the high-speed rail. A high-speed rail development would also boost the economic growth along the entire rail network. We are in a recession are we not? Imagine being able two live in central California and be able to work in either the San Francisco or Los Angeles area, without paying the often-outrageous living and property costs. It might take you an hour to get to work, but what’s the difference between spending an hour on the train and an hour stuck in traffic on the 405 Freeway. We have already seen the economic impact of Japan’s bullet train. According to the Shanghai Daily, the Shinkansen, connecting Tokyo and Osaka (two of Japan’s largest cities) has “rejuvenated rural towns that would otherwise be too distant from major cities.” Not only are “living costs lower [in the in-between areas], but residents can commute to either city while the city’s own business will be developed.” This practice has also been put into use in China, where a high-speed rail planned between Shanghai and Hangzhou will, according to article in the Shanghai Daily, “eventually integrate the cities and force Hangzhou businesses to become more competitive.”

This is known as the Dumbell Effect. You’ve seen it already, America, every time you go to your local malls. Have you not noticed how your Nordstrom’s, and your Macys chains anchor the ends of the mall, with smaller retailers in between? The larger retailers act as the points that draw you, the shopper, through the mall from one end to the other, with the in-between smaller retailers benefiting from this movement. Imagine that on more macro-scale, such as California.

::Poking the sleeping giant::

Are we starting to get the picture?

“No,” replies the airline industry, “the high-speed rail would kill our already fragile industry. We couldn’t take that competition.” Competition. Capitalism. Is that not what this country thrived on for so many decades? Competition not only with the rest of the world, but within ourselves, has made our country better as a whole. We live in an era of globalization, where not only are the world’s economies connecting with one another through trade and technology, but everything is shared, most of all information. We are living in an era of supermodernism, where our cities are growing similarly and facing the same problems as well. The sprawl of Los Angeles and the issues it is facing are some of the same ones that Beijing and Madrid are facing as well. There is bumper-to-bumper traffic on the streets alongside Tiananmen Square just as there is gridlock on the streets alongside Pershing Square.

::Punching the sleeping giant::

“O, China is a developing country. Of course they are going to have those types of problems.”

Then what is our excuse for having those problems? We are the Long Superpower! Even worse, what is our reason for doing little or nothing about it? Partisan, partisan, partisan. Democrat, Republican, Independent, Green Party, Tea Party: everyone wants to do it their way, or no way at all.

Randai O’Toole writes in his USA TODAY article “We can’t afford the luxury of high-speed rail,” about how the enormous cost of implementing a high-speed rail system is too high and not worth the cost. He writes how the $500 billion cost of President Barack Obama’s high-speed rail proposal is comparable to the $450 billion paid to the Interstate Highway System, “which provides more than 4,000 miles of passenger travel for every American, miles that Americans were not traveling before the system was built. Mr. O’Toole, when was the Interstate Highway system put in place? If my memory serves me correctly, it was after World War II. You’re going to sit there and write that an infrastructural system over half a century old is still serving our country adequately, even in a new century? Please tell that to millions of Los Angeles citizens who spend hundreds of hour in gridlock every year. And no, adding another lane to the 605 freeway is not going to alleviate traffic congestion enough so there is not traffic grid-lock seven days a week.

::Kicking the giant::

Mr. O’Toole goes on to make the claim the high-speed rail would only serve the urban elite.

“Since most high-speed rail stations will be in downtowns, the main users will be downtown workers such as lawyers, bankers, and government officials. Yet less than 8% of American jobs are in central city downtowns, meaning all Americans will subsidize trains used by only a small urban elite.”

So, Mr. O’Tool, are you saying that only the urban elite of New York utilizes the cities subway and commuter rail transit systems? Or how about how the upper class is the main user group on the Los Angeles metro lines everyday during rush hour? Recheck the demographics of public transportation user groups and you will find that fair majority of its users are of the lower and middle class.

“High-speed trains in Europe and Asia may be a boon to American tourists, but they haven’t proved transformational in those regions either. France and Japan have the world’s most extensive high-speed rail networks, yet their average residents ride the high-speed trains less than 400 miles a year.”

“Haven’t transformed those regions either.” Is Japan, along with the United States, one of the top economies in the world? Have you been to Tokyo, Mr. O’Toole? Perhaps one of the reasons that the average resident rides the high-speed train less than 400 miles a year is because the geographic area of Japan is only 145, 925 square miles with a population of 127 million people (that’s 873 people per square mile), compared that to the United States, with an area of 9.8 million square miles with a population of 310 million (83 people per square mile). It is also perhaps that more often than not, the average Japanese person’s home and work is often in close vicinity because of the country’s small area. And if they do not live in close proximity to their work, Japan’s metro and commuter transit system is one of the most widely used and efficient means by which to travel. In the United States, where the average American might work in the city but live in the suburbs, the conceptual framework for the argument changes.

As for high-speed rail not transforming regions, look at the high-speed rail being put into place between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, two Chinese cities with populations of fifteen and seven million respectively. An hour drive separates the two cities, but will soon be connected by a high-speed rail that will move users from one city to the other in 14 minutes. 14 minutes. It is estimated that the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Metropolis will be amongst the largest metropolises in the world, containing a population of over 20 million people. America’s largest city is New York City, a mere eight million. How’s that for transforming a region, Mr. O’Toole?

::Dropped piano on the sleeping giant::

Come on, America, you can’t afford not to wake up.

-Christopher Glenn

Filed under: American mall, BART, Bay Area, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Beijing, California, Dumbell Effect, economic growth, Economics, Globalization, high speed rail, Hong Kong, Infrastructure, Interstate Highway System, japan, Los Angeles, lower class, middle class, Osaka, partisan, Pearl Harbor, Politics, President Barrack Obama, randai o'toole, rural, san francisco, Shenzhen, Shinkansen, sleeping giant, supermodernism, Tokyo, traffic, Uncategorized, upper class, urban areas, usa today, World War II, Yamamoto,

Photo First, Questions Later

After five days of experiencing the Shanghai World Expo, I was reminded over and over of several impressions of the Chinese culture I had formed so far this semester.  Civility by American standards is completely different here…  pushing and pulling is acceptable in any form of line, children urinating on public sidewalks are common, and drivers are rarely hesitant to run you over while crossing the street.  It was not until arriving at the Expo however, that I observed the seemingly indifferent manner of many Chinese visitors towards any and all content within the numerous pavilions.  I can’t count the number of times that I witnessed Chinese expo-goers breeze through the wealth of information in the multi-national exhibits, stopping only to take a photo in front of each display.  At first I was almost angered by this, but upon further reflection and reading, I realize now that this behavior is not a shortcoming of Chinese culture, but perhaps evidence of globalization’s affect on this developing nation.

Hans Ibelings explains the phenomena of globalization in his publication Supermodernism Architecture in the Age of Globalization and how, “increased mobility and telecommunications and the rise of new media, all of which have been ascribed a major role in the globalization process… alter our experience of time and – especially relevant in this context – space.”  He goes on to argue that the world is “smaller… and closer” due to the immediacy one can experience nearly anything via electronic medium such as internet and video.  It is no doubt that the Chinese are at the forefront of this digital age.  Nearly everyone here is always busy with their phone, camera or hand-held television, on subway cars, during meals, even while walking.  The virtual fly-thrus and touch-screen tours found in the back of taxicab headrests instill such familiarity with the expo that you almost feel like you’ve been there beforehand.  This is perhaps why many of the Chinese visitors struggle with, “the paradox of the expanding world… for while the area designated as familiar territory is larger than ever before, people find the world less and less meaningful, precisely because a large portion of the known world is familiar only from a fleeting visit.”  With “the rising tide of information” it is then unnecessary to waste time learning from exhibits that are much more easily experienced digitally.

To take another stance on this observation, it is worthwhile to evaluate Chinese experiential values.  One will notice that the Chinese always include themselves as the subjects of their photos, as opposed to Americans who often only shoot the architecture or exhibits.  Perhaps this is telling of the importance they place on substantiating their experience, rather than the experience itself.  This is, in a sense, a very symbolic materialization of an experience, which is even better represented by the artificial passports sold at the expo.  A popular piece of expo memorabilia, the booklets showcase stamps from each and every pavilion visited.  The fact that there is high demand for pre-filled passports from locals indicates that they value the “proof” of their visit, which embodies “a bearer of meaning, a conception that lead to special attention being paid to the symbolic dimension”, a characteristically post-modern idea from Ibelings’ commentary.

Whether or not Chinese cultural ideals fall at either end of this spectrum – post-modern or supermodern – is hard to say.  Chances are it is somewhere in between, in the gray area as we have discussed time and again these past months.  It will also be interesting to see how we can apply Ibelings’ analysis to the architecture and urbanism of Shanghai, once we are able to explore more of the city.


photo:  Herman Lai, micgadget.com

Filed under: About, China, Culture, Globalization, Hans Ibeling, Post-modernism, Shanghai, supermodernism

Anywhere, Everywhere

The world of today is growing ever larger, yet paradoxically growing smaller simultaneously. The common man can now access everything in the world much closer both physically and virtually, and the scope of that reach has leaped tremendous bounds through telecommunications and technology. And it doesn’t just stop there; globalization has cultural and economic implications as well. Continued spread of cultural consciousness all embody an overarching goal to diffuse culture across the world. As such, more and more consumerist ideas are adopting technology and communication as a means to advance the proliferation of foreign products as a way to participate in the global culture. But the spread of globalization has its inherent consequences. A phenomenon that seeks to unify a largely diverse group of individuals into one singular, functioning society will have a large impact on the urban both on the physical and social levels. If the world is systematically being reduced, on the spatial front, as a result of increased mobility, Ibelings concludes that, “space itself is being steadily reduced to a zone that is traversed, an interval in a continuous movement interrupted at most for a brief stopover”. We all experienced this notion of spatial reduction on our first flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo. With merely a brief stop in Hong Kong, our 12-hour flight took us from one country to another, merely passing through several airport lobbies and train stations, spaces of “placeless-ness”. As such, the result is a loss of meaning within built structures. Spaces such as airports, bus terminals, subway stations are all transient spaces serving the modern, mobile person. The mere function is not for social gathering, but rather a nodal diffusion point within a broad network of transit oriented services. Thus, unlike post-modernism, which seeks to charge meaning into the built structure through contextualization, this new age of “Supermodernism” rejects that in favor of a more neutrality through non-places. With this in mind, it is conceivable to envision the future of cities within the era of globalization as conglomeration of service industries. Individualization of services and the autonomy of individuals in relation to the urban would totally affect the use of public/semi-public space as less and less “social”. These spaces do not function or act in the traditional way that perhaps a town center is used as meeting grounds; there is no “special attachment” that creates any meaning to it. If, in fact, places are charged through social interactions between individuals and memory, the contemporary notion of traversing through transition spaces creates non-places.

The modern man, as Ibelings puts it, is “constantly being bombarded with information” (abundance of signage). Whether it’s the virtual gamut of research we have at our fingertips, or the commercial intensity of neon signs we walked through in Kowloon, the global industry of commercialism seems heterogeneous from the observations we’ve conducted throughout the trip. The fact that we’ve seen McDonalds in every city and country we’ve been to so far, or that high end retail here still encompasses brands such as Prada, Gucci, etc. all speak towards the global nature of commerce. On the architectural/urban front, the consequence of such programmatic and social tendencies creates heterogeneous urban physiology in almost all major global cities. Ibelings states that contemporary architecture has lost all contact with context and is an, “architecture in which superficiality and neutrality have acquired a special significance”. As cities, more so nations grow to attract investments abroad, the tendency is to create a “branding” of sorts to showcase modern services. Architecture has become large, monumental, and stylized, a slogan for many countries to attract global attention. “Starchitects” like Rem, Gehry, Nouvel, and many others have captivated the world with architectural wonders of the contemporary age. China is now the new stage for supermodernism to play out itself within the urban developments sweeping across the nation. As both China and the rest of the world continue to globalize, it will be interesting to see the evolution of cities on the macro scale, as well as the development of the social and urban spaces within the micro.



Filed under: Architecture, China, Ibelings, Japan, Shanghai, supermodernism, 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