USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Welcome to the Good Life?

“One city, nine towns.”  This is the initiative passed by the Shanghai Planning Commission in 2001, calling for the creation of nine new urban developments outside of the Shanghai city center to provide an alternative living condition.  Thames town in the Songjiang district, and Zhujiajao in the Qingpu district were two towns we toured a week ago, Thames town a new development, and Zhujiajao an ancient river town around which a new development is being planned.  Visits to their respective urban planning exhibition halls preceded our arrival, as we learned of the district’s new plans for urban growth in the area.  What was most interesting about these new developments was their seemingly “reverse” urban strategy.

As we have studied over and over, the development of great cities is wedded to the infrastructural networks that sustain them.  Following this notion, airports, train lines, subway systems and highways often develop simultaneously with the city itself, if not before.  Thames Town and Zhujiajiao’s development strategy has proposed the opposite; Build first, infrastructure later.  Neither town has it’s own metro station in place or any semblance of a major transportation hub.  Our group arrived by bus to both locations, after more than an hour travel time from Shanghai’s center.  So what of their success and vibrancy, without a critical infrastructure in place?  In Thames Town’s case, it is quite dead.  Empty streets, vacant shops and restaurants, a strange ghost-town feel pervades the atmosphere.  The only sign of life comes in the form of young Chinese newly-weds, who flock here for a photo shoot against the picturesque English market town backdrop, after which the architecture is modeled.

Zhujiajao is much more promising.  Woven through the context is a small river, from which the life of the historical village thrives.  It is along this waterway where the most vibrant street life can be found… hundreds of small shops, cafes, restaurants and residences line the riverbanks, and crowds of people wander through the narrow streets and over the bridges of this old fabric.  A Far East Venice, if you will.  Interestingly enough, this small river which now only serves tourist boat rides was once a major infrastructural artery, providing transport and goods into and out of the village.  Even though it cannot be considered a major piece of infrastructure in the contemporary sense of an urban node, it was still essential to the sustainment of the area, and eventually the decision to develop around it.  The new development under Shanghai’s initiative seems to be working as well, and feeding off of the inner-vibrancy of the waterway.  Quite literally, this historical pocket is being left alone, as new development is building up around it.

Another question to ask of these new development models concerns their legitimacy within a larger urban agenda.  As mentioned before, the goal of the “one city, nine towns” initiative is to provide a different living condition from the “suffocating” city center.  In doing so, many of these towns are appropriating new, undeveloped land around the periphery of central Shanghai.  This could have a negative affect however, and result in vast urban sprawl and inactivated developments, especially due to the missing infrastructure.  As Robert A.M. Stern argues in his piece Urbanism is About Human Life, “We don’t need new cities; we need to reuse and make better use of our existing urban areas.  We don’t need to take new land; we need to reclaim wasted, abandoned land.”  I am not arguing that Shanghai should not be expanding, but only to consider solving some of its urban issues from more of a “compact urbanism” standpoint, from which more broad scope urban tactics can be reasoned.   If “urbanism is about human life”, than our urban interventions should respond to it, and enhance it.  Developments like Thames Town seems to be completely re-defining what life is for Shanghai; Cobblestone streets, red brick buildings, and Victorian churches couldn’t be further away from city life, and as of now are proving unsuccessful.  New life doesn’t necessarily mean better life.  Ultimately, we should continually remind ourselves of the questions Stern asks… “What is a good city?  What is the good life that we as architects should advocate?”


Filed under: About, China, Infrastructure, Robert A.M. Stern, Shanghai, Thames Town, Uncategorized, Urbanism, Urbanism Is About Human Life, Zhujiajiao

The Twilight Zone

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man it is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity it is the middle ground between light and shadow between science and superstition and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.  This is the dimension of imagination.  It is an area which we call- the Twilight Zone.”

This quotation is one of many introductory narrations of the Twilight Zone series.  It contantly reminds me of the various “realities” that I have expierenced throughtout the trip. Obivously, I am in a different world because I’m in China, but it is the strange and complex polemic layers that transforms a situation, moment, or place into this undescribable limbo.  The most recent event was when I visited Songjiang Province’s Thames Town.

Thames Town’s creation relates to the larger issue of Shanghai’s sprawl.  Because the government understands its consequences, it has implemented satellite towns such as Songjiang and Qingpu as new city centers that will eventually build up with density.  Rather than travelling from the outskirts of Shanghai into the city, one’s workplace will be in the new satellite city center.  Then, infrastructure will start connecting the satellite towns to greater Shanghai.

The success of these satellite towns is still to be determined, but regardless, it is exciting to see a city in the in between stages of development.  This stage is caught between light and shadow, superstition and science, fear and knowledge.  It applies from the macro Shanghai to the indvidiaul town.  On the city scale, I’m temporarily thrown into these unknown worlds and then yanked back out as I return to Shanghai.

Immediately surrounding Thames Town is modern housing developments typically seen throughout China and bustling streets with various activity.  Once I entered Thames Town, everything from the streets, architecture, telephone booths, and traffic lights were British.  But I am in China…

Despite its adoption of another city’s context, there was no other human life form in the town other than my peers and the occasional photo entourage.  I can’t classify this as a ghost town like the Wild West because there wasn’t mad rush to physically be there and a slow decrease of residents that eventually leaves a town empty.  The only rush was to buy the property.  With only a 20% occupancy rate, the mix-use retail that underneath struggled to stay in business after its first year.  Now the majority of the street level retail is empty or taped up with the exception of some photography studios profiting from picturesque glamour shoots.

On paper as an urban and marketing strategy, it is a great idea to theme many of these towns after European cities.  The housing units become limited edition collectors items.  Others see Thames Town as an affordable way to “leave” the city and take their wedding photos in a British backdrop.  Sure this area was able to sell all its units in 48 hours, but how sustainable is it to create an artificial town with the vital ammenities with no one to inhabit it, compared to the naturally occuring developments located in the outskirts of Shanghai where people have to travel to and from the city center everyday?

It is especially strange to me that the immediate context outside of Thames Town is thriving and oozing with activity that this expensive real estate development lacks.  Thames Town is a the a “real” Twilight Zone where it is built to be a functioning part of the city, but is missing the actual inhabitants to allow it to flourish.  In a wedding photo, it could be taken in England 10+ hours away, but in reality its only a 45 minute drive from Shanghai.  It’s a great copy of a British town, but right outside is Songjiang, a satellite town of Shanghai. Shanghai is in the “communist” People’s Repulic of China, but given its growing economy, China has adopted a Western influenced aesthetic for branded goods and lifestyle.

If I had to REALLY describe Thames Town, I couldn’t because of its multiple and complicated twists of contradictions.  The oveall ambiguity of categorizing and labeling Thames Town makes it this Twilight Zone.  But then, does everything with multiple polemical layers be categorized as the Twilight Zone?  Maybe Thames Town was made as this accentuation of the Chinese addiction to imported culture.  In that case, those who know about this are extremely amused and entertained.


Filed under: Architecture, Branding, China, satellite town, Shanghai, Songjiang, Thames Town, Twilight Zone


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