USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

Mediating the City

Major Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing have seen an exponential growth in their population since the advent of farmers and rural people moving into the city.  Because of this increase, developments of housing and retail have taken priority over much of the old fabric of these two cities.  Robert A.M. Stern’s Urbanism is about Human Life advocates reusing cities and make them better rather than making new ones.  The decision to preserve the Hutong [Beijing] and Lilong [Shanghai] given them a new life geared towards tourism and higher property value.  Places like Xintiandi [New Heaven Earth] and Tianzifang in Shanghai have a historic allure that draws the tourists and wealthier Chinese.  However, Xintiandi has been revamped to an area where tourists want to stay, while Tianzifang is the remaining old fabric that tourists visit.  When looking at the growing fabric of Shanghai, Tianzifang sticks out like a sore thumb with its complicated, disorganized, and densely compacted structures surrounded by new massive housing and retail developments around it.  Despite its age, Tianzifang strangely works with the growing environment around it because the intimately scaled Lilong mediates the overcasting structures looming near it.

Upon entering Tianzifang, I was greeted with a newly completed shopping mall that had a sky bridge stretching across one complex to another, framing the smaller scaled Lilong of Tianzifang.  Tianzifang had small boutiques, cafes, and restaurants lining the first floor, but around 5pm, the smells of food permeate through the alleyways as the residents who live above the shops prepare for dinner.  Walking through Tianzifang, my vision was focused on the street and where each arm would take me.  Some led to dead ends, while others led to the smaller alleyways with overhead cafe’s and restaurants.  The scale of these buildings were around 3 stories tall, but the floor heights were around 7-8′. The width of the alleys [especially those without bikes] did not exceed 8′.   The scale proved to be effective in concentrating all the views into the alleyways, surrounding and transporting  me into a completely different world.

There were a few moments when I was able to see the office tower or the housing structures, but they were mediated by the scale of the Lilong to show only the top portion of the building.  This made the building seem like it was floating in the air and even more like I was in a fantasy world.  I continued to wander the alleys for another because Tianzifang relieved me from the megablocked and fast paced city into a more scaled down, digestible, and relaxed setting.  Because the open plaza’s scale is proportionate to that of the high rise towers, it fails to serves its purpose as a relief space.  Rather, it makes the user feel trapped and surrounded than free.  The Lilong, with its limited amount of walking and pubic gathering space used the scale of the open sky to offset its compacted nature.

I had the opportunity to explore one of the units that was currently being renovated.  There was a small small room that was for receiving people and had a centralized stair.   As I proceeded up the stairs, rooms and balconies branched off from the circulation.  I went towards the second level balcony to see what the view was, but a 7′ wall blocked my lateral view and focused my attention towards the sky.   Even within each house, the view was introverted.  However as I proceeded to the third floor balcony, I saw the rooftops and housing towers rise up.  This was the first moment since walking into the Lilong that I could see the extent of the developments that were surrounding it.

When the Lilong was designed, it could not have possibly planned for this sort of future with towering developments and shopping malls.  Tianzifang’s introverted focus successfully filtered the overbearing surroundings and managed give itself a new second life.


Filed under: Architecture, China, development, mediation, Scale, Shanghai, Tianzifang, 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